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A159 Wildcat Helicopter

Volume 777: debated on Monday 9 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to retain the Government-owned tooling and jigs for the A159 Wildcat helicopter within the United Kingdom; and if so, whether these will be installed in the main Leonardo site.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and wish all noble Lords a happy new year.

My Lords, the Government fully recognise the capabilities of the UK aviation industry and the contribution that companies such as Leonardo make to our country. Wildcat airframe production for the UK Armed Forces has now drawn to an end and no decision has yet been taken on retention of the tooling and jigs. However, we are working closely with the company on this issue.

My Lords, I wish—in a spirit even of the fag end of good will—to say thank you for the Answer that the Minister has given, but I find it difficult to do so. We are asking for a very simple thing here. The Government own the tooling and jigs which support the job. Leonardo wants to ship those jobs out to Poland. The Government have the leverage to insist that, before that happens, there is a proper, competitive study on the comparative production costs between the two. That is not asking very much. I remind the Minister that the Government seriously damaged the future of Britain’s only stand-alone helicopter facility by handing out orders to the United States in the early years of this Government, without any competitive study whatever. If they commit that mistake again, we are bound to assume that their promise to do everything they can to preserve jobs in Britain are merely empty words. This will be seen as an insult to the technicians and engineers who spent 100 years providing our armed services with world-beating helicopters in the last period.

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord will recognise that decisions on aircraft procurement, as indeed procurement across the defence piece, have to represent best value for the UK taxpayer. On the Wildcat issue, I think the noble Lord will accept that there is no requirement or pressing need for the Government to make a decision yet because no export orders have been received by Leonardo helicopters. However, we clearly have an interest in this. We are working with the company to ensure that UK work content is maintained, and I hope enhanced, for any export orders. The decision on whether to allow the jigs and tools to be relocated offshore will be based on a balanced assessment focused on what is best for UK prosperity.

My Lords, does the Minister believe there is a strategic requirement for our nation to have the ability to develop, design and build complex fast jets, and to do exactly the same for helicopters and warships, or is there no strategic requirement for this? Has this issue been considered by the National Security Council?

My Lords, the Government are committed to keeping the UK as a leading aerospace nation. We are fully engaged with Leonardo on future helicopter work in that region. For example, we have signed a 10-year strategic partnership agreement with Leonardo, which of course is key to maintaining cost effectiveness, driving exports and innovation. The Aerospace Growth Partnership, which is being managed by my colleagues in BEIS, will undoubtedly be of benefit in the long term to the UK aerospace industry.

My Lords, on this important matter for our aerospace industry, what optimism does my noble friend have that we may be able to export Wildcats? Is there any real prospect of that? If so, is that not a good thing?

My noble friend is right. The drive to ensure that Wildcat secures export orders is central to the work that the company and my ministerial colleagues in BEIS are doing. We are working closely with the company to that end.

My Lords, in an uncertain world, Britain needs our Armed Forces to be well equipped, and they need the support of the men and women employed in our defence industries. If the noble Earl agrees with that, will he say what the Government are doing to ensure the highly skilled workforce at GKN is not lost to Britain’s defence? He and I both know we will need them in the years ahead.

The noble Lord is right about the need to maintain high-end skills in this country if we are to maintain our position as a leading player in the aerospace market. The Defence Growth Partnership is one element of this. We have a substantial programme of work already under way to encourage the growth and competitiveness of UK industry. Defence is playing an active part in the cross-government work on the national industrial strategy, which we aim to publish during the next few weeks. It makes sense to allow those programmes to deliver before taking a view on whether any further defence-specific work is needed.

Are the Government aware of the talk among several European Union aircraft manufacturers of both civil and military helicopters and jets that they have a real opportunity to take over production from the UK when it exits Europe? Real discussions are going on in Europe about how production can be transferred from the UK to the European Union. How much thought have the Government given to this?

Naturally, that is being looked at in the context of the Government’s wider industrial strategy, but the 10-year industrial strategic partnership arrangement we have with Leonardo will act as a driver and influence to ensure that that company focuses on using the skills and expertise available in this country over the medium to long term.

My Lords, when the Government published a statement last week saying that the new aircraft carrier to be launched this year would dramatically increase Britain’s firepower in the defence of the world, did they understand whether there would be any planes to fly on this aircraft carrier, or are they relying on helicopters, machine guns or whatever?

We have already taken delivery of seven F35E aircraft for the “Queen Elizabeth” aircraft carrier. There are more to come. Indeed, we accelerated the procurement programme when we announced the results of the SDSR in 2015. The “Queen Elizabeth” aircraft carrier will be fully manned and fully equipped when she is ready to sail.