HL Deb 24 April 1975 vol 359 cc1115-35

7.34 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy for support for the Harrier and its farther development in the light of its present and future world market potential. The noble Earl said: My Lords, perhaps I should say at the outset that I very much regret detaining the House and indeed its staff at this late hour on this Unstarred Question. But I had not anticipated the thoroughness with which the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Bill would be examined in Committee, and I suspect that a few others of your Lordships were also surprised. I should also like at this stage to thank in anticipation those noble Lords who have indicated that they intend to speak, because I do not have an opportunity to thank them later. I am sure that they will enrich the debate, particularly if they are pro-Harrier. My only regret is that my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing has, due to urgent business outside the House, been unable to stay. I am particularly sorry, because I know that he took a great deal of trouble to be properly briefed on this occasion.

My Lords, in raising this Question tonight on the future of the Harrier, I feel that it is a sign of age when one's memory goes back 10 years to the previous Labour Administration. In those days the issue of the aircraft industry centred around a mass of cancellations of virtually all the major British projects— the TSR 2, the HS 681, and the P.1154. The consequence of those decisions was that there was then a need to fill the gap in the reequipment programme. Then perhaps the most expensive decision of all was taken when the Government purchased off the drawing board the US F.1–11 swingwing aircraft, which was subsequently cancelled. I recall that it cost the British taxpayers at that time no less than £ 420 million in cancellation costs. It is interesting to recall that the only major British military project to escape the butchery during the mid-1960s was the P.1127, which is now known today as the Harrier.

I do not intend to dwell further on the past, save to say that in those days injured feelings of outrage were skilfully soothed and deflected by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, on behalf of the Government. I hope that today the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, has come armed not only with his undoubted Parliamentary charm and skill—of which he is much endowed—but also with a brief which clearly demonstrates the Government's resolve not to abandon their project, not to allow this brilliant technological design to pass from this country and be exploited by other countries; and last, but by no means least, not to jeopardise the future of 10,000 highly skilled jobs directly concerned with the Harrier project.

The House will recall that the concept of the VTOL Harrier was first conceived in 1957 and became a reality in 1964 when it had its first maiden flight, and much has happened since then. Anyone who has witnessed in recent air shows or demonstrations at Farnborough, Paris or Hanover, or anyone who has flown in it —I believe a certain Member who will be taking part in the debate flew in it only a couple of days ago—will recall the breathtaking, almost circus performance of the Harrier. It can take off like a helicopter; then transform into a normal strike aircraft. It can sweep over the airfield at just below supersonic speeds, and then revert, once more, while it hovers in position above its landing pad. It can fly backwards at this stage, sideways, and can eventually land with pinpoint accuracy on a sixpence.

My Lords, all this demonstrates to the uninitiated an almost total defiance of the normal laws of aerodynamics. But it must offer, in its military versatility, a great interest and must quicken the heart-beats of every foreign defence chief who watches the Harrier perform. The House will recall that the total order book to date of the Harrier is that the United States Marine Corps has ordered 110 aircraft of which 85 have been delivered, and the Royal Air Force has ordered 105, of which 90 have been delivered. In other words, 80 per cent, of the present order book has been delivered, and on present calculations I am advised that there is no more than 15 to 18 months of production left. One knows that this will not mean full production, and it may be a matter of a few months before that production line starts to tail off. All these aircraft that have been ordered were built in British factories, with British engines and British equipment.

It is not necessary to emphasise the immense importance and value of the dollar export earnings that this great project has produced— not to forget also the valuable continuing back-up support that flows from every sale abroad. Besides the immense dollar-earning capacity of this aircraft, it has also achieved a feat that no other British military aircraft has gained before. It has penetrated the steel-like curtain imposed by Washington in their strict anti-foreign military air-craft procurement policy. With that penetration it has opened up a much-cherished market, and again, to a simpleton like me, it would seem that it would be crass, irresponsible folly to kill off this splendid British aircraft through lack of Government action.

