HC Deb 13 June 1966 vol 729 cc1037-44

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Minister of Aviation if he will make a statement on the outcome of the further meeting on 9th June, in Paris, regarding the future of the European Launcher Development Organisation.

Mr. Mulley

With permission, I will now answer Question No. 43.

At the conference of Ministers on 26th-28th April and in the aide memoire delivered to our European partners on 3rd June we expressed the doubts we have had about the merits and economic viability of E.L.D.O. A and E.L.D.O. PAS programmes and our concern at the heavy financial burden—38.8 per cent.—which Her Majesty's Government had to bear since the start of the organisation. In addition, the costs of the programme have risen substantially from the first estimate of £70 million to the current figure of £158 million.

I repeated these doubts at the resumed Ministrial conference on 9th June. Our European partners then put forward proposals for a more equitable distribution of costs between member countries which offer a substantial reduction in our contribution. These revised proposals, which whether it might be reduced to something like 10. We are also considering the attitude of tenants towards having improvements done, notwithstanding certain justifiable rent increases which follow.

Following are the figures:

we and the other member Governments are now considering, will apply both to the initial programme and to the proposed further programme—E.L.D.O. PAS—for improving the performance of the launchers.

Additionally, working parties have been set up to prepare for the next Ministerial conference in Paris on 7th and 8th July, proposals to ensure a better control of expenditure, arrangements for financial ceilings, distribution of work, and for regular annual reviews of progress and costs.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

Is the Minister aware that while we welcome the Government's second thoughts on their decision to withdraw from E.L.D.O., a decision which would have had the most disastrous effects on our prospects of entering the Common Market, we could not agree with the way the decision was announced before this further meeting, because it had a disastrous effect on sterling and also on the country's reputation for fidelity to treaties and gave a disastrous impression of vaccination? Why was the decision announced like that?

Mr. Mulley

The reason why the aide mérnoire was sent to our allies was that I was asked at the previous meeting if we would give an indication of the Government's thinking ahead of the resumed Ministerial meeting, so that the member Government would have an opportunity to consider it before their Ministers actually arrived in Paris.

I do not agree that it had any disastrous effect at all. In fact, these are not my words. The communiqué issued after the conference last week said that it had been conducted in a cordial, constructive and co-operative atmosphere". I endorse that.

Mr. R. Carr

Would the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether any proposals were put forward by any of our partners to make a change in the distribution of costs before the meeting of 9th June, or whether we asked for any such proposals prior to our original decision to withdraw? Secondly, could he explain to the House what were the precise reasons for the Government's original decision, and equally, what are the reasons other than the chronic inability to make and keep commitments, for now reversing it—although we welcome that reversal?


Mr. Shinwell

Too long.

Mr. Carr

—would the right hon. Gentleman say whether he realises the appalling muddle and anxiety caused among British scientific workers and in British industry and will he take the opportunity to make clear to the country now what exactly are the Government's plans for this project?

Mr. Mulley

What the right hon. Gentleman is now inviting me to do is what I thought he and his right hon. Friends did not want us to do, namely, to make a unilateral declaration on the conduct of an international organisation in which we have partners. The outcome of our meeting, if it is approved by the various Governments, will lead to a very substantial reduction in the British contribution, and, by common consent, a vastly improved technical and economic viability of the Organisation.

I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would have welcomed these things, instead of trying to make political capital out of our attempt to remedy a very bad convention which he and others in the previous Government made.

Mr. Rankin

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the statement he has just made, in view of the fact that instead of having to face an annual charge which was created by the party opposite of nearly £15 million a year my right hon. Friend has now reduced it to, I think. something like £6 million a year?

Mr. Speaker

A supplementary question must be a proper question.

Mr. Rankin

I thought that I had come to it, Sir.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Is it not clear that it is impossible to compete in space with the United States or with the Soviet Union except on a European scale? Will not the Minister, therefore, respond to the request of my right hon. Friend that he should say in principle that the Government mean to stay in E.L.D.O. and to take part in these projects? This is what we want to get from the Minister. Whether or not, as the right hon. Gentleman the Foreign Secretary denied earlier, a treaty has been breached, is it not clear that our partners have been very shabbily treated?

Mr. Mulley

The only words of recrimination that I heard to a large extent were directed by some of the member countries on the way they had been induced to join the organisation. The reason why I cannot go further than this is that, naturally, the Governments want to consider the proposed arrangements. As I said, I think that the House would welcome the fact that this working group is to consider whether we can get ways and means of getting annual and total control over the whole of the project. It would, I think, prejudice the successful outcome of these arrangements if I were to go further than we have been able to go so far.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

Will the Minister endeavour not to regard any effort we may make in space as competition with the United States and Russia, but as part of a co-operative effort for mankind as a whole?

Mr. Mulley

We confirm this, and, of course, the purpose of the further programme, if we are able to embark on it, is directed exclusively at the telecommunications scheme.

Sir G. Nabarro

Would the Minister now confirm that the figure I asked the Foreign Secretary half an hour ago is indeed the correct one, that British participation, as a result of this rearrangement, is reduced from 38.8 per cent. to 27 per cent.? If the latter figure is incorrect what is the revised participation?

