Yesterday I asked a question to the Defence Minister about news reports that the US was likely to cut its F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme – the knock on effect of which is a reduction in orders.
The manufacture of the JSF provides a large amount of employment in East Lancashire, and I don’t think the minister’s flippant response is appropriate if you look at the amount of unemployment we have, and the jobs which have already been lost in defence manufacturing. The exchange went as follows:
Graham Jones: There are reports today in the newspapers that the F-35B programme is to face substantial cuts in the US. Has the Minister had any indication from his counterparts in the US of a reduction in the number that will be procured, which may affect defence jobs in east Lancashire?
Peter Luff: I remember a good friend of mine, a general, who retired recently from the British armed services, who said he would know that he had retired when he started believing what he read in newspapers. I would strongly recommend to the hon. Gentleman not to believe what he reads in newspapers. The United States remains strongly committed to the programme. The F-35B is an outstanding aircraft, it is flying extensively, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will receive our first two aircraft on Thursday. The hon. Gentleman should be a little sceptical.
I take several points from this.
Firstly, this is not a denial or a refutation of anything which I raised. Saying that the United States is committed to the programme is not the same as saying it will not reduce orders. I asked specifically about discussions he has had with his US counterparts about this topic. We all agree that the F35 is an outstanding aircraft, but if the US Government decides it cannot afford them, then it will obviously have to reduce orders.
Secondly, this is an unnecessarily petty response. I did not ask a belligerent or point-scoring question, it was a simple request for clarification on the Government’s position, because of media reports which could have caused a large amount of concern to a number of my constituents and businesses.
Finally, I think this is a completely out of touch response. There are a lot of people without jobs, and it is simply not a good enough thing to say that we should be more sceptical about news reports. The Government has already performed 2 U-turns on the F35 launch system – why would we trust their claims any more than those of a newspaper? Obviously the real world does not penetrate the walls of the Ministry of Defence.