HC Deb 25 July 1967 vol 751 cc401-42

7.2 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter tonight. It is one which is of insense interest, certainly to my constituency, and to the city in which my constituency is, and also, I believe, to the general public as a whole. I think that I can say that it is rare that such a comparatively quick—I almost said, crisp—decision by the Executive has occasioned quite so much interest in such a short time.

The matters I want to discuss have really arisen because of the decision of the Government, announced originally on 4th July, to hold a series of sonic boom tests over parts of the United Kingdom, and, in particular, over parts of the great conurbations. Bristol, I believe, was selected for some of the earlier ones, and London came in for the latter part of the whole exercise.

The number of letters I have received from my constituency since the tests were concluded has somewhat surprised me. My constituency is not known, frankly, for the number of people who put pen to paper to write complaining to their Member of Parliament, but on this subject I have received more letters than upon any other subject since I have been a Member of the House of Commons—except for factory farming and capital punishment—and, after all, we are only three or four days so far from the end of the tests.

Letters are still coming in, and I have no doubt whatsoever that if the Government are so unwise as to announce another series of tests of the sort we have just had the letters will come in at an even greater rate. I have consulted hon. Members from some of the neighbouring places. My hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Floud), for example, tells me that he is receiving rather more than he would normally have expected.

What, I think, is being proved by the number of letters I have got—and I will, if I may, quote one or two in a moment—is that, in an area which is already over-inflicted with noise, as London is—with jets, 707s, VC10s, Tridents, Caravelles—coming into London Airport at the moment—on top of that is now to be inflicted with sonic boom noises of the sort we had last week and might be getting in future. For a large number of my constituents, and myself, as well, this is an accumulation of noise which is intolerable.

I do not think that the Government should be under any illusion as to what the general public feel about the booms. If what one has read in the Press is accurate, that only one telephone line was available to people to complain to the Ministry—if that be right—then it is hardly surprising that the number of people who actually got through to the Ministry of Technology to make their complaints was relatively few. The number of people I have spoken to in my own constituency or among my own friends and who are in favour of these tests is, frankly, infinitesimal.

The complaints are not merely from what I would call the middle-class vocal sector. On the contrary, to refer to the letters I have, the first one comes from an old-age pensioner, which says this: The wife and I are both in our middle seventies and the first bang on Monday last badly shook her up and she was in a state of nervous tension all the week, more particularly Friday morning. As she is very badly crippled—cannot stand up or walk without the aid of two sticks—this is not unexpected, and there are doubtless many thousands of others like her in this and the neighbouring boroughs. In addition to this, the houses in"— the street in question— are very old, the rooms badly rattle, the windows and frames, and there was an ominous sign of fine plaster falling from the ceiling of the back addition. Another constituent writes even more vocally and at somewhat greater length and says that he has written to the Ministry of Technology even though it was probably a waste of time". I hastened to assure him, as I am sure my hon. Friend will, that it was not a waste of time. He goes on: I found the series of tests carried out over London last week very disturbing. In the old building where we live, the whole place shook as though there had been a serious ground explosion in the vicinity—the test carried out on Friday being the worst of all. Many of the buildings around West Kensington are not in the soundest of condition, despite all sorts of repairs, and frequent sonic booms would surely weaken them… We have an autistic child who is extremely sensitive to sound and who hates loud and sudden noises. We would have to try and move away to somewhere off the flight paths (will there be any such place?) if sonic booms become frequent.… It is not just the sonic boom—it is all the noises and stresses of modern life plus the boom. If you know this part of London you will be aware of the incredible strain it is living here. A third letter said: I probably would not have written to you, as I know that you have this problem in mind, were it not for the fact that I have just been made to jump out of my skin by a sonic boom test. I fear that unless we protest it will be thought that we do not object, and I hope that you will use this opportunity to press the objection on the Minister of Technology. This debate provides an opportunity to point out to the Minister and to the Government that if they are to have a second series of boom tests they do have to face the fact that objections are still coming in now, following the first.

I wonder whether I may just consider the main arguments which were presented by the Government for holding these tests, for I think there are two questions which call to be asked, and to be answered by the Government, because if the nation is to be asked to put up with these tests it is up to the Government to make sure that a very strong case is made out for inflicting this type of noise upon the population. The first thing I want to know is: what are these tests for? What are they actually designed to prove? The second question is: are the Government satisfied with the way in which they were carried out, and what are the results of these tests?

