UK negotiated Westland deal as SAS advised India over Amritsar, Whitehall papers show
By David Pallister | 10 February 2014
“The team found that on both technical and economic grounds the case for aid is marginal”– Peter Ricketts, writing in letter as foreign secretary’s private secretary
Margaret Thatcher’s government pressed India to buy a fleet of Westland helicopters despite knowing that the model had “mechanical problems”, newly-released documents show.
A warning went to the private office of the UK’s then prime minister that the helicopter, the W30, did not even have air-worthiness certificates because of the faults.
The UK government used aid money to support the deal even though, according to Whitehall papers released to the National Archives, ministers were advised that the economic case for doing so was “marginal”.
But Thatcher’s government saw the deal as vital to saving the ailing contractor from collapse. It was a precursor to the Westland affair that split her cabinet and led to two ministers’ resignations.
India bought 21 W30s for £65 million in 1986, intended for ferrying oil-rig workers.
The helicopters performed so badly that the entire fleet was grounded within four years of delivery in 1987. Two crashed, killing 10 people.
Other documents released to the National Archives show that the UK’s SAS provided military advice to India about removing hundreds of Sikhs from the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
David Cameron, prime minister, ordered an investigation into the UK’s role after Tom Watson, Labour MP, raised the issue in Parliament last month.
William Hague, foreign secretary, reported the investigation’s findings to Parliament on Tuesday.
The government of the late Lady Thatcher agreed to a request from India for advice, he said. An SAS officer advised the Indian authorities in February 1984 to launch a surprise attack, using helicopters to take troops to the site.
But the advice was ignored, according to Hague’s statement. India stormed the temple, with disastrous results. Official figures estimated that 575 people died, although other reports suggested that as many as 3,000 were killed, said Hague.
Watson, while challenging Cameron at prime minister’s questions, suggested that the UK’s role in the Amritsar raid was linked to the W30 deal.
Cameron dismissed it as a “conspiracy too far”.
The SAS gave the advice during the early stages of negotiations for the W30s.
But Hague told MPs: “There was no link between the provision of that advice and defence sales.”
The newly-released documents show that Whitehall officials were, nonetheless, concerned about the commercial justification for the deal, the lack of a development case and worries about the possible military use of the helicopters.
Peter Ricketts, private secretary to the then foreign secretary, Geoffrey, now Lord, Howe, drafted a letter that reported on a worrying assessment by the Overseas Development Administration (ODA) of India’s request for aid to pay the £65 million for the 21 W30s.
The ODA had sent a team to India to consider the request, he wrote. “The team found that on both technical and economic grounds the case for aid is marginal.”
The draft was amended to say: “The team’s preliminary assessment is that… ” The letter was sent in February 1984 to John Coles, Thatcher’s private secretary.
Ricketts, now Sir Peter and ambassador to France, also said in the letter: “We understand that contractual negotiations between Westland and the Indians are likely to be delayed until air-worthiness certificates have been granted for the W30 overall (currently grounded because of mechanical problems) and for its Gem 60 Rolls Royce engine.”
The late Sir William Ryrie, as the ODA’s permanent secretary, wrote in a confidential letter to a group of officials: “The commercial case is not as strong as it is made to sound because it is based almost wholly on Westland’s own claims about a helicopter that is as yet untried, and may not be a success.”
Air-worthiness certificates were granted for the W30s, and Whitehall officials enthused about the prospect of selling a further 100 to India and more than 400 worldwide. But mechanical problems dogged the Westland 30, and pilots dubbed it the “Wobbly 30”.
Alan Bristow, who attempted a rescue bid for Westland Helicopters in 1985 and who died five years ago, called the W30 in his autobiography an “utter disaster”, describing it as “noisy, heavy, complicated and expensive”. He added: “In hot conditions, it could hardly get off the ground.”
Westland Helicopters eventually folded into AgustaWestland, which is at the centre of bribery allegations over a later deal with India.
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