The Government, Helicopters and the people of Yeovil and South Somerset

Speech on Westland/Leonardo

House of Lords

By Rt Hon Paddy Ashdown

Tuesday 10 July 2018

My Lords, for more than a hundred years the people of Yeovil and South Somerset have provided the nation and the nation’s allies with world-beating aircraft which have played an immense part in the defence of our shores and of our values.

Yeovil-built aircraft were amongst the first to fly in battle over the Western front and provide air support for the Royal Navy. Westland Lysanders flew our secret agents into every corner of occupied Europe in WWII. Westland helicopters dropped me on Jebel tops in Arabia, plucked me out of clearings in the Borneo jungle and gave us the mobility we needed in Northern Ireland. They did the same in Afghanistan, Iraq and every other conflict zone.

This is not just the past, My Lords. It is also the future.

As we rely more on special forces, they will rely more on helicopters for long range insertion. As the Royal Marines end assaults on defended beaches, helicopters will be the only means to land men in numbers where they enemy does not expect them. As the Russian submarine threat grows, rotary wing will arm our ships with the best means of detection and response.

But this debate is not just about our armed forces needs. It is also about an irreplaceable national aero-space asset. The rotary wing skills found in Yeovil, are found nowhere else in Britain.

So, Yeovil must surely feel pretty confident about what comes next? Our brilliant design and engineering teams must surely feel secure about their future?

No, My Lords, they do not.

They are beginning to leave in numbers. And there is a reason for that.

Despite many requests from me and, I am assured, from Yeovil’s MP, Marcus Fysh, the Government has made no clear commitment, as part of the National Industrial Strategy, that they wish to sustain this unique sovereign ability to design, engineer and manufacture our own rotary aircraft.

This doubt about the Government’s intentions began when the MoD abandoned the policy of the Coalition Government which insisted that an MOD order for Apache aircraft must be subject to a proper competitive tendering process – replacing this with a decision to buy off the shelf without competitive tender, from the US.

Since then, every procurement action of the Government has re-enforced the suspicion that the MOD prefers to buy new aircraft from abroad than make them ourselves, even if the consequence is that a vital national asset is lost and the Yeovil site degenerates into a repair and maintenance facility only.

Over the years, Yeovil-built aircraft have been sold to over 20 countries. We are one of the nation’s major exporters. But what export customers now say, is if the British Government will not buy helicopters made in Britain, why should they?

This is not a problem for today. The shop floor has plenty of work for the moment.  What we are short of is the engineering work needed now to prepare for and build the new aircraft for the future. What we need is a commitment from the Government that it prefers to buy the next range of aircraft from UK production, rather than from abroad

I cannot believe that the Government wishes to preside over the disappearance of a key national capability and prefers to make our armed forces dependant on foreign skills when we have such an abundance of our own.

Post-Brexit, they cannot wish to destroy export opportunities.

Yet that is where we are heading.

If this is not what the Government wants, then it is time to make that clear – urgently.

Leonardo, I am assured, are waiting to make the investment necessary in R&D, infrastructure and skills to maintain the long term integrity of Yeovil’s design and engineering teams. But as Leonardo’s managing Director said at Farnborough “We need some clear commitment [to a new helicopter strategy if we are],…to maintain the design and development capability of our work force.”

I appeal to the Government to make this statement without delay. Today for preference. In the Modernising Defence paper, due by the end of the month, if they must. In the Budget as a last resort.

I have to warn that if this, or something along these lines does not come by the end of the year then the crucial decisions Leonardo needs to make, may not be made, the erosion of Yeovil’s skill base will accelerate and a national strategic industrial asset will be in grave jeopardy.

In his answer the Minister may stress the Government’s Strategic Partnership Agreements – so called SPAs – and maybe even announce a new one.

SPAs are useful and they are welcome. But they are not the answer.

In their present form SPAs have no impact on the procurement process. That is where we need the action.

As part of the Government’s policy to maintain a national capability in the design and production of warships and combat jets, it requires front line commanders to consider indigenous industrial capability in making procurement decisions. This is what is needed and what has been so significantly absent in relation to rotary wing.

My Lords, led me, in summing up, lay out what is at risk here.

It is always looks cheaper to buy off the shelf. But in this case that would be, in the long term, far more expensive as we lose high value jobs, export opportunities and a key national asset.

It is not just Yeovil who stands to suffer from this.

Thousands of jobs and substantial high value high-tech industrial production elsewhere in the country is also at jeopardy. Leonardo currently spends more than a third of a billion pounds with suppliers all across the UK, 30% of which is with SMEs.

In the south of England alone, the total value of sub-contract business dependent on Yeovil amounts, to £275 million pounds.

What I am asking is simple.

The Government has a strategy for preserving our sovereign capacity in the production of fast combat jets.

It has one to preserve our ability to build warships.

What we need now – and urgently – is a clear statement from the Government that it values and will preserve Britain’s sovereign capability to design, engineer and manufacture our future rotary wing aircraft.

A key national aero-space industrial asset, providing the best for our armed forces, a work force whose skills have served the defence of the nation for more than 100 years, export opportunities, and tens of thousands of high-tech jobs across the country depend on it.