Much has been written in recent months in the Press and in magazines, that the Harrier is a British aircraft which should be supported. The subject has been debated recently in another place— on 20th March, I think—and my noble friend Lord Ferrers questioned the Government on 19th March. We know that the SPAC have issued statements, that Hawker Siddeley have confirmed statements and, more recently and effectively, the trades unions concerned with the project have issued a very informative pamphlet. All this evidence and these comments lead, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, would agree, to one conclusion: that the future of the Harrier needs firm Government decision and early decision, if the Harrier programme, with its undisputed export potential and with 10,000 skilled jobs at stake, is to be safeguarded.

The Government are aware that the first priority in their decision is the order of the maritime Harrier for the Royal Navy. The taking of this decision has, I believe, four clear arguments to support it. First, the Navy want it. They have wanted it for over two years and it has gone through the most exhaustive operational trial tests and has come out with flying colours. One knows that, regret tably, the previous Administration did not take a decision, due to circumstances at the time; and so this is not a Party matter. This is a national matter.

The second reason in support is that the industry wants the Harrier to ensure the smooth continuation of the Harrier production and, as I have said, for those concerned with it. We know, for the third reason, that those interested in safeguarding the future of British aircraft industry technology want the Harrier. Fourth, and very important, is that the research and development costs required for the maritime Harrier order are relatively very small. We hear today that British Leyland requires £1,400 million of support while the Harrier requires some £6 million in research and development and £6 million a year for the next ten years in production costs. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, will put me right if I am wrong; but these are the costs of which I have been informed.

All these arguments are compelling reasons why, even against a background of economic stringency and slashing defence cuts, the Government should now show their final resolve and demonstrate their faith in the Harrier. Because I believe the decision is so vital, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, will advise us today how far this decision has got since the Defence White Paper was published and since my noble friend asked his Question. Is it shortly to come before the Cabinet, or is it to be deferred until a firm export order can be announced at the same time? I hope that the latter is not the answer; because if so the picture would be very gloomy. We know that many potential export orders are held up because foreign customers feel that the British Government must show their own support for their own aircraft.

Coming to the export potential, I hope the noble Lord can bring us up to date on the discussions we have read about with the Shah of Persia. Is the package deal that we read about, which I understand includes the through-deck carrier as well as the Harrier, still being discussed; and has the Shah approached the Government or the company with a proposition to take equity shares in the production of the Harrier, as was done I believe with the McDonnell Douglas Company when the Shah ordered the F.15? Perhaps the noble Lord can also tell us about the interest shown in other countries like Australia, India and South Africa, and others with whom the company have had discussions. Also on exports, can the noble Lord say whether the Government are assisting the company with the export credit facilities? This, again, is most important in present conditions.

Turning to the US market and the future development of the Harrier, can the noble Lord confirm what is the latest position with the improved version of the Harrier, which is known in America as the AV. 8A? Are the Marine Corps now to go ahead with the order for the Harrier earlier stated at around 300 aircraft? If that order has been confirmed, what is the likely workload for the British factories in its production, both of air-frame, engine and equipment? Finally, what difference does this mark of the Harrier have in its specification in comparison with the present Harrier? Turning to the future development of the Harrier, or what is known as the advanced Harrier, the FAV. 8B, can the noble Lord bring us up to date with what arrangements have been made between the United States and Britain in its development programme? Is there any danger that our technology will be lifted from us by the Americans? I am sure that an assurance from the noble Lord will be welcome.

In all these questions on the future of the Harrier, both the immediate and the long-term future, I believe that few would argue that there will be no future if either the maritime order to be placed by the Government or an export order is not landed in the very near future. I hope the noble Lord will be as frank as possible tonight and will have some encouraging news. What I am sure about, having spoken at some length to quite a few people involved directly in the project, is that many in the company are frankly amazed that a company which finds it difficult at the moment to get this investment hears from the Government exhortations to invest in industry. Yet this company, which is a vital export company, finds it cannot get any support.

I believe the noble Lord should explain to the House this query in the minds of many of the staff of the company. The project really is quite vital. What are the consequences if the Government will not grant this modest support that the Harrier requires? One does not need to be a prophet to see that yet another British invention will slip from our grasp; another British technology, this time quite unique and admired throughout the world, will be swept away and exploited elsewhere. I do not believe that anyone in this House or in this country would want that. So the message tonight from this House must be that the Government must show faith in its technology, they must show faith in the Harrier, so that others will have faith in it as well, and to demonstrate that faith not only in words but in decisions.

