HC Deb 15 February 1965 vol 706 cc844-8

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

49. Sir J. EDEN: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he signed the contract for the C130E; with which engines it will be equipped; what is the fixed price for each aircraft; and if he will make a statement.

57. Mr. NORWOOD: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence on what date contracts were placed for the purchase of the C130 and F4 aircraft for supply to the Royal Air Force; and what is the nature of these arrangements.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

I will, with permission, answer Questions Nos. 49 and 57 together.

No orders or formal contracts have yet been placed for the supply of C130 and F4 aircraft for the Royal Air Force. As I said in a Written Answer on 11th February, arrangements have been made with the Government of the United States which will enable us to make a small initial order of both types of aircraft with options to buy more when the Government have decided the number of aircraft required in the light of the present defence review.

This arrangement became effective on the afternoon of 9th February, 1965, after signature by the United States Secretary for Defence—following my own signature on 8th February.

Detailed discussions are now in hand with the United States Government about the initial aircraft orders. They will cover such matters as the procurement of British equipment, including the Spey engine for the F4 and the possible installation of the Tyne engine in the C130. The final cost of these aircraft will depend on the arrangements made for the incorporation of British equipment.

Sir J. Eden

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether this was the information that he apparently would have given to the House last Tuesday? If no firm order has, in fact, yet been placed for the C130E, can he say now that he will return to the British industry and give it an opportunity to offer a reduced requirement, which is what this amounts to?

If we are firmly and contractually committed to the full supply of 60 C130E aircraft for the Royal Air Force, will the right hon. Gentleman say how this differs from the answer given by his right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation in col. 69 of Written Answers, to the effect that these matters are still under negotiation?

Mr. Healey

In the first place, as I have just said, no contracts have been signed and no orders have been placed. We have agreed in principle to acquire certain aircraft under certain conditions, in numbers yet to be decided, and this agreement is embodied in what I believe the lawyers call an arrangement, signed by myself and by the American Secretary of Defence.

The analogy, I believe, would be the analogy of the exchange of letters between the right hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Thorneycroft) and the American Secretary of Defence 11 days before he told the House of his intention to purchase Phantom aircraft for the Royal Navy.

Mr. Thorneycroft

Are we or are we not obligated to buy this type of aircraft? This was the question, the right hon. Gentleman will recall, which I put to him in specific terms at the outset of that debate, which was never answered. Is this the answer that he would have given in the last 30 seconds of that debate? If it is, will he circulate, for the benefit of the House, the typescript from which he was speaking at the Dispatch Box?

Mr. Healey

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. I was prevented from making a statement in these terms by what I think it is wise to call the postprandial euphoria of right hon. Gentlemen opposite last Tuesday. There were a large number of bogus points of order, and the Opposition Chief Whip moved the Closure Motion two minutes before he need have done. There is no need, therefore, for me to vary the statement which I have now given to the House.

Mr. Lubbock

Would the right hon. Gentleman circulate in the OFFICIAL REPORT the text of this arrangement, or letter of intent, or whatever he calls it?

Mr. Healey

No, Sir. I could not consider doing such a thing unless the right hon. Member for Monmouth agreed to publish the agreements of a similar nature that he made with the United States Government.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Could the right hon. Gentleman say that what he was going to say in the last two minutes of his speech was actually in the transcript which he handed out to Press correspondents?

Mr. Healey

I really do not know what the hon. Gentleman is getting at. No transcript was circulated to the correspondents before I made my speech, nor is it the custom to do so.

Mr. Ridsdale

As the agreement was signed in the afternoon of 9th February, would it not have been more courteous to the House to have answered, first, a Private Notice Question so that at least we should have had some information of this before the debate began?

Mr. Healey

It would have been convenient for me to have had a Private Notice Question, but no hon. Member opposite chose to put one down, either on that day or on the day following.

As I pointed out, it has never been the custom of my predecessors to publish to the House documents or agreements of this nature. The right hon. Member for Monmouth made a number of such agreements, including at least three for the purchase of naval Phantoms, and he has not published any of them.

Mr. Webster

On a point of order. My understanding is that the right hon. Gentleman has criticised my right hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip for moving the Closure at one minute—[HON. MEMBERS: "Two minutes."]—to Ten o'clock. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must be allowed to hear what is being submitted to me.

Mr. Webster

In my submission, Mr. Speaker, the right hon. Gentleman is sheltering behind yourself, who accepted the Motion for the Closure. Is he in order in standing behind the Speaker when he could have made that statement very much earlier?

Mr. Speaker

No possible point of order arises now with reference to the time that the Closure was moved some days ago.

Mr. Thorneycroft

Private Notice Question or not, does the right hon. Gentleman recall that in my opening speech I asked him this specific question: I therefore ask the specific question: are we or are we not contractually committed? and the Minister of Aviation, in his speech, said: It is not a question of contractual commitments …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th February, 1965; Vol. 706, c. 222, 237.] The right hon. Gentleman went through the whole of his speech without once informing us of this subject. Does he think that that is an honourable or proper way to treat the House of Commons?

Mr. Healey

I really do not think that it is for the right hon. Gentleman to raise questions of honour here. The phrase used by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation exactly expressed the facts and was in very similar terms to the one that I have just used myself in the hearing of the right hon. Gentleman namely, that no orders or formal contracts had yet been placed for the supply of these aircraft to the Royal Air Force. We are not contractually committed in that sense. We are no more committed than the right hon. Gentleman committed himself when he exchanged letters for the purchase of Phantom aircraft with the American Secretary of Defence 11 days before he told the House of his decision.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

We cannot debate this on a series of supplementary questions. Mr. Gunter, to answer Questions Nos. 60, 66 and 67.

Mr. Ridsdale

On a point of order. In view of the extremely unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall raise this matter on the Adjournment.