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.





6 February 2017

Paddy Ashdown welcomes the Government’s promise, at last, to maintain and support Yeovil’s full capacity to manufacture and design helicopters.

Like many others I have become increasingly concerned about the risk that Leonardo’s Yeovil site would drift towards a maintenance and assembly facility only. For this reason I have been pressing the Government for six months now to make it clear that they are committed to maintaining and supporting the full range of skills at Yeovil, so that we can continue to design and manufacture the nation’s helicopters.

I therefore greatly welcome the answer I received today in the Lords from Government Minister, Lord Prior in which he promised:

“The capacity to manufacture helicopters in the UK is extremely important. The MoD is entirely committed to that. We will be publishing a refresh strategy later on in the year which … will make that clear”

Note to editors:

Paddy Ashdown asked:
“The Minster is aware that a Defence Industry Strategy.. paper will be published later this year. Is he aware that if, like the Industrial Strategy published last week, that document does not contain a clear commitment by the Government to maintain and preserve our national ability to design and manufacture helicopters… then that capability will be lost, along with hundreds of jobs in Yeovil and a key national aero-space industrial asset. Everyone else recognises that danger. Why is the Government blind to it?”

Lord Prior of Brampton is the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

For further details please contact Theo Whitaker – 07884145397 /

Industrial Strategy – Statement by Paddy Ashdown

The Industrial Strategy

Paddy Ashdown voice concerns about the absence of any commitment to Yeovil and appeals to Marcus Fysh MP to join in a joint campaign to persuade the Government to change its mind

“Sometimes it is silence that speaks loudest.

This Industrial Strategy mentions Airbus, Rolls Royce, Boeing, Bombardier Aerospace, GE Aviation ,GKN, Loughborough and Solihull. But it mentions neither helicopters or Yeovil once. Given the worries about preserving the UK’s stand alone ability to manufacture helicopters and the integrity of the Yeovil site I have repeatedly lobbied the Government to use the opportunity of the Industrial Strategy to state clearly the Government’s commitment to maintaining the full capacity to manufacture helicopters on the Yeovil site, the UK’s only stand alone helicopter manufacturing facility and as such a key part of the country’s aerospace industrial base. No such commitment is contained in this strategy paper. To say that this is disappointing would be an understatement. Like many others in the Yeovil community I feel let down and angry about this omission.

I am now informed that this is paper is being published for consultation only. But bitter and long experience has taught me what that means. What we have been looking for is not consultation, but influence on the Government by our local MP. It is inconceivable that, under the coalition when David Laws was our MP, a national Industrial Strategy like this would have been published without a clear commitment to preserve the full range of capacities of the Yeovil site.

I have repeatedly asked our MP Marcus Fysh to put aside politics and work with all the other political voices in Yeovil, including the Unions, to lobby the Government on a joint basis to provide this vital commitment for the future. He has repeatedly declined to do so. Instead of action, we have had only repeated announcements of re-cycled news. The absence of a clear commitment to preserving of the full capacities of the Yeovil site is a very serious omission. I appeal to Mr Fysh again join us in a joint lobbying exercise to persuade the Government to change its mind.”

Yeovil Helicopters – Correspondence with MoD


Harriett Baldwin MP
Minister for Defence Procurement
Ministry of Defence,

Wednesday, 19 January 2017

Thank you for your letter of yesterday.

I am glad that you have now agreed that the AW159 tools and jigs will not be allowed to leave the Yeovil site for Poland unless and until there is a full in-depth study of the comparative costs of production on the two sites and that this will involve all relevant factors, such as the impact on the overheads of Leonardo’s Yeovil site, the costs both of transporting the tools and jigs to Poland and of transporting the assembled AW159 airframes back from Poland back to Yeovil for fitting out.

I am grateful to you for finally giving this undertaking which will, I know be welcomed, not just by the Leonardo workforce, but also by the Yeovil community at large. I also welcome this change of policy in favour of a proper competitive process, rather than repeating the procedure which applied when the Government foolishly gave the recent Apache order to the United States without any kind of tendering process.

One simple question. Given how much locally and nationally depends on this decision (not least because of what happened over the Apache order) I am sure you will agree with me that the Government should be as transparent about its forthcoming decision on the tools and jigs as possible. Of course I realise that the details of the relative costs which are incorporated into your decision cannot not be made public as they will be commercially confidential. But I hope you will be able, at the very least, to agree that, when you announce the decision, you will also make public the broad list of the factors which have been taken into account.

I would be most grateful if you would provide me with confirmation that you have no difficulty with publishing such a list at the appropriate time.

I have finally to express my surprise (and concern) that you have not been able to be more specific about the inclusion of a commitment to maintain a UK stand-alone ability to make helicopters, in the forthcoming and long awaited Industrial strategy. Given that our ability to make helicopters is a vital part of the nation’s aerospace industrial base, I am bewildered that you seem unable to give a clear answer to this crucial question at this late stage in the publication of the forthcoming White Paper. I am sure you will understand that the absence of such a
commitment, when the White Paper is finally published, will be treated with shock, even anger, in the Yeovil area and far beyond.

I look forward to hearing from you.
Paddy Ashdown





Yeovil Helicopter jobs – 9 January 2017

Commenting this afternoon on the MoD announcement of “new orders” for the Wildcat helicopter, Paddy Ashdown said:

“I am grateful to Minister Baldwin for making the journey from London to make this announcement. Of course any and every new order is welcome, especially in the difficult post-Brexit climate. But unfortunately these are not new orders. They are recycled news from the time of the Coalition. As the MoD themselves admit in their Press Release, this announcement merely enacts the detail of the deal negotiated by David Laws in 2012.

