Combat Air Strategy — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:05 pm on 27th June 2019.

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Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 3:05 pm, 27th June 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I offer my thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend Robert Courts for introducing this debate. I echo his opening comments about the recent crash of the German Eurofighter, and the sad loss of life. Our thoughts go out not only to the German air force and the German people, but to the pilot’s family, at what must be an incredibly difficult time. We will take close notice of the reports that come out of that incident; my hon. Friend was absolutely right to say that we should not speculate at this stage, but we will seek to understand the issues that caused the crash and learn from them for the safety of our pilots.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate, because he has shown a tremendous amount of personal enthusiasm and dedication on this issue. I know that because he writes to me quite regularly and asks to meet, and he rightly challenges us about it. He does that not only from a personal interest, but because he clearly cares passionately about the benefits it will bring for his own constituency, which I know he works incredibly hard to support. I hope I can assure him that the Government share that ambition and the commitment to ensuring that we continue to have a world-leading combat air sector.

We want to build on our the United Kingdom’s excellent reputation, and on its excellence and innovation. That reputation has been underpinned by more than a century of significant investment by both the Government and the industry, but by 2018 it was clear that some important decisions were needed if the UK were to retain its position as a world leader in combat air, while retaining sovereign choice in how we deliver the future capabilities that the Royal Air Force will need.

At the heart of the Government’s response is the combat air strategy, which, as many hon. and right hon. Members have already said, was officially launched at the Farnborough International Air Show last year. It sets out an ambitious vision for the sector, with plans for driving a comprehensive approach across Government and our industrial base, together with international partnering in the future.

The strategy provides a clear roadmap for the future, aligning national programmes and investment decisions to sustain a sector that is profoundly important to the UK’s economy—as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, it accounts for around 85% of our defence exports over the past decade and directly supports 180,000 British jobs. At the heart of the strategy is the launch of the next-generation combat air acquisition programme, which will define and deliver the capabilities required when the Typhoon fighter leaves service.

The strategy also reaffirms the Government’s commitment to the future combat air system technology initiative, under which £1.9 billion was invested in demonstrator projects using the latest technology. More generally, the strategy highlights the clear need for profound transformational change in the way the Government and the industry jointly approach the combat air enterprise.

I will move on to some of the points that hon. and right hon. Members raised during the debate. I note what my hon. Friend said in his speech about the Franco-German project; I absolutely accept that there is no room for complacency, and I can personally reassure him that I am not complacent about it. I always wish our friends and allies the very best of success, and we will see how the move from fourth generation to sixth generation goes. We will always continue to work with allies on a host of different projects.

My hon. Friend was right to make the point, which I accept, that we should look at a better model for understanding the contribution that the defence industry makes to the United Kingdom. He described how the UK economy benefits from our investment in defence, and he mentioned some big figures. I gently encourage all Members to continue to have conversations, as I am sure they do already, with my colleagues in the Treasury about the difficulties that we sometimes find in the Treasury Green Book. I will leave that there for now.

I will come on to skills a little later, because I want to address some interesting points made by my hon. Friend. I took no offence whatever when he said that the importance of our future combat air strategy cannot be promoted only at my level. It absolutely has to be a national endeavour, and it has to be at the highest level of Government. I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has raised the issue at meetings with her counterparts from other countries, and it is incumbent on the new Prime Minister to do exactly the same. The Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, rightly said that it presents us with an opportunity to really push the issue and see this as a national endeavour, with senior cross-Government figures pushing the project forward and encouraging more international partners.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witney talked about paragraph 38 in the strategy. I reassure him that the national value framework not only describes options, but assesses which ones reach the right balance between prosperity, capability, affordability and, of course, international influence. I assure him that I will continue to put forward the message that this is an opportunity for us to keep UK skills and industry at the heart of the initiative.

My hon. Friend talked about STEM issues. Several right hon. and hon. Members have said that we need to attract younger people into the subjects that they will need to take part in projects such as this. As I go round industry, I get a sense that industry has woken up to that. A lot of industries are now determinedly engaging with primary schools and running competitions to get it into the minds of young people that this is an exciting opportunity for their future. When I was at BAE Systems in Lancashire it was interesting to see the training centre right next door. It benefits not only BAE Systems, but other industries across the north-west, and I hope we will see more of that sort of thing.