HC Deb 20 October 1954 vol 531 cc1338-50

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

9.50 p.m.

Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)

I feel that I ought to begin by offering my congratulations to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation on the announcement which we read with so much interest and pleasure in the newspapers this morning. Perhaps I ought to express my sorrow at forcing him to celebrate such a happy occasion here in the House tonight, but I can tell him that he could make the occasion a memorable one in Dundee and Perth by giving us a rather more forthcoming answer on the question of air services from Errol than we have had in the seven years that this matter has been before the House and his Ministry.

It is that length of time since Dundee and Perth were promised by one of the hon. Gentleman's predecessors, who belonged to this side of the House, that there would be an air service from Errol within a short space of time. But here we are, still fighting for that very necessary facility.

Dundee and Perth are the only major areas of population in Scotland that are still without what has now become the normal means of communication that such communities expect to have. I shall leave others to speak for the City of Perth, but Dundee is, next to Glasgow, the most important commercial and industrial centre in Scotland. Apart from its traditional industries of shipbuilding, jute, and publishing, it has, since the war, imported a considerable number of very important light industries.

Some of the enterprises are American firms, and these industrialists who have newly come to Dundee are air-minded. They are industrialists who expect to be able to do their business through air travel. Many of them came to Dundee on the understanding that within a short time they would have air facilities from the city, and many of them now feel rather bitter, rather betrayed, because they have not got them. On their frequent visits to London to do their necessary business they are forced to spend two nights in railway sleepers, if they can get railway sleepers, which are not always easy to book quickly. If they do not like railway sleeper travel they are forced to spend sometimes three days away and a couple of nights in a hotel, simply to do a few hours' business in London.

This air link is long overdue and should be provided. The Corporations of both Dundee and Perth have been bringing constant pressure to bear on this matter, as the Parliamentary Secretary well knows. I think it is rather disgraceful that the air link which existed for that area before the war should not now be in existence in 1954. As I understand it, the present position taken up by the Government on this question is that they have issued a policy directive to British European Airways Corporation which does not allow B.E.A.C. to provide the service from Errol Airport.

We have been informed by the Government that they would not stand in the way of a private operator providing a service if such an operator were to come forward. The Minister, on a recent occasion, suggested to the Lord Provosts of Dundee and Perth that they might make an approach, for instance, to the firm of Hunting Clan, Limited. The Lord Provosts of Dundee and Perth took the view, and it is certainly my view, that the provision of this service is the responsibility of B.E.A.C. It is primarily that Corporation's responsibility, and it should have been fulfilled by it a long time ago.

In view of the attitude the Government have taken up on this matter, the Lord Provosts did agree, rather reluctantly, to pursue the policy that was put forward of making an approach to Hunting Clan, Limited. Some contacts have taken place, and I believe that there is to be a meeting in Dundee tomorrow between the Lord Provosts and representatives of this firm, to go fully into the matter. I am told that the firm is prepared to look at the proposition, but I understand that it feels that it may not be a practical proposition for it unless it has the opportunity to extend the service a little farther than Errol. We have been given to understand, since the Government have laid down this policy directive to B.E.A. which makes them unwilling to provide the service, that in the event of a private operator coming forward B.E.A. would not put anything in the way of that private operator being given these facilities.

This matter, of course, must be dealt with in the public interest by the Air Transport Advisory Council, which occupies a quasi-judicial capacity in this field, but I ask the Minister tonight to give us an assurance that if such an application is made involving a modest extension beyond Errol, then British European Airways will not stand in the way of the provision of services which they themselves are not at the moment in a position to provide.

It ought to be made plain, however, that it is an obligation on the Minister to provide through the B.E.A. or by other means a national air service for Scotland and the other areas for which he is responsible, and it is quite untrue to suggest that Scotland has a national air service as long as such an important area as that of Dundee and Perth is not provided with air facilities. I ask the Minister to give us the assurance that he accepts this responsibility for providing air links between Dundee and Perth by one means or another. He should give an assurance that if the suggestion which is being explored at the moment does not come to fruition he will look again at the directive which he at present imposes on B.E.A. and will see whether B.E.A. could not, if necessary, provide the service.

