Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall that some time ago the House was given solemn assurances by the Department of Trade and Industry about which pits would remain open. This weekend I discovered that Frickley, which is in my constituency, if being referred to as though it is to be thrown on the scrap heap. In view of the disgraceful way in which this matter is now being handled, may I ask whether you have had a request from the DTI for one of its Ministers to come to the House to explain why we have been misled?
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I accept that it is not your job to do ministerial work, but could you advise us on how we can get answers from Ministers? They all have the power and the glory, but apparently no responsibility. How can we get answers to very important questions? Rossington colliery, in my constituency, is now in mothballs and British Coal intends to dismantle the face, making it unsaleable to the private sector. As Ministers are refusing to answer our questions, how would you advise me to go about getting some?
Madam Speaker : On the first point of order, I have not been informed that a DTI Minister wishes to come to the House to make a statement today. On the second, I think that the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) is as ingenious as I am in these matters. He will know that DTI Ministers will be replying to questions later this week, so he must try his luck then.
Mr. Winnick : I have tabled a series of questions to the Attorney- General about people who have made representations to him about the Nadir case. Originally, the reply to my question was that nine--no, seven-- Conservative Members made such representations. I then tabled further questions asking for further information, but not asking for the identity of those concerned. The Attorney-General replied :
"I do not intend to expand on my answer".--[ Official Report, 17 June 1993 ; Vol. 226, c. 668.]
You are not responsible for ministerial answers, Madam Speaker, but the Attorney-General's reply means that neither I nor any other hon. Member can table questions seeking further information about the representations made by Conservative Members to the Attorney-General about the Nadir case. Our job as an Opposition is being eroded and undermined because the Table Office will say that, arising from the answer given to me, the blocking mechanism is in place and that neither I nor any other right hon. or hon. Member can table a further question.
The Attorney-General has not only refused to give me any information but has made it virtually impossible to go to the Table Office to put further questions on Asil Nadir. They are hiding something, and it is disgraceful that the Attorney-General should be a party to this.
Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman prefaced his point of order with the remark that answers to questions are not for me. Ministers are responsible for the comments they make. If the hon. Gentleman is claiming that the Table Office has refused to accept a question, he should not raise that on the Floor of the House--as he knows as a member of the Committee on Procedure. The hon. Gentleman knows the procedures of the House. If there is a refusal, he should come and see me. I should be glad to give him some minutes of my time, to try to be as helpful as I can.
Mr. Winnick rose --
"Questions to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs relating to Overseas Development will begin not later than 3.20 pm."
Today, they started at 3.22 pm, and the clock had moved to 3.23 pm as the first question was asked. You, Madam Speaker, stopped questions at 3.31 pm. In other words, we lost at least two minutes of Overseas Development Questions. I have a vested interest, in that my question was not answered. I look to you, Madam Speaker, for some redress--either a good selection next time, or at least an opportunity to ask my question on the plight of refugees from western Sahara.
Madam Speaker : I tried to redress the balance of questions, as the hon. Gentleman will realise, although he was not in the Chamber earlier, when hon. Members representing one region of the country asked questions and who are often inclined, if I may say so, to be rather long winded. Therefore, they ran over their time by about 50 seconds, and I had to juggle the other questions to be helpful to the whole House. However, I note the hon. Gentleman's comments.
Personal statements are to some extent a matter for yourself, Madam Speaker. You will agree that they are not always made in the event of a resignation or sacking, or both. Right hon. and hon. Members can make statements on different subjects, with your agreement, Madam Speaker. As we are having trouble getting those nine Tory Members of Parliament to make a statement about their connection with Asil Nadir, will you, Madam Speaker, give each and every one of them, as and when they are available, an opportunity to make a personal statement to the House about their connection?
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).
That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 5) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 1515) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Lightbown.]
Question agreed to.
Statement on the Defence Estimates 1992
Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [17 June], That this House approves the statement on the Defence Estimates 1992 contained in Cm 1981.-- [Mr. Rifkind.]
Question again proposed.
