HC Deb 09 February 1956 vol 548 cc1934-44

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

9.58 p.m.

Air Commodore A. V. Harvey (Macclesfield)

The subject which I am privileged to raise tonight deals with the interchange of technical information in the aircraft industry, a subject in which I have some personal interest.

At present, with growing disquiet about what is going on in the industry, it is difficult to put one's finger on all the troubles. Perhaps some of them may be due to the lack of an exchange of ideas between firms and countries. I think that the firms are to blame to a certain extent, but under successive Governments there have been far too many projects. During the years after the war the party opposite, when they were in power, spent many millions of the taxpayers' money in developing new projects which were thrust on to the industry and willingly accepted.

In the four years in which they have been in power, the present Government have had to carry on with some of those projects and gradually tail them off but I am not satisfied that full use is being made of the technical information which is available to all companies manufacturing airframes. Many research and development units have been brought into being since the beginning of the war, but I do not think that all the information percolates down to the smaller firms. I can give one instance, namely, the project of the Bristol Brabazon——

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. Barber.]

Air Commodore Harvey

The taxpayers have spent £11 million or £12 million upon that project, which we all now know was scrapped after the flight of the first prototype. It is very difficult to know what benefit was derived from that project. The Britannia may be an example of what the Bristol Company gained in technical and operational experience, but I very much doubt whether any other company—except some equipment companies—has gained any experience at all. When taxpayers' money is spent upon such a scale, any information which is derived from such a project should be available to every company operating in Britain.

The Government have done an exceedingly fine job in passing on information themselves. Farnborough has rendered great service to the country and the aircraft industry. Nobody would belittle its efforts, especially in relation to the research which went on into the causes of the Comet accident. I wonder, however, if we are getting as much as we should get from Farnborough. It is run under the direction of the Ministry of Supply, and has a director in charge. There are frequent changes in the directorship and I think it might be better if Farnborough were constituted under a public board, drawn from university professors, men in industry and Government officials. Farnborough's outlook might then be broadened and, at the same time, there would be an element of continuity, without constant changes of directorship such as we had recently when Sir Arnold Hall and Sir William Farren went into industry. That is the point. The best technical men in Government service are leaving to go into outside industry where they can get better remuneration. I hope that the Minister will consider that my suggestion is a practical proposition. It cannot be done overnight, but it is an idea.

The Aeronautical Research Council is a very fine body, but could not its activities be extended upon a Commonwealth basis? We could have a wider board of control, consisting of university professors and Government officials, and I do not see why people from industry who have spent their lives in this business should not also be brought in, to widen the scope of the Council.

If this country is to survive we must not only develop new equipment in the form of aircraft, but we must spend our money, and spend it wisely, on research. We pride ourselves that we are doing very well with our wind tunnels, but we are a long way behind in the matter of supersonic wind tunnels. One is now being completed at Bedford. The Government have invested money to a total of £1½million and industry is also contributing, but not all the leading firms are in it. I deplore the fact that two or three firms, at any rate, have not invested money in this research development. They really ought to give some help and not wait for the Government to serve everything up upon a plate.

At Murac, in America, there is a runway 7 miles long which is used for testing supersonic aircraft. I heard recently that there is also a track which is 14 miles long, in the desert, where scaled-down models achieve speeds of about 1,400 miles an hour. In considering whether we are keeping pace with the Americans we must take into account all this research work which is going on there. Unless we are careful we shall lose this air race. We have to spend all the money we can afford, but spend it very wisely. It is all very well to carry out research in a wind tunnel, but if we had a track such as I have mentioned, with models attached to a metal rail travelling at air speeds of 1,400 miles an hour on instrumentation, the information we should derive would be tremendous.

I have a great respect for the Ministry of Supply and for the technical people in it, but somehow I feel that there is an iron curtain in that Ministry. We spend money on research and development, but the ideas are not allowed to proceed and develop completely. It needs a terrific spurt, but I feel that there is an iron curtain somewhere in the Ministry that is preventing this. Many of the civil servants are not making up their minds, either because they are afraid or because they do not want to.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply to the debate, because neither he nor his right hon. Friend the Minister can see everything that is going on. Decisions are made late and sometimes they are not made at all. I often think that it would not be a bad thing in the Ministry of Supply to have a Minister of State doing nothing else but looking after this very great industry, perhaps coupled with electronics, and concentrating on the development and construction of ideas. Perhaps that may be considered on a broader issue.

