HC Deb 01 February 1967 vol 740 cc725-38

2.25 a.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I am very glad, almost relieved, to see that the right hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse) is with us. I understood that this morning's business of the House was a winding up, and I am not sure whether he has been wound up or whether he is under suspended sentence, or, like myself, in a state of suspended animation.

The Supplementary Estimates in regard to E.L.D.O. add a sum of approximately £6 million for Government expenditure on this project. Of this £3,500,000 coming in Estimate D.1. will be Government expenditure bringing this up to a total of £11,500,000. I notice, under that heading that the Estimates say: Expenditure under this Subhead will not be accounted for in detail to the Comptroller and Auditor General. If there is any kind of expenditure that ought to be accounted for in detail it is expenditure on projects of this magnitude.

The second part of the Estimate, D.2. is a sum of £2,450,000 which is to be added to the work done for E.L.D.O. by British industry. This total of £6 million in new money is the result, as indicated in the Estimates, of decisions taken at Ministerial conferences with our partners in E.L.D.O., which took place in July last. Before the House can possibly agree to this additional expenditure, it needs to know what this money is for and in short, what was agreed on the British taxpayers' behalf. We shall also need to know why, after first telling the world that they were withdrawing from the E.L.D.O. project, the Government changed their mind and decided to go into E.L.D.O. and why they now come to Parliament to ask for additional money when seven months ago they decided that they would not need it.

The purpose of this excess money is to finance the British part, specifically the completion of the first stage Blue Streak rocket E.L.D.O. project A. This would put a European communications satellite into geostatic orbit using the perogee/apogee motor system, known as the PAS. The British share of the remaining stages of the E.L.D.O. programme "A" is 27 per cent. of the total. It is to meet this 27 per cent. share that the House is asked to vote this extra money. The other shares are Germany 27 per cent., France 25 per cent., Italy 12 per cent. and Belgium and Netherlands with a 9 per cent. share between them. Australia will be making available the facilities of the Woomera range.

I am a supporter of this programme and the policy on which it is based and I am in favour of the House granting the Government the necessary Supply to go forward with it. I have three main reasons for saying this. The first is on industrial and technical grounds, because the communications of the world will be transformed by a communications satellite such as the E.L.D.O. "A" project will put into orbit. I also believe that industry will materially benefit from the technological "spin-off" of fall-out, of new products and processes resulting from the exploration of space.

To put it in the vernacular, if we do not move into space, as this particular Estimate will help us to do, then the danger is that we shall be left, making the boots and barbed wire, and the Americans and Russians will be making the sophisticated equipment that will fill the future channels of world trade.

The second set of reasons why I am sure that this Estimate is right are political and diplomatic. Europe is drawing together and I believe that co-operating in projects of this kind will help us to come closer to that technological community of which we hear so much these days and, beyond that, to the unifying of the European nations which I believe to be desirable.

The third reason why I believe it is right that this Supply should be granted is a national British reason, because space is a new dimension, a new frontier, and whenever man sets out in any directions towards new frontiers. I believe that, so far as possible, the British should be there.

If, however, those are some of the reasons why I believe that the House should grant this Supply, I nevertheless have grave doubts, first, about the amount of money that the Government are requesting here and, secondly, about the management of the programme for which the Government are requesting it. I should ask the Minister to provide assurances on both these points before I could support the Bill.

First, the management of the project. I do not mean the industrial management, because however much hon. Members opposite have sneered at the British aerospace industry from time to time, this is a project at least in which the British contributions have been good. British industry has delivered the goods, and delivered them on time. I therefore have no doubts about Subhead D.2, the increase of expenditure for industry.

If there has been delay and escalation in the cost of this project, the fault has largely lain, not with British manufacturers, but with those of our partner countries. Neither has there been any great difficulty in bringing together the technologists of the participating countries. E.L.D.O. "A" has experienced no major technical snags as far as I know. This is in remarkable contrast to the snags that have been introduced into this project by the politicians, by which I mean all the politicians in all the major countries and on both sides of this House.

