HC Deb 19 July 1937 vol 326 cc1927-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

11.11 p.m.

Mr. Simmonds

I desire to refer to a matter which is of great national importance because it affects our prestige, and also, in due course, will seriously affect our export trade. This House has placed in the hands of the Air Ministry sums of moneys to subsidise the use of British manufactured air liners flown by British pilots on British air lines, but I am sure that it will come as a great surprise to many hon. Members to know that the moneys that the House has voted with that end in view are to-day being utilised by the Air Ministry to subsidise foreign manufactured air liners on British air lines.

I have raised this matter at Question Time on many occasions since February last, but when my hon. and gallant Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air told the House a week or two ago that the position to-day was exactly as it was in February, I felt that it was necessary that I should take this opportunity to place the facts before the House. Last year the Secretary of State for Air granted a subsidy to British airways for an air service from this country to Scandinavia. For a time the type of air liner that was then being used of British manufacture was found to be not entirely satisfactory, although it is fair to say to the manufacturers of that aircraft, that many other air lines in all parts of the world find that type of air liner to be eminently satisfactory.

The fact remains that British Airways appealed to the Air Ministry that they might use foreign manufactured air liners on this air line, notwithstanding a Clause in their agreement to the contrary. The plea was that there was no suitable British machine, but, as a matter of fact, there was at that time a British machine of General Aircraft Companies, Croydon, which had just made a very meritorious flight to Australia, and, unfortunately, was brought down through faulty navigation on a reef between Australia and Tasmania. This air liner, curiously enough, was turned down, for two reasons—first, because it was claimed to have too high a performance. That was a novel form of protest. Secondly, it was claimed that the air line company could not use an air liner which had not been used for at least a year by another air line company. If our subsidised air lines are going to refuse to operate British aircraft because they have not been previously operated by other companies, then it will be manifest to every hon. Member that we shall very soon be out of the business of manufacturing air liners unless we can persuade our foreign air line customers to utilise British air liners before we have the courage to operate them ourselves.

It was further maintained that the use of the "Croydon" air liner might have held up the opening of the air line for about four months. That, I understand, from a diplomatic point of view was undesirable. I cannot think that the German and Scandinavian Governments, with whom our Government had made this arrangement, would have been so insistent after we had put to them our desire to utilise British aircraft on this line. In any event the Air Ministry gave permission for the utilisation of these foreign air liners. My hon. and gallant Friend the Under-Secretary had no part or lot in this decision. That decision on the part of the Air Ministry had immediate and, as some thought, entirely expected results. The first was that the Commonwealth Government of Australia, which had always adopted a most Imperial view towards aircraft, and had forbidden the importation of any foreign air liners into Australia, immediately had to review its position in view of the clamour of foreign interests. The result was that when Sir Archdale Parkhill, the Minister of Defence in Australia, was over at the time of the Coronation, he made it abundantly clear that the reason why Australia was now flooded with American and to a lesser degree German machines was that the British Air Ministry had shot away from under them the whole condition on which Imperial preference was given to British machines in Australia.

Secondly, the foreign aircraft manufacturers seized on this gratuitous advertisement on the part of the British Government, and advertised throughout the technical Press of the world virtually hat the British Government had no faith in any type of British air liner, and that it was their type of air liner which had come to the rescue of the British aircraft industry. As a result, after a few weeks this propaganda, which was highly skilled in its direction and in the manner in which it was carried out, began to have effect, and I should not be exaggerating if I said that among the air lines of the world this country ceased to be taken seriously as a manufacturer of civil air machines. Most alarming was the fact that the Air Ministry did nothing effective to insist that the use of these foreign air liners should be only temporary. On 7th July, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Air whether he will appoint a committee representative of the British operators of air liners to formulate the specifications of the principal types of air liners which will be required during the next five years; and whether he will consider assisting financially the construction of prototype aircraft to these specifications? To that he replied: It has always been, and will continue to be, the practice of the Air Ministry to consult the principal civil aircraft operating companies in regard to experimental types of civil air liners, and it is not considered that the formation of such a committee is necessary."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th July, 1937; col. 335, Vol. 326.] The hon. and gallant Member seemed to be so satisfied with what the Air Ministry had done that I thought he could scarcely know the position and accordingly on 12th July I asked him this further question: when a specification for a medium-sized air liner was last issued by the Air Ministry after consultation with the principal civil aircraft operating companies? To which he replied: Such a specification was last issued in 1929."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th July, 1937; col. 885, Vol. 326.] In the light of the developments of the last eight years, the fact that no specification for this type of most needed machines has been issued since 1929 and the unhappy sequel is the purchase by British subsidised air lines of American and German air liners should encourage the Air Ministry to review this procedure and see whether in fact it ought not to be changed. The Air Ministry has in the last few years ordered two types of civil air liners but they are so different from any air liner that no operator wanted to operate them and in fact neither of these types ever went into production. The Under-Secretary may tell us that the De Havilland Albatross aircraft is the answer to these particular requirements, but I hope he has not been informed to that effect. The De Havilland Albatross may be a very desirable air liner for Transatlantic experimental flights, but it is an all-wood air liner, and the requirements of the air liner operators, as they have said over and over again, are for an all-metal machine. This aircraft, therefore, does not fill the bill. The need for the co-operation of the Ministry is clear, because one famous air company, the Douglas Company, spent £100,000 to develop the famous Douglas air liner. It is, therefore, obvious that no aircraft manufacturing company can contemplate that expenditure without the support of the Government. I therefore ask the Under-Secretary to tell us now whether the Air Ministry would appoint a committee or will take some other effective action so that we can have British air liners on British subsidised air lines.

