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7.57 pm

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): I am glad to follow the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker), who speaks with a very patriotic insight. My speech will be unashamedly constituency-oriented. When I heard the Minister's remarks about Normandy and about those years of crucial importance to the future of our nation, I was reminded that from 1940 the Vickers company built and operated a shadow factory in my constituency, where the Wellington and later the Lancaster bombers were made. My constituents' skills greatly helped the RAF in the war effort.

I will deal first with the future large aircraft. In my constituency, 2,200 plane makers make the wings of the airbus and they also want to make the wings of the FLA. One of the reasons I want them to be able to do so is that, in the past two and a half years, my constituents have lost some 2,000 jobs at Airbus, British Aerospace and Broughton, which has had a great impact on the local economy. If we were to make the wings for the FLA, it would be the icing on the very successful airbus cake. That is our hope and our plea.

The airbus activity is the linchpin of my constituency's economy, but it is also the linchpin of the Wirral area, Cheshire and the city of Chester. The airbus activity has meant that my constituency in north-east Wales has a reservoir of skills arguably unparalleled anywhere else in the country. I should like Ministers to acknowledge that the FLA project is crucial for the future of the whole industry. Do they comprehend the strategic importance of the aerospace industry itself?

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I would itemise the industry's importance as follows: it represents sales of £10 billion a year and 2 per cent. of the nation's gross domestic product; three aerospace companies are among Britain's top five exporters; there are some 130,000 employees in this great industry and tens of thousands of people are indirectly employed; the industry has very competitive labour costs and, above all, it contributes about £2 billion per year to Britain's balance of trade.

No one could doubt that Britain's aerospace industry is truly world class--it is perhaps our last world-class industry in terms of skilled activity. I ask Ministers to ensure more Government support for this great industry. Will the Ministry of Defence use its undoubted weight to get positive Treasury backing? The industry is now in a state of flux on the mainland of Europe, so why should Britain not urgently seek to take the lead? The Ministry can help it to do that.

I should also like the Ministry to ensure that the Government give the aerospace industry a much bigger research and technology budget. That is an urgent requirement, as it is the seedcorn that will deliver the profits in the years ahead. Will the Ministry acknowledge that the aerospace industries of other European countries and of the United States have far bigger research budgets?

Are Ministers still committed to the FLA, and specifically to the 40 to 50 aircraft that it is mooted that the Government will buy? Are Ministers stressing to France and Germany the importance of the FLA project? I should like the Government, and especially Defence Ministers, to say that they have done everything possible to bring the project into being. Many of my constituents are dismayed at having to endure the lengthy delay in making the decision.

Are the Government using every diplomatic device and all possible pressure to persuade the French to make up their mind about the FLA? I very much want Defence Ministers to take the lead in the Government in putting more pressure on the French Government because I feel that the French interest, activity and approach is very weak--indeed, wimpish. It is up to our Ministers to use all their weight to ensure a positive outcome.

Having said all that, I must thank the Minister of State for Defence Procurement for being so accessible and courteous when I raised these matters with him, and specifically when he patiently received the deputation that I brought him in respect of the FLA project. I am most grateful to him. I now invite him to visit the Broughton factory, where he can see the making of the airbus wings. Were he to visit the factory, he would surely boast about the skills and successes of my constituents.

I also draw the Minister's attention and that of his colleagues to the chilling headline in the authoritative Financial Times earlier this week:

My constituents who work on the airbus were dismayed to hear of proposed cuts on that scale. Cuts were mooted for the whole aerospace industry, of course. I would argue that a successful FLA project would be helpful in the context of those cuts. Are Ministers anxious about the signposting of redundancies on such a scale?

My second constituency point relates to RAF Sealand. Of the 1,600 people working there, 1,300 are civilians. I believe that it is the best maintenance unit in western

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Europe. It has a fine team--flexible, co-operative, productive and successful--and it did not let the RAF fliers down in the Falklands war and the Gulf war. In a way, it received battle honours.

At present, RAF Sealand is under a cloud, and that cloud--to put it bluntly--is market testing. My constituents say that market testing is a despised phenomenon. It sits uneasily alongside the task of a maintenance unit. That task is, at the drop of a hat, to respond in an emergency to war and to look after the interests of our fliers. We simply do not like the prospect of market testing. My constituents say that market testing is in effect ensnaring a loyal work force into what they believe is an ideologically inspired experiment. We do not want it and we do not see the need for it.

I want to put it on record that RAF Sealand has demanned in considerable numbers over the years. It is a co-operative unit and very positive and innovative. I have also found it to be very responsive. Market testing and the failure of an in-house bid would be a very poor reward for being loyal and carrying out a patriotic duty.