It has always seemed to me a little silly that B.E.A. should complain, on the one hand, of aircraft flying between Aberdeen and London more than one-third empty and should complain simultaneously about being asked to bring these aircraft down at Errol Airport in order to fill some of the vacant seats. That may make sense to the accountants, but it does not make much sense to the ordinary citizen, who feels that this matter should be considered from the point of view of the provision of a public service.

If the Parliamentary Secretary is willing to bring his influence to bear on the matter in order to provide a service from Errol Airport by one means or another, then, speaking for Dundee Corporation, I can say that they will be willing to give every support and assistance in making that service a success and a permanence. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to make an effort to break the long dreary deadlock which we have had over Errol Airport and to indicate that, in one way or another, he will bring about this air service which is so long overdue.

9.58 p.m.

Colonel Alan Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)

The people of the area concerned will be most grateful to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) for raising this subject tonight. I should first like to join him in offering congratulations to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and in saying how delighted I am to hear of this happy event and to see that he has indicated that he is capable of making most important decisions. I hope he will make another decision fairly soon—one about this long-contested area of Scotland.

I remember that in 1946—and the hon. Member for Dundee, East referred to this—the Parliamentary Secretary for Civil Aviation of those days, the Lord Provost of Perth and myself met at Perth Airport to consider a service to that part of Scotland. It was decided that Errol rather than Perth should be the place. Perth was built as an airport and has all the facilities, but, on the other hand, it is not as convenient for Dundee as is Errol. It must be admitted, I am afraid, that if we want to find fog in Perthshire we shall find it in Errol, whereas the Perth Airport is comparatively free of fog; but, at the same time—

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

I believe that we have reached a stage when something must be done to cover this area. We used to go from Perth to any part of the world, not directly, of course, but linking up with all the big services of Europe and America. That service must have paid or it would not have been run.

I was hopeful that when B.E.A. and the other big Corporations were set up they would find it possible to include this important area. Although I represent Perth, I realise that Dundee, as a city, is far greater, and, in many ways more important from the business point of view, than Perth and it is monstrous that in these days it is not possible to go by air to Dundee. I know it is difficult, but I think that B.E.A. should have found some means whereby this area could be covered.

We do not, of course, ask for direct traffic all over the world, but we do ask for services which will link up with world traffic and certainly with traffic to London. To all intents and purposes, traffic passes over this aerodrome between the South and Aberdeen, and, as the hon. Member for Dundee has mentioned, there are complaints that the seats are not all filled. Surely it is possible to work out a system whereby seats can be filled at an intervening station, even if it is a matter of maintaining a station there for the purpose.

I cannot believe that it is beyond the possibility of modern organisation to do this. We feel very strongly that if this area were nearer to the centre of things we should have had this long ago. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not just say, "We sympathise and realise the problem," and all the other things that we have heard so often, but will say that something concrete is to be done. I am convinced that this could be done if the will were there, and I appeal to my hon. Friend with all the strength at my command to back up the plea of the hon. Member for Dundee, East.

10.2 p.m.

Mr. John Strachey (Dundee, West)

I should like to support my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) and the hon. and gallant Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Colonel Gomme-Duncan). It is a pleasure, perhaps not a very frequent one, to find myself in complete agreement with the hon. and gallant Member for Perth and East Perthshire, but we do, at any rate in this matter, see entirely eye to eye, and we make, as it were, an encircling movement on Errol Airport, which lies between our spheres of interest, a very strong plea to the Government seriously to consider the wider interests which are involved here.

