HC Deb 21 November 1966 vol 736 cc939-44
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

On 16th June, 1966, I told the House that, whilst the greater part of the research and development work of the Ministry of Aviation would be transferred to the Ministry of Technology, a comprehensive examination was in hand to determine to what extent the procurement responsibilities of the Ministry of Aviation in the defence field might more appropriately be transferred to the Ministry of Defence.

I have now studied the results of this examination, and have decided that the present responsibilities of the Ministry of Aviation—other than those already taken over by the Board of Trade—form a closely connected group that should not be divided but rather be transferrd to the Ministry of Technology as a whole.

The organisation for research, development and procurement on aircraft, guided weapons and electronic equipment, whether civil or military, will remain broadly in its present form; but under the Minister of Technology it will make a significant contribution to achieving our aim that the department should be a major instrument of progress in the engineering and electronic field. We are already reaching a situation where research in aeronautics and avionics is producing developments capable of much wider use, and the aircraft and associated industries will themselves gain also by the opportunity of participating in some of the wider fields of research sponsored by the Ministry.

It is, at the same time, of the greatest importance, both militarily and financially, that Ministry of Defence interest in the control of military projects should be fully safeguarded. Much has been done recently to improve co-ordination of the machinery of management between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Aviation, and the fruits of this must not be lost.

I therefore intend that the existing Ministry of Aviation organisation for handling development and procurement will not be dismantled in its new home in the Ministry of Technology; that the Minister of Technology will be supported by a Minister who will be generally responsible for the functions to be transferred from the Minister of Aviation and will act as the normal link with the Secretary of State for Defence on matters of defence interest. The detailed arrangements will ensure also that the Secretary of State for Defence will continue to take the lead in all business with other countries on defence projects. These changes will take place very early in the New Year.

Mr. Maudling

Is the Prime Minister aware that we are grateful for the statement, although it might have been more convenient if it had been made earlier? This will be debated in the near future, but may I ask what contribution the new organisation will make to solving the practical problems facing the aircraft industry?

The Prime Minister

We shall be debating this subject in the very near future indeed, I understand, and I would think that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation, if he catches your eye later, Mr. Speaker, would prefer to deal with the very general questions put by the right hon. Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling).

Mr. Lubbock

The Minister of Aviation has said on a number of occasions that these changes would take place in the autumn. What is the reason for the delay? Can the right hon. Gentleman also explain why the important procurement decisions which were supposed to take place before these changes were implemented are still awaited by the House?

The Prime Minister

On previous occasions I have already explained why it was not possible to make this statement or the changes earlier. The main reason was the need to get the right answer to the problem of the split between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Technology following the break-up of the Ministry of Aviation. This took a great deal longer than expected. But it was important to get the answer right and, in the end, we concluded that it would not be practicable to divide the important work of the Ministry of Aviation in any other way.

Mr. Edelman

As a result of the changes and in the interests of efficiency, will my right hon. Friend end the undesirable practice of the past at the Ministry of Aviation by which senior officers, on retirement or redundancy, moved straight into senior posts in the aviation industry where they therefore had to deal not only with former old colleagues, but also with former subordinates at the Ministry?

The Prime Minister

This is a general problem not affecting any particular Ministry alone and there are strict rules about it. If my hon. Friend has any particular case in mind I would be grateful if he would let me know about it.

Mr. Hastings

In so far as it will achieve anything, will this reorganisation result in closer contact between the customers in defence procurement—the Services—and the manufacturers of military aircraft?

The Prime Minister

There has been closer contact between the customers and the manufacturers. I think that this has been developed over the last year or two. As I have said, I am anxious that this improvement should not be lost under the new organisation, which should lead to continuing improvement in these relations.

Mr. Rankin

Can my right hon. Friend say whether any additional Ministerial appointments will be involved in these changes?

The Prime Minister

I have said that there will be a junior Minister in the Ministry of Technology looking after the aviation department, but of course the position of Minister of Aviation will disappear.

Mr. Burden

Does not the right hon. Gentleman's last remark mean that the British aircraft industry will have no greater confidence as a result of the reorganisation because he is now saying that he is replacing a right hon. Minister with a Parliamentary Secretary? Apparently, therefore, the industry will carry far less weight than in the present set-up.

The Prime Minister

On the contrary, the industry will now come under a Minister who is a member of the Cabinet. As I have made clear, it is likely to gain by the fact that not only will the results of its research be available on a wider scale for engineering exploitation and development, but it will be able to play a larger part, I hope, in some of the research projects sponsored by the Ministry of Technology in the non-aviation field.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that, since the war, an enormous amount of money has been wasted on producing or designing military aircraft which have never reached the operational stage and which have been obsolete before completion? Have we any hope that, in future, under the new set-up, more attention will be devoted to civil aviation, from which the country will get more benefit?

The Prime Minister

On the first part of that question, I have nothing to add to what a number of right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House and I stated in various Reports of the Public Accounts Committee during past years. I believe that some of the lessons of some of these projects have been and are being progressively learned. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend's fears will not be realised.

Sir C. Orr-Ewing

Will the Prime Minister give careful attention to the possibility of creating a National Aviation Authority rather than making this the responsibility of a Government Department? Many people feel that a Government Department is not the right way to handle the very long and complicated projects with which the aviation industry is concerned.

The Prime Minister

I know that that view is held by some, but, in view of the very high proportion of the aviation industry's monetary receipts which come from Votes of this House, I do not think that the House would tolerate a situation in which it did not keep full financial control. Thus, as far as the Government are concerned, the industry must be directly under a responsible Minister.

Mr. Dalyell

My right hon. Friend's statement will be welcome to very many concerned in modern industry, particularly in relation to research facilities. Will my right hon. Friend tell us how the Government view the future of the R.R.E., at Malvern, and the Royal Aircraft Establishment, at Farnborough, and how he envisages that the new machinery will make available to industry generally the great expertise and experience at R.R.E. and R.A.E.?

The Prime Minister

Both will be transferred to the Ministry of Technology.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Which Department will be responsible for gathering the maximum amount of statistical information to do with traffic patterns, for instance, on which civil aircraft projects depend? What is the time scale of what the right hon. Gentleman has described today? When does the Ministry of Aviation cease to exist?

The Prime Minister

If, as I understand, the hon. Gentleman is referring to the national and international traffic patterns for civil aviation, this matter, in accordance with the announcement I made on 16th June, will be the responsibility of the Board of Trade.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the time scale. As I have said, it is intended that these changes should take effect early in the New Year.

Mr. R. Carr

May we have some clarification on two matters for the sake of the debate upon which we are about to start? On the subject of the time scale, the Prime Minister is now talking about the New Year, but when he made his original statement, in June, he said that his right hon. Friend the present Minister of Aviation would be left in office for long enough to implement the decisions consequent on the Plowden Report. Are we to understand that the Prime Minister feels that both the taking and the implementation of the decisions can be completed by the New Year?

The Prime Minister

I explained earlier the main reasons why there has been this delay compared with the hopes which I expressed in June. I should be very surprised if my right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, does not deal with the subject of the Plowden Report. Certainly, the time scale which I have announced today takes full consideration of the matters raised by the right hon. Gentleman.