We are told, and in fact we know, that the Society of British Aircraft Constructors does a great deal. The Farnborough display has certainly put Britain on the map of world aviation, both military and civil. The S.B.A.C. has done a splendid job, but there is far too much back-biting in the industry. I am in it myself—and it is not a popular thing to say for one who is already in the business—but there is far too much back-biting and not enough co-operation among the manufacturers themselves. They are building almost identical types, on which they might well have an interchange of information in an effort to solve one another's problems, but they are barely on speaking terms. I will not go into personalities, because they are too well-known, but something must be done about it. There is far too much at stake for us to lose this great battle.

The United States is out to kill us. The Americans see the prospects, and so do we, but we have far less resources than they. We have this great technical background of our workers and technicians, and that is where we win. In jet engines today, we have the men with the brains, whereas the Americans have not got them, and so they are buying power units from Britain. The secret is—and it is really no secret at all—that the boys leaving school with Higher Certificate are probably three years ahead of their American counterparts.

I want to say, in conclusion, on the subject of the United States, that a great deal that goes out of this country goes to America. We sold America the original jet engine, and we gave the Russians the Rolls-Royce Nene practically for nothing. Nevertheless, while we have sold the Americans licences to build British power units in America, by firms such as Packard and Curtis Wright, nobody in America knows these things. The Americans are building engines designed by Rolls - Royce, Armstrong - Siddeley or Bristol. They are getting a very great deal from us while we are getting very little in the way of power units. We have also been helping them with radar and many other things, but how much have we got in return?

After the war, my own company was building the Hermes and wanted information on pressurisation. Could we get help from America? We got practically nothing at all. It is a one-way traffic. I hope that the Government will take up this question with our friends in the United States. If we are Allies and working together in everything else, why can- not we pool our ideas on aviation in a common cause?

I am not unduly worried about our prospects. We have not lost the air race, though we have lost ground. The Government must spend the taxpayers' money more wisely than they have done. We must concentrate more effort on each project in future, and we must have more successes than failures. We have very limited resources, and the greatest shortage today is of stressmen and draughtsmen. We ought to make every effort to build an export trade which will take the place of some of those which are becoming, more or less, redundant, such as textiles, and so on. There is a tremendous prospect for Britain if we make use of the opportunity. I, therefore, ask my hon. Friend if he and the Minister of Supply will impress upon the industry what is expected of it. I hope, too, that the Minister will give a lead in making decisions quickly, and that he will see that we get a fair deal from America on the information which we pass on to them.

10.10 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. F. J. Erroll)

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey), in an extremely precise and brief speech, has raised a number of matters which would take me a great deal longer to answer than it has taken him to mention them. However, in these few minutes I shall do my best to provide him and the House with a general review of the methods whereby technical information is exchanged between the firms in our aircraft industry and the Ministry of Supply, and I will try to deal with some of his other points as well.

There are few industries in which technical progress has been more rapid during the post-war years than the aircraft industry. There has been a vast increase in basic knowledge of aerodynamic problems, especially in relation to aircraft flying at or above the speed of sound, and there has been a comparable increase in techniques. I refer here to the whole range of facilities for carrying out so many of the essential tests before an aircraft actually flies, and to the basic engineering skills demanded by aircraft construction. In these circumstances, I can well understand why my hon. and gallant Friend has wished to raise this matter on the Adjournment and why he believes, as I do, that it is so important that the firms in the aircraft industry shall do everything possible to improve and extend the interchange of technical information.

He referred to back-biting in the industry. I can only say that though that may be his experience it is certainly not mine. I have no knowledge of what he is referring to, and, therefore, he will not expect me to comment upon it. He also hoped that my right hon. Friend the Minister would make decisions quickly. I can assure him that the Minister is particularly anxious not only to make decisions quickly but to make the right decisions. One often has to take time in reviewing the different aspects of a problem before making a decision if one is to be sure that the right decision is made.

I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that the Minister is particularly aware of the importance of the interchange of technical information and regards it as one of the most important functions of his Department. My hon. and gallant Friend has referred to the limited resources we have available. That is very true. In particular, we are short of those highly skilled men such as designers, engineers and draughtsmen who are so essential to the industry. At first sight it would seem, therefore, an ideal solution that there should be a complete interchange of information amongst firms and Ministry of Supply establishments. I think that, however, really oversimplifies the situation, as I shall try to explain.