[Relevant documents : Defence Committee report on the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1992, First Report of Session 1992-93, HC 218 ; Fifth Report from the Defence Committee on Army Commitments and Resources : the Government's Response and Army Manpower Statement of 3rd February 1993, HC 731 of Session 1992-93.]
Madam Speaker : Before I call the Minister, I must announce that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Also, although I have not imposed a 10-minute limit on speeches today, I ask right hon. and hon. Members voluntarily to restrict the length of time that they speak.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You stated that you chose the amendment in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition and of others of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I tabled an amendment before last Thursday's debate, which unfortunately you were unable to select last Thursday. What consideration have you given to the selection of that amendment, to allow the House the opportunity to express a clear view on the future holding by this country of weapons of mass destruction--nuclear weapons?
Madam Speaker : I always take seriously into consideration any amendment that is submitted to my office, as I did with the amendment in the name of the hon. Gentleman. As he will appreciate, I find it wise not to give reasons for my selection.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : This is the second day of our debate on the 1992 "Statement on theDefence Estimates". Since it began last Thursday, there have been two historic developments. The Opposition have unexpectedly given birth to their long-awaited defence policy, which appears in the shape of a remarkable amendment to the main motion and can be found on page 5990 of the Order Paper. The amendment entered into the world in a somewhat furtive and surreptitious manner in the doldrums of a Friday afternoon, long after we had concluded the first day of the debate and the usual parliamentary midwives had gone home for the weekend. [Interruption.] Hon. Members cannot say it has anything to do with what the Secretary of State said, because there is no reference to the important points that he made. It was an attempt to heal Labour's wounds, exposed by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) this afternoon.
The birth of the amendment was a difficult one, which probably gave a new meaning to the phrase "in labour". It is unusual for a policy-making Opposition amendment to be tabled in the middle of a major parliamentary debate. The Government should perhaps take credit for goading Labour into unveiling its policy. My theory is that Labour
Column 25rushed into mid-debate print because of its obsession with market testing. Labour must have carried out a market test between its two defence factions and then decided that the amendment tabled by one section of the party needed some competition from another in-House bid by Friday.
I do not want to keep intruding into this unlevel playing field, but at least both wings of the Opposition have now unveiled their contradictory defence policies. As Cromwell's Ironside used to say, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition." There is plenty of ammunition around ; inevitably, the official Opposition present an easy target. The Opposition amendment is the familiar old ragbag of demands for quangos and disarmament. But there is one remarkable new demand, and that is that our conventional forces should be negotiated away. I do not know how this can possibly be squared with the Opposition's familiar cry in debate after debate that our forces are already far too overstretched. Perhaps the Opposition will later enlarge on that credibility gap. The Government categorically reject the Opposition amendment, and have no intention of negotiating away our conventional armed forces.
As I said on Thursday, this debate offers a good opportunity to explore in some breadth and depth matters such as our contribution to United Nations operations and our nuclear, naval and air equipment programmes.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : If it is true that the Government have this great commitment to conventional British forces, will the Minister tell us how he can square the commitments that we will continue to have to Belize with the Government's obvious intention to withdraw British troops from that country and, as far as we can see, deploy them in the former Yugoslavia?
Mr. Aitken : The hon. Lady probably missed Thursday's debate. If she had been here, she would have heard this matter presented in a fairer perspective. We are retaining a training presence in Belize, and there is no question of a total severance of our links. The theme of what I have to say this afternoon might be called "centres of excellence". I use that phrase deliberately because, in the present climate of reassessment of the role and size of our armed forces, it is important to make it clear that the Government have every intention of maintaining our centres of excellence and of playing to our strengths, which are formidable.
If there is one enduring message that I have taken to heart after 15 months as a Defence Minister it is that Britain is a fortunate nation to have such dedicated, highly skilled and totally professional armed forces. Defence ultimately depends on people. Britain excels in the premier world league of fighting and peacekeeping forces because our people--our service men and women--are just about the best in the world at getting their difficult and dangerous jobs done.
The contribution of the British forces to the UN in Bosnia is an example of this excellence. The Cheshires and the Prince of Wales Regiment, and the many other units involved, can take justified pride--as the House does--in the vital work they have done and the businesslike way in which they have gone about it.