As to the E.L.D.O. "A" programme for which the Government want this extra money, there was, first, the political failure to ensure that E.L.D.O. would be the preferred supplier of launching vehicles for E.S.R.O. or even for European communications satellites. That was not written into the original agreement. It was lamentable that this was not done. Then, it took something like three years to get the original Convention ratified and ever since then the technologists and the managers have been messed about by reviews every few months, by budgets which have been left unapproved until the fiscal year was half completed and by a complete lack of guarantee of the stability and continuity of the project.

It is extremely difficult to keep teams of technicians and managers together when one lacks that stability and continuity. My right hon. and hon. Friends on this side, both past and present, must, in my view, accept some of the blame for this. If it was they who were asking for this extra money tonight, I should want the same guarantees of better political direction of the scheme for which I am asking the Minister.

But if my right hon. and hon. Friends on this side had some responsibilities in this matter, the errors of commission which the present Government are making make the errors of omission by past Governments seem very small potatoes indeed. It was the present Administration, who are now asking for the money to go ahead with E.L.D.O., who came very close, a matter of months ago, to compromising the whole scheme. Their actions at that time, when they first said that they were pulling out of E.L.D.O. and then said that they were going back in again, leave me in grave doubt as to whether the House should entrust them with this extra money to complete a job that so recently they have said they would give up. I therefore invite the Minister to answer this particular grievance about the political direction of E.L.D.O. before he asks the House to vote him the extra money, and I think my grievance can be stated chronologically.

On 4th June last year, The Times reported on its front page that Britain was "Opting out of Space", and the story went on to say that the Government had decided to convey this decision to their E.L.D.O. partners at a meeting in Paris later that week. When he read the news, the chief rocket engineer of one of our biggest aerospace firms, intimately involved in the project for which we are asked to vote money tonight, telephoned a very senior official at the right hon. Gentleman's Ministry and asked him what in Heaven's name was going on. His concern was quite understandable because millions of pounds of hardware, plus tens of thousands of components and blueprints, and several hundred of his firm's top men were tied up in this E.L.D.O. project.

What answer did he get? The man from from the Ministry told him "not to worry, old boy"; there was no confirmation of the newspaper leak. And 24 hours later the same senior rocket engineer got an urgent call from the Ministry at his home and they told him this time that The Times was right and they were wrong, and that Britain was pulling out of E.L.D.O.

That is an example of the kind of muddle for which we are supposed now to vote more money. But if there was muddle at the Ministry of Aviation there was even greater confusion at the Foreign Office. The morning after The Times leak, an official statement from the Foreign Office said The Government has concluded, after a careful and detailed consideration, that the latest proposals for modifying the E.L.D.O. programme do not constitute a sufficient basis for continuing United Kingdom participation…and it has so informed its partners. That was quite clear-cut; a diplomatic exit line if ever there was one, and the Foreign Secretary of the day confirmed this with precision at the airport on his way to Paris when he said that we feel it is not in the best interest that we remain a member of the organisation. Once again we have quite clear, specific language from a senior Minister of the British Government on the project for which we are asked tonight to vote more money. Yet precisely one week later the same right hon. Gentleman, the former Foreign Secretary, came to the House of Commons and told us that the Government's message to their E.L.D.O. partners …did not notify them of our intention to withdraw… and his colleague, the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley), also told the House: I can only repeat what my right hon. Friend said…"— the Foreign Secretary— …that there was never at any time an intention on our part to withdraw from the E.L.D.O. organisation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th June, 1966; Vol. 729, c. 1027–41.] E.L.D.O.'s comment on this, from its own Secretary-General, revealed the mystification that they felt after hearing these two contradictory statements. They said: After studying"— the British Government aide-memoire— we are in a state of doubt. And so am I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when I am asked against that background to support a further £6 million being spent by the right hon. Gentleman's Ministry. Of course, the reaction of our allies, the partners we are now voting money to go ahead with, was one of extreme annoyance. The West German Government officially "deplored" what had happened in London. The Australian Supply Minister said that Britain's withdrawal would mean a fair amount of wasted effort. The Italian Government, our ally in the project for which we are asked to vote money, put out a statement saying that they were surprised and perplexed. Le Monde, in Paris, wrote: It is to be regretted that the policies of General de Gaulle should have prevented the entry of Britain into the European concert of nations…but however regretable this may be, the British Government's national egotism (in the case of E.L.D.O.) cannot possibly find any justification. I think that that illustrates that there was muddle, confusion and bad feeling caused by the Government's action in a programme which we are now asked again to support.

