HC Deb 07 February 1956 vol 548 cc1630-42

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

10.11 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

On 2nd November I put a Question to the Under-Secretary of State for Air asking whether the whole of the sum of £292 million carried on the Air Estimates for the purchase of aircraft and stores would be spent in the current year 1955-56. The Under-Secretary of State told me that it was not possible at that stage to say by how much the amount would be underspent, but it was quite clear from what he said that the full sum would not be spent. Since that time there has been a variety of rumours about the Government's intention to cut back aircraft purchases.

It is my purpose, therefore, in this Adjournment debate, to give the Minister of Supply an opportunity to tell the House and the country the Government's policy on this score. It is obvious that during the last ten years vast sums have been expended on the purchase of aircraft. My estimate is that the sum is in excess of £1,000 million. After ten years the country wants to know—and I am sure that I want to know—what we have for our money. In terms of security, in terms of defence, I regret to say, it is not very much. This is no party question, for the responsibility for mistakes in the past rests equally on the shoulders of my right hon. Friends as on the shoulders of the present Government.

In reaching this conclusion, I have only the advantages that one can obtain from the exercise of such diligence and such brains as one has, but from inquiries which I have made, I have drawn up a list of no fewer than 157 projects which have been started in the last ten years. Of those 157 projects, no fewer than 36, covering 29 different designs, ended in crashes; that is to say, that of the 157 projects in the last ten years, no fewer than 18.6 per cent. came to untimely ends, in many cases unfortunately involving loss of life.

That is by no means all the story. Of the 157 projects, there were only 16 which went to production runs of any size and only two which went to runs of more than 3,000. My charge against both Governments, Labour and Conservative alike, is that they started to do far too much. This over-expansion applied not only in the air. We set out to have a great Navy, a great Army and a great Air Force. As I ventured to warn the House before, the outcome is that we have very much less than we ought to have.

It is true that if one studies with care the defence debates of a year ago, one sees that the country's strategy on which our defence has been based has been moving in the direction of giving the air much greater importance than it had in the past. In this changed conception, I do not believe that time is on our side. I hold the view that if we now had a V-bomber force of considerable size, the Prime Minister, when he went to Washington last week, would have been heard with much more care and attention than he received.

I have never forgotten the lesson of the brigade group in Korea, and I am proud and honoured to have been associated with my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) in those troublous days. If that brigade group had not gone in, when Earl Attlee went to Washington and talked to Mr. Truman, he would not have had the power which in fact he did have. It is almost a matter of national life and death that we should look at this expenditure on defence with increasing care, and that the principles on which we should base our expenditure and policy are those of the conservation of our forces and the rationalisation of our defence industries. At all costs we must avoid in each of the Services—because our national survival and voice in world affairs depend on it—the temptation of trying to do too much.

I hold the view that it is no national dishonour that we have not got the strength that we had in the days that are gone, and that we really ought not to be ashamed if we find ourselves in a weakened position. The only thing of which we should be ashamed is not facing up to the conditions forced upon us. I have tried to arrive at the figures of the air strengths of ourselves and other countries—as far as swept-wing fighter aircraft are concerned. My estimates are: U.S. Air Force about 6,000, U.S.S.R. 8,000, U.S. Navy 1,500, Chinese Air Force 2,000, United Kingdom 1,000, Sweden 1,000, Canada 500, France 200, Holland 100 and Belgium 100.

I think I am not saying too much in asserting that, for the vast expenditure of money—I say about £1,000 million—we ought to have done at least as well as Sweden. We have got 1,000 swept-wing fighters, and I make them to be 800 Hunters and 200 Sabres. That force is not of sufficient strength to deal with an attack, particularly if it came at night.

Turning to the question of V-bombers and heavier aircraft, the outlook is even more deplorable. I am talking about jets, of course. My figures are as follows: light bombers—U.S.A. 500, U.S.S.R. 3,000, United Kingdom 450; medium bombers—U.S.A. 2,000, U.S.S.R. 300, United Kingdom 50: heavy bombers— U.S.A. 25, U.S.S.R. 60, United Kingdom nil. That is a dismal picture indeed, and I should therefore like to hear the Minister emphasise some of his recent public utterances that he recognises that in the next ten years we cannot attempt to tackle anything like the 157 projects of the past decade. If we limited our projects between now and 1965 to about 40 we could go in for an all-weather fighter, and build up our V-bomber force. But at all costs we must realise that there is a limit to what we can do, and we should set out to do what can be done within the limits of our economic strength.

I think that one of the tragic stories here is the fact that the aircraft industry has prospered at a time when our defences have not prospered in anything like the same ratio. Here there is something wrong. There are 14 great aircraft companies, and it seems to me that we ought to recognise that it is beyond their strength for all of them to be prime contractors. If we limited the prime contractors to five, and made the other nine companies sub-contractors, we could get far more done than we have managed to get done in the past.