When the Cheshires deployed last November with a squadron of 9th/12th Royal Lancers, 35th Royal Engineers Regiment, 5th Ordnance battalion and other units, they faced the difficult task of translating the United
Column 26Nations mandate into reality on the ground, in a country whose devastated infrastructure made self-sufficiency essential. The first need was to ensure that the roads were passable for heavy civilian lorries. The Royal Engineers had to open up and maintain tracks over a distance of nearly 400 km, from Split on the Dalmatian coast to Tuzla in north-east Bosnia, in mountainous and muddy terrain and often in severe weather. They also had to provide accommodation for our troops and provide essential power, lighting, heating, water and protection.
The Cheshires concluded that the maximum amount of aid could be delivered to those in need only if transit areas were established. That meant that there was need for a tremendous effort in meeting and negotiating with local leaders and for intensive and high-profile patrolling in Warrior and Scimitar vehicles, which have performed so well. As the House knows, the Cheshires also provided close escorts for convoys when that was necessary. In total, they escorted 562 convoys during their six-month tour and delivered 35,690 tonnes of aid, often operating in difficult and dangerous circumstances. In mid-May the Prince of Wales Own Regiment of Yorkshire, supported by a squadron of the Light Dragoons, a squadron of the 21st Engineers Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps and other units, relieved the Cheshire battalion group. They are continuing to escort United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees convoys to north-east Bosnia. They have inherited many of the same problems as their predecessors faced. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has told the House, the recent fighting between Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia gives some cause for concern, so we continue to monitor the position closely. However, in its first month on duty, the battalion group has already been able to escort 209 convoys, delivering more than 6,000 tonnes of aid.
Taken in the round, the British contribution to the humanitarian relief effort in Bosnia must have saved tens of thousands of lives this winter in that unhappy country, and the skill and
professionalism with which that job has been done have rightly won widespread international acclaim and appreciation, which I know is echoed by the whole House.
Although I have singled out the Army units in the former Yugoslavia for special praise, I am sure that the House would also like to hear a word of commendation for the naval personnel who have played an important role in the task group in the Adriatic and for the Royal Air Force personnel who have faced very real risks in the humanitarian airlift to Sarajevo.
In such roles, which incidentally are being performed elsewhere in the world--such as Cambodia, where Royal Navy personnel are deployed on United Nations operations--our service men and women are strengthening the United Nations and responding to the humanitarian efforts of the international community, and are doing so with that special British military excellence which is so much a part of our national pride and heritage.
The House will not have been surprised to hear me pay those tributes to the quality of our armed forces, but in that context I would like to mention another centre of excellence whose praises are relatively rarely sung--the Ministry of Defence's civilian staff. The Ministry employs about 155,000 civilian men and women in this country and abroad. Their skills and experience are diverse. We have
Column 27teachers, fire officers, hydrographers, scientists, doctors, engineers and a host of other professions within the Ministry. The jobs carried out by civilians range from the provision of vital stores and equipment, to the repair and servicing of equipment and to policy and administrative functions inside the Ministry.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind words about Ministry of Defence civilian staff. As he knows, the Royal Navy spare parts department has a large facility in my constituency, but the managerial staff may be moved to the new naval support command, which will be based in Bath. The department will be moving from a brand new office block in my constituency, which will shortly be left empty. I fully understand what my hon. Friend says about preserving excellence in our armed forces and their back-up services. Would it not therefore be far more appropriate to keep together a unit that has served the nation and the Navy extremely well and, if a new naval support command is to be formed, to form it around the basis that already exists in my constituency ?
Mr. Aitken : My hon. Friend's argument is persuasive on behalf of his constituents, but I know from experience that one needs to look carefully at all sides of the case when an evaluation of this kind has to be made. I shall certainly respond to my hon. Friend's point, perhaps in writing, and see whether there is anything that we can do to meet the argument that he has put forward.
My hon. Friend's general point, however, is that civilians in his constituency, and elsewhere, play an essential role, in terms of the Department, in support of our troops, sometimes even in the front line. They are integral to our defence, at all levels. We could not do without them. Since 1979, the number of civilians has been reduced by about 40 per cent., and will continue to be reduced, in line with the reductions in our armed forces.