7.50 p.m.


My Lords, sometimes when debates come on at the latter part of the evening the attendance may give a totally wrong impression as to their importance, but although the attendance this evening may be slender, the importance of this debate is very considerable. My noble friend has done a great service in asking this Unstarred Question, and he need make no apology for it. We all look forward to Lord Winterbottom's reply— not only those who are here, but many other people outside this House who are doubly interested in the future of the Harrier. The whole future of this aircraft, its future operational use and development, and the future of the people whose jobs and livelihoods are tied up with it, depend on the Government's decision. The Government for good reasons or bad— and I dare say there is an element of both — have procrastinated over this to an extraordinary extent. I hope that they will now make up their minds.

I do not believe there is anybody who does not recognise that the Harrier is a unique aircraft. To see an aircraft — as I have had the good fortune to do—take off vertically in about 60 feet, to stop in mid-flight and go sideways and then backwards as well, and then fly off, is quite extraordinary. One person told me that the first time he saw the Harrier in flight he thought he had better put some more soda water in his drink next time. It defies the law of aero-dynamics. In this we lead the world. Let us not underestimate the value of that; no other country has anything to compare with it. Ninety-eight per cent, of the total free world's experience in jet V/STOL design, manufacture and use all lies in the Harrier. It has been sold, as my noble friend said, in large quantities in the United States as well as to the Royal Air Force; and it is quite a thought to realise that it is the first British-built military aircraft to be sold in quantity to the United States since the Sopwith Camels and Dolphins of World War I.

The normal United States law banning overseas military purchases was set aside in order to buy these Harrier aircraft. That is a considerable achievement; yet its whole future, and the future of the principle of the V/STOL in which we have such a unique lead, depends upon the Government's placing an order for the maritime version. The maritime version is a natural evolution from the military version, and it is the version which could be in use for the next decade. The Navy want it; allowance for buying it has even been made in the Defence Estimates. Other countries want to buy it, but they, not unnaturally, offer a reluctance to do so if we do not show sufficient confidence in its usefulness to buy it ourselves. I cannot overemphasise the importance of our having to purchase this aircraft first, because in the hard world of selling it is very difficult for a salesman when he goes to another country to sell this aircraft when he is faced with this question: "If it is such a fine, wonderful aircraft, why do you not use it yourselves? "The purchase by the Navy of this aircraft would give the stamp of approval to the Harrier in the eyes of the world.

There are five or six countries interested in buying it and there is a special one, to which my noble friend referred— Iran. They are interested in buying not only 25 aircraft but the ship to put them in, and in having all the personnel trained to man it. It would be a package deal, all or nothing, and it would be worth £200 million to this country. They will not wait forever. Yet, if we were to do this, if there were no other export orders at all, what would it cost in research and development expenses? It would be some £20 million over five years, and that is mostly on radar and avionics from which firms like Ferranti would probably benefit, and those people require work and help.

Regarding the cost, with some £ 80 million spread over ten years, which would be an expenditure of £8 million a year, we would have carried out the research and expenditure, the Navy would have the 25 aircraft that it required, we would have secured a £200 million export order, and we would have put ourselves in the position to secure other orders. We would also have continued to secure our world lead in this type of technology, and to maintain employment for some 4,000 people. What seems to me so extraordinary is that we should have to spell this out and beg the Government to allow the possibility to materialise.

The international aircraft industry is a pretty aggressive, cut-throat business. One wonders what the Americans and French would have done had they a world-beater like this. Their sales teams would have been out in every country in Europe, and other parts of the world, with all their guns firing, doing one thing —selling. Look, my Lords, at the manner in which the United States is at present trying to get the F16 aircraft used as a replacement for the Starfighter in NATO. We have customers wanting to buy our aircraft, the Navy wanting to use it, employment being assured for the future, when employment prospects otherwise look terrifying; we have this vast potential foreign currency earner and the ability to keep the world lead in something unique. But the Government say, "Well, we are not sure whether to allow this to go forward or to scrap it". For those working in the industry it must be desperately depressing. I have evidence of this because people, including shop stewards, have been in touch with me to tell me how concerned they are. It must be difficult enough to design a world-beater and a unique aircraft, but it is pathetic that, having designed it, they have to beg to be allowed to sell it.