Surely it cannot be quite decided by a mere accountancy estimate, which, after all, is a matter of doubt, whether this service will pay or not or pay immediately because, as the hon. and gallant Member has said and my hon. Friend has also said, the importance to the industrial development of Dundee and to Perth, too, which I am sure has also an industrial future as well as an industrial present, is very great. After all, there are a limited number of places in this island to which civil aviation is of very great importance. The distances are small, but the distance from Dundee, Perth and that area is big enough to make civil aviation something of very great importance from a business point of view.

Surely a way can be found by now in which this big area and this really distant area can be linked up with the general air network of the island. After all, Aberdeen is linked up. It is possible to see aircraft flying over Dundee and Perth, but they have no part or lot in this whole development. There is a very successful service of B.E.A. to Glasgow which is well-conducted and plays its part in getting the Scottish traveller to London, with enormous saving of business time. I therefore add my plea to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary.

It is an auspicious day for the hon. Gentleman. He must be in the very best of moods. I once had the pleasure of meeting him in a haystack in North Africa, on Christmas Day; that was an auspicious occasion for him, too. Today it is an even more important one for him, but we certainly look forward to a very forthcoming answer from him.

10.6 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. John Profumo)

Perhaps I may start by thanking hon. and right hon. Members for their generosity in the personal wishes that they have extended to me tonight, for which I am extremely grateful. I ask the House to believe that I am certainly not in an uncharitable frame of mind, although I have, perhaps, been kept here rather longer than I should have wished.

The right hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Strachey) reminded me of an earlier meeting. In remembering that, I remind him that he was Minister of Food at the time and that he ate half my Christmas pudding.

Mr. Strachey

May I correct the hon. Gentleman? I was a flight lieutenant at the time, in North Africa.

Mr. Profumo

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will forgive my saying that it was as a result of eating half my Christmas pudding that he became Minister of Food. I ask hon. Members also to realise that if they are suspicious in some way of my approach, my intentions are wholly honourable.

We are certainly grateful to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) and his neighbouring colleagues for having given the opportunity on this occasion to discuss in public what, I fully realise, has long been a subject of very real importance to the people of Perth and Dundee. My right hon. Friend is also most anxious that there should be the widest possible understanding of this problem and that his position in the matter should be clearly appreciated.

Let me at once express my real sympathy for the aspirations of all those for whom hon. Members have been speaking tonight and add my personal tribute to their pertinacious air-mindedness. It is true, as the hon. Member for Dundee. East said at the outset, that before the war there was an air service between London and Perth, to Scone airfield. This service did not, however, provide a daily return, and the statements which I have seen that the service was profitable are in no way supported by any facts which I have been able to discover.

I understand that Perth and Dundee were encouraged in the early post-war period to hope that an air service would be provided by B.E.A., because it figured in B.E.A.'s long-term development plans which were produced in 1946 and 1947. It was in relation to these plans that my Department selected Errol Airport, which would serve both Perth and Dundee. However, in 1948, when B.E.A., as part of a drastic retrenchment, subsequently curtailed its existing long-term plans for internal services, the hopes of the people of Dundee and Perth began to be dashed. But ever since then the local authorities concerned, supported very ably by the Scottish Advisory Council for Civil Air Transport, have been pressing for the opening of scheduled services from Errol.

As far as I can ascertain, at no time, and certainly not while I have held my office, have the local authorities been given any ground to suppose that B.E.A. would be encouraged to provide these services irrespective of cost and against its own commercial judgment. More recently, since I have been in the Department, both my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for the Colonies and I have had several meetings with representatives from Dundee and Perth and of the Scottish Advisory Council, and most recently, as the hon. Member said, in July, when representatives of the Scottish Home Department, Scottish local authorities, B.E.A. and Scottish Members of Parliament all came to the House to see my right hon. Friend.

It appears to me that the arrangement which has been most favoured, at any rate recently, is for a 20 minutes' stop at Errol on the London—Edinburgh—Aberdeen route that B.E.A. operated daily for two years until this winter, when the frequency was reduced to two services a week.