May I now move from defence people of excellence to defence programmes of excellence and begin by highlighting the ultimate guarantor of our national security, the defence nuclear programme.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : Can the Minister of State tell us whether the Americans intend to allow us to have any more tests and whether those tests will be for a new weapons system ? If we are to have more tests for a new weapons system, will that not be in contravention of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty ?
Mr. Aitken : The hon. Gentleman knows that we are awaiting an announcement by President Clinton in the next few days. We believe it to be imminent. I intend to say a few words about nuclear testing, but the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that we do not yet know what the American decision is.
We can be justly proud of the United Kingdom Trident programme. It remains on schedule to enter service from the mid-1990s. Since the Government's decision in 1982 to procure the Trident II weapon system, there has been no slippage in the deployment date, and there has been a decrease, in real terms, of £2.8 billion in our estimate of the procurement costs, an achievement that was warmly praised by the Select Committee.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : While the Minister is dealing with our nuclear deterrent, may I ask him about Polaris? He knows that yesterday there was a leak at Faslane which has caused great concern in the surrounding area. There has been a number of leaks from Polaris submarines. What is being done to investigate this particular incident? Can the Minister also say why these incidents are constantly occurring and what he is doing to prevent further occurrences? There seems to be an endemic problem with Polaris submarines. Action is quickly needed.
Mr. Aitken : I do not accept that there is an endemic problem. Concern about this incident should be seen in a true and measured light. I am able to confirm that there was an alert at the Clyde submarine base on the morning of 20 June. A small quantity of reactor coolant was spilt on the casing of a submarine while she was alongside. The spillage was contained on the casing and did not enter loch waters. An investigation is now under way. I should add that the activation of a nuclear alert was a correct but perhaps over-cautious response by staff to what we know now was a comparatively minor incident.
Mr. Foulkes : Does the Minister of State accept that there have been five or six previous incidents and that there is local cause for concern about the occurrence of these incidents and fear that no long-term solution has been found? The fear is that the next time round it may not be what the Minister describes as a minor incident but a major occurrence. Although many local people accept the presence of Polaris submarines, they are understandably anxious to ensure that the highest possible safety standards are maintained.
Mr. Aitken : We believe that we make every effort to maintain the highest possible safety standards. It is wrong to suggest that this was the harbinger of a major incident. It was a minor incident. I have nothing to add to the fair and full reply that I have just given.
Mr. Aitken : We are supporters of the non-proliferation treaty as a long-term goal ; there is no argument about that. We are discussing with our allies the best way of securing it, as I shall make clear in a few moments.
The point that I wish to make to all those who believe in an independent nuclear deterrent--which is not every Opposition Member--is that all parts of the Trident programme are on schedule. The progress that has been achieved represents a tremendous achievement, both for United Kingdom industry and for our own project managers. The first submarine, Vanguard, is now nearing completion at Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. at Barrow. It is planned to be formally accepted by the Royal Navy in the summer. The second submarine, Victorious, will be launched at around the same time. Good progress is also being made with the construction of the third and fourth boats. We need a credible independent nuclear deterrent underpinning our defence strategy because it provides the ultimate guarantee of our security. Conventional forces alone cannot ensure the prevention of war. Nuclear weapons make a unique contribution by
Column 29holding out to any aggressor the prospect of suffering unacceptable damage, outweighing any potential gain that he might believe he could otherwise make.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to have gradations of nuclear deterrence, and that merely to have an arsenal as an ultimate strategic deterrent may be inadequate, especially against threats from the third world--the Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein type of threat? Will he therefore closely consider re- equipping the Royal Air Force with a tactical stand-off nuclear missile, because free-fall weapons will not be adequate in view of the enhancement of air defences? We do not wish effectively to leave this area of sub- strategic deterrence in Europe to the French.
Mr. Aitken : I accept that we must carefully consider what sub- strategic weapons may be right for us in the future. I am aware of my hon. Friend's views, which he has articulated on a number of occasions.
