HC Deb 14 April 1943 vol 388 cc1344-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn.".—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Mr. Granville (Eye)

I desire to raise the question of civil aviation, with special reference to the recomposition of the board of British Overseas Airways Corporation and also the designing of prototypes for post-war air liners.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Granville

British Overseas Airways Corporation was set up before the war, under the chairmanship of Sir John Reith, on the principle that if you roll everything together, you will get something approaching a white elephant. Before this Corporation was formed we had in civil aviation in this country Imperial Airways, British Airways and a number of independent companies. Imperial Airways were responsible for the overseas sea routes, the Empire routes, which were flown mostly with Empire flying-boats. They were also responsible for the North Atlantic route. British Airways were responsible for the land-based routes in Europe, and towards the end of their time they were allotted the South Atlantic route. Then all these companies were lumped together as British Overseas Airways Corporation. I opposed the formation of that monopoly. I believe we should have a certain amount of enterprise in civil aviation, not only some competition between routes but some competition and enterprise between land-based aircraft and flying boats. What civil aviation has suffered from in recent years is the fact that they have had people pushed on to them who know nothing whatever about civil aviation. Accountants, lawyers, bankers, B.B.C. officials—all have sent their quota to be responsible for the supreme direction of one of the great transport services in the British Empire.

Now the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Air has announced a new board with a certain number of what I would call part-time business men on it. I am bound to say the reception which has been given to this announcement, as was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Duddeston (Mr. Simmonds) in a Question which he asked the right hon. Gentleman to-day, is a very disturbing one, and it has had a depressing effect not only upon civil aviation and the aircraft industry but upon the public generally, who have themselves taken a tremendous interest in the future of civil aviation after the war. None of us has anything against Mr. Simon Marks or Mr. Marchbanks or the Chairman. They are eminent men with honourable careers behind them, but this is not a chain store or a railway or an ordinary business. The work of this Corporation is to plan and organise the airways system of the British Empire, and I submit that that requires a knowledge of aircraft, of flying boats, of aerodromes, of radio and of flying, and I do not believe that some of these directors are even what is called "air-minded."

I have tried to intervene in civil aviation Debates in this House for some time because I hold strong views on the future of air transport. We are the greatest oceanic Commonwealth in history, and I believe we shall have to be an air Commonwealth after this war. I hold the view that this question must be seen with an imagination which envisages services every day to India, Australia, Canada and Africa, to reach these places in two days, using perhaps some place like Hyde Park as a central Euroepan terminus. And of course these services would have to be flown bark from overseas and Dominion airports. We have an aircraft industry to-day which the Minister of Aircraft Production has told us is now the largest industry in the country. Whatever plans for industrial demobilisation the Government may have, the switch over in this industry, will depend very largely on the plans which the Government make to design and produce planes for civil aviation. We may have to feed Europe immediately after the war by means of relief planes. We may have a situation in which shipping, for some of the lighter freights, will be superseded by air freighters. In addition to that, there will be thousands of young men, the heroes of the Royal Air Force, wanting to make a career in the skies. In my view, in civil aviation will be found the industry, the career and the transport of the future. Unless we plan the future air transport from these Islands on the basis of a great air commonwealth, I am bound to say, from my experience that we shall be relegated to the position of a second-class civil air Power.

I want to make a suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman. I had something to do with civil aviation through British Airways. I believe this thing is bigger than a company with a board of directors in this country. I believe there are men in the Empire—I wish I had more time to develop this subject—in places like Australia and Canada and South Africa who have experience and knowledge of civil flying. Unfortunately, some of them have turned a good deal to America. Why not call together a board of these men and constitute a Commonwealth Airboard now, representative of the British Commonwealth of Nations? Set up this board now, and for committee meetings let them meet in an aeroplane, and not in any circumstances in a Government Department. Government Departments and Committees have been "gremlins" of the development of civil aviation. The Committees of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Reconstruction would ground any aeroplane; they are completely depressing. Surely the right hon. Gentleman must realise that you cannot plan these great developments of the future with part-time businessmen as a board of directors here in London.

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to this question as international dynamite. I agree that if you leave this matter to unbridled competition is has all the potentialities of international dynamite, but why leave it to competition? Why not start now discussions among the United Nations on methods and ideas of co-operation? Before the war we were using American Lockheed 14's for many of our European services. It is true that America is a long way ahead of this country in the development of civil aviation. I am told that the major concerns in the U.S.A. have a prototype of post-war civil aeroplanes either on the drawing board or actually in production. I believe that one vast concern has a designing staff larger than the whole of the industry in this country.

