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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar): I put that on the record in a written parliamentary answer to the right hon. Gentleman on 26 June at column 627 of Hansard.

Mr. Jack: I am grateful to the Minister for reaffirming that. We have had so many different stories when one Minister appears on television and another Minister puts something in writing. I wanted to make certain that the two lined up together.

I seek an assurance from the Minister that he and his right hon. Friends are not under any pressure from the Treasury to review the project in terms of numbers.

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That might not be in his review, but I know that the Treasury never misses an opportunity to have a go at such projects. I should be grateful for the Minister's comments.

Can the Minister tell us what he thinks is the source of briefings that continue to find their place in the pages of our aviation journals and newspapers--the endless knocking copy on such a splendid project? I want an end to such copy. We are now committed to EFA 2000. We want the aircraft to be built and properly funded. Both sides of the House--with the odd exception--are unified in our purpose. The Minister's reassurance from the Front Bench today that the project has the unequivocal support of the Ministry of Defence would be welcome.

10.23 am

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): Mindful of the time, I shall keep my comments fairly short and to the point. I had the pleasure of attending the launch of the Eurofighter in Warton in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) several years ago, when I was leader of the council in Preston. I also had the pleasure on 19 June of seeing the Eurofighter fly at the Paris airshow.

During the intervening years my commitment to the Eurofighter and my confidence in it have not wavered. I have heard nothing to challenge the conviction that the Eurofighter is the right plane for the Royal Air Force. I find it strange that doubts about the Eurofighter surfaced only after 1 May. As Lord Gilbert said at the Paris airshow, the decision to go ahead with the Eurofighter as the right plane for the RAF was taken by the previous Government. In many ways it is too late now to revisit that decision.

I shall deal with two other issues--first, the link between industrial policy, defence policy and defence procurement policy. It is essential that Britain retains the capability to produce defence equipment at the cutting edge of technology, rather than becoming entirely dependent on the United States as a monopoly supplier. That may mean that we operate in collaboration with other countries, as we have worked with other European countries on EFA.

To abandon the project and buy an off-the-peg plane from the US would imply that, although we are committed to a defence policy that looks after our armed forces with good equipment, we are not committed to retaining the manufacturing base to build that equipment. We would be dependent on monopoly suppliers from overseas. We might save money in the short term and the Treasury might find savings if we bought the F22 instead of the Eurofighter, but 10 years down the track when the development of the next plane begins, we will not have the capability in Britain or in collaboration with other European countries. We will be held hostage to the monopoly supplier. That does not make sense from a defence or a Treasury point of view.

Secondly, it is important to recognise the industrial strategy and the link between defence manufacture and manufacturing in general. That is particularly the case in the aerospace industry. The advances made in military aircraft development have a spin-off effect on and a cross-fertilisation with civil aviation development.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): Does my hon. Friend agree that the civil side of British Aerospace's

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business would take a severe knock if the Eurofighter project fell apart? Does he know that 2,800 of my constituents make the wing of the Airbus? As it happens, I am taking a deputation today to the Ministry of Defence on the future large aircraft.

Mr. Borrow: I agree with my hon. Friend's comment. It is interesting that the future large aircraft is linked to civil aircraft through the Airbus, and there are links between the Eurofighter and other civil projects.

The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) argued that we could concentrate on research and development, and that we do not need to employ people to carry out projects for the Eurofighter. That is nonsense. People who live in my constituency and work in the constituencies of the right hon. Member for Fylde and the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) at Warton and Salmsbury have skills that are not transferable to other parts of the engineering industry. If the Tornado and Hawk work going on at British Aircraft military division is blocked because the Eurofighter does not go ahead, the skills that exist in central Lancashire to assemble those planes will not exist in 10 or 15 years, when the next development comes along. It is a matter not simply of R and D, but of hands-on skills that are of little use to any other industry.

In the past, my colleagues have raised the question of arms diversification. However, the skills involved in the aerospace industry are not readily transferable. The Preston technology management centre on the old British Aerospace Strand road site in Preston is considering a diversification strategy by using the intellectual property rights of British Aerospace to help small and medium-sized enterprises produce products that are not defence-based. That is one area where diversification may occur. The skills of my constituents who work for British Aerospace in Lancashire--who are among the most skilled manufacturing workers in this country--are not transferable. Arms diversification is not easy.

We will always need a good defence industry, and our armed forces will always need good equipment, so it makes sense to ensure that we have the manufacturing base to provide that equipment. Some 620 Eurofighter aircraft will be produced initially, with 232 destined for the Royal Air Force, 180 for Germany and the others will be supplied to Italy and Spain. I had received submissions from the industry, and I do not accept that the aircraft has no export potential.

When air forces fly planes that are made in this country, foreign countries decide that they want to buy them. A few weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Defence visited Warton in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Fylde with the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Howard, in order to agree the sale of Hawk aircraft to Australia. It is significant that that deal envisages an offset agreement, whereby several aircraft will be produced in Australia. If we abandon aircraft manufacturing in this country, rather than simply buying from abroad, we have the option of offset agreements. However, we would not have mastery of research into and development of those aircraft, and we would get the back end of the job.

I want the British aircraft industry to be at the cutting edge. The Minister must recognise the importance of defence procurement in industrial policy. I should be very

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worried if the EFA project were delayed, cut or abandoned. That would have serious implications not only for defence but for the future of manufacturing industry in this country in general, and in central Lancashire in particular.

10.32 am

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I agree with much of what the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) has said. However, I think that he is wrong to claim that doubts about the Eurofighter have surfaced only since 1 May. Doubts surfaced immediately after the general election in 1992. At that time, several hon. Members, under the leadership of Keith Mans--who had a long and distinguished commitment to the Eurofighter project--and by arrangement with the Secretary of State for Defence, who laid on an aircraft for the purpose, travelled to Germany so that we could lobby our party equivalents in the German parliamentary system.

That may be the answer to the question raised a moment ago about how best hon. Members from all parties could apply pressure to their equivalents in Germany. If the Minister has an aircraft standing by, I have no doubt that he will find many volunteers to take part in such an operation.

In the short time available, I shall concentrate on the military elements of the matter. I start from the fundamental position that the Royal Air Force should remain a strategic service and that any effort to alter it or downgrade it to the kind of support service for which some argue would be wholly against the best defence interests of the United Kingdom. If we start from the proposition that the Royal Air Force must be a strategic service, we must accept that it has to be equipped properly. It can be equipped properly for the next 25 or 30 years only if it has Eurofighter.

The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) described the Eurofighter as an interceptor aircraft. I must adopt a slightly different view: I have always understood the aircraft to be an agile fighter. It was designed to overcome the defects that had been demonstrated in the Tornado F3, which is an interceptor and was designed to intercept Russian bombers over the North sea from the squadron base at RAF Leuchars in my constituency. That interceptor aircraft was modified from an aircraft that had been designed as a ground-attack aircraft, and it lacks the agility of modern aircraft. That is why the F3 squadrons, of necessity, performed such a limited role in the Gulf war, and why they have been unable to fulfil all the roles that might have been expected of them in operations in Bosnia.

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