We must remember that in designing aircraft there is first the basic research stage and then the development stage. There is certainly a full and free exchange of information at the research stage on all projects sponsored by the Ministry of Supply. At this stage the Royal Aircraft Establishment of the Ministry of Supply is of prime importance as a centre for gathering together and disseminating basic ideas. Here, I may say how much I appreciate—as indeed will the staff at that establishment—the generous remarks which my hon. and gallant Friend has made about it and his appreciation of the work it is doing.

Mr. Farey-Jones (Watford)

Is the information gathered by the Royal Aircraft Establishment automatically available to any firm in the aviation industry if it is spending Government money?

Mr. Erroll

Perhaps my hon. Friend would hear my further remarks, which I think provide the answer. If he is not satisfied, perhaps there will be time at the end of the debate for him to raise the matter by way of additional questions.

One might almost call the R.A.E. a universal adviser. It performs an invaluable role by communicating a great deal of information to industry. I am sorry that my hon. and gallant Friend referred to an iron curtain in the Ministry of Supply, for I can assure him that the iron curtain is a curtain of his own imagining. As far as I am aware, there is no reluctance or reticence on the part of the officials of the Department, and if he has cause for grievance in that respect—and I know how intimately he is concerned with the aircraft industry—I very much hope that he will give me the benefit of looking into particular cases, either from the firm with which he is himself connected or from what he may hear from his friends in that great industry.

The R.A.E. is always ready and anxious to assist firms with whatever problems they may bring along, and the officials frankly admit at the R.A.E. that they receive new ideas frequently from firms, which, when they are matters of basic research information, the R.A.E. is in a position to pass on to other firms requiring similar basic information.

In addition, there are a number of committees sponsored or chaired by the Ministry of Supply, and on those committees representatives of all firms can sit. My advisers assure me that there is a great willingness in these committees to share the results of basic research amongst officials of the Ministry of Supply and the firms' representatives. These committees include the Gas Turbine Collaboration Committee, the Rotary Wing Aircraft Committee, the Swept Wing Advisory Committee, the Boundary Layer Control Committee and the Flutter and Vibration Committee. There is, of course, sitting permanently at headquarters a General Flap Committee which tries to deal with the many problems which my hon. and gallant Friend so frequently raises!

When we consider the development stage, as distinct from the initial design stage, the picture is somewhat changed. Having competed at the design stage, individual firms are awarded development contracts. Inevitably the exchange of information is less free and complete at this stage than at the stage of basic research. Furthermore, the kind of information being accumulated is different. It is no longer fundamental theory but relates to mechanical or engineering skills which must be exploited if a project is to progress from the drawing board to the shop floor.

Here I should say frankly that in a healthy, competitive—and I stress the word "competitive"—industry there cannot be 100 per cent. collaboration at this point. We have to strike a balance between the advantages of private endeavour by progressive and independently minded firms and the advantages of pooling knowledge. Obviously both are essential to aeronautical progress, and it is one of the Ministry's tasks to find a balance.

I have had the opportunity of visiting many aircraft firms during recent months as well as visiting Ministry of Supply establishments, such as the R.A.E. and the National Gas Turbine Establishment, and I feel sure that this problem is being tackled successfully—but it is a real problem. In this problem the Ministry of Supply is playing its full part throughout. There is a great deal of co-operation between firms, and I would remind my hon. and gallant Friend that this depends very largely upon the attitude and policies of the individual firms, many of whom set a fine example. In particular, I should point out that co-operation between firms' representatives and Ministry of Supply officials is excellent at the working level. I do not believe that this iron curtain exists. If it appears to exist, I shall be glad to look into the matter.

Air Commodore Harvey

I hope that my hon. Friend did not misunderstand what I tried to say. The situation is all right at working level; it is in the development of ideas that there is an iron curtain.

Mr. Erroll

I will naturally look carefully at what my hon. and gallant Friend has said and see what I can find to substantiate it. As I have said already we have many committees to examine special problems on which the firms sit, and this arrangement ensures a valuable and generous interchange of knowledge.

My hon. and gallant Friend particularly referred to the suggestion which appeared in a recent issue of the Aeroplane, that Farnborough should be run by a board of management with outside representation. I should say straight away that the Director of R.A.E. has in fact a board of management for the administration of the establishment. The Controller of Aircraft and the Controller of Guided Weapons and Electronics at the Ministry, and our Chief Scientist are responsible for the establishment's programme of work. The Director has a number of Departmental heads who are responsible for particular parts of this programme and each of these officers is in close touch with the leading scientists and others in industry and also with the universities and the Ministry of Supply headquarters.