In the changing strategic environment, the alliance has reduced its reliance on nuclear weapons, and we have played our part in that reduction. Many uncertainties and risks remain, such as the future of Russia's nuclear arsenal and, above all perhaps, the spread of nuclear technology and materials into unstable or unfriendly hands. Because we face an uncertain future, our deterrent must be adequate for whatever the future may bring. The Trident will fulfil that role, and nothing else can provide the same security or represent better value for money. That is the view of the Government.
Mr. Corbyn : The Minister has not answered the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith). The installation of the Trident submarine system represents an increase in nuclear warheads from 192 to 512--at least a 30 per cent. increase in the killing capacity of nuclear weapons. How on earth can the Government claim to adhere to the United Nations non-proliferation treaty yet propose and encourage an enormous proliferation in Britain's nuclear warheads without saying who the enemy is or at whom these vile weapons are to be directed?
Mr. Aitken : The hon. Gentleman has missed the crucial point. Our nuclear deterrent is a minimum deterrent. We do not say what warheads or missiles we may use and in what form or in what number. I can assure him, as we have often told the House and the country, that it is a minimum nuclear deterrent consistent with our national security.
Mr. Aitken : I will never satisfy the hon. Gentleman, and nor could anybody who believes that Britain should have an independent nuclear deterrent. The ideological gulf between us is too wide to be bridged. That may be healthy for democracy, but more healthy for the state of Britain is that the fact that the governing party believes firmly in the necessity of an independent nuclear deterrent.
A discussion of our defence nuclear programme should lead us on to a word or two about nuclear testing, not least because it is vital to correct some of the false assertions that emerged in the speech of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) on Thursday. Far from being in the vanguard of those who oppose a nuclear test ban, the Government are wholly in favour of a comprehensive test ban treaty as a long-term goal. We look forward to early discussions with the American Government on whether we can move more rapidly to achieve it and how it can help our aim of discouraging nuclear proliferation. The hon. Member for South Shields was rather naive in suggesting that there is a clear linkage between nuclear testing and nuclear proliferation. In fact, it is possible to develop and deploy a cheap and dirty nuclear device without testing. It is, on the whole, the responsible international priesthood of nuclear specialists who are most supportive of nuclear testing for reasons of safety and credibility. We in Britain do not forget that our limited programme of nuclear tests has made a significant contribution to our confidence in the continued safety of our own nuclear deterrent.
Dr. David Clark (South Shields) : I have listened to the Minister carefully. Has he not read or seen the letter written to me by the Secretary of State and from which I quoted last Thursday in which the Secretary of State admits that, in the preparatory talks on the non- proliferation treaty, other signatories have said that they want evidence of progress on a comprehensive test ban treaty before they will sign an on- going NPT? That is not a wild allegation by me but a precise quotation of what the Secretary of State wrote to me.
Mr. Aitken : We too want progress and are striving towards it. We do not broadcast on the BBC or anywhere else every step in our negotiations with our friends and allies, but, as I said, we are committed to a comprehensive test ban treaty as a long-term goal. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) asked about the future of President Clinton's nuclear testing programme. Our nuclear testing programme is, to some extent, dependent on the outcome of the President's review. The House will not expect me to go into detail about the current state of our discussions with the United States Administration, but we believe that our views are well understood.
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks) : My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the ability of some countries to develop, in particular, dirty nuclear weapons without testing. Will he assure the House that we give a high priority to and adequately fund the organisations under Britain's control which help us to identify such countries?
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : Will the Minister g Mr. Campbell : The Minister has been very generous in giving way, and I am sure that the House would like to acknowledge that. A moment ago he said that Britain was,
Column 31to a large extent, dependent on the United States. Of course, it is more than that--we are entirely dependent on the United States. If the United States determines that there shall be no more tests, we shall have access to no more facilities for tests. Are the three tests for which the United Kingdom is seeking authority designed to test a new weapon? While he was a Minister, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton) told the House several times last year that the moratorium had no consequences for the Trident programme. If we are seeking additional tests, does not it imply that the Government wish to develop a further device?
Mr. Aitken : The answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman's question is that, although the Trident programme has been well tried and tested, we nevertheless need a programme of tests for the continuing safety and credibility of all our nuclear weapons. I cannot go further than that today.