Taking the first of those questions, it is important to see precisely what the Government said when the tests were announced initially on 4th July by my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse). It is essential that we look at the small print, and not merely at the general line. He said: Before undertaking any major programme of sonic bang tests it would be desirable to have a relatively small preliminary exercise. Presumably a relatively small preliminary exercise is what we have had in the last week. He went on: It has been decided that during the month of July Lightning aircraft … should be permitted to fly supersonically over various parts of Southern England in such a way as to create sonic bangs at intensities known from previous experience to be well below those likely to cause damage. In answer to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), who asked what he meant when he spoke of a major programme of sonic bang tests, my hon. Friend said: The character of the bangs created by the Lightning aircraft are not comparable to the bangs expected to be created by the Concord. We are moving on to a major programme of tests, we hope in collaboration with the French and the Americans."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th July, 1967; Vol. 749, c. 1568–70.] On 18th July, after the tests had been conducted, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology answered some questions in the House, during the course of which he said: What has happened in these tests is that we have authorised some supersonic flying at an intensity well below that which would be experienced from supersonic airliners. The emphasis placed upon the tests by the Government before they were carried out was that they were not comparable to what could be expected from supersonic airliners. The emphasis after the tests were completed was that they were mild. My right hon. Friend described them as "mild supersonic flights". In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan), the Minister said: As I explained, until Concord flies we shall not know the exact character of its noise when flying supersonically, but there is a strong case for starting with a moderate bang and seeing whether this is tolerable before proceeding further."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th July, 1967: Vol. 750, cc. 1719–1723.] On the basis of what the Government said both before and immediately after the tests, it looks as if what we have had over the last week is a mild dose of something which we may have to experience again in the future, at an intensity well below that which would be experienced from supersonic airliners.

One other point which emerges from a comparison of the two statements is that, on 4th July, people were asking, understandably, what was the purpose of the tests. My hon. Friend the Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks) asked whether production orders for the Concord will not be confirmed until the results of such tests are seen to be reassuring. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State said—and I invite the House to mark these words, because they are important— … the options on Concord do not depend upon supersonic flying over land because the economics of the operation of Concord will be even more favourable if confined to flying over the sea. As I read and understand that, what the Government were saying was that the prospects of selling and the options for the purchase of Concord do not depend upon the prospective purchasers being satisfied with the results of tests over land in this country.

When it comes to the Minister himself, on 18th July the picture seems to have changed. In answer to a Question from me, he said: I ask the House to consider the fact that substantial sums of public money are being expended by this country on an advanced aircraft, the financial success of which will in part depend on whether it flies over other people's territory. It is no good our saying that we want other people to buy it and to have it fly over their countries when we are not even prepared to see whether some mild supersonic flights over the United Kingdom are tolerable To compare the reasons which apparently underlay the tests, on 4th July the economic success of the Concord sales was not a factor. On the other hand, on 18th July the financial success of selling Concord in the world market depended on whether other people were prepared to have it fly over their countries. The confusion between the two statements is one reason why I am glad that this debate is taking place.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

Before leaving this point, would my hon. Friend address himself to whether general supersonic flying over land should be prohibited? Is it not the case that the threat is not only from the Concord, but from the supersonic aircraft of other nations?

Mr. Richard

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. That was to be my concluding point. However, before I come to that, perhaps I may be permitted to draw one or two conclusions from the facts as I have tried to present them so far.

On the facts which the Government have put forward, we know, first, that this was not a major programme of tests. Second, we know that the level of intensity of the bangs which we have experienced already is much lower than that which could reasonably be expected from supersonic aircraft, particularly from the Concord.

We still do not know why we needed these tests and, on 18th July, I asked the Minister: Is it not true that the country was assured that the Concord would not fly at supersonic speed over large areas of population such as London? If that is so, may I ask, why these tests are being carried out? What are they to establish? I did not get an answer to that question, and I hope that I might be told tonight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan put it in much the same way. He asked: Is there any real comparison between the sonic bang emitted from a Lightning aircraft and that which will be emitted from Concord? If not, what is the purpose of the tests? Are they not, at best, a waste of public money and, at worst, highly misrepresentative of the real position? As far as I have been able to gather from the answers given by both Government spokesmen on 4th and 18th July, it seems that the tests are not designed to establish whether the country will accept Concord or supersonic aircraft of that sort flying overhead, but to test public reaction and see whether these tests are tolerable.