The Government do not have a happy record of defence sales. Just the other day it was reported that a £ 1,000 million deal to Libya has been turned down. A £ 450 million order for submarines to Persia is being subjected to dithering and vascillation; other orders from Pakistan and Kenya are running into trouble. All this at a time when we want exports and employment. Here is an aircraft with vast export potential which will give employment to thousands of people and which requires an expenditure of only £8 million a year for the next ten years. When one compares that very slight sum with the £1,500 million which is being put into British Leyland, as announced this afternoon, it makes one wonder where one's priorities lie.

The last Harriers are already being made, and the line is beginning to be run down. If the Harrier is to be kept in business, long lead items need to be ordered now. But that is not all. I beg the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom—I nearly said "to understand it", but I am sure he does—to appreciate that the real rub comes here. If the Government do not place an order for the maritime Harrier, the line will be closed down and the whole future of the Harrier concept will move to America which can build these aircraft under licence. Both the US Marine Corps and the US Navy want a developed version of the Harrier. It need not be the maritime version. The potential is there for some 300 aircraft.

I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom: do we want to see the United States do all this; do we want to see them take over all the technology which we have developed in this country, so that we have no part in it? I believe it would be a tragedy if, having designed and developed the Harrier, we were not to have the courage to go ahead with it and stopped it, only to see the United States pick it up and, who knows, in ten years' time we might find ourselves buying the Harrier back from America. The record of our aircraft industry is littered with wonderful achievements dropping around the place like paper handkerchiefs because of procrastination, lack of courage and determination. The Super VC10 was one of them; the TSR 2 was another and the P1154 was another. The Concorde was very nearly another. I only hope the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, will say that the Harrier, at any rate, will not be allowed to be one.

8.0 p.m.


My Lords, I also welcome this Unstarred Question put by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and I entirely endorse what the noble Earl said and also what the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said. If I repeat some of the remarks they have already made I do so deliberately, because I think this matter is of extreme importance. As the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said, there is a small attendance in your Lordships' House tonight, but the important point is that our speeches are read in Hansard by many people, and that is the object of the operation.

It has been said that the Harrier is a unique aircraft; it is. It was awarded two Queen's Awards for Industry for its technology and its export success; yet this success, which once looked assured, is now likely to be denied, largely because of the time taken by the Ministry to make a decision. I realise, of course—and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, will not shoot me down in flames if I say this—that there are certain elements in the Labour Party who are very anti-defence, in whatever form it takes. Nevertheless, if one looks at the facts purely in money terms, the decision must be viable. As has been mentioned, the Shah of Iran has approached this country about defence sales in this country, and he has said that he would like the through-deck carrier and the 25 Harriers. The order is worth £200 million, and the cost to the Navy is £60 million for the next 10 years. Straight away we have a profit.

The day before yesterday I was at Dunsford and I flew in the Harrier and met several of the men who work on the project. I do not know their politics— they may be Labour, Conservative, Liberal or anything you like— but they have formed an Action Committee and have put in 50p each, and they have circulated quite a number of your Lordships and also every Member of another place, giving information about this project. Mr. C. W. Mellins, head of the Action Committee, has been with Hawker Siddeley for nearly 20 years and he said, "I understand, and so do my mates, that we want more hospitals, schools and social services, but where are we to get the money from? My friends and I think the only way we can pay for these is through this country getting large sums of money from exports."

On 11th March, the Secretary of State for Defence, when asked in another place about the Harrier, its export prospects and the development of the maritime version, said that it depended on whether we could export any suitable ships from which it could operate. The Harriet has operated, to my knowledge, from at least 14 foreign ships. It has operated from 15 ships in the Royal Navy, and there are about 29 support ships available from which it can operate. The performance of this aircraft must be good, otherwise the American Marine Corps would not have bought it. As the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, said, the Americans do not buy rubbish: they hate buying aircraft from anybody else. If you are in a Task Force of one or more ships, and you have Sea King helicopters, and you want to drop your sonar buoys out in front to find submarines, at the end of half an hour you can drop them well under 100 miles in front of your fleet. If you have a Harrier, you can drop these buoys over 300 miles in front of your fleet, thereby giving yourself much more warning to protect yourself from enemies.