It must be remembered too that a great deal of the work of R.A.E. is not basic research but to assist firms in the practical development of particular aircraft and equipment. The proposal for a managing board with outside representation has not been made before, so far as I know. In the short time that I have had to investigate the matter, and bearing in mind the kind of work which the establishment does, I am not at all sure that it would help the establishment in its activities, for the very good reason that there is already full consultation at the working level with the staffs in the industry and individual firms about the research programme of each branch of R.A.E.

My hon. and gallant Friend has referred to the S.B.A.C. and the good work which it has been doing, which I fully and gladly endorse. I think that I should mention that it assured the Minister in 1949 that its members would agree to give advice and assistance to any firm which was in difficulties on a Ministry of Supply contract. Both the Society and the Ministry have thought it better to rely on an informal understanding rather than to try to make it a contractual obligation. Any such obligation would in any case be difficult to draw up and to enforce. The Ministry has not had any occasion to go back to the Society to complain that this gentleman's agreement has not been honoured. The Society for its part has told us quite recently that it believes that the collaboration between firms is satisfactory and in many cases well ahead of what goes on in other industries.

The Department is closely concerned in the work of the Aeronautical Research Council. This Council includes representatives of academic institutions and officials. Although the Council itself does not include industrial representatives, it works mainly through a number of committees or sub-committees on particular aspects of aeronautical science, and industrial representatives serve on these committees. The terms of reference of the Aeronautical Research Council are wide, and I do not feel that increasing the size of the Council would be of any particular value, even if we were, as my hon. and gallant Friend suggested, to include representatives from the Commonwealth.

The Aeronautical Research Council meets monthly and it would be a great imposition on Commonwealth members to have to fly from Australia, Canada, or South Africa to attend those monthly meetings, particularly when there is another body which is effective for that purpose, the Commonwealth Advisory Aeronautical Research Council. That Council does not meet so frequently, but it does have a central secretariat in London. It is possible for that secretariat to keep in touch with the Aeronautical Research Council. The secretariat consists of permanent officials who go to their offices every day, and are therefore able to maintain constant touch with the British aircraft industry and with the Aeronautical Research Council.

In the few minutes that remain I should like to deal briefly with additional points raised by my hon. and gallant Friend, particularly the cost of the Brabazon and the use to which the information gained by the Bristol Aeroplane Company was subsequently put. One must admit frankly that the firm that does the work benefits first and foremost whether the aircraft which has been designed is the Brabazon, the Victor or any other project. However, the knowledge gained from the Brabazon, on subjects like the design of large structures and the use of power-operated controls, has gone into the common pool and certainly not remained the preserve of Bristol's alone.

We could have devoted a whole Adjournment debate solely to the question of wind tunnels. In recent years we have not had all the test facilities we should have liked to have. They are most expensive and there is a limit to what we can afford. The Ministry of Supply, however, has carried out a big wind tunnel programme, especially for tunnels for research and development work on high-speed flight. Our new wind tunnel near Bedford will be coming into operation shortly. Industry can use those facilities and I hope very much that it will do so.

I should also mention—as my hon. and gallant Friend pointed out—that the aircraft industry itself is spending, through the S.B.A.C. and a special research association—some millions of pounds on wind tunnels. Like my hon. and gallant Friend, I am sorry that some firms have refused to co-operate, but those which are cooperating are setting a fine example which I hope others will follow.

Air Commodore Harvey

Will my hon. Friend refer to the United States proposal?

Mr. Erroll

Yes, I intend to refer to the United States proposals. My hon. and gallant Friend mentioned a 7-mile-long runway and a 14-mile-long track. I wish that England were big enough to accommodate such runways without trouble, but he knows the difficulties. As to the exchange of information between ourselves and the United States, I believe this country receives a great deal of information from the United States. It is by no means a one-way traffic such as my hon. and gallant Friend suggested. We in the Department feel that the arrangements are operating satisfactorily. The exchange of information with the United States is by agreement and the Ministry of Defence reviews these arrangements from time to time.

In such a short time I have not been able to go into all the details of an inevitably complicated matter, but I feel that, having regard to the conviction of the Government that we should encourage and retain a competitive private aircraft industry, we have succeeded in securing a degree of co-operation which yields the advantages of freely pooled basic knowledge and is yet compatible with a measure of competition in the search for new ideas and skills.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.