What can we expect if the supersonic programme goes through as it is planned at the moment? First, we can expect an increase in normal aircraft noise and disturbance in areas adjacent to major airports, such as that which I represent and in which I live. I trust that the Government will consider the additional noise and disturbance emitted by these very large jets when coming into land at subsonic speeds. The idea of a Concord coming in over West London at about 350 m.p.h. does not give me much cause for delight when I consider the amount of jet noise which we are called upon to put up with at the moment.

If the Boeing 745—the so-called Jumbo-jet—is bought by B.O.A.C. and is to be landed at London Airport, the increase of noise and disturbance in and around the flight paths into London Airport will be considerable. On top of that, we are to be asked to accept sonic booms from overflying supersonic aircraft, which, clearly, will be sharp, irritating, damaging and irregular. We shall not know precisely when they are coming, and how many a day we shall have to endure. One a day of the sort that we had last week was enough, and an unspecified number of much larger and damaging booms will be far too much.

On all the evidence that I have seen produced so far, I do not think that the Government have made out a case which justifies the holding of the present level of tests, let alone a second round which apparently is proposed. What is really at the root of this whole thing is that the Government have pledged themselves to engage in the production of a supersonic aircraft. I welcome this. It seems to me thoroughly desirable that if we are moving into the supersonic age, or the age of supersonic aircraft, Britain must participate in it, but what I am very much against is that we should participate in the supersonic age in such a way as to make intolerable the lives of ordinary people who have to live in the areas below which these aircraft will fly. There is no virtue in crossing the Atlantic in three hours if the result of producing a plane which can do that is to make the lives of 10 million to 15 million people quite intolerable.

As we move into the supersonic era, the Government should be attempting to get some kind of international agreement that supersonic flights will not take place over land. By all means have supersonic flights from Germany to the United States, or from the Scandinavian countries to the United States. I hope that they will take place in British aircraft, but for the life of me I cannot understand why these supersonic aircraft cannot fly down the Channel, and across the Atlantic, rather than going across centres of population, and, indeed, across Great Britain.

The Minister said that the object of these tests was to see whether they were tolerable. On all the evidence which has been produced to me, I am bound to say that I do not think that that level can be tolerated, and that the future levels, which apparently we will have to put up with, will be any more tolerable.

7.21 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

The hon. Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) is no crackpot, and no antedeluvian type, and what he has said must merit attention by the Government. I hope, therefore, that we will have a full and frank answer from the Government today.

I am happy to collaborate with the hon. Gentleman in asking the questions which he has asked. I shall not go over them, but I want them answered, just as I want some of my own questions answered today. I am surprised that the Minister of Technology is not here. I wish no disrespect to the junior Minister, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology, who is to reply to the debate, but the right hon. Gentleman wrote me a perfectly cordial and frank letter in which he said he would be happy to discuss with me the effect of the sonic bangs over the City of Bristol and elsewhere, and if the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to see me, one hon. Member, why is he not prepared to see all the other hon. Members who are interested in this matter?

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman always wants to be fair. The Minister may have been referring to the fact that the hon. Gentleman had a constituency interest, and he wanted to deal with it on that basis.

Mr. Cooke

The hon. Gentleman need not try to rescue his right hon. Friend, who I am sure does not want the hon. Gentleman's help in any case. The point is valid. The right hon. Gentleman told me that he was prepared to discuss with me the whole wide aspect of this matter, and I find it strange that he is not here this afternoon.

I come to the specific points which I want to make, and it will not take me long to make them. I am in a peculiarly qualified position to speak about this subject this afternoon. I think that I am the only hon. Member who was present when the tests took place over Blandford in Dorset, and witnessed them from a modest distance of about 12 miles. I was then present in Bristol throughout the tests there, and I was back in London in time to gain some impression of the effect of these tests over this City.

I am not a nervous individual. It takes a lot to frighten me, and certainly not the Minister of Technology, but there is no doubt that these experiments have frightened normal individuals. Even these experiments are a danger to those in what one might describe as fine operations, or the use of scientific instruments, or in certain processes of medicine and surgery, and some of the complaints which I shall mention have a bearing on this.

