We last placed an order for Sea King helicopters in November 1987. All seven aircraft ordered have now been delivered.
As I advised my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) on 10 May, we are examining the case for the Wessex's replacement as part of the normal equipment planning process of the Ministry of Defence. An announcement will be made once a decision has been taken.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an early decision is now required in view of the fact that the Wessex helicopter is operationally inferior to, for example, the Sea King? Indeed, some of the Wessex fleet is approaching 30 years old. In addition to that, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government have ruled out the possibility of the sole use of a civilian contractor to provide that service?
I should very much like to dispose of a budget that would allow me to comply with all my hon. Friends' requests about defence equipment procurement. As my hon. Friend knows well, we are under constraints at present and all these matters must be considered carefully. No decision on the civilian operation of the search and rescue service will be made until the options exercise has been completed. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will always take the wartime requirement fully into account in retaining a core capability.
May I take my right hon. Friend on a slightly different tack? Summer is with us. The Wessex helicopter, although excellent in the past, is no longer the all-weather, all-year-round or all-radar-equipped aircraft that we need along the Bristol channel and the north Devon coast. I beg my right hon. Friend to consider the matter for two purposes: the first is the safety of our tourists and the second is, perhaps, the continuance of a British-built helicopter fleet for the future. My right hon. Friend must make his mind up and make a change fairly soon.
As the Minister clearly understands, the replacement of the Wessex with the Sea King is intimately bound up with the contractorisation of search and rescue. Does he understand the dismay, both within the Royal Air Force and outside it, that contractorisation is once again under consideration? What has changed in the three years since contractorisation was successfully defeated by a campaign both inside and outside the House? Why will not the Minister reaffirm the Government's commitment to the RAF and the Royal Navy by rejecting contractorisation outright now?
The commitment in sea-air rescue is to those at risk. I am entirely confident that, however future arrangements may differ from existing arrangements, the risk to seafarers will not be aggravated. We shall continue to meet the criteria laid down by the Department of Transport. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North a core capability to deal with the wartime requirement will always be retained.
Does the Minister recall that before both the 1983 and the 1987 general elections the Tory Government lambasted the Opposition, saying that Labour would cut defence spending if ever the Labour party got into power? Now the Tory Government cannot even satisfy their own Back Benchers. As somebody else said recently, this is a "funny old world".
I am interested by the hon. Gentleman's new-found interest in sea-air rescue helicopters. I can tell him that, whatever contraction may take place as part of the restructuring of our defences, it will be as nothing compared with what would happen if the Labour party got its hands on defence. If the hon. Gentleman is honest, he will admit that many studies are flying round on how the Labour party can plunder the defence budget to pay for its glib strings of promises.
When my right hon. Friend considers bids for the replacement of search and rescue helicopters, will he bear it in mind that an order with Westland would bring work to Westland Aerospace at West Cowes in my constituency? Westland Aerospace has an enviable international reputation for composite technology and for exporting aerospace technology from the United Kingdom.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, it is a "funny old world". None the less, we are pleased that the Minister has reaffirmed that he will defer an announcement on helicopters until after he has made a decision. Some time ago, in answer to a question on the cancellation of Tornados, the Minister replied that the job losses incurred were not his responsibility, nor that of the Government. Since then about 75,000 jobs have been lost in the defence industry. Does not the Minister understand that his procrastination and dithering over the orders for helicopters will now cost thousands of jobs in Tory constituencies and that that will cost the Tories seats at the next election?
I fully sympathise with the hon. Gentleman who had a carefully prepared supplementary to the question tabled by his hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes), but was forced to attach it instead to a question about helicopters. As you, Mr. Speaker, judge his question to be in order, I am glad to face it. As I said to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), if Labour Members were honest, they would admit that the present scale of redundancies and job losses in the defence industry are as nothing compared with what we would suffer if the Labour party ever got its hands on the defence budget and plundered it to pay for all their promises of expenditure in every other area.