I had hoped that the earlier debate on the Licensing (Airports) Bill might have finished rather early, and that we should have had time for a longer discussion, so that 1 could have gone into the matter much more fully than I am able to do in the twelve or fifteen minutes now allowed me. I must not speak for many more minutes, because there are other hon. Members who wish to speak, and I certainly want to give the Minister time to reply, but I want to assure the Minister and the House that the more I dig into this question of defence, be it manpower or equipment, the more certain I am that unless we get something like a Council of State and an all-party approach, then our condition is likely to become very parlous indeed; for our defence policy has been and is beyond our economic strength.

It is clear—I make no party point here—from the economic state in which the country finds itself that we shall not be able to continue indefinitely with this enormous expenditure of between £1,300 million and £1,500 million a year. At all costs we have to get value for money. So far as my voice and my influence count for anything, I shall back the Minister wholeheartedly if he attempts with the utmost speed—if I may use a formula which I have used before—both to concentrate and rationalise our defence industry so that whilst reasonable profits may be made the country will get the defence equipment which it needs.

I agree that those who take the risk should reap the rewards of efficiency and flexibility; and the aircraft industry should certainly be given every encouragement to build up a considerable export trade in both civil and military aircraft.

10.21 p.m.

Air Commodore A. V. Harvey (Macclesfield)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) for allowing me time to say few words on this very important subject. I wish to declare my interest in the industry, as I am a director of an aircraft manufacturing company. I think that the hon. Member has put his case very fairly.

As he admitted, there is blame to be attached to both Labour and Conservative Governments. The difficulty, at any rate with this Government, has been that they have had to carry on with development orders placed in the days of the Labour Government. With the best of intentions I think that the Labour Government placed far too many development orders and gave the industry far too easy a run. In the days of the Labour Government the industry took little or no risk, even on private projects for commercial aircraft. Far too few prototypes were ordered. Perhaps two were ordered and if unfortunately one was lost through an accident, we had to string along with one aeroplane on which to carry out all the development and primary tests, which proved a handicap and brought about delays.

The hon. Gentleman talked about heavy bombers. Of course, there are no heavy bombers in this country designated as such. They are called medium bombers—I think wrongly—whereas in actual fact they are heavy bombers. The hon. Gentleman said that we had none, but I think that my right hon. Friend will correct him, because although we have not a great many, they are coming on at a steady pace and there are certainly several squadrons in being today. The real trouble is that after the war the Chiefs of Staff and the Ministers did not look ahead to the future.

The Navy still had a preponderance of support in the House and from the Treasury. Money was spent on large capital ships and cruisers which are still laid up, cocooned, at Portsmouth and elsewhere. That was a complete waste of money, and the men in command at the time bear a great responsibility, not only for spending taxpayers' money but in regard to the securing of the defence of our country. What needs to be done is to bring about more integration of the three Fighting Services. The right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) tried at that time to the best of his ability to bring that about, I have heard that from many senior officers.

With all respect to Lord Brabazon, the Brabazon Committee was a complete failure. I fail to see how any Government committee could, at the tail end of the war, foresee what airline operators would want in the way of equipment three or four years after the war. Of the Brabazon aircraft and the Princess flying boat—which might have been successful had a power unit been available— not one has gone into service. It shows that a Government committee may completely fail in its task of assessing the requirements of airlines.

Mr. F. Beswick (Uxbridge)

I think that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is being unfair to the Brabazon Committee. In point of fact, its requirements have been proven by experience to be right. The failing has been in the manufacturers not building suitable machines to the specifications laid down by the Brabazon Committee.

Air Commodore Harvey

That may be a very good argument. In the case of the Princess flying boat, the design may have been right, but there was no engine to go in it, and it is no use building an airframe without an engine. The two have to go together. The Labour Government did not appreciate that point. They did not go into sufficient detail in order to see what might be forthcoming. The Brabazon Committee was a failure. I recently heard it said that the monument to Lord Brabazon will cost more than thirty times what it cost to build the Taj Mahal.

There is far too much Treasury control in all these matters. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply, who is responsible for securing equipment to defend this country and much of the Commonwealth, should be able to know what he can spend, not in a year, but in three years. There are far too many modifications from his Department, the Air Ministry and the manufacturers, and when the three are lumped together endless delays are entailed. The Estimates should be spread over a much longer period so that my right hon. Friend can meet his requirements.

I am not satisfied that we have yet achieved the best method of ordering equipment. I no longer think that the Air Ministry is the right Department to carry out that job, because there are so many committees, including research committees, which have to be coordinated in order to bring in all the technical information. Something must be done to bring about a more flexible control in co-ordinating the requirements of the three Services. Some people are inclined to forget that aircraft are becoming more and more complicated. They now contain miles and miles of electric wiring and a great deal of electronic equipment, and no sooner is one trouble overcome than another has to be faced.