Sonic bangs can damage buildings. The present series did just that, and it is no good the Government saying that the buildings they damaged had loose ceilings, or loose panes of glass in the windows. I shall prove in a moment that the objection to these tests is valid. It is no good the Government saying, "You must tighten up your building to make it withstand these stresses". These tests cause damage to buildings, and much louder sonic bangs could do an immense amount of damage.

There is no doubt that the prolonged subjection of people to this sort of noise can produce symptoms of severe stress, which can have a serious effect on people's health. I do not need to quote examples, or to give the House the scientific details. Suffice it to say that if one studies the medical journals issued during the last five to ten years, one sees the growing attention paid by the medical profession to these problems of stress in modern life, and these tests are a shattering example of stress.

The hon. Gentleman asked the Government to give the House the real reason for and purpose of these tests. We shall not be satisfied, and shall not leave the subject, if the Government do not give a satisfactory answer to the reasonable questions which have been asked. What is the real purposes of these tests? They are not typical of what we may expect from the Concord. We are sure of this. The Government have said that the Concord would be louder, and it is not just the loud noise which is so important. One has to consider too the schock, aware or whatever one calls it, and the pressure effect on buildings and on people.

One wonders what the Government are at, and whether they are going to proceed with a realistic mock-up of the sort of bang that we can expect from the Concord. And if they are proposing to go that far, why not go further and anticipate the sort of sonic bangs which will be caused by even larger and faster aircraft? Once a beginning has been made, why not continue it to its logical conclusion.

I have another complaint against the Government. It has not been made today. It is that, by having this unrealistic series of experiments, the Government are doing no good in the way of telling people what they can expect from the Concord, and they are at the same time damaging the image of this great project. The aircraft manufacturers are very doubtful about the wisdom of these tests, and certainly do not seem clear about the Government's purpose in carrying them out. I have it on high authority from those concerned with this project that there can be no question of the Concord flying over dense centres of population, and I take that to mean the whole of the British Isles. Indeed, there would not seem to be many economic advantages in allowing overflying, for the very good reason that the amount of extra time taken through not being able to fly supersonically over land is very small.

I have been prompted to speak because of the reaction which I was able to see at first hand in Dorset, and no doubt Dorset Members will pursue this matter on other occasions. I happen to live there. I witnessed the tests, they were frightening, and they shook buildings. I was in a fifteenth century building when one of these tests was carried out. All the stained glass windows vibrated, and the louder bangs might well do serious damage to them. We have to realise that if we have over-flying by aircraft of the Concord size, or larger, we might on occasions find that the stained glass is stripped out of all the parish churches in the aircraft's path. This is possible, and the Government should bear it in mind.

We are not just concerned with preserving our history. We are much more concerned with preserving human life. We can envisage the danger to human life caused by a sonic bang dislodging part of a very high building. This is an aspect of safety to which the Government have not given sufficient attention. Even in normal circumstances, if part of a high building became detached—such as a piece of cladding, as I believe it is called—from the 30th floor it could kill several people on reaching the ground. No doubt loose parts of high buildings could be dislodged by these bangs. It is a really important matter.

We must remember that this country contains many ancient and valuable buildings—far more than does the United States—and that we have a responsibility to preserve them. In referring to the United States I reflect that many great cities there contain no buildings which are older than 50 years. I remember visiting a city in Texas where the most historic and interesting building I was shown was the town hall, built in 1902. Everything else had been built since then. Nearly everything in America is of an impermanent nature, or can be built to standards which will withstand sonic bangs. But we cannot change ourselves overnight or in even 50 or 100 years.

I want to say something about the letters that I have received from my constituents in Bristol. I want to give the House the benefit of what is said in them, not out of any enthusiasm to make constituency points but because, in quoting from some letters and referring to others, in my experience as a Member for more than ten years I have never had a more formidable and responsible body of correspondence on any subject. These are not the hysterical letters that one receives on the sort of emotional subject to which hon. Members have referred; these are letters from highly responsible people.

I want to refer only to the first 20 letters that I have received, because others are still coming in. The first letter was from a doctor who said that he had no doubt whatever that this sort of stress could undermine people's nerves and result in the complication of all kinds of nervous conditions. The second was from a social worker who said that the noise aspect was a real difficulty in all the work in which she had been engaged for many years, and that this was just another source of anxiety which might well push some delicately balanced cases over the edge.

