HC Deb 25 February 1926 vol 192 cc770-2

There is another question, and a difficult one, connected with the proposal for slowing down the programme. That is the problem of the aircraft industry. Obviously, the aircraft idustry is essential to the expansion of the Force in any time of emergency. It is no good denying the fact that the aircraft industry has many difficult problems to face. It is in a peculiarly difficult position through the fact that, unlike any other great industry in this or any other country, it is almost entirely dependent on the orders of a single Government Department. In the case of other great industries, there are private customers who give orders, and the industry is not entirely dependent on one Government Department. This means that in the case of the aircraft industry a change in Government policy reacts with particular force upon the industry because it has no other customer. I do not under-rate the fact that the slowing down of the programme means fewer orders for the aircraft industry. At the same time, I ask the House not to be carried away by the alarmist statements that have been made in certain quarters to the effect that this slowing down will mean ruin and disaster to the industry as a whole.

The House may be interested to note that, even with this slowing down, the orders that the industry will receive and the payments that will be made to it during the 12 months 1926–27 will represent the third largest amount paid to it since the War. I admit there will be a reduction upon the figures of last year, but the total will be the third largest which the industry has received since the war, and, comparing the figures for 1926–27 with the figures for the period when I previously held this office, it will be found that the amount to be paid out to the industry will be no less than £3,500,000 more than it was in 1922. That shows that whilst there is no denying the fact that the industry will be the weaker for this slowing down of the expansion programme, there is not, in my view, any cause for extreme alarm or for anticipation of impending disaster. Naturally, I shall make it my business, by spreading the orders as far as possible, to keep together as many key men as I can in the various firms. Naturally, also, I shall adopt every legitimate expedient to make it as easy as possible for the staffs of the firms to remain with them.

There is another way in which I think I shall be able to help the industry to some extent in tiding over this difficult period. It has been urged, time after time, upon me as upon my predecessors, that one of the difficulties under which the industry has laboured has been that owing to restrictions—which were necessary, no doubt, in the period immediately after the War—it has been impossible for British aircraft firms and engine firms to sell anything but obsolescent types in foreign markets. I have been considering the position with my advisers, and have come to the conclusion that it is now safe and legitimate to withdraw many of those restrictions and, by this means, to enable British firms to sell their newer types in foreign markets a great deal sooner than they would be able to do without the withdrawal of the restrictions. I hope, as a result, it will be possible for the British firms to be less exclusively dependent on a single Government Department here and that it will help them to build up for themselves markets abroad for British machines and British engines—than which there are no better anywhere in the world. I have put these facts before the House, as I wish to make it clear at the outset of my speech that the Government did not ignore the diffi- cult position of the industry when they decided on the temporary slowing down of the expansion programme.

If I may sum up this part of my observations, I would say that the position is as follows: The Government have decided that the expansion programme should remain intact. Their decision means nothing more nor less than that the programme will be eventually carried out, but that, as a result of the signing of the Locarno Treaty, it is possible to take a longer period for carrying it out than would have been the case if no Treaty had been signed. I contend that that is a justifiable position, and I cannot but believe that it is a position that will have the support of the great majority of the Members of the House.