A week or so later, the Government had to back-track on the whole issue. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park went back to Paris, sat down with his allies, as he should have done in the first place, and at that meeting they decided on the present Ministerial arrangements, which are the origin of the Supplementary Estimates put forward to us tonight. I am the first to acknowledge that there are many advantages in the new arrangements which the right hon. Gentleman was able to secure.

If the Government had left it at that, admitted that they had been precipitate, but had finally seen sense and changed their minds, this debate might not have taken place, and only the Government's maladroitness and insensitivity to European opinion would have been open to criticism. But, unfortunately, the Government went much further. Instead of admitting honestly that they had made a mistake and changed their minds, Ministers began to suggest that the great E.L.D.O. muddle had actually been a triumph, and the House was virtually invited to accept, and no doubt will be again later this evening, that it was the Government's proposal to withdraw the threat to go on strike which had induced the Europeans to reduce our share of the cost. They were almost boasting that they had screwed funds out of their partners by threatening to go on strike.

That suggestion was and is utterly wrong, and, when we are asked to vote more money, we are entitled to an assurance that the money which Parliament is now providing will be used in a better fashion than that.

I have looked up the facts with some care, and there are three which are established. The first is that the decision to withdraw from the E.L.D.O. project was taken by the Cabinet well before Whitsun of last year. Thereafter, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park and the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart), the then Minister of Aviation and Foreign Secretary respectively, took it back to the Cabinet for reconsideration several times on "European grounds". On every occasion, they were turned down. It was decided that, though E.L.D.O. was a close-run thing, it should be dropped on its merits.

The second fact which I have been able to establish is that in the House on 13th June, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park said of the June conference, at which he reprieved E.L.D.O. and agreed to go ahead: I repeated these doubts at the resumed Ministerial conference on 9th June. Our European partners then put forward proposals for a more equitable distribution of costs…(and) for the addition of a perigee/apogee motor system…which will give us the possibility of putting into space a satellite about four times as big as Early Bird…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th June, 1966; Vol. 729. c. 1037–1042.] The key word in that statement is "then". By saying: Our European partners then put forward proposals", the right hon. Gentleman suggested to the House that the prospect of lessening Britain's contribution and going on to the perigee/apogee system—the fourth stage—arose after the British threat to withdraw. This is simply not true. The opposite was the case.

These proposals, which we now have incorporated into this Supplementary Estimate, to change the distribution of costs and to go for the more advanced motor system were actually made by our allies at a meeting which took place in Paris in April, long before the British Government told the House what the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park did, and indeed in the debate on 27th May in the other place, two weeks before the June meeting when the Government reprieved E.L.D.O., Lord Chalfont used almost the same phrase about Early Bird as the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park used on the 13th June.

It is late for technical details, but here, documented, is the proof of a very sad and very sorry story. The British Government misled British industry, or members working for British industry. They confused our partners in Europe. They intentionally or unintentionally gave the House of Commons a different impression from the facts as I have now been able to establish them, and I believe that, intentionally or unintentionally, they went some distance in misleading the British public about the sequence of events.

That they have decided after all to stay in E.L.D.O. is to be a considerable relief, and that our partners have agreed to bear a larger share of the cost and to extend the project's capability is again something for which we can all be grateful, but the thanks should go to our European partners and to our own aero space industries which remained faithful to E.L.D.O. at a time when the British Government were attempting to withdraw from it, and it is against that background that I want to ask the Minister four precise questions.

My first question is about the new funds that we are being asked to vote tonight. Will they be sufficient to enable E.L.D.O. project "A" to be completed successfully? If so, on what timetable? When does the Minister expect the assembly of the various rocket components to be completed? When does he expect the test firing to take place? When does he expect the first geostatic satellite to be in orbit, and what will it do when it gets there? How many communication channels will it have? Will they be available for military use? These are the kinds of questions to which the House is entitled to have answers before it agrees to a sum of money of this magnitude.