Here I must say that this problem with which we are dealing tonight is not one entirely peculiar to this particular locality. It rests broadly on the fact that although a number of areas in the United Kingdom feel that they would benefit by scheduled air services, the general aim both of British European Airways and the independent companies is obviously to refrain from operating routes which in their commercial judgment are not likely to pay their way In this they are no different from any other wisely conducted commercial organisation.

There are two ways in which the aspirations of the protagonists of these schemes can be realised. Either an independent company could run a service or else B.E.A. could run the service itself. I understand it is felt locally that the service should be operated by British European Airways and hon. Members have expressed that view tonight. On these grounds, among others, that if it should prove uneconomic then B.E.A., unlike an independent company or operator, could be restrained from withdrawing. This tends to bear out the general belief that such a service could not operate at a profit.

But I think there are more conclusive facts than this. In the summer of 1950, B.E.A. did establish a daily service at Scone Airport between Glasgow and Perth. After a few weeks the experiment was cancelled for lack of traffic. On an average, fewer than 10 passengers a week used the service, and on that occasion B.E.A.—and I think quite rightly—were not restrained from ceasing this service.

Mr. Thomson

Is it not a fact that that particular service did not connect up with London, and that the real desire and demand was for a service between Dundee and Perth and London?

Mr. Profumo

That may be so. I am trying to draw conclusions from several arguments, and this is one of the big problems we have to face here at any rate in the eyes of those who understand commercial air operations because of their experience. If I may take another example, in 1951 approval was provisionally given for Scottish Airlines to operate a service, Aberdeen—Errol—Edinburgh—Prestwick —Belfast. This service never operated and I can only presume that this was also for financial reasons. I need hardly add that my right hon. Friend has no control whatsoever over the commercial decisions of any independent airlines and, therefore, if we are to have an influence—and the plea this evening is that my Department should do what it can to help—it must be with British European Airways.

I want to take the hon. Member up on one point which he made two or three times during the course of his interesting speech. The expression he used was that a directive had been imposed on British European Airways. He said that the policy directive issued prevented it from operating a service. I want to make it absolutely clear that my right hon. Friend has issued no directive to B.E.A. on this subject. Indeed—and I must try to make this an extremely important point, because it seems to me to be the crux of the whole situation—there is no provision in any Act of Parliament for the issue of a specific directive whereby the Corporation could be instructed to undertake this or any other services.

Furthermore, my right hon. Friend could not on the one hand urge B.E.A. as he, like his predecessor, is doing, to take all possible steps to reduce its losses and, on the other hand, press it to add to its existing network yet another route which it regarded as unremunerative. It is true that by virtue of its monopoly, British European Airways has a public duty to perform, but it is equally true—and it is equally important to bear in mind—that my right hon. Friend has a duty to the taxpayers and this duty is to do all in his power to see that the substantial annual deficit of the Corporation for which the general public pay, is reduced and eliminated as soon as may be.

Hon. Members will therefore appreciate that my right hon. Friend must to a considerable extent leave this problem to the commercial judgment of B.E.A. As I have already mentioned, he has given the matter the closest and most sympathetic consideration, but B.E.A. does not believe that enough new all-the-year round traffic could be created at Errol to compensate for the additional costs of inserting a stop there on their Aberdeen-Edinburgh-London routes. There are many costs to be met—station costs, flying costs, landing fees and so on. A stop on the Edinburgh-Aberdeen sector would also be a further discouragement to through traffic to Aberdeen and beyond.

British European Airways has also considered making Errol a stop on the Glasgow-Edinburgh route, but regards such a service as unsatisfactory. It calculates that at the lowest estimate the additional net loss to the Corporation resulting from an air service to Errol would be £5,500 a year. It feels unable to accept another Scottish service which would lead to an increase in its deficit. Now let me come to the question of a service being operated by an independent operator—

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

Before my hon. Friend leaves that side of the question, is the principle of swings and roundabouts not possible in B.E.A.? Surely there are lines that pay which could be made to support the lines which do not pay and at which a big Corporation of a national size ought to be looking?

