HC Deb 11 April 1967 vol 744 cc954-8
16. Mr. Ellis

asked the Minister of Technology if, in view of the repayment of £3,960,000 to Her Majesty's Government by Bristol Siddeley Engines Limited, he is satisfied that no similar cases exist; and if he will institute a full inquiry into this matter.

17. Mr. Onslow

asked the Minister of Technology if he will reconvene the committee of inquiry set up under the chairmanship of Sir John Lang in January, 1964, so that this committee may now investigate and report on the circumstances surrounding the repayment of £3,960,000 to Her Majesty's Government by Bristol Siddeley Engines Limited.

19. Mr. Rankin

asked the Minister of Technology why a preliminary statement was not made to the House when the excess profit of £3,960,000 made by Bristol Siddeley Engines Limited was first uncovered two years ago.

21. Mr. Edelman

asked the Minister of Technology why, in the light of the fact that Bristol Siddeley Engines Limited admitted to the Government in December, 1964, that they had obtained excess profits on Government contracts, negotiations about the sum to be repaid by the company only started nine months ago; and whether he is satisfied that during the period concerned the excessively high quotations for the company's products were examined by more satisfactory criteria than those which were applied to the original contracts under which excessive profits had been made.

29. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Minister of Technology if he will give the value of each of the aircraft projects which Bristol Siddeley Engines Limited refused to negotiate following the Lang Committee's recommendations; and if he will state the grounds on which the refusal was made by the firm and accepted by Her Majesty's Government.

33. Mr. Robert Howarth

asked the Minister of Technology whether he will make a further statement on the Bristol Siddeley aero engine case.

Mr. Benn

Many of the points raised by these questions will be the subject of examination by the inquiry committee, the terms of reference and composition of which I shall announce as soon as possible. But I should make it clear that all the contracts involved were priced before the Lang Committee was even appointed.

Until I get the right of post-costing I can never be completely satisfied that no similar cases exist. Indeed one case was reported to me yesterday which may or may not have involved over-quotation and which is under investigation.

Mr. Ellis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that under Section 10 of the Ministry of Supply Act, 1939, he already has the power to order companies to produce their books and papers? Will he now make use of this power? In view of his disclosure today that he is now investigating yet another company, will he ask the House for a Ministerial Order so that we can find out where these vast amounts of public money have been going over the last few years?

Mr. Benn

I am well aware of the powers. There is another Question on the Order Paper later today on this matter. I must make it clear that I said that this case may or may not involve over-quotation.

Mr. Onslow

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the task of the inquiry, details of which we await with interest, must have been made much more difficult by the extraordinary behaviour of his Department on Easter Saturday? What disciplinary action has been taken against the civil servants who issued untrue and misleading statements in the name of the Minister of State?

Mr. Benn

The second point is a separate question. It would have been a little more helpful if we had had support from the other side on the need to take the action we have taken.

Mr. Rankin

Does my right hon. Friend recollect that we were told last Wednesday that full information on costs was available in February of this year? Why was it necessary to wait till the eve of Parliament's rising for Easter before we heard about the matter?

Mr. Benn

There were two questions. One was the auditor's certificate, which it was thought necessary to get. Secondly, the statement was made immediately the payment was made. I said at the beginning—I think that the House will agree—that at this stage it would be better to let the inquiry look into any matters that it wishes to look into.

Mr. Edelman

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, pending this inquiry, there are other matters of urgent public interest affecting the whole of the aircraft industry? Is it not the case that it is only within the last few months that Bristol Siddeley's auditors, Thomson, McLintock and Co., gave the Government access to their books? Has my right hon. Friend now had access to the company's current costs for Government contracts, or is he still dealing in the dark?

Mr. Benn

As my hon. Friend knows very well, until post-costing is achieved the Government will not have access to the books.

Mr. William Hamilton

Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will publish and make available to the House, to the Public Accounts Committee, and to the independent inquiry the results of the investigation made by one of his senior engineers in March, 1965, as to the costs of the Bristol Siddeley firm—in Coventry, I believe—because, until we get that, we cannot be acquainted with the facts of the case?

Mr. Benn

All the papers relating to this will be made available to the inquiry and to the Public Accounts Committee, if it wishes.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Is it not the fact, as the right hon. Gentleman revealed earlier, that his Department is woefully short of technical costing officers? Is it not, therefore, more essential to find a profit formula which will give an incentive to efficient firms and safeguard the taxpayers than to pressurise for post-costing? Is not a profit formula more essential in the widespread interest of the taxpayer?

Mr. Benn

There are two quite separate questions. Negotiations for a profit formula can be conducted in the normal way. Whatever solution there may be to the problem does not in any way alter the Government's view that they are entitled to have equality of information and post-costing in fixed-price contracts.

22. Mr. Edelman

asked the Minister of Technology when Sir John Lang, chairman of the Lang Committee, was first informed that Bristol Siddeley Engines Limited had drawn excessive profits from Government contracts during 1959 to 1963.

Mr. Benn

The initial report by Bristol Siddeley Engines Limited of overquotation came in a matter of days before the Lang Committee issued its second and last Report.

The first indication that these excessive profits involved substantial sums of money and double charge only became apparent following an internal inquiry months after that. He was, therefore, not informed.

Mr. Edelman

Will my right hon. Friend say specifically when the double payment was first detected, and how long elapsed before it was repaid?

Mr. Benn

That is a separate question. The double charging came to light as the result of an internal inquiry about nine months after the Lang Committee made its second Report. That was in about October, 1965. My hon. Friend knows the date of the settlement.

Mr. Whitaker

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the post-costing safeguards for the public, which America already has, will be made retrospective to major Government contracts? Second, is it not clear to anyone innocent of doctrinaire dogma that the only safeguard to the public in this matter is to adopt the course advocated by the Plow-den Committee and the Economist and take the aircraft industry into public ownership?

Mr. Benn

The second point raises wider matters. It is of the nature of post-costing, like a post mortem, that it refers to what has already happened.