Mr. Mulley

I am sorry, but I cannot give the figure today.—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Because the proposals which were put to me were on a confidential basis. Some figures have been disclosed, but not from me. I must respect the request of the Governments concerned that they want to consider these matters, each Government themselves, before a public announcement can be made.

Mr. Lubbock

While I accept that E.L.D.O. A is probably not the best launcher vehicle for the kind of operations we and our European partners want to undertake in space, why did the Minister seek to solve the problem by a complete withdrawal rather than seeking to amend the technical objective of the programme? As part of the measures for improving cost control, about which he spoke, will he seek to secure the appointment of a single project manager for the E.L.D.O. programme?

Mr. Mulley

The appointment of a project manager is something which we feel could well develop. I would welcome the views of the hon. Gentleman on cost control and will see whether they could be fed into the working group's discussion. It is very difficult, when things are said and repeated and people will not accept them, but I can only repeat what my right hon. Friend said, that there was never at any time an intention to withdraw from the E.L.D.O. organisation.

Mr. Shinwell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House and a vast number of people in the country do not want the Government to spend money which they cannot afford on projects of this kind? Will the Government understand that we do not expect them to commit the folly exhibited by right hon. and hon. Members opposite over Blue Streak and the cancellation of aircraft and other missile projects which involved the country in an expenditure running up to £300 million?

Mr. Mulley

I share my right hon. Friend's concern that we should not en- gage in acts of folly, but I must remind him that a number of our difficulties stem from treaty obligations which we inherited. Certainly, the whole purpose of our negotiations at present is to reduce the cost to us and make the project more worth while.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Will the right hon. Gentleman not confirm that the original decision to go ahead with the project was taken on the best technological advice available to the then Government? If that be so, would he now say whether anything has happened since to make the project any less desirable technologically?

Mr. Mulley

I am not privy to the advice of the previous Government. If they acted on technological advice, which I think is dubious, one fact which speaks very clearly is that the estimated cost is now more than twice that which we informed our partners was the likely estimate for the completion of E.L.D.O. A.

Mr. Dickens

Is my right hon. Friend fully satisfied that the E.L.D.O. B project will be viable in 1970? Does he not appreciate that in 1961, in a desperate effort to get European participation, the former right hon. Member for Monmouth deliberately raised the British contribution from 25 per cent. to 33 per cent. and, ultimately, to 38 per cent.?

Mr. Mulley

I am aware of the fact that, in that period, the then Minister was going up and up in the amount of money that he would pay, whereas I have tended to go down and down in the amount which we are actually paying.

I must tell my hon. Friend that there is no question of participating in an E.L.D.O. B programme at this stage. No member country has agreed to it. The proposals that we have are for the addition of a perigee/apogee motor system to the existing E.L.D.O. space launcher which will give us the possibility of putting into space a satellite about four times as big as Early Bird, which will be useful for telecommunications purposes.

Mr. Rippon

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, whatever happens, full use will continue to be made of our unique facilities at Spadeadam? Will he give some assurances to the people working on the projects about our maintaining a space development programme and about their future? Is he aware of the grave concern which is caused by trying to forge the new Britain in the white heat of the scientific revolution?

Mr. Mulley

I am aware of the concern on both sides of industry. In recent weeks, I have met representatives of the trade unions and the manufacturers concerned. If, as I hope, the programme goes on, continued use will be made of these facilities. But, in the long-term, if we reduce our contribution, the proportion of work in this country may also diminish.

Mr. Burden

Will the right hon. Gentleman not agree that, even at a cost of £14½ million a year, it is desirable that we should remain in this type of space project, because, in the future, will it not have a tremendous impact on the lives of people throughout the whole world? Does the Minister not think that Europe should be in a position to compete with America and Russia in this type of activity?

Mr. Mulley

I do not see that we can approach any of these projects other than on the basis on which we approach similar projects at home, whether the return is likely to make the investment involved worth while. The kind of money involved and the possibilities in E.L.D.O. are likely always to leave us behind the broad achievements of the Soviet Union and the United States in this sphere of activity.

Mr. Marten

As we are likely to be reducing our contribution to E.L.D.O., could the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the money saved might be devoted to a national space programme, which is so very important?

Mr. Mulley

As I have said in answer to questions previously from the hon. Gentleman, the basis of our approach in these matters is to try to do it by way of European collaboration. We had better wait and see how this comes out before we make statements about further national projects.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Is it not a fact that the following six Departments have an interest in the project: the Ministry of Aviation, the Department of Education and Science, the Ministry of Technology, the Post Office, the Foreign Office, and the Ministry of Defence? I have no doubt that the Treasury also has a watching brief. Is it not desirable that one Minister should be in charge of what is a very complicated international project, so that we can get the political direction, inspiration and enthusiasm which is lacking at present?

Mr. Mulley

I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the Treasury has an interest in this project. In Europe at the moment there are a number of proposals that we should get a closer co-ordination, because the problem arises not merely in this country, but in others, that space is the responsibility of several Ministers. I hope that that is another matter which may be considered further on 7th July. Certainly, it would be beneficial if the work of E.S.R.O., C.E.T.S. and E.L.D.O. could be brought closer together.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must come back to earth now. Mr. Gunter. Statement.