The issue for the Government is not, will they recycle old jobs as new ones, but will they use the leverage they have through the ownership of Wildcat tooling and jigs to stop Yeovil losing jobs which will otherwise go to Poland in order preserve not just the long term viability of the Yeovil site, but also a key element of the national aerospace industrial base.?

Of course the decision of where this work goes must be made commercially. But the Government can and should demand that any Leonardo decision which affects UK jobs is based on a proper in depth study of the comparative costs of manufacturing these Wildcat parts in Yeovil and Poland. I do not understand why they will not insist on this.

The Government’s unwillingness to use the leverage they have to go every last mile to protect Yeovil jobs, makes their promise to protect UK jobs in the post-Brexit era, mere empty words. I hope they will change their mind on this before these jobs and skills are exported abroad. Yeovil’s technicians and engineers have, for a hundred years, provided world beating aircraft for our armed forces. They deserve better than this.”


Correspondence on Yeovil job losses with Minister Harriett Baldwin 20 December 2016


Text version

Harriett Baldwin MP

Minister for Defence Procurement

Ministry of Defence,





Tuesday, 20 December 2016


Thank you for your letter of 15 December 2016 and our follow up phone conversation this afternoon.

I will return to you later on the matter of costs being transferred to Yeovil from Italy with the effect, whether intended or otherwise, of enhancing Leonardo’s competitiveness in Italy at the expense of their Yeovil site.

I look forward to the now much delayed Industrial Strategy Green Paper and hope this contains the promised clear and unequivocal statement of the Government’s intention to maintain the UK’s stand alone capacity to design and manufacture helicopters and to pursue an active sales and export policy to support this. It would be helpful if you might give me some indication when this paper, which was originally expected according to the Government’s own statements in October, will finally be published. Not over the Christmas recess, I hope.

I was pleased to receive your assurance in our conversation that the Government has not yet decided whether the MoD would use the leverage it has through ownership of the A159 tools and jigs to ensure that the lost GKN work stays on the Yeovil site, instead of being exported to Poland.

This is welcome news indeed.

Not to explore every avenue to ensure this work stays in the UK would seem to run directly contrary to the Government’s stated intention of preserving the nation’s industrial capacity in the post-Brexit era.

You indicated in our conversation that the relative production costs of doing this work in Yeovil and Poland will be a key factor in making your decision. I asked you to assure me that any assessment of these costs would incorporate the expenditure and risk involved in transporting airframes from Poland back to Yeovil for fitting out. I hope in answering this letter, you will be able to give me this assurance.

Perhaps you would also confirm that any A159 parts manufactured in Poland would be painted and protected before assembly, as is required by Naval standards for helicopter production. You will of course know that this is a skill which the Yeovil workforce is uniquely qualified to perform and may recall that, when previous naval EH 101 work was shipped to Italy, the resulting product fell well below what was required for naval service because of deficiencies in this area.

I would also be grateful to know if, in assessing the relative costs between Yeovil and Poland, account will be taken of the fact that keeping the work in Yeovil would enable the Yeovil site’s fixed costs to be amortised on a wider basis, so increasing the Yeovil’s overall competitiveness – with of course the opposite effect on Yeovil’s competitiveness if the contrary decision is made.

You will know of the considerable damage that was done, both to confidence in the Yeovil site and to its long-term viability, as a result of the extraordinary Government decision to place the recent Apache order in the United Sates without any kind of competitive process. To compound the damage by repeating this failure of process and consenting to Yeovil based work being transferred to Poland without a proper and full in depth investigation of the true relative costs involved, would be to show a casual disregard for the value of the Yeovil workforce and community and very poor stewardship of a vital national aerospace resource.

Finally I am bound to say I am completely perplexed by the last paragraph of your letter. In this you say “airframe fabrication is not a prerequisite to a continuing capability to design and develop new helicopters”. This makes no sense at all. Airframe fabrication is, self evidently, absolutely necessary for the maintenance of the capability to produce our own helicopters. If that capability is placed at risk because we lose the ability to fabricate airframes, there would be no point in maintaining the high level of design and development capability for which Yeovil is both famous worldwide, and valued as a national aerospace centre of excellence.

Given the urgency of this matter and the gravity of its potential effect on Yeovil, I look forward to hearing from you if at all possible before the start of the Christmas break.












Paddy Ashdown

Paddy Ashdown comments on GKN Closure in Yeovil

Yeovil Liberal Democrats

Thursday 17 November 2016


Lord Ashdown reacts to news of GKN Plant Closure in Yeovil


Lord Ashdown has responded to the news that the GKN Plant in Yeovil is to close at the end of next year.

“Even if this news was expected by many, it is sad news and bad news for Yeovil and those affected especially just before Christmas. My heart goes out to them and their families. This is the inevitable consequence of the foolish decisions by this government to give the recent apache order to the United States without even a competitive tender.”

“It is vital now for the Yeovil site and for our communities future prosperity that the Government foes two things: firstly uses the tooling at GKN, which they own, as leverage to insist that this work stays on the Yeovil site and is not allowed to be exported to Italy or anywhere else. Secondly to make it explicitly clear in the forthcoming policy paper on Britain’s industrial strategy that the govern sees Yeovil’s capability to design and construct helicopters on the integrated site in Yeovil as an essential part of the nation’s industrial base.”

“I will continue to lobby pressure the government to do this, along with the local unions and I hope Yeovil’s Member of Parliament, if he is prepared to work with us.”


Note to editors:

  1. For further information, please contact Theo Whitaker – / 07884145397