The right hon. Gentleman must bear in mind that it takes at least four or five years to produce a prototype. We do not want to compete with America, but to try to get the fullest co-operation with the U.S.A. At the present time there is between the United Nations the most complete exchange of all technical information on military aircraft. Why not begin now, within the United Nations, to exchange information on technical development on civil aircraft design and such information as we have available on designs and ideas for fuel economy, safety devices, etc.? There is much that America could give us on safety devices and the rest of it. Why not accept the precedent we have accepted about military equipment? Instead of talking about unbridled competition after the war, why not begin to effect this cooperation with America and exchange all technical information about post-war civil aviation prototypes? If we do that, it means that this country has a part to play. I hope the right hon. Gentleman is not going to tell us that we are going to aim at the programme or plan which has been announced by him in this House and discussed, I believe, for some time by the Under-Secretary. I hope he is not going to tell us that the extent of the target that the Government have in mind or are aiming at is 400 or 500 air liners after the war on the basis of the production of 100 a year. Surely we should envisage a programme sufficiently large to enable a great part of the present aircraft industry, with its research departments, laboratories, technical staffs, to turn over after the war to the production of civil air liners.

In the same way the United Nations must aim at a civil air federation and eventually at something in the nature of a world air line. If you are to have an international police force after the war, well the Lufthansa was the father of the Luftwaffe. You will need to have inspection, there will have to be supervision, and therefore I cannot, for the life of me, see how we can possibly envisage a great world development in civil aviation without the closest co-operation not only on the basis of the British Commonwealth but between the United Nations. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give us some ray of light to-day that the Government plans have this in mind. I know that a certain number of people have been advocating that civil aviation should be handed over to another Department. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is too busy. I do not know, I am not qualified to say, whether this should be taken away from the Secretary of State for Air and put in charge of the Minister of Transport or someone else. All I beg the Government to realise is that the public of this country is determined that the progress of post-war civil aviation is going to be on a great, not a small, scale. I would appeal to the right hon. Gentleman that if he is too busy and if the Under-Secretary is too busy then some other Ministry should be used, or a Ministry should be set up to deal with this question.

In conclusion I want to make this suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman. He has set up a board. It has had a very poor response, it has struck a note of utter and complete gloom among those who have some ideals for the future about this subject. It is a temporary board, as I understand it, and I appeal in this House for a bold venture to treat this from a Commonwealth point of view. I appeal to him to call on Australia, Canada and South Africa and to set up a board here and now which will envisage this great future in air development. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to set up this board as soon as possible. I know that he has a great responsibility in his hands, but time has wings. I purposely refrain from referring more specifically to what is happening in America, but I beg the right hon. Gentleman to recognise the great responsibilities that he has and to set up this air development board, in order that we may take our rightful place in the post-war world of civil aviation.

Mr. Simmonds (Birmingham, Duddeston)

My hon. Friend made a very important reference to international control, but I thought his remark a little ambiguous. Would he be quite specific? He is not in any way suggesting an international aircraft-operating organisation, is he?

Mr. Granville

I notice that an American authority said in yesterday's papers that we may have to apportion machines and traffic, possibly on the basis of the number of people using them from each country. I do not know. I do not visualise at once one great air line. I want, first of all, that the Commonwealth should organise itself as an air unit, and set up its air lines, and then get some exchange of information and co-operation between the United Nations. You must have a basis of civil air federation if you are going to have an international police force which envisages supervision and inspection. Otherwise, the mails and passengers go out, and the bomb-racks come in. If there is to be this co-operation, then one day we must expect to see one great world air line.

Mr. Montague (Islington, West)

The hon. Member for Duddeston (Mr. Simmonds) seems to be very anxious to head off the idea of international civil aviation.

Mr. Simmonds

International air line operation.

Mr. Montague

I meant aviation in that sense. May I underline a point made by the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville), when he said that the Lufthansa was the father of the Luftwaffe? If that is true, and if we have to prevent the development of national air forces of an aggressive character, we must look upon not only military aviation but also civil aviation from the point of view of international needs and international necessities. At any rate, I do not suggest that it will be possible immediately, but sooner or later we must realise the international aspect of the air itself, the fact that there are no boundaries in the air, and that all those problems have to be solved internationally some way or other; and that must come down to the operational field just as much as to the manufacturing field.

The Secretary of State for Air (Sir Archibald Sinclair)

I cannot help regretting, and I am sure the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) will understand why I say so, that he should have made this attack upon the members of the British Overseas Airways Corporation. This Corporation is doing an invaluable job of work in the war. Its services are of the greatest war value. It is vital that it should be kept going, efficiently and strongly. The former members of the Corporation found themselves in disagreement with me on an important point of policy, and they resigned quite suddenly, all except one. I was fortunate enough to find three other gentlemen to join with the member who did not resign. They came forward willingly, stepped into the breach, and have since applied themselves to the job with assiduity. They have been constantly on the job, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if he will make inquiries from those most closely concerned, he will find that they have already won the respect of those with whom they work. It is quite true, as I told the House of Commons, that the chairman whom I have appointed is only appointed temporarily. I intend—and I feel sure I shall carry Members with me in this—to find as chairman for this extremely important post a man who will give his whole time, or at any rate almost his whole time, to the work of this Corporation. I cannot ask the distinguished gentleman who is now temporarily holding the post of chairman to do so, but I think I can carry the House of Commons with me this step further. I am sure that they will understand that it is not easy to find a man of the stamp for whom I am looking.