Secondly, will the Minister undertake when, or if, he gets this money not to leave it at that? Is he prepared to go on to E.L.D.O. project "B"? I ask that because if he knows the true story of the space industry, and I am sure he does, he must know that E.L.D.O. project "A" alone is at best an early experiment. It is essential to go on to the "B" project if we are to have any valid communications satellite put into orbit and have Britain and Europe participating in this new adventure in space.

Thirdly, do the Government intend to get into the business of the liquid hydrogen fuels which are visualised for the upper stages of development? Will the Minister give the House an assurance— and I think that this is really the key to my objection—that never again will there be such confusion and mind changing in the case of an international project of this kind?

Mr. Corobio, the Secretary-General of E.L.D.O., put it very well when he said: If we do not see to it that Europe maintains its position as a continent of scientific achievement, we shall continue to lose an increasing number of our most able scientists and engineers. This loss is being particularly felt in the United Kingdom where language is not an obstacle. I ask the Minister to give the House an assurance that he will not be deterred by those who say, "What is it all for? When there are so many important things that need to be done, what is all this business about going into space? "People asked the same sort of question, "What is it for?" of Columbus, Scott, and probably even Sir Francis Chichester, but that is surely not a question that the Minister should worry about. The important thing is that there lie ahead, or above—however one describes it—immense possibilities for the technological expansion of British industry, for the collaboration of European nations coming closer together, as we all wish, and, something more, a stimulus to young people in this country to look for a goal larger than getting and spending.

For these reasons I hope that the Minister will not be deterred from pushing ahead with this project. I shall feel much happier in voting him or his successor the Supply if he will show to us that not again will there be confusion, and that the practicalities of E.L.D.O. project "A" will be completed on time.

2.50 a.m.

Mr. R. W. Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

I, too, will endeavour to keep my remarks as short as possible at this late hour. Contrary to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths), I congratulate my right hon. Friend the present Minister of State, Foreign Affairs on his excellent negotiations last July. The catalogue of events that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds gave had an element of truth about it, but he did not reveal the whole sordid business of the lobbying put on in respect of the project at that time. It was based wholly upon the alleged leak in a national newspaper in this country, which got across the Channel very quickly. That began the chain of events. We must examine the situation as it then was.

On both sides of the Channel discussions were taking place. They were confidential. How does one member Government out of six react when suddenly there is an inspired leak of some description? How it came about I do not know. When I say "inspired", I do not mean that it was inspired by the Government, but by others with less worthy motives. Perhaps my hon. Friend can shed light on the situation, because at that time I was visiting Europe and I was certainly sensitive to the perambulations of other people in Europe.

The leak made some form of statement necessary, because at that time no decision had been taken. I might have misheard the hon. Member, and I apologise if I did, but I thought he missed out one very important word from the extract of the statement which he read. The statement referred to "continuing United Kingdom participation". That statement did not give the impression it was a cut-and-dried issue that the United Kingdom would pull out.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

The Prime Minister told the House that he would get to the bottom of the leak and report to the House. He has not done so. Secondly, does not the hon. Member recall that not only did Ministers say that the decision had been taken but, in addition, engineers in the E.L.D.O. programme in this country were given a good deal of information about how the project would be run down and how to redeploy some of their people away from it? This was the thing that gave credence to the Government's statement.

Mr. Brown

The only thing I can say is that I never heard about that. I was presenting a report to European countries and it was very important that I should get such information as was available, but that information certainly never came to me; it never came to my notice that such a directive had been issued.

I welcome the opportunity to comment on that point, because it is very unfair for anybody to try to create a situation where our Government appeared to be at fault when, in fact, they were discussing the matter; and it is no use following that up by more or less suggesting that this was in any way attributable to the Government. I say that the situation Was salvaged because the project was going on the rocks.

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for recalling some of the earlier history, and I would supplement what he has said by drawing the attention of hon. Members to a most extraordinary document, Command Paper 1731. It would appear that the only aim of E.L.D.O. was that it should be for the development of space vehicles and launchers suitable for practical application, and supply to eventual users. The only target and objective, after the first real coming together of the European space grouping, was to design a launcher—for "eventual users".