I am sure your Lordships will know that the Harrier can land virtually on nothing. The other day the test pilot landed me in a group of trees on a strip of aluminium of 50 sq. ft. The Harrier is 54 ft. long and has a wingspan of some 30 ft. He had to land on the square diagonally, which he did without any trouble at all. Any capable and competent pilot could do the same. People say that this is a difficult aircraft to fly; but this is not true. Another point in favour of the Harrier is its performance. If you have a fixedwing aircraft, a jet, going to find its mother ship, the ship has to be steaming into the wind and have a flight deck and, if the weather is bad, the aircraft may well lose its mother ship and has to circle around trying to find it. If you are flying a Harrier, you see your ship, you just stop, and there you are. The wind speed is irrelevant when the aircraft takes off from a ship. The ship can be stationary, steaming up wind, down wind or doing anything you like, and it makes no difference.

There has been a certain amount of talk about the fuel consumption for a vertical take-off being larger than for a rolling take-off. This is not true, according to Hawker Siddeley's test pilot, Mr. Farley. One of the reasons is that, if it does take off down the runway, it may have to taxi to that runway, and it uses fuel taxiing. It is also possible that the runway it rolls down is facing the wrong direction for its destination. The Harrier has another fascinating characteristic. It can drop its speed practically from 600 knots down to nought in a remarkably short space of time— and it is extremely uncomfortable, I may say. It can also go sideways, as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, said. Therefore, if it is chased by a homing missile, it cannot be caught. Also, it can destroy the aircraft which has fired the missile because it can manoeuvre itself into almost any position. Therefore, we have an aircraft which is not only a great military operational aircraft but one which is just as good in attack as in defence. It is possible that our oil rigs could benefit very much from having the Harrier. This would complement the patrol boats which are envisaged to protect them.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, mentioned redundancy and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, said that 10,000 workers would become redundant. My figure was 9,000, but either way the figure is terrible. What is more, in the building of the Harrier not only are firms like Ferranti needing the work very badly but there are over 200 British companies which make Harrier components. If we do not continue development of the maritime version, the United States will certainly do it and, as has already been said, in the 1980s or in the late 1970s we shall be buying it back. Furthermore, we shall lose all the lead we have in the future world potential for vertical and short take-off and landing aircraft, which will eventually become the civil transports of the future. There are other reasons— and I shall not detain your Lordships very much longer on this matter—for changing the defence policy consisting of the cuts proposed by the Government; the change in the Far East and the Indian Ocean of the political situation and the violent Left turn that Portugal has taken. These two areas justify the change in the defence cuts and in the strategic policy. I believe that the Statement on defence is to be debated in another place at the beginning of May, and I know that we are to have a similar debate in your Lordships' Chamber on 21st May. It is time for us to start moralising in this country as to whether or not we should sell armaments when we are in the black and not in the red. That is the time to do it and not now. Let us hold our heads high and sell this magnificent piece of British equipment to earn some money and make Great Britain, as it is, even greater.

8.11 p.m.


My Lords, especially as most noble Lords who are listening will have heard me speak more about farriers than Harriers, I must apologise for intervening without putting down my name, but I had given notice to the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom. Having seen that three noble Earls were to speak, I thought we should show no bias and have a simple Baron saying something. I should like very strongly indeed to support all three noble Earls in what they have said. I will not keep your Lordships for long, but I would emphasise that this aeroplane is unique and, because it has already earned over £ 250 million, it is only waiting for this Government order for a marine version to earn the country what is estimated to be at least £200 million more; and this is probably a conservative estimate. Surely that is the crux of the matter. The country is short of money; the country needs more employment, and here is a wonderful achievement which should be made more of by the Government. If it can make a profit, which it undoubtedly will, I should have thought the Government should consider this with every sense of urgency, including the factors that worry them concerning the cutting back of defence costs. So I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, will undertake to pass on to his right honourable friend that the feeling in this House, although small in voice, is large in spirit; and we will hope that Britain will get a marine Harrier and so get an enormous profit for the country.