The third is a typical letter from an ordinary resident. He says that his household experienced a great sense of shock and felt that they must write to me. All their neighbours felt exactly as they did, but it was clear they would not all write because they were not the writing kind. Those who put pen to paper are probably among the minority of those who have deep feelings on the subject. The fourth letter made the point that there would be a decrease in the number of complaints as the tests went on—which was one of the Government's points—but that that was bound to be the case, for the reason that people would write in once and would not go on writing in, having once made their protest.

The fifth letter came from somebody who had been operating a microscope in the Bristol Royal Hospital. He said that he had not actually broken his glasses as he crashed against the eye piece of the microscope, but he had nearly done so, and it was certainly true that the whole investigation was put out of gear. Letter No. 6 came from someone who gave me an impression of the intense effect of the bang upon him. He said that in the basement he had hardly noticed it, but that upstairs it had shaken the whole house. He had seen a small child falter in walking down the street, stagger, clutch its head and start crying.

No. 7 came from a nursery school, not in my constituency in Bristol but in an area somewhat depressed and due shortly for demolition. The letter said that they were sure that some of the ancient buildings would collapse if they were subjected to this sort of thing for any length of time. The writer of the next letter said that glass 30 ft. above him trembled, and that if any of it had been lose it would have fallen upon him.

My next point comes from a letter from a lady whose husband has been chairman of many important local education committees. She makes the point that the decibel measurement so much used by the Government is irrelevant, and that it all depends how the shock waves hits a person and what that person is doing at the time. She also made the point that only a small proportion of people affected and who had deep feeling on the matter would bother to write letters.

The next letter came from a charming lady who said that she fell from her chair when the bang sounded. That may sound funny to some, but that sort of thing has happened to many people, and in the old or nervous it might have serious complications. The next letter said that it was like waiting for an air raid, and that in the writer's street, at any rate, everybody wondered what would hit them next. Somebody writing from a Government Department made the point that not even double glazing had managed to keep out the noise.

The next point concerned the question of noise regulations, and said that the sound of the bang had got through double glazing, and that it had been admitted that the noise standard laid down had not been complied with in the Government office concerned. We know that the Government are somewhat slow to legislate against noise. We have had the Wilson Report on noise, and nothing has been done about it. We have had plenty of noise from certain other Wilsons, but there has been no action on the Wilson Report.

The Minister of Transport has made some lamentable regulations about the noise level for vehicles, and in my opinion a more realistic approach should be followed with the subject of aircraft noise. The next letter concerned a building in course of construction. The vibration seriously upset certain concreting operations, and the whole thing had set crooked. That complication had not occurred to me.

The next letter came from a health centre doctor, who said that his work there had been greatly disturbed. Another was from an independent school saying that the class had been upset, and somebody wrote from a college of further education. All these letters came from teachers engaged in trying to keep the attention of small or large classes. We know how difficult that is in any circumstances.

A housewife wrote to say that her baby had been awakened and had continued crying for some time, and the writer of the next letter thought that a garage in a neighbouring street had blown up. I wondered why he thought that, and took the trouble to investigate the matter very carefully. I discovered that the garage had blown up, with loss of life, some years ago. Imagine the feelings of that con- stituent when another explosion shook the district. The last letter came from the wife of a most distingushed clergyman in the city. I will not name him, for obvious reasons, but this was no mere nervous clergyman's wife, but somebody who has been engaged in dealing with social problems in the city for many years.

These were the first 20 letters that I received, and they merit real attention. This is not the sort of reaction that one gets from something not very important, as happens when people get a little fussed and write to their Member of Parliament. These letters are from responsible people, many of whom engage in medical and scientific activities. They have a real worry. The Government must answer the questions that we ask. We are entitled to know the purpose of the tests and what will happen in future. The House should also insist on knowing who is liable for damage caused. Are Her Majesty's Government liable in the case of damage from a British aircraft? Who is liable if the aircraft concerned belongs to a foreign country?

A plane might do immense damage and blame might be difficult to pin down and no compensation received. Or will Her Majesty's Government take full responsibility for the results of all overflying, whoever the aircraft operator? I am sure that the Government know the legal position, and, if it is unsatisfactory, no doubt they will promise legislation.