I have said before, and I repeat again tonight, that I cannot understand how anybody could have expected an international consortium of this order to create the dynamic approach which was required if it was to build a rocket for somebody without knowing who, for a purpose which was not clearly stated, and to a time scale which had never been considered.

It is at this point that there is escalation of costs. The hon. Member has suggested that that resulted from the actions of some of our partners, but I think that is unfair. I have always been against the argument of trying to apportion blame for the escalation of cost and who has, or has not, contributed to it. I do not believe that it will help the consortium we are trying to form if every time it is blown off course we want to decide who is or is not responsible for delay; it will never get on with its programme. I am convinced that the escalation of cost which was inevitable when the programme was based on the protocol signed by the nations, would get to the point where one or other in the group would have to question the viability of the project.

The French, in fact, queried very seriously the whole project in the early part of 1966 and our own Government really carried the scheme that stage further. I am worried this evening as to whether we have really got the set-up right. I am pleased that this £6 million has been granted for the work, but I believe that we have got to have a single space agency in Europe if we are going in any way to achieve the sort of target I believe we should be trying to seek to do. I know that there are lots of arguments why this is not possible. There are a lot of vested interests protecting themselves and I know that all the agencies in Europe have now agreed to set up a consultative committee. But I do not believe this will in any way solve the problem. We have got to be absolutely firm in ensuring that a directive is issued by one agency with the full responsibility for the financial implementation and for achieving the goal at the end of the day.

Three factors emerge from our space work. First, one questions whether Europe has got the political will to go into the space field. When I was preparing a report on telecommunications by satellite in Europe, I was very sad, after having discussions with many groups of people in European countries to have to record that there appeared to me to be no real incentive for Europe to carry or, in this work. Somehow—and I hope my hon. Friend can become the spearhead—we have got to try to give Europe a goal to aim at. Whether it be aiming at the moon—the sort of thing that I do not believe we can afford to do —or whether it be some kind of medium goal, we must know where we are going to.

My hon. Friend will recall that President Kennedy was the man who galvanised the Americans into action when he laid down clearly their objective to place a man on the moon. The dynamic approach of the American space industry began at that point when America saw clearly for the first time what were the objectives of their Government. Europe has got to do precisely the same thing. It must lay down firm guide lines at which all the aerospace industries and all the scientists and technologists involved can aim.

Next, having taken the political will to do the job, we have then got to be equally clear about providing the finance to go with it. It is no good talking about doing various things and then, when we come to paying for them, choosing to advance all the arguments why one ought not to do those things. If we have the political will to do this, we must face the responsibility of paying for it. There are valid reasons why one should not spend such money. If one has the argument that we ought to have more homes, hospitals and schools as opposed to spending money on space, that is a problem to be faced, but I believe that this country, and others, will regret it if we decide not to proceed with this great venture.

I now come to the question of the structure. If we have the political will to do the job and if we provide the money, it follows that it is important for the structure of the agency to be the right one. This means a lot of hard work to determine the best means of carrying out the work. On the horizon one sees vast possibilities in the field of space research and achievement. One must ask the question: can Europe stand aside and allow these massive new techniques to pass us by? Can Europe grasp these opportunities by appreciating that space research yields positive results? If it is unable to do so, we must resign ourselves to the rôle of a passive onlooker, or else permit one or two European countries to try to keep going on a minor sort of programme in an endeavour to keep in contact with the two major space Powers in the world. If we show ourselves to be willing to stand by as passive onlookers, I am certain that history will judge us very harshly, and it will rightly do so.

3.5 a.m.

The Minister of Aviation (Mr. John Stonehouse)

I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. R. W. Brown)—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irvine)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already spoken in this debate. He must ask for the leave of the House to speak again.

Mr. Stonehouse

I would ask for the leave of the House to speak again—

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

In view of what happened last night, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I think that we ought to have an experiment now to see whether the same thing will occur. I wish to draw your attention to the fact that there are not 40 Members in the Chamber.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members not being present, adjourned at ten minutes past Three o'clock a.m. till this day.