HC Deb 14 May 1924 vol 173 cc1344-9
Lieut.-Colonel Sir S. HOARE

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he can make a statement of the Government's policy in connection with airships?


After careful examination His Majesty's Government have decided to reject the scheme put forward by the Airship Guarantee Company—commonly known as the Burney scheme. In their opinion this scheme would have entailed the creation of a virtual monopoly, and contained a number of other features which are open to objection both on financial and technical grounds. At the same time, His Majesty's Government share the view of their predecessors that it is essential to carry into effect as early as possible a constructive programme of airship development.

They propose, accordingly, to authorise the Air Ministry to initiate forthwith a comprehensive programme of lighter-than-air research and experiment at Cardington, including full-scale experiments with one of the existing ships, which will be reconditioned for the purpose, and to undertake the early construction of a new airship of a capacity of 5,000,000 cubic feet.

Further, the Air Ministry will undertake the construction of a terminal and an intermediate base overseas, with the necessary facilities to enable these two ships to be operated with safety between England and India.

Simultaneously, the Air Ministry will give the Airship Guarantee Company the first offer of a contract for the construction of a second ship for commercial purposes. It is proposed that this contract shall include a clause under which the constructors will be permitted to repurchase the ship from the Air Ministry at a reduced figure on completion of satisfactory flying trials, provided—

  1. (1) that it is to be operated in connection with an approved British commercial airship service; and
  2. (2) that it shall be available for use by the State as required.
By these means private initiative will be linked with lighter-than-air development from the start, and, in the event of success, the early inauguration of commercial airship services open to all firms likely to be interested will be facilitated. At the same time this second vessel will provide the nucleus of a reserve of personnel and material. Such a reserve will be essential if, as is hoped, airships prove capable of fulfilling certain important defensive functions—a development from which material economies in other forms of defence expenditure may ultimately result.

These proposals should enable two airships to be placed in commission in a shorter period than under the original scheme, since the Government and commercial vessels will be laid down simultaneously. They will, moreover, result in the maintenance of two separate airship manufacturing plants and other ground facilities on a scale which will admit of rapid expansion. Further, the valuable existing airship stations at Cardington and Pulham will remain State property, instead of passing into private hands, whilst ownership of the new bases to be constructed overseas will also be vested in the State.

As regards the financial aspect, under these proposals it will not be necessary to incur from the outset the very heavy commitments—amounting to a total sum of £4,800,000 over a period of 15 years—which would be involved by the original scheme.

A three years' programme only will be authorised in the first instance, and no decision will be necessary as to further development until this programme is nearing completion, when much fuller data will be available than at present. It is estimated that, allowing for the repurchase of the second ship by its constructors, the net expenditure involved in 1924–25, 1925,–26 and 1926–27 will not exceed £1,200,000.

A Supplementary Estimate in respect of the sum required for this service in the current year will be laid before the House at an early date. My Noble Friend, the Secretary of State for Air, will make a fuller statement on this subject on Wednesday, the 21st instant, in another place.


Is the Prime Minister aware, that the estimate of £4,000,000 which he has just quoted was for six airships and not for two and, therefore, the figures he has given are not comparable at all. Further, whilst obviously we cannot go into details to-day upon this question, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Supplementary Estimate to be taken as early as possible so that we shall have an opportunity of debating the statement which he has just made, without any delay.


I think the latter part of the question is, perhaps, the more important, namely, that the Supplementary Estimate should be put down at an early date. It is quite obviously impossible to discuss this matter or in fact to give very much more information on this matter by question and answer. I should like to say, however, that it is perfectly true that the £4,800,000 was for the construction, as it was hoped, of six airships, all of which would belong to private companies at the end, whereas our scheme, I think, is much better financially than that. Still, that is a matter which will have to be raised on the Supplementary Estimate.