My advice to Ministers is, if it works, don't fix it. My plea is that they make this part of Wales a market-testing-free zone. The deal that we are offering is this: if they take market testing away from RAF Sealand, we will continue to deliver the goods and to find the savings. I urge Ministers to place a moratorium on market testing. Why not kick it into touch?

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement was also accessible and courteous when he received my deputation from RAF Sealand. Equally speedily, he accepted my invitation to visit RAF Sealand. I express the thanks of those who work at RAF Sealand for the trouble that he took to see the base for himself. Perhaps I may therefore put a few questions to him on RAF Sealand.

Why was the deadline for bids to take over the work at RAF Sealand delayed yet again? That rankles at RAF Sealand. The leaders of the work force, who have been so loyal to the unit and have worked so hard on the in-house bid, believe that private contractors may be getting an unfair advantage by being allowed more time to gather information for their bids. As we see it, more time means a more competitive bid against those who have made the in-house bid in good faith. My constituents are wondering what answer would have been given if the in-house team had sought an extension. Suspicions have arisen and I draw them to the attention of the House in good faith.

Mr. Arbuthnot: In view of the detail of that question, I should like to answer it immediately. The reason why the tender was extended by five weeks was that more time was needed to answer bidders' formal questions and to provide them with up-to-date detailed Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations data, and to update the invitation to tender.

Mr. Jones: I am grateful to the Minister, as I am for his written answer on pretty well the same subject. However, suspicions remain, and it was worth making the point in the House.

The Minister might agree that the prize in the market-tested bidding is the maintenance and repair contracts. The big boys in play are GEC and Brown and

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Root. The fear back home at RAF Sealand is that there will be redundancies if either big company wins the contract. If the in-house bid fails, it is our sincere view that the Ministry of Defence will lose in the long run because the unit will not work as effectively as it does now.

It must be emphasised that the large predators bidding for the contracts at the expense of my constituents are bidding for profit. My loyal, patriotic and co-operative constituents at RAF Sealand want the in-house bid to win--for the sake of RAF Sealand, Wales, Britain, and ultimately, those brave and most professional aircrew.

Now that the Minister has visited RAF Sealand and gained a full understanding of the unit's complexities, and bearing in mind the difficulties with the recently contractorised Nimrod major servicing unit at RAF Kinloss, which follow major difficulties with the Airworks Tornado contract at RAF St. Athan, how can the Government remain convinced that the risks of a contractor operating the far more complex organisation of RAF Sealand are justified?

That is a genuine concern. On Deeside, we believe that the Government must take that into account. I know that the Government care about the future of the RAF. Do the Government agree that the taut but flexible contract that will be required to enable a contractor to operate RAF Sealand is unachievable in practice? We believe that it is. I express those views on behalf of my constituents.

I do not usually refer to the Daily Mail, but I shall do so in this debate. On 1 May, a large headline read: "Air defences down as Nimrods are grounded". The defence correspondent said:

My constituents at RAF Sealand do not want that nightmare. They want, very proudly, to continue to deliver a fine service to the Government and the RAF. I speak on behalf of a work force who delivered during the Gulf and the Falklands wars and who know what they are talking about.

I very much hope that Ministers will give fair play to my constituents who have submitted the in-house bid, bearing in mind that the Ministry of Defence wants long-term success, not a short-term response to an ideologically motivated approach. After all the wonderfully co-operative work at RAF Sealand, it would be a terrible kick in the teeth if the in-house bid lost. My full support must go to the maintenance unit. I am sure that the RAF's high command is very proud of RAF Sealand and does not want market testing to lead to an outsider winning the contract. I certainly put on record my pride in that wonderful base.

I have received messages today from those who work at the unit in my constituency. They have noted that Brown and Root and others in the consortium have gained contracts at RAF Valley in Anglesey. Their message to me is that that will not improve the spirits of those who work at the unit. Mr. David Barratt took the trouble to telephone me at 7.50 pm to say that the bid at RAF Valley had been lost to the outside contractor. He said:

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    "I think this will have an effect on RAF Sealand."

I know this councillor and I respect his concern, which I have put on the record on his behalf and on behalf of my constituents.

Having told the House of two thundering successes in my constituency--RAF Sealand and Airbus--I wish to refer briefly to a tragedy, an injustice and the loss of hundreds of jobs. Seven years ago, 1,200 skilled men and women made a world-class, two-engined executive passenger jet that could fly the Atlantic. So good was the product that a United States multinational, Raytheon, accepted an offer which could not be refused and bought the business for a song--just like that. Although jet production continues for the time being, half the original jobs have gone and the rest are scheduled to go soon. The jobs will be exported from my constituency to the United States, and that wonderful, world-leading aircraft will be made not in my constituency but in Wichita in Kansas--the home state of that powerful and influential politician, presidential candidate Bob Dole.

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