The hon. Member for Dudley was quite right in saying that we are trying to do too much. We must scale down the whole effort and tackle the job of getting our technical staff to concentrate upon a few projects so that they can be ready in time.

10.27 p.m.

The Minister of Supply (Mr. Reginald Maudling)

I, too, regret that more time is not available for this debate, because the subject raised by the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) is so important and far-reaching that it is quite impossible for me to do justice to it in the course of a short Adjournment debate.

I very much appreciate the way in which the- hon. Member put his case, and I agree with much of what he said, but I must hasten to say that I do not accept the premises from which he drew his deductions. I certainly cannot accept his figures in relation to the numbers of aircraft in the respective air forces, nor can I quote the actual figures, for obvious reasons of security—but the figures which he quoted are not accurate.

I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey) that our latest bombers should not be referred to as medium bombers. That is a misconception, because their height, speed and bomb-load over the target area is as good as anything in the world. The term "medium bomber" is a term of art. It is a pity, because these bombers are the equal of any others in the world in hitting power.

The hon. Member for Dudley was a little unfair to his own colleagues when he referred to the very large number of projects which his Government started but which did not end in mass production. I think he will find that a very large number of them were research projects, and it was never intended to build more than one or two aircraft for re- search purposes. I would not blame the Labour Administration for starting too many research projects. We must distinguish between such projects and Service equipment.

I do not agree that there has been too much Treasury control in these matters in the past, but there is much to be said for the argument that when dealing with an aircraft—a machine which is built over a period of many years—an annual system of control has considerable disadvantages. The American system of what is called "fund financing" has many advantages, but that is a subject which we can pursue upon other occasions and at greater length. I agree that considerable disadvantages arise from a system of annual budgeting with regard to a machine like an aircraft.

On the question of expenditure in the current year upon the provision of military aircraft, the hon. Member for Dudley is quite right in saying that there will be a substantial underspending, although I cannot give the exact figure. That situation arises for several reasons. First, two decisions of the Government which have already been announced in this House. One is the cancellation of the major part of the Swift programme and the other the rephasing of the Javelin programme. Both these decisions were announced many months ago, and they account for much of the underspending this year upon the Air Ministry Vote in respect of aircraft.

The effects of some of the labour disputes we have had in recent months are bound to result in a quite substantial shortfall of production of aircraft, particularly in the production of engines. Apart from that, there will also be some underspending arising for the development problems of some of our modern aircraft, which have been continuing.

Here I want to remark upon our system of Treasury accounting. The Air Ministry does not pay anything for an aircraft until it is finally delivered and complete and technical clearance has been given. So one often finds, for instance, that an aircraft is 95 per cent. complete, but that some piece still has to come from the manufacturers of the black boxes or the magic boxes to be put into the aircraft. Thus, 95 per cent. of production expenditure does not appear in the Air Ministry's spending that year; so far as that is concerned, the spending appears to be nil. So Air Ministry Estimates for a year, taken by themselves, do not give a really clear picture of the volume of production in that year.

I have been making some study of this matter, and I find that yearly production for the Services has been rising fairly steadily and substantially for the last five years. In 1955 it was substantially above that of the previous year, and the current rate of production of aircraft of military types is over twice what it was in 1950–51, and, of all aircraft, nearly two and a half times what it was then.

Exports, to which the hon. Member referred, have been going pretty well recently. In 1955 the industry exported an average of over £5 million worth a month, the major item being civil aircraft. That, I think, is really a very good record. So, production-wise, I think we have every reason to be satisfied with what has been happening.

That brings me to my next point. Amid all the welter of exaggeration that always goes on when people discuss in the Press or elsewhere the aircraft industry, amid the welter of excessive blame or excessive praise, there are certain hard facts which we ought to get clear. I suggest the facts are these. First, in production, our aircraft industry does a first-rate job. If we have an aircraft technically developed and cleared, and we say to a firm, "We want a hundred of these aeroplanes within a certain time," the firm will take a price and a date and work to them efficiently. I do not think that we have any complaint on the production side.

The difficulties always arise in the development phase, between the gleam in the designer's eye and the turning of the idea into a finished piece of hardware which can be put on the production line. That always absorbs time. My own impression, after visiting the United States, is that the development period in this country is not very different from what it is there. In the case of the big bombers, in both countries it is about a ten-year job from the start of the design studies to the formation of the first operational unit.