11.24 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Lieut.-Colonel Muirhead)

I have followed the remarks of the hon. Member, and I think that, for the most part, his facts are correct, although some of the deductions which he wishes the House to draw are incorrect. In the brief space of time at my disposal I may perhaps review the situation as a whole. The original agreement with British Airways involved the use of the de Havilland 86A, and laid down that the company was to replace the machines in June, 1937, when we had in view the "Albatross," to which the hon. Member has referred. The de Havilland 86A proved unsatisfactory, and consequently, after reviewing the situation, the Air Ministry allowed the agreement to be modified to the extent of the Company using the Fokker machine for its night service and the D.H.86 by day. The hon. Member asked why the "Croydon" machine, to which he alluded, was not put into commission by the Company. He mentioned that one was brought down in the Timor Sea. He did not mention that, in point of fact, that was the only one that was ever built. No other of that type could have been available for nine months. That was a time lag which we could not afford to put up with. That I think is a sufficient answer to the point raised by the hon. Member with regard to that particular machine. The Fokker machine proved unsatisfactory for the night service, and therefore extended permission was given to British Airways to use the Junker and the American machine, the Lockheed.

People may wonder whether we put any limit of time during which these machines will be permitted to be used by the Company. I have said already that the original agreement contemplated the D.H. 91, the "Albatross," coming into commission about 1st June of this year. As the House knows, the "Albatross" machine has already been manufactured, but it was considered—and perhaps it is only reasonable—that the Company should have a certain use of the foreign machines for which permission has been given. It is laid down that the permission for the Junker machine extends to 31st March, 1939, and for the Lockheed machine, which does the day service, to 1st June, 1938. In the White Paper which has been laid before the House with regard to the Agreement, it is laid down that: during the initial stage of the proposed Agreement, the Company will be allowed, subject to certain conditions; to operate with their existing fleet of aircraft, but provision will be made in the Agreement for the replacement of these aircraft by British aircraft at as early a date as may be practicable, subject to suitable financial adjustments. That paragraph will supersede the dates which I have just mentioned. The hon. Member insinuated that we were pouring national money down the drain simply in order to ensure that British airways use foreign aircraft. I think that puts the position in a wrong light. He talked a great deal about our prestige but I cannot help think that under the system of competition with similar airways which exists in the world it is a substantial advantage that an important Continental route should be preserved for a British company against the time when suitable British aircraft may be in commission. If the situation had been such that there was no suitable aircraft available and that permission was not granted to the company to use foreign aircraft, there would have been no aircraft suitable for the company to operate. Therefore a civil route would have been lost to this country.

With regard to the help which the Air Ministry have given, we have produced a D.H. 91 "Albatross." The hon. Member said he hoped I had not been informed that that was a suitable machine for British Airways. I have been so informed, and I am quite satisfied with the information. Referring again to one of his questions and my answer to it, he asked what action was being taken by the Air Ministry at present. I can assure him that the answer which I gave him then was a perfectly sound answer, and does in point of fact represent Air Ministry policy. We are considering this question. Some people may say that it should have been left to purely commercial operations, without Government assistance. That is, at all events, a point of view, though I do not necessarily say that the Air Ministry agrees with it, but I can assure the hon. Member that the interest of our aircraft, in this matter as in all others, is under the constant consideration of the Ministry.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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