8.13 p.m.


My Lords, the House, although a little thin, is grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, not only for putting down this Question but also for its terms. Although we tend to discuss the marine Harrier, he has drawn the Question rather wider because we are not talking only of the marine Harrier but also the improved Harrier and the advanced Harrier. Whatever happens, the concept of the Harrier is not going to die because, as noble Lords have said, it is a unique concept. I believe the Russians have flying a vertical take-off aircraft, but I do not think it is operational. The concept has been proved, accepted, and all of us—although I am defending the apparent procrastination of Her Majesty's Government—are hoping that this unique aircraft will fill the kind of place in history that the Spitfire took at an earlier period of our life.

May I make one point before I mention the state of play as I am informed it exists? There is a basic flaw in the argument put forward today that a number of nations, and in particular Iran, are just itching to order this machine. Speaking personally, one or two countries I can think of would be very wise to order it because it would suit their needs with great efficiency. All noble Lords have spoken of the Iranian interest, which exists; it is there. It is very real, but it is not a certainty. That is the problem we are facing.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord could tell us, although it is not a certainty, whether the Iranians laid down any conditions? The information one receives is that the Iranians have said to a number of individuals that they would place an order, but the condition is that the British Government also must place an order.


My Lords, it is almost axiomatic that the lead must come from this country. This is something I accept completely. We simply cannot wait for other countries to take the first step, since this is a British concept which has to be carried into effect by British scientists and British factories. We as a nation have to take the first step, and then I personally am satisfied that other orders would come.

However, as of now we are facing two problems. The Iranian interest, although real, is not firm. And we are facing another problem; namely, that of the financial situation of our country as it is. It is perfectly true that our problems would be much mitigated if we had a favourable balance-of-payments position, and a further substantial number of Harriers overseas would help that balance-of-payments problem. May I make a little aside. Noble Lords have mentioned sales to America. Do not let us forget that 8 Harriers have been sold to Spain by way of the United States of America, so there are now three countries using this aeroplane. Having said that, and expressing complete sympathy with everything that has been said tonight, may I tell your Lordships exactly what is the state of play in the three areas of development: the improved Harrier, the maritime Harirer, and the advanced Harrier.

First of all, may I speak about the needs of this country? This is perhaps more important than anything we have spoken about today. It is rather longer term but the need is there. The Harrier and the Jaguar that we now have are not here for ever. They must be replaced with some other aeroplane. One of the potential replacements for both the Harrier and the Jaguar is the improved Harrier. A wide range of aircraft options are being investigated and one of them is the Harrier itself, although perhaps the Hawk or the Buccaneer or the multirole combat aircraft or the Jaguar itself might become the battlefield aircraft pf the 1980s. Nevertheless, the improved Harrier is an important element in the replacement of the existing battlefield aircraft in the next decade.

Quite extensive studies are going on at the moment to try to decide which shall be this aircraft 10 years from now. As noble Lords have mentioned, as well as the studies we have undertaken on our own. we have since April 1973, about two years ago, been co-operating with the United States Navy in a series of studies to see whether a worthwhile common project based upon a derivative of the existing Harrier could be established. The main British firms involved are Hawker Siddeley and Rolls-Royce, which have played a full part in the joint studies and have commercial agreements with their American counterparts which, as noble Lords of course know, are McDonnell Douglas and Pratt and Whitney. At the present time, the United States authorities are considering various possible developments of the Harrier, but no firm decision has yet been taken. Our interest in these studies has been in the context of our own future requirements. We are not working in a vacuum. We are working with the United States on what is the improved Harrier and its suitability for the battlefield aircraft of the 1980s. Commensurate with their leadership in the V/STOL technology, Hawker Siddeley and Rolls-Royce are playing a full part in any United States programme which might eventually be approved.

At this point may I say that there is no question whatever of Britain allowing the United States to take over our technology and then to exploit it to our disadvantage. We may not always be as clever as we should like to be, but I do not think we shall be as stupid as that!