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

Surely the right hon. Gentleman would not have us believe that; when the permanent Chairman is appointed, it can possibly be anything but a full-time job. He says almost a full-time job, but surely it must be full time plus, if such a thing exists?

Sir A. Sinclair

In view of the difficulties with which I am faced in finding men of the right stamp, especially in wartime, I do not want to give a firm pledge to which the House would be entitled to hold me. I should like to be able to take a man of outstanding mark if he should stipulate that he must give some little time to another matter which would have no conflicting interest; but I want to find a full-time man if possible. It is not easy in war-time, because most men of the stamp that I would like to engage are engaged on important war-time duties from which it is difficult to spare them. I shall not allow the grass to grow under my feet in searching for a man, but I want to take a reasonable time before I make my decision.

The hon. Member for Eye turned on to an interesting proposal for a commonwealth aviation board. I am not quite sure exactly what he had in his mind. It is within his knowledge and the knowledge of other hon. Members that the British Overseas Airways Corporation was created by legislation by this Parliament and is financed by the taxpayers of this country. It would be anomalous to appoint to the Board representatives of Dominion Governments who would have no statutory or financial responsibility for the board. The practical approach to imperial collaboration is a joint operating company to operate certain routes. The obvious examples which will be in the minds of hon. Members are the trans-Tasman route jointly organised by the Australian, New Zealand and United Kingdom Governments; Quantas Empire Airways which operated the route from Singapore to Australia; the Indian-Trans-Continental Airways which is a joint operating company of which the Indian Government, Imperial Airways (now the British Overseas Airways Corporation) and Indian National Airways own the shares; and a very interesting company—which was stillborn on account of the war and has never actually operated—which was formed before the war to operate the Trans-Atlantic route—my hon. Friend opposite knows about it—in which the Canadian Government and the B.O.A.C. and Eire were to share. The share holdings were arranged and the articles of association drawn up and then the war came. That is the line on which to bring about practical imperial collaboration. These joint operating companies are very difficult to bring about and are operated only under conditions in which there is a very clearly defined need.

It is an interesting suggestion, however, that we should in future reconstitute the British Overseas Airways Corporation as a truly Imperial body financed and founded by the different Governments of the Empire. That is a very big question—I dealt with the larger and fundamental issues in my speech on the Air Estimatessand it would have to be considered in relation to large issues of international policy and to the problem of international co-operation after the war. My hon. Friend the Member for Eye spoke as if I had been advocating what he called ruthless competition and pleaded with me to bring a ray of hope—I think that was the metaphor he used—to those concerned with this question and to say that the Government might consider some form of international co-operation. Well, it will be within the minds of some Members that I made a speech on that subject on the Air Estimates. I hope I shall not fall into the habit of quoting my own speeches, which is a most deplorable habit, but this time, perhaps, I may be excused because what I said on that occasion had been considered by my colleagues in the Government and I made my speech formally on behalf of the Government. This is what I said on that occasion: In the view of His Majesty's Government, some form of international collaboration will be essential if the air is to be developed in the interest of mankind as a whole, trade served, international understanding fostered, and some measure of international security gained…For though air transport is a young industry and its potentialities have everywhere fired the imagination its organisation in the post-war world cannot be considered in isolation but must be so framed as to be consistent, in spirit and in truth, with the principles that should govern the international economic policy of the United Nations after the war."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, nth March, 1943; cols. 996–7, Vol. 387.] That was echoed in a speech made by the Prime Minister of Canada last week, when he said: We are determined, however, that our influence on the course of events will be in the direction of international co-operation and collaboration. The Canadian Government is in complete agreement with the United Kingdom that some form of international collaboration will be essential if the air is to be developed in the interests of mankind as a whole, trade served, international understanding fostered, and international security gained.' I think an advisory body would be worth consideration but there is no need to take immediate steps in that direction, because in the meantime the Dominion High Commissioners participate in our councils and the United Kingdom Government are in direct consultation with the Indian and Dominion Governments. Whether, later, we should establish such a council will be a question for His Majesty's Governments in the Dominions and in the United Kingdom as a whole to consider and decide upon and not for His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom alone. I would only say, in conclusion, that we are giving most careful thought and study to the larger problems of the future organisation of international civil air transport, to which my hon. Friend referred. I agreed with a great deal of what he said, with the exception, perhaps, of his suggestion of Hyde Park as the terminal for international air services after the war. The House and the Government are determined that, in whatever form we are called upon to play our part in world air transport after the war, that part will be one which will be worthy of this country and the Empire.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.