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Dr. Julian Lewis: My hon. Friend may be interested to know that it is precisely for such reasons that the Select Committee has been so strongly opposed to what has been happening to DERA.

Mr. Howarth: I thank my hon. Friend for giving me that intelligence from the Select Committee. I am of course aware that the Select Committee called on the Government to abandon their proposals on DERA. I find myself in a difficult position; people in my constituency are trying to make the proposals work, although they are fraught with considerable difficulties.

In addressing some of the divisions between the two parts of the organisation, my constituent, Mr. Newton, touched on the relationship with the United States. When my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and I held a meeting in my constituency recently with representatives from the business community in the defence industries--I do not want to be more specific than

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that--I was alarmed to find out that they still believed that the Government's proposals were damaging the relationship with the US.

The real difficulty is that we do not know what information the US is no longer sharing with us. The question cannot be asked. However, there is no doubt that representatives of British industry who visit their counterparts in the US are bringing back the information that there is nervousness about the Government's plans. Are the Government planning to introduce a Bill? Do they plan to provide us with a chart showing how they will divide up the organisation? Where will the retained DERA--the continuing public sector operation--be based, while the new DERA, which will ultimately be up for sale, is still based in Farnborough?

Mr. Keetch: The hon. Gentleman touches on a crucial matter. We are told by the Government and by members of the US Administration that there is no problem about DERA privatisation. However, there is an underlying feeling that middle management--the people who actually do the work--may be beginning to lose faith in what the Government are trying to do. Has he gained that impression from talking to people in his constituency? When I talk to people in Malvern, there is a sense that although, at the top, there is an official acceptance that everything might be okay, where the real work is done there are clear concerns.

Mr. Howarth: Yes, there are such concerns. As long ago as May last year, Sir John Chisholm tried to assure his staff that during his trip to the US, he had been able to reassure American opinion--high up in the US Defence Department and in its research establishments. When my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green visited the US last autumn, he found that the Americans were not as reassured as Sir John had implied to his employees and to the rest of us.

Mr. Duncan Smith: It is most interesting that the Government say that they received support from a high level in America. The US will say, however, that it is not its job to interfere directly in the decisions made by a democratically elected Government in the UK. It will state its acceptance because it has to do so, but in practice it does not have to accept what the Government are doing. That is the real point.

Mr. Howarth: Indeed. However, if the Government are intent on taking that route and the decision has been made, I do not want to frustrate or undermine that. None the less, we have a responsibility to draw to the attention of Ministers what people are saying to us. People tell me that they joined DERA because of the ethos. One chap told me, "I joined the organisation because I wanted to do my bit for the country--this was the way I could do it". People did not join to make themselves millionaires. Had they wanted to do that, they would have entered the private sector. Will Ministers tell us how far the proposals for R-DERA and new DERA have advanced?

I draw the attention of Ministers to the closure of the engine test facility at Pyestock--also in Farnborough--in the spring of 2002. They will be aware that I have raised the matter with the Secretary of State over several months.

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I understand the difficulties faced by Sir John Chisholm; he is losing customers and, once the EJ200 engine for the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft comes fully into service, there will be no further business for that important test facility. I understand that the facility had its origins in Power Jets Ltd., Sir Frank Whittle's company, which was nationalised by the Labour party in the 1940s--driving Sir Frank Whittle over to the US.

Apart from that side-swipe, there are serious issues to be addressed. I asked Ministers whether we were losing a strategic facility at Pyestock and I was assured that the Government are perfectly happy for Rolls-Royce and others to use facilities available elsewhere in the world. I have discussed the matter with representatives from Rolls-Royce, who tell me that it would cost millions of pounds to continue to use the facilities at Pyestock. It was pointed out that the French have very good facilities, but that is because successive French Governments have been committed to aerospace and have put a lot of money into the development of those facilities.

There is world overcapacity in engine testing facilities, but the country should not be losing Pyestock. That will make us wholly reliant on test facilities abroad in order to remain in the engine development business.

The issue of the cannon for the Eurofighter is extremely important. I hope that, by failing to equip the aircraft with a cannon, the Government are not merely penny pinching due to Treasury strictures. A pilot with experience in Bosnia told me that a cannon is an important weapon on an attack aircraft. He said that the cannon he used there served three valuable purposes: first, to fire warning shots; secondly, to take out targets such as helicopters; and, thirdly, to strafe in support of ground troops. His view was that we would inevitably have to retrofit the weapon at some time in the future, with all the related costs of modification and pilot retraining.

The Government should reverse their decision and apply the cannon immediately.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Could there not be a fourth advantage? It is a heck of a lot cheaper to fire a cannon than a missile, if one has to fire something.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is entirely correct. That point should also be borne in mind.

Mr. Keetch: May I add a further point? Although electronic counter-measures cannot be deployed against shells from an aircraft, one can deploy them against missiles from an aircraft.

Mr. Howarth: That is game, set and--

Mr. Quentin Davies rose--

Mr. Howarth: It is about to be match.

Mr. Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this very important matter once again, because we must go on about it until it gets into the Government's thick heads that what they are dealing with here is penny wise and pound foolish. Does my hon. Friend agree that if, on a mission, a fighter aircraft has used all its missiles--

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as it supposedly should do in warfare--if it does not have a cannon it is absolutely defenceless on its way back to base?

Mr. Howarth: Absolutely; as I anticipated, that was game, set and match. However, it is a very serious point. It is a small bit of kit, but it is a reassurance to the pilots and, as my informant tells me, it serves those three valuable purposes.

There is some concern among Royal Air Force pilots that they could be short of spares for the Typhoon, because export clients will be the first to get the spares. Ministers need to reassure Royal Air Force pilots that they will not find themselves grounded because all the spares have been allocated to export customers.

I wish to raise two additional points on flying training. Mention was made of the policing of the no-fly zone in the middle east. That endless straight and level work is not equipping pilots with proper training. There is a great concern that inadequate time should be available for training because of all the pilots' commitments, and that straight and level flying over-desert operations are no substitute for operational combat training.

There is also concern that the Royal Air Force is finding it increasingly difficult to train with the United States Air Force because the number of aircraft that the former can mount at any one time is reducing as a result of the unavailability of spares and other serviceability problems. That is a concern if we cannot train with the United States Air Force.

I mentioned in an intervention on the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) the issue of the Mull of Kintyre Chinook crash. I wish to add my voice to the voices of those who feel that the verdict is wholly unsatisfactory. The initial Royal Air Force board of inquiry that investigated the accident could neither criticise the pilots for human failings nor determine a definite cause of the accident. It seems to me that the Government are in breach of the Royal Air Force's own regulation that only in cases in which there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever should deceased aircrew be found negligent.

In an answer given in the other place on 3 October, Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean said:


That is a contradiction in terms. The fact is that the board of inquiry is not certain what happened, and the Royal Air Force regulation requires that those men, although deceased, be given the benefit of the doubt. Certainly their families would appreciate that; they resent the slur on the character of those two young men for what happened and the ultimate finding of the two senior reviewing officers. I see my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) on the Front Bench. The father of one of those pilots is a constituent of his, and I know how much my right hon. Friend is concerned about the matter.

The remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on political correctness were absolutely spot-on. The Government should not be continuing down this road of political correctness because it corrodes the ethos of the services. They will not see the effect of it

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tomorrow, next month or next year, but in a few years' time we shall all see the effect, because it will serve to undermine the effectiveness of our armed forces to do what we believe they should be doing, which is to be trained for war fighting, not peacekeeping--for defending these islands, as they have done with such spectacular success for the past 50 years.


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