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Earl Howe: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords on the Benches opposite for the welcome, if somewhat guarded, that they have given to the announcement. It is somewhat characteristic of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that he should perform a stately dance around the real issue. The real issue is that this announcement is wonderful news for the RAF, for British industry and for British jobs. It is that upon which your Lordships should focus.

He referred to his disappointment that the announcement should have been left to the end of the parliamentary Session. I agree that it is regrettable that we

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were not in a position to make the announcement while the other place was still sitting. But I do not believe that anyone would argue that announcements of such important orders for British industry should be held over until another place returns in October. The position is that Parliament has been informed. Your Lordships' House has received the benefit of that announcement. We on this side of the House were only too ready to respond to the wish of your Lordships that we should add to that in the form of the Statement which I have just made.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked specifically about Nimrod and why we did not order 25 aircraft. That matter was looked into very carefully. The Nimrod 2000 is an extremely effective maritime patrol aircraft. Our analysis has shown that a fleet of 21 Nimrod 2000 aircraft, providing a front line of 20 aircraft, will provide the capability required by the RAF to do the job. There is no question of any Treasury cut or anything like that.

The noble Lord asked also about the Bett report. That is not directly related to the announcement which I made but I can tell him that an announcement was made yesterday in relation to that in response to a Written Question both in your Lordships' House and in another place.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, asked what were the opportunities and prospects of other countries' purchasing this equipment. It is early days but from experience we have found that if the Ministry of Defence in the UK places an order of that magnitude and importance, other countries around the world tend to sit up and take notice. It is a wonderful tribute to British industry that in fair and open competition, our own companies have come up with leading-edge technology at keenly fought prices to enable us to place the orders in this country.

I suggest that that will rebound to the benefit of this country eventually. British Aerospace has signed an agreement with Boeing and McDonnell Douglas to market new-build Nimrod 2000 aircraft worldwide. Export opportunities will arise also from the strategic partnership being established between GEC and Boeing on the mission system.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred also the need to have inter-operability. I thoroughly endorse the sentiments that he expressed. He is perfectly right that inter-operability is one of the main thrusts of our work with our NATO allies, both in connection with equipment such as this and, more generally, throughout the three services. I have no doubt that as the contracts are worked out in detail, those aspects will be looked at with great care.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred to press speculation about the defence budget. I should say to him only that it is hardly surprising in what is a very early stage of the public expenditure round that the press should be speculating as it customarily does. It is early days. I am not in a position to tell the noble Lord what will be the outcome but he knows full well that the Government are committed to maintaining the front line.

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Indeed, that is the thrust and purport of the announcement that I have made. We intend to continue as we have hitherto to ensure that our Armed Forces receive the equipment which they need to do the job.

3.19 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I join with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, in protesting against the procedure which the Minister and the Government have followed in relation to this matter. It is plainly a Statement of the greatest importance, involving, as it does, major aspects of the defence provision that we are to make for this country in the years ahead. It seems to me to be quite extraordinary that the Government were prepared to announce the contracts by way of a letter to a noble Lord--although that is a very good thing--but that they were not prepared to make a Statement to a House of Parliament which was sitting.

On reflection, I hope that my noble friend will realise that that was an error of judgment. I very much hope that he will indicate that that practice will not be followed in future and that, when a major policy statement has to be made when either House of Parliament is sitting, a Statement will be made to that House embodying the material involved. Otherwise, I take the view that we are disregarding the importance of Parliament and the importance of the Statement and, indeed, undermining the proper working of government.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising a very proper concern about the way in which announcements of such importance are made to Parliament. My noble friend suggested that the announcement was by way of a letter to an individual noble Lord. In fact, it was not a letter; it was a Written Answer to a Question which my noble friend Lord Peyton had tabled and which will, therefore, appear in today's Hansard. I believe that that reflects the importance that Her Majesty's Government attach to the matter.

It has always been the convention in this House that, if Members on the Benches Opposite wish us to make a Statement on such matters, such a request is most willingly listened to. I need hardly say that we did indeed do so. There is no question of disregarding the importance of Parliament: quite the reverse is the case. I hope that my noble friend will accept that.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I am most grateful to whatever arcane processes went on earlier today to enable the Statement to be made to your Lordships' House. It is indeed a Statement of great moment and importance. As other noble Lords have said, it might have been better, had it been possible, to have had a Statement in both Houses, whereupon Members could have acclaimed the sagacity, foresight and wisdom of the Government--a spectacle which is all too rare these days.

I wonder whether there is any truth in the suspicion that some of us have; namely, that the delay was caused partly by the wrangling over the married quarters estate sale and that that was in some way connected with the unfortunate delay over the announcement of these important contracts. However, I believe that too much is perhaps

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made in press reports--and, indeed, elsewhere--of wrangling, undignified or otherwise, between the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence. There is bound to be that kind of conflict between those two departments in the form of government that we have. Indeed, it would be very surprising if it did not happen.

Having said that, I want to congratulate the Government wholeheartedly on the announcement of these contracts. The Royal Air Force, and indeed the Armed Forces as a whole, need the equipment very badly. It will be good for their efficiency, for their fire power and also for their morale, which will be a very welcome factor in these days. Moreover, it will be good for jobs.

Before I conclude, I should like to draw attention to one aspect of the contracts which has already been mentioned briefly by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. However, I want to go a little further into it. I have in mind the very international nature and flavour of all the contracts. The British Aerospace bid for CASOM, for example--the stand-off missile--was made with Matra, the French company. Indeed the British Aerospace Storm Shadow, which is the weapon chosen for this purpose, is based on the Matra missile called Apache. GEC Marconi's Brimstone missile is based, perhaps appropriately, on Rockwell's Hellfire missile and reflects a working relationship between Lockheed Martin and GEC Marconi. As we heard, GEC and Boeing are involved in a strategic partnership as regards the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft replacement.

All that is extremely interesting. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I ask the Minister whether it foreshadows a welcome closer integration of alliance defence procurement, not simply on a pan-European basis but on an alliance basis as a whole. It seems to me that in future with missiles and other military equipment becoming more and more sophisticated and more and more expensive, single nation procurement will become a thing of the past. Can the Minister assure us that we are moving towards a rationalisation and integration of alliance defence equipment procurement?

We should congratulate both British Aerospace and GEC on their success in these competitions. As I understand it, British Aerospace beat off six highly competitive international bids and GEC won the two or three other international bids. It has been a great triumph and success for the British defence industry.

As regards the noble Lord, Lord Richard's, comments this morning on the announcement and the suggestion that he had perhaps been part of a filtration process, although the filtration process may have been a little murky, I suggest that the coffee at least is good, strong and invigorating.

I do not speak on behalf of anyone. I apologise now for attempting to intervene earlier as though the Cross-Benchers were a political party of some kind. I must now emphasise that they are not, and that I speak personally. Speaking personally, I congratulate the Secretary of State for Defence and the Government on the announcement of these contracts and on the great success that they will bring both to the Armed Forces and to the British defence industry.

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