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Mr. Jack: The Minister has been very courteous, as have his colleagues in both the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Trade and Industry, when I have raised issues relating to the prospect of the United Kingdom's obtaining an order for up to 60 Hawk aircraft from the Indian Government, but we seem to be continually marched to the top of the hill and down again. Can the Minister bring us up to date on the present state of negotiations, and can he confirm that in his judgment there are no financial, operational or work-share barriers to the securing of the order once the Indian Government have made up their mind that they want the aircraft?
We are, to an extent, in the hands of British Aerospace and India, as the order is a matter of negotiation between them. The Government continue to support British Aerospace's efforts to export Hawk trainers to India, but, as I have said, the decision currently rests with the Indian Government. Until they make up their mind, I can only say that no contract has been signed and no application for an export licence has been received.
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The future of the Fleet Air Arm is assured as an integral part of the Royal Navy, under Flag Officer Maritime Aviation and CINCFLEET. Maritime aviation capabilities are provided on a tri-service basis, but led by seasoned Royal Navy and Royal Marines aviators in all three service commands. The three pillars of the Fleet Air Arm are the battlefield helicopters of the commando helicopter force in Land Command, fixed-wing squadrons in Strike Command, and naval helicopters in the Fleet.
Plans to build two large aircraft carriers are well advanced, with selection of a prime contractor expected in early 2003. Two of the four planned Harrier GR9 squadrons in the Joint Force Harrier will be manned predominantly by Fleet Air Arm personnel, the other two predominantly by Royal Air Force personnel. The first Merlin mark 1 helicopter squadron is already on HMS Ark Royal, and plans are in hand to replace the Maritime Lynx helicopter beginning in 2007. The first upgraded airborne early warning Sea King flight will go to sea later this year, and the joint strike fighter will be introduced from 2012.
Mr. Turner: I thank the Minister for that reply. Bearing it in mind that the Sea Harrier has the proven altitude, range and manoeuvrability to provide better advance warning of attack than any ship-based radar, why have the Government reversed their decision in the strategic defence review to keep the Sea Harrier until its replacement is available in 2012, and what is going to fill the gap?
Mr. Ingram: There is an associated risk attached to all of this, but it is without question a decision based on the balance of investment. We believe it to be an entirely logical step in the smooth transition to future joint combat aircraft. There are significant technical risks associated with the upgrading of the FA2, the Sea Harrier. The decision that we have taken facilitates the capability that we want and will need in future in accordance with the SDR.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Given that all the procurement information must have been known for some time, why did it take so long before crew members and their families at Yeovilton were advised that they were not going to be moved to the wilderness of Lincolnshire and were going to remain in Somerset? The design of the new carriers will depend on the marine form
Mr. Ingram: I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the announcement regarding Yeovilton and recognises that these are carefully balanced decisions. We tell people such decisions as early as we possibly can because a lot of uncertainty and doubt can arise from undue speculation. All this is a complex business. I think that we have handled it in an appropriate, sympathetic and structured way. The hon. Gentleman should await the decision on the future aircraft carriers. It is coming.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): The withdrawal of the Sea Harrier represents a major change in the Government's defence policy and we remain concerned about the risk to which the right hon. Gentleman himself refers. Without the Sea Harrier after 2006, and until the Sea Harrier replacement in the 2012, our fleet will be less well protected and therefore less deployable.
How can Ministers pretend that the new type 45 destroyer can replace the fleet air cover provided by the Sea Harrier when only fighter aircraft can provide both the long-range radar cover and the necessary deterrence to protect ships from air attack? Incidentally, the type 45 destroyers do not come fully into service until 2015. Why do the Government refuse to answer my written questions and to tell the House what savings they are making from the withdrawal of the Sea Harriers six years early? Is not the decision to scrap the United Kingdom's most capable fighter aircraft just another example of how cash-strapped the UK's armed forces have become under this Government?
Mr. Ingram: I wish that the hon. Gentleman would listen to answers. This is not a savings decision. The decision to upgrade the GR variant of the Harrier to the GR9 has been made on the balance of investment, and it will give us an offensive strike capability that is wholly consistent with the SDR. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that it is a different aircraft. Of course the FA2, the GR7 and the upgraded variant are entirely different aircraft. That is why I referred to some of the significant technical difficulties in seeking to upgrade the aircraft. We have to make a balance of investment decision in terms of where best we can invest to move forward into the future that we have laid down for the expanded fleet and the way in which it will operate as part of the expeditionary force.
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): There are two separate but complementary studies that could affect the future of the Defence Fire Service. The first is the airfield support services project, a public-private partnership project. The bids from the three consortiums involved are due back at the end of April. The second, Fire Study 2000, will inform the public sector comparator for the airfield support services project.
Mr. Grogan: Given that privatisation of the Defence Fire Service is opposed not only by many Government Back Benchers but by the official Opposition as a privatisation too far, given that there is an in-house proposal that would result in a 20 per cent. saving on current costs, and given that, according to a memorandum that I have seen, the United States Air Force is unlikely to allow a privatised Fire Defence Service to provide fire cover for US bases here, is not it now time for a rethink in policy?
Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend and other colleagues have made representations to me on those very points, and we had a useful examination of the issues. I thought that I had laid to rest the view that he expressed on behalf of one member of the US armed forces and explained that there would be Government-to-Government determination on future use. I hope that he and all the other objectors will at least recognise that we are testing the market to ensure that we get maximum efficiency from every pound that we spend on defence and that to do otherwise would be wrong. I repeat, however, that no decisions have yet been taken on this.
Angus Robertson (Moray): The Minister of State will be aware from previous debates of the overwhelming quantity of correspondence that I have had from RAF personnel and families at RAF Lossiemouth expressing concern about the privatisation proposals. He has said that the issue is being reviewed and that all options are open. Can he name one single neutral observer, trade union, political party or Back-Bench Member of Parliament of any party who supports the privatisation of the Defence Fire Service?
Mr. Ingram: The one thing that we can say with certainty is that there would not be a Royal Air Force if the hon. Gentleman's party had its way. For him to be claiming support for RAF Lossiemouth is a bit off the beam. Indeed, in relation to the whole future strategy for NATO, there would not be much of a defence footprint in Scotland under the Scottish National party.
I recognise that there is a lot of concern surrounding this subject. We will examine all the options honestly and openly. To do otherwise would be wrong. Objections will be best made when people understand what the position is and we have explained our decision.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): Is my right hon. Friend aware that not only are all the Opposition parties opposed to the privatisation but there is deep unease here on the Labour Benches? Has he consulted the rank and file service people who are protected by the Defence Fire Service at bases throughout the country and is he satisfied that they support the proposed privatisation?
Mr. Ingram: We do not have a privatisation proposal yet. We are examining the options. If that becomes a decision, full consultative processes will be put in place, as with every other change to the way in which we deliver