Mr. John Strachey (Dundee, West)

The right hon. Gentleman has said very interestingly that on both the production side in the narrow sense and on the development side we really have not done badly, that we have nothing with which to be dissatisfied. That may be true, but would he explain to us why nevertheless the actual types such as the Hunter, the Javelin and the V-bombers have come in so slowly? Some, at any rate, I think, are in great danger of being obsolete or obsolescent before they are with the squadrons. That is what we are concerned about, and what my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) is concerned about.

Mr. Maudling

I do not want to be controversial but the right hon. Gentleman tempts me to be. The date at which the V-bombers come into service is determined by the date at which they were operationally required. In the case of the Valiant, from its initial design in about 1947 to squadron service, the development period was eight years—a very good record. I think the time for the Vulcan will be nine years and the Victor will not be far behind. There is nothing about which to complain in the development period of our big bombers, which compares satisfactorily with that in the United States. If, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, they are late in coming into service, it is because they were ordered late—and the ordering was done by his Administration and not ours.

In these matters we must remember that ten years is the normal development period on both sides of the Atlantic for medium and heavy bombers. If we are not getting the aircraft we want in 1956, it is because they were not ordered in 1946. I did not want to be controversial, but the facts ought to be on the record.

Mr. Stracheyrose——

Mr. Maudling

I cannot give way. I have very little time.

Mr. Strachey

The Minister has been controversial——

Mr. Maudling

Only because I was provoked.

Mr. Strachey

Cannot the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister has not given way.

Mr. Maudling

I have given the facts up to now, and I want to follow a point made by the hon. Member for Dudley. The concentration of our resources in this development period is the essential problem, and it is the problem of applying technical facilities, engineering manpower and so on, whether it be in this country, in America or in France. On the whole, the good engineer is much of a muchness in the various countries; we may think that our engineers are better than American engineers, but there is not much to choose between them. If we put more engineers on the job, have more wind tunnels, have better weather for flying and have more prototypes, we shall do the job of development quicker, and that is exactly our problem.

Compared with the United States and with Russia, we have fewer engineers, fewer facilities and not such suitable weather—which is an important asset in the United States; and we have not the market and have not had the number of prototypes on which to work. In test facilities and manpower, we are outnumbered.

It therefore seems to me that the hon. Member for Dudley is absolutely right in saying that if we are to maintain our position we can do so only by concentrating our efforts as much as possible on the smallest number of projects. I would point out that there is a difference between concentration of the number of projects and concentration of the number of units.

It has often been said by people with knowledge of these matters that there are too many firms in the aircraft industry. I should not like to dogmatise on that; he would be a very brave man who said how many firms there should be in the aircraft industry—a very brave man indeed. Of one thing I am certain: to talk about having amalgamations or having a smaller number of firms does not make any sense when we have too many projects. If every firm already has more work than it can handle, it does not make sense to talk about amalgamating those firms.

The real problem is the relation between our technical resources and the load which we put on them. We can improve that relation only by increasing the technical resources, on the one hand, or by reducing the number of projects, on the other hand, or by doing both simultaneously. It is inevitably a slow process to increase the wind tunnel facilities, the high-altitude test chambers and the engineering manpower, and we can more quickly reduce the number of projects. I therefore agree with the hon. Member for Dudley on the general principle that we can make the best of our resources only by concentrating them, and that process has been going on steadily for some time and it ought to continue.

To turn to the bomber position, we have three bombers—the Valiant, the Vulcan and the Victor. Within a measurable time the Valiant will be fading out and we shall be producing two V-bombers. We have already tooled up for the production of both aircraft. It would not make any industrial sense to concentrate on one aircraft and scrap the complete tooling for the other.

We have here a rather interesting and piquant situation. In this case there is real competition between two firms in the aircraft industry, and the Ministry of Supply is in the happy position of being able to invite competitive quotations from the two firms and, on the basis of those competitive quotations and prior performance, to allocate orders.

In the case of the V-bombers we are getting a definite rationalisation. With one aircraft fading out in a little while— and it was always intended to be an interim type—we shall be concentrating on the two heavy bombers which must be the mainstay of our deterrent force for a number of years to come. Both have considerable possibilities of development and will continue to be formidable aircraft for many years.

That is an example of the rationalisation of production which is taking place, and I agree that that is the line along which we ought to proceed. I emphasise once again the time of testing. We have decided to introduce a policy of ordering more prototypes. The previous Administration ordered only small numbers. We have changed that and order a development batch of twenty instead of batches of three or four. It takes time to see the results of such a change of policy, and it will not be for three or four years that we shall see the results of having twenty aircraft to test instead of five or six.

In the aircraft industry, as in all things, The evil that men do lives after them. That applies to this Administration as much as to the previous Administration, and my unfortunate successors will have to cope with the evil which I am leaving after me. It will be a great advantage to the industry and the country if people realise the great length of the development cycle for these aircraft and do not by expecting too much or claiming too much, expect the impossible.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour,Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.