On nuclear issues, I should like to say a word about the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston and the recent "Panorama" programme about it. The fundamental point about the AWE is that it is vital to our independent nuclear deterrent. It is the intellectual industrial power house which not only ensures that our nuclear weapons meet their requirements cost- effectively but keeps them safe, effective and reliable throughout their long lives. I have no hesitation in saying that I am proud of the AWE at Aldermaston, of its splendid record of world class achievement, of its immensely skilled industrial work force and, not least, of its calm, assured and responsible attitude to safety.
I should also like to make it clear what the AWE is not. It is most certainly not the caricature institution portrayed by a recent edition of "Panorama" of unsafe buildings, shoddy procedures and mendacious Dr. Strangeloves deliberately misleading the Select Committee. In fact, when it comes to the charge of misleading the public, I hope that the director general of the BBC will take a hard, critical look at that particular edition of "Panorama" and enter a plea of guilty.
"Panorama", which is supposed to be the flagship current affairs programme of the BBC, took its AWE programme into the highly dubious territory of "faction". Actors were employed to reconstruct scenes of alarm and emergency at AWE and impersonated scientists and workers ; they even pretended to be genuine interviewees answering reporters' questions. But the really serious editorial crime was that the viewers were not told that any of the scenes were theatrical reconstructions or that any of the interviewees were being played by actors.
Moreover, my Department's press office asked which of the interviewees were unacknowledged actors, which scenes were theatrical reconstructions and where, by the way, was the evidence for making the serious charge that the Select Committee was misled. The answer came back, "Sorry, we will not tell you--it is a BBC secret." That was a classic example of double standards from a programme that was critical of the Ministry of Defence for being too secretive.
Column 32BBC were to get as secretive as the Ministry of Defence. But two people on the programme--the former director and an official of the Health and Safety Executive--made valid and sensible criticisms about safety at Aldermaston. It is clear that there are delays in the provision of some buildings.
I hope that, notwithstanding the presentational problems of the programme, the Minister will give clear assurances that those two people's criticisms will be looked into and that a report will be published so that everyone can see and know that that establishment is completely safe.
Mr. Aitken : I referred the small incident at AWE to the Health and Safety Executive, and I agreed with the executive that it should publish its report. There is no doubt that a responsible and measured approach to those issues will be taken. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman seems to have come off his high horse of suggesting that I should appear on the programme. I somehow missed out on doing that. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am not an actor and I did not want to appear. I am sure that I made the right judgment.
Let me refer to some non-nuclear equipment programme matters, which I know are potentially of interest to the House. The first is Eurofighter 2000, a project that remains the keystone of the RAF's future capability. It is good to recall that the project enjoys support from all parts of the House. That support made an important contribution to the project's success in negotiating a turbulent passage last year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, and the hon. Member for Carlisle, who wound up for the Opposition on Thursday, both raised valid questions about the cost of the programme and the delay in achieving the first flight. The cost figures are complicated but consistent. Recent press speculation concerning a 50 per cent. increase in the cost of the project is, I am glad to say, wide of the mark. The increase in real terms since the start of the EFA development in 1988 is about 10 per cent. I do not welcome that figure or view it with complacency, but such an increase-- particularly as it relates to estimates--is not altogether surprising for such a complex international project at the leading edge of technology. The hon. Member for Carlisle raised the matter of the aircraft's first flight. I share his disappointment that the aircraft did not fly at this year's Paris air show--although, on second thoughts, Paris may have been an inappropriate venue as the French opted out of the project.
Nevertheless, I am glad to have an opportunity to assure the House that the delay is not an indication of major difficulties but the consequence of a number of relatively minor, but time-consuming, technical problems that have to be resolved. Central to those is the proving and qualification of the software for the aircraft's flight control system. With an aerodynamically sophisticated
computer-controlled aircraft of that type, the integration of the software is clearly critical to flight safety. There is nothing that cannot be solved here, but the work is taking longer than was originally expected. The precise timing of the first flight is a matter not for the Government but for the manufacturers to decide. I am confident that we will be seeing the aircraft make a successful first flight this year.