Mr. Profumo

What my hon. and gallant Friend says is true, but the trouble is that the roundabouts will not balance the swings, the swings are largely in Scotland, and the northern routes are responsible for a large part of the present deficit of about £1 million a year in the accounts of B.E.A. I appreciate that B.E.A. has a public responsibility, but while it is losing £1 milion a year we cannot expect a man like Lord Douglas, who is responsible for this great Corporation, to add another unremunerative route while the swings do not balance the roundabouts.

There remains the question of the independent operators. Here the hon. Member for Dundee, East asked that there should be no objection in the way of any independent operator who would like to run this service. I can assure him that B.E.A. has no objection to an independent company operating a route to Errol, provided of course that it does not materially divert traffic from the existing network of the Corporation. This is naturally one of the criteria which are observed by the Air Transport Advisory Council in considering applications of this nature. At the same time I can say categorically that my right hon. Friend would be very willing to consider any recommendations from the Air Transport Advisory Council that an independent company should operate a service to Errol.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the question of approaching an independent company. He may recollect that at the meeting to which he came in July my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for the Colonies suggested that my Department—and indeed representatives from Dundee and Perth—might approach an independent operator to see if we could get them interested. I should like hon. Members to know that, in accordance with this undertaking, I myself approached an independent company and provided them with a memorandum in the hope of interesting them in including Errol in their existing planned network. I am afraid that they were not able to accept on the spot, though the possibility of later development was not ruled out entirely.

I can only assure hon. Gentlemen who tare interested that I am delighted to hear that representatives of the two cities are considering meeting members of this independent company, and I hope very much that they may be able to reach a satisfactory conclusion. If there is anything we can do to help in these discussions, I shall be only too glad to try to do so. Of course we cannot go against the existing terms of reference of the Air Transport Advisory Council without coming to this House for new instructions but, within that framework, I be-live that if we can help, we should certainly do so.

I hope that I have said enough to convince hon. Members that this matter is one which has been considered from its very origin by my Department and successive Ministers with the sympathy and care which it has justified. We must all look forward to the time when these two great Scottish cities will enjoy aerial communications with other great industrial centres of our island and, of course, with the Metropolis itself. I believe that this can be most speedily and securely brought about by ensuring that this still new medium of public transport pays its way at the earliest possible period of its expansion, because it is only by paying its way, by eliminating its deficit in the case of B.E.A., that we can hope to include a very large number of centres which would like to have air transport. If it is all maintained by subsidy, I genuinely believe that that will hinder considerably the development of air transportation lines which hon. Members want so much.

I hope that our minds in the Department are always open to any suggestions. We sympathetically understand this particular case. If there is anything which is within our power to help, we will certainly give that help, but I have wanted this opportunity this evening to explain that in this matter my right hon. Friend must be either in the hands of British European Airways—and I think that it will be agreed that they must maintain their commercial judgment—or in the hands of independent companies over which we have no control whatsoever. If the people who support this project in Dundee can persuade any commercial operator that there is a future in it, I do not believe operators would be slow in taking advantage of the opportunities offered there. I thank the hon. Member for Dundee, East and his colleagues for raising this matter. I hope that I have done something to assure him that the matter is constantly studied and that we must have hope for the future.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

In the event of an independent private operating firm coming in, could the Minister and his Department assist in the reconstitution of Errol Airport, which is very largely in ruins?

Mr. Profumo

I am very glad to answer that, but first I should not like hon. Members to think that we can assist with negotiations with an air company. The Minister cannot come in until a recommendation is put to him by the Air Transport Council. As to the condition of Errol Airport, I think that I can give an undertaking that if any company wants to run a service through Errol we will provide the minimum facilities that are needed and we would expect the local authorities also to pull their weight. It would not be by our withholding the minimum necessary facilities that an air service would be held up.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes past Ten o'Clock.