HC Deb 25 March 1964 vol 692 cc447-9
17. Mr. A. Lewis

asked the Minister of Aviation on what date he received a communication from the Confederation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions concerning the aircraft industry; what was the nature of this communication; what was his reply; and whether he will make a statement.

Mr. Amery

I am circulating copies of the correspondence in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mr. Lewis

Is it not the case that this important body has rightly asked for the resignation of the Minister? As this is a wonderful suggestion, will the Minister undertake to act upon it?

Mr. Amery

No, Sir. I assure the hon. Member that I have rejected that suggestion from the body of men he has in mind. The grounds on which they argued that I might adopt it were entirely mistaken.

Following are the letters:


Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions.

13th March, 1964.

Dear Minister,

Representatives of my Executive Council met you on 5th February and discussed with you the present situation of the Aircraft Industry and its future prospects. Generally, you felt we were taking an unduly gloomy view of the industry and you instanced developments which had and were taking place which led you to a more optimistic view as regards the competitive position of the industry and of its future.

More particularly we referred to the existing uncertainty at that time about military planes and our fears that foreign types might be substituted for British planes which had been developed but not in production waiting on top level decisions.

Since our meeting on 5th February it was made public that the Government have ordered 50 Phantom fighter planes from the U.S.A. to replace the British P.1154, and 200 helicopters of American design to be built in Italy.

At the meeting on 5th February in so far as the P.1154 was concerned you told us that a final decision had yet to be taken but that holding contracts were in existence to ensure that progress was not held up; and that so far as the unit light helicopter was concerned, this requirement, which was urgent because of heavy military commitments, had not been foreseen in sufficient time to allow a British type to be designed to meet it. But in any case the requirement involved relatively little expenditure and work and efforts would be made that any solution adopted would provide employment in the United Kingdom.

We accepted your assurances in good faith and reported on this basis to our full Executive Council and by circular to our affiliated unions and District Committees. Now we have found our original fears realised, and what is more we feel that the decisions for placing orders for the Phantoms and the helicopters must have been known by you at the time you met us.

When the position was reviewed by my Executive Council at their meeting in York on 12th March grave concern was expressed at the policies of the Ministry of Aviation during the last ten years which has now brought us to a position of becoming dependent upon the United States of America for the design of aircraft. My Executive Council further consider that our representatives at the meeting on 5th February were misled by your assurances and that in the circumstances you should resign.


General Sec.

24th March, 1964

You wrote to me on 13th March about my meeting with representatives of the Confederation on 5th February. I am at a loss to understand how your Committee can suggest that they were misled, and can find nothing in your letter to justify such an allegation.

You refer in particular to the Minister of Defence's recent statement that we would adopt the Phantom fighter if its proved to be compatible with our aircraft carriers and available on financially acceptable terms. I cannot accept the suggestion that I should have been able to warn the Committee about this decision before it had been taken. When I spoke to your Committee no decision had been taken and as you will see from what the Minister of Defence said, the decision is even now a conditional one.

It is incorrect to say that the Phantom will replace the British P.1154. Development of the latter as the Hunter replacement is going ahead, and this will bring important design and production work to the industry. What has happened is that we have not seen our way to meeting the Navy's requirement for a Sea Vixen replacement with a variant of the P.1154. It would be extremely costly to develop a separate Sea Vixen replacement for such a limited requirement with no apparent export prospects. On the other hand, the Phantom was already in production, and could be fitted with Rolls Royce engines, thus making a considerable contribution to employment in this country. As you know, the engine content of our aircraft represents around 1/3 of its total value.

It is also incorrect to say that we have ordered 200 helicopters of American design to be built in Italy. The facts are, as I announced in Parliament on 18th March, that the first 50 light helicopters are to be imported from Italy, and that the balance will be built in this country. Here again we have thus been successful in our aim as stated at the meeting on 5th February to ensure that the solution adopted should, at any rate on the production side, provide employment in the United Kingdom. You will also be aware that Italy represents an important export market for the British aviation industry.

The view I expressed, which was incorporated in the agreed press notice after the meeting, that "there were good grounds for optimism about the future level of employment" in the British aircraft industry remains valid, particularly in view of the decisions to go ahead with the HS681 and P.1154 projects.

In all the circumstances I trust that your Committee will now recognise that a great deal has been done by the Government to improve the prospects of the industry and that although there are problems affecting particular factories the general outlook is good.

I have always been ready to see your Committee and I must therefore express my surprise that, when doubts arose in their minds as to the significance of the recent decisions, they chose to make the kind of public statements they have, rather than suspend judgment until they had talked the matter over with me again.