Is the Prime Minister aware that the main outline of the scheme he has just read to the House, with details in some instances, appeared in this morning's "Times," and will he explain to the House how these details could be disclosed and how Cabinet decisions could be disclosed to the "Times" without first being communicated to this House?


I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend for raising this question. My attention has been drawn to this matter this forenoon. I regret it very much, and I am informed it did not come from the Air Ministry, but that it came from some of those with whom naturally we had to be in negotiation in order that we might explain, and have explained to us, the business foundation of any scheme that might be introduced. I think it is a practice which is most reprehensible, and I regret very much that I can take no disciplinary action beyond the announcement I have just made to the House.


Can the Prime Minister say whether the amount he now suggests to the House is in addition to the Estimates already presented to Parliament?


It is a Supplementary Estimate for quite a new scheme, mainly of commercial importance, but that point also can be debated on the Supplementary Estimate.

Captain BRASS

Will the Prime Minister state where this overseas base is to be situated?


I would rather not. I am sure it is in the public interest that it should not be stated.


Can the Prime Minister take no steps as a result of the paragraph in to-day's "Times" which says that an order is to be given forthwith to the Burney group to proceed with the building of an airship capable of doing so-and-so, and having regard to the fact that these details have been disclosed to the Press, can he reconsider any decision which has been come to regarding the giving of the contract to any such group?


I do not think I can be more emphatic than I have been in my expression of regret that this has been given away before it has been announced to the House. With reference to the second part of my hon. Friend's question, we are absolutely free to enter into negotiations with any company or any group and, if that were advisable and wise, to open new negotiations. The Government are not tied in any way, and are not prevented by any agreement from doing so.

Viscount CURZON

As the Prime Minister has made a very serious allegation, presumably against the Burney group, can he give the House some indication as to how he makes such an allegation, and what foundation there is for it?


I have made no allegation against the Burney group. We have been in negotiation, and we have discussed the finance of the matter and the technicalities of the matter with various experts. I say that I was so gravely concerned with what I saw when my attention was drawn to this publication in the "Times" of this morning, that I asked whether steps had been taken to ascertain where the leakage came from, and the information I had was that it did not come from the Air Ministry or from our side, and that therefore it must have come from one or other of the persons with whom we have consulted in confidence about the scheme.


Will the Prime Minister consider the fact that one of the principal members of the firm included in this charge is a Member of this House?

Lieut.-Commander BURNEY

As this question has been raised I think it would be as well if I gave an explanation. I gave certain information to one of the Lobby correspondents last night, but I did not give any information other than that which had already been published in the "Westminster Gazette" nearly a week before and had already been published in the "Daily Mail" some three or four days before. I took up that matter with the Under-Secretary of State for Air and asked that some means should be taken to stop this leakage as it would appear to come either from myself or some other person who had been negotiating in the matter. That information had been given out to the Press, and I think hon. Members will find, if they read this article, that the only other information is information directly dealing with private work which is going on in a private concern and has nothing to do with the secrets of the Cabinet Committee. I think they will also find, if they read the "Daily News"—I think it is the "Daily News"—of the day after the publication in the "Westminster Gazette" that I was interviewed by reporters as to my views on that statement and as to whether it was correct or otherwise, and I refused to give any information because I had been a party to these Cabinet conferences. As I say, yesterday I only repeated what had already been published in the papers a week or more ago, and I did not think in these circumstances that I was in any way abrogating a confidence. I would like to say further that I informed the Air Ministry this morning directly this was published, as I did not expect it to be published until to-morrow. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] I think it is quite obvious that I should not have done it if I had thought that it would inconvenience the Prime Minister in his statement to-day. I informed the Secretary of State for Air this morning that I had given this information, and that I was sorry that certain portions had been put in which had already been published by the "Westminster Gazette," and which, therefore, would appear as having more authority than otherwise. I think that is an explanation which will satisfy the House.


I wish to put a question to the Prime Minister as to whether it is not the practice of the "Times" newspaper not to publish anything which has appeared formerly in another English newspaper?