My Lords, the noble Lord will agree, however, that this has happened on many other occasions, not least in the case of the swingwing aircraft which we developed and the United States took over.


My Lords, I look back with regret over a number of sins of omission on our side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, this is such a unique aircraft that my own personal belief is that it is improbable that the whole of the future development of this aircraft and of its specialised technology will simply be handed over to the United States on a plate, and that we shall have to buy back from the United States the advanced Harrier which we may require in the 1980s.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, is the noble Lord going on to say whether in this collaboration between the United States and Britain the proportion of production is now being discussed?


My Lords, I think this is far too far ahead. Both the Royal Air Force and the American Marine Corps are close to satisfying their immediate procurement requirements. It is very difficult to say exactly what our requirements will be 10 years from now. It is also true to say that we are not absolutely certain how far the technology of the Harrier development will take us. However, I can say immediately that the Harriers which are already in service are being further upgraded— for example, by supplying them with laser range-finding equipment. Even as it is now flying, the Harrier may become a much more efficient weapon of war than it was when it first entered into service. All one can say is that close, detailed, active and honest collaboration is taking place between the Americans and ourselves in order to see whether the improved Harrier can meet our requirements in the 1980s.

To turn for one moment to the maritime Harrier—which I know is very close to the heart of the Royal Navy and very close, also, to the hearts of noble Lords in this House and honourable Members in another place—if we could afford it, there is no doubt whatever that we should order it now. However, this is a fair-minded House and noble Lords must realise that at this moment we are in a very difficult economic situation. We are not yet out of this area of difficulty. The Navy's requirement is not immediate. It is close, but it is not immediate, and a decision as of this evening might be premature. It is much better that we should wait a little, so that when an order is placed we know it will be carried through, rather than place an order and then have to cancel it because of a critical situation. Noble Lords have correctly said that the money for the maritime Harrier is in the forward costings of the Naval Vote. Let us hope that the economic situation of this country does not deteriorate to the point where it will have to be taken out of the Vote.

Noble Lords are absolutely correct in saying that the Navy want it. If the Navy have it, then there is a great probability, although not a certainty, that the Shah of Iran will buy not only his naval maritime Harriers from us but also the ship which will carry them. This is a much more important export project than just the aircraft themselves. Although noble Lords know that there is a convention that one must not name other nations which are interested, there are about six other countries which are similarly interested in this aircraft.


My Lords, does the noble Lord mean that a decision has been made not to order the Harrier, or that a decision has been made not yet to make the decision whether to order it?


My Lords, a decision has been made not to make a decision. This may seem a little "waffly", but the Navy do not yet have their splendid ship, although it is on the stocks.


My Lords, I apologise for intervening, but I heard the noble Lord say earlier that if we are ever to order it we must order it now. Was he giving that as his opinion, or as an opinion commonly held which he did not share? Those were his words. I jotted them down as he said them.


My Lords, I said them earlier this evening?


My Lords, when the noble Lord dealt with the maritime Harrier he said there was a great deal of interest and sympathy in this House towards the project. I am not quite sure whether he said it is a view which is commonly held, or whether he gave it as his personal or as his Ministerial opinion that if we are ever to order it we must order it now. It was such a striking phrase that I should like it to be put into context. I see from the expression of the noble Lord that he did not intend it in the sense in which I took it.


My Lords, it would be of advantage if one had one's own portable tape recorder! I think I said that we as a nation have to order it first. Nobody else will put their hands in their pockets and order the maritime Harrier unless we order it first. I may have lacked skill, but that is what I meant to say. I think I said also "tonight"—that we shall not order it to-night. The Navy want it but they do not require it tonight. We have about a couple of years in which to make up our minds. I have a formidable brief, much of which is marked "Confidential", so it is a question of not reading out the wrong thing! May I state what I believe is the correct time-scale, and if I am wrong I will write to the noble Lord. I believe that the Navy must have their mind made up by 1978, which is three years from now, so that the maritime Harrier may come into service by about 1981, which is five years from now. That is the kind of time-scale we are talking about.


My Lords, in fact the noble Lord is under a misapprehension. Although that may be the time-scale which the Navy have, the aero-planes may not be there because the actual line is being run down from the factory's point of view. Therefore, the time-scale is very much shorter.