As to over-flying rights, have the Government the legal power to prevent other countries over-flying Great Britain at supersonic speeds? If not, they should have. We found that we could not kill pirate radios legally and perhaps we will have difficulty with pirate aircraft. Not only the public but the aircraft industry must be taken into the Government's confidence; perhaps the two interests converge. We must not allow a false impression to be given by the Government proceeding in the wrong way and damaging our aircraft industry, but we must ensure that we are not embarking on a new hazard to life and limb and a new stress in modern life which we can well do without.

7.41 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

I raised this subject last week in a Private Notice Question and was not satisfied with the reply. I have had letters from my constituents on the matter and they do not usually write to me about such things. A number of aged people find these noises very frightening. I have the dubious honour of representing what was the worst-bombed borough in the last war —West Ham—so my aged constituents know about the big bangs of the "doodle bugs" and the rockets and are not afraid of "normal" noise, which went on then from six in the morning to six at night every day of the week, Saturdays and Sundays included. These people are very worried.

The Ministry could suggest that the barrier should be broken over the Channel by aircraft flying into or out of this country. I do not know whether this is technically possible, but, if planes travel at these majestic speeds with thousands of passengers, surely the scientists can find an answer. I pay tribute to what they have done, but they must now overcome the bangs which cause the damage—

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

Has the hon. Gentleman asked his hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) to observe that this country is an island which has plenty of space for supersonic bangs over the water and not the land?

Mr. Lewis

I have said that I am not an expert, but there are thousands of scientific experts in the Ministry and elsewhere who should try to prevent these bangs either over this island or at all. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. This damage affects not only ordinary property, but irreplaceable public buildings. If—which God forbid—Stansted goes ahead, these planes will fly over the 1,100-yearold Thaxted Church, and it will be goodbye to the church. In ordinary houses, plaster comes down from the ceiling and soot from the chimney.

My hon. Friend should take into account not only compensation for obvious damage, but that for damage which may not be apparent for months or even years. At this time, 20 or 25 years after the war, some of my constituents are still discovering damage to roofs or joists but are refused compensation because their application is too late or because the damage cannot be proved to be war damage. The Ministry admits in some instances that it is war damage, but for these reasons, old ladies of 60 or 70 who thought that they would retire in comfort find that they must pay £200 or £300 for roof repairs, and they have not the money. I hope that the Ministry will also bear in mind that some old people may not know how to apply.

A serious aspect of the problem which I raised last week is the question of surgeons operating in hospitals. A number of my friends, a couple even in the House, are surgeons, and I know that a slight mistake at the crucial moment by a surgeon may mean a person losing his brain or his eyes. Perhaps soundproofed surgeries would be possible, or perhaps surgeons could be notified long in advance. Even then, however, the shock may mean the loss of a patient—

Mr. Robert Cooke

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that advance notice would be almost impossible for the Minister to give and that to soundproof and shockproof all our operating theatres would be an immensely costly and lengthy process.

Mr. Lewis

Yes, but to me one life is much more important than the cost. If one life is in danger, and a surgeon loses the life of his patient not because of neglect but because of a bang, this could happen even if he is given the "tip-off". A surgeon cannot delay a cut of the knife until after the bang. Sound-prooffing will cost a tremendous amount, but it is not only a question of surgeons. Doctors sometimes ask nurses to give a jab of penicillin to an aged patient. This might mean that, just as she jabs in the right place, the shock to the poor old lady might be very serious. Such a situation would worry me.

We must be serious about it and consider the effect, for instance, on an aged patient. Last Saturday, I visited a hospital for aged people. Consider the situation if something of this kind were being done to them. It need not be a hypodermic syringe. At the very moment that the nurse is about to do it—in any case the patient is a little nervous—there is the bang, at the crucial moment. It could be damaging to the patient. I ask the Minister to look at all these aspects when dealing with the problem, because whatever he may say about the number of complaints he has had, he must remember that the one telephone line was often jammed when people wanted to get through to the Ministry—or even the few telephone lines in use were jammed. They were not sufficient.

Those who want to complain and cannot get the Ministry's number can always telephone Whitehall 6240 and leave a message of complaint with the Minister. People could also telephone the Prime Minister; they could ask for No. 10 Downing Street, telephone Whitehall 1234 and leave a complaint there. There are various methods of making complaints. If the Minister does not take action he will be inundated with complaints throughout the length and breadth of the country.

7.51 p.m.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

May I congratulate the hon. Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) on his luck in the Ballot and on his choice of a subject, which is timely. May I also congratulate the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) on his extraordinary good fortune in catching the eye of the Chair twice in a matter of four hours having, as he said earlier, sat here for 23 years and made only 10 speeches in that time. I am delighted that his Parliamentary constipation is cured.