My Lords, this is a production problem. If I am wrong and if I have misinformed the noble Lord and the House, I will say so. I am now speaking from memory only and my memory is not the most accurate organ that I possess; my eyesight is rather better! Nevertheless, the position is that a certain amount of time is still available to us. If by the turn of next year our economy has improved, as it may well do—the Economist had an out-burst of enthusiasm in its last week's number—we should be in a position to go ahead. It is a fact that the money has been put into the forward costing for the Royal Navy. The year in which it is supposed to be spent must obviously be under continuing scrutiny as we go through this difficult period.


My Lords, it will be unbuildable in 18 months' time; the factory will be shut.


My Lords, I think that is an assertion, like the order from the Shah of Iran. The noble Earl has no information that the factory will be shut in 18 months' time. We know that in about 18 months the last aircraft on the existing production line will be delivered, but that does not mean to say that we are going to do nothing for 18 months. That is really an overstatement. The point is that we have a certain length of time and we must balance the time that we have against the economic crisis that we are facing.

Noble Lords must be reasonable about this. If I could order these aircraft tomorrow I would do so. As noble Lords have said, I think it is a very good gamble; but it would be a gamble and I am sure that at the moment this country cannot afford economic gambles on a massive scale. That is the one flaw in the arguments of noble Lords opposite, that the world is itching to press cheques into our hands to buy this aircraft. They would very much like to do so if the advance machines were ordered and proved, but they are cautious, like everybody else. So noble Lords must balance the desirability of exploiting the technology that we have developed in this country against the economic problems that this country is facing.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I apologise, and this will be my last intervention. The noble Lord has said that there is a flaw in our argument but, quite seriously, there seems to be a very great flaw in his argument. Many of us have consulted the company involved, and the information we have is that within a period of 18 months there will be a serious rundown of production, and unless an order is placed within a few months the production line will cease. I think other noble Lords have had the same information. It is very serious for a Government Minister to come to this House and apparently not know what the situation is in regard to this company. If he cannot do it now, I hope that the noble Lord will make a Statement within the next week or so.


My Lords, I am going to start getting slightly tougher. The company in question has a vested interest in keeping this particular line open. I would not say that it is over-stating the case; it is assuming—and this, again, is a flaw in the argument—that the Government are doing absolutely nothing about it. That is entirely untrue. I do not think it is good economics to manufacture equipment that no one immediately wants. We do not want to manufacture Harriers, whether maritime, advanced or improved, just to hang by the tail somewhere. They have to be made and used for a purpose.

I thought I had made it clear that the Government are making real efforts to look into the future, to see what can be done with the Harrier technology over the next decade. It may mean that there will be a halt in the production of the Harrier as it now is. That does not mean that the factory will close, that nothing will be done or that no money will be spent on the advanced Harrier, the maritime Harrier or the improved Harrier. Something is obviously going on, because it is too important a project to let it drop into the sink. It is too important for that. But the hard fact of life is that we are in an economic crisis. The trouble in this country at the moment is that we do not realise it. I am referring not only to noble Lords, but to the whole country as we go about the sunny streets, and for that reason the Government, being very sensible of this position, are weighing this area of expenditure. As noble Lords will have seen, every Government Department has had its expenses cut and defence has had a further cut of £110 million imposed upon it by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is an absolutely necessary measure. This certainly does not make it any easier to spend money on a project which, however desirable, does not bring certain advantages to this country.

I think that is all I can say, except perhaps for one other point. There was a very good debate in another place on this subject, between the honourable and gallant Member for Winchester and the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Navy and, apparently, their discussion ended behind the Speaker's Chair. It is all in Hansard, so it must be correct. If we had a Speaker's Chair, I would invite noble Lords to come and discuss the matter with me behind it, but since we have only a Bishops' Bar perhaps we might use that instead!

I have tried to satisfy noble Lords. I have found it difficult, but may I say that my heart is with them in this matter. I believe that the Harrier technology must be developed and used for the benefit of this country, but will they please not be too impatient, because we have a certain amount of time still in hand and we also have an economic crisis to face. The two must be balanced if we are to reach a correct decision.