May I put a number of questions to the Minister? My speech must very largely consist of questions, because whatever has been the impact on a number of people of these tests in recent weeks, the main impact on most of us is to leave us with many questions, perhaps more questions than when the tests began. Some of the questions relate to the tests themselves.

The Minister should tell us how effective in his opinion these tests were, how effective he believes the machinery set up by the Government for collecting public reaction was and how the Government propose to evaluate the reactions to the tests which, I suggest, may be incomplete reactions because the telephone switchboard at the Ministry of Technology appeared mysteriously to be unable to cope with the demands occasionally put upon it.

There is a question whether these tests were any use at all, and there is the most important question: where do we go from here? As the hon. Member for Barons Court reminded us, it is admitted that the noise in these sonic boom tests did not correspond with that which Concord is expected to produce. To that extent, it seems to me, the tests cannot be said to prove very much except that people can or cannot tolerate the noise made by a Lightening moving at supersonic speed, and presumably that is not the whole purpose of the exercise.

It is also admitted that these tests do not relate to reality. In the first place, we know that an aircraft of the Concord type flying into and out of this country and landing at and taking off from airports in this country is most unlikely to create a sonic boom over the United Kingdom because it will not be supersonic until well out to sea and it will have to come back through the sound barrier well out to sea when approaching this country on a return flight. That is my information, and perhaps the Minister would confirm it.

But, the problem must arise in respect of aircraft taking off from Continental airfields which may or may not transit over the United Kingdom en route to North America. I imagine that this applies particularly to airfields in Germany, in the Low Countries and in Scandinavia. I do not suppose that aircraft taking off from France or other Central European countries are anywhere near as likely to fly over this country.

A point which this brings out is that it ought to be possible to predict the flight paths which such aircraft are likely to follow when overflying the United Kingdom and possibly to adjust them as seems necessary, because I imagine that it is known to air traffic control—or at least they must have done some work on it—which routes they expect these aircraft to take when they over-fly. They may deviate a little, or perhaps not at all, from a Great Circle route but it must be possible to plot that on the map.

I made one particular comment on the tests as they have been undertaken. The Minister told the House on 18th July, as reported in col. 1721 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, that one of the reasons why he chose Bristol as a city to be subjected to the tests was that a great many citizens of Bristol are earning their living by building Concord. With great respect, this does not seem to me to be strictly relevant to the purpose of the tests, which ought to be related to people who may or may not have a vested interest in Concord—I am sure that we all have a vested interest in its success—but who are likely in the event to have to live under the flight paths and who are the only people who will be called upon to judge whether the experience of the sonic boom is tolerable. Unless we are able to tell that a flight path will pass over Bristol—and we have had no such information as yet—then I feel that the reasons given on that occasion should carry no great weight.

Another point which I must put to the Minister as indicating a certain inadequacy in the tests rests on the fact that we know that the flight operation of Concord will enable it to make two return flights across the Atlantic within a 24-hour period. This means that two of those transits will presumably take place during the hours of darkness. I asked the Minister, in a Question today, whether he had any plans to conduct sonic boom tests during the hours of darkness, and in reply he said that he had no such plans at present. I believe that before any test series can be said to have been properly and completely carried out it will be necessary for the Minister to investigate this element of it. I am not seeking to prejudge the effects of sonic booms during the hours of darkness, but I am saying that if the tests are to be carried out thoroughly it will be necessary, before the Government can establish whether they are prepared to tolerate such flights over this country, to have experimented with flights at night, unless flights in the day time are found to be intolerable—and it would be interesting to know what are the Government's precise intentions.

It may be that they are already disposed to conclude that flights in daytime would be intolerable, but I doubt very much whether they have sufficient evidence for such a conclusion. The House at least ought to be told what are the plans for experimentation on which the Government conceive themselves to be embarked.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

I am interested, of course, not only in the questions being asked, but also in the general trend. To clarify the position, will the hon. Member reaffirm that the Opposition still support the production of a supersonic aircraft?

Mr. Onslow

I will most readily reaffirm that. There is no question about that at all. I have, I hope, made it clear that we support this project and wish to see it succeed. At the same time, I do not believe that the best path for success to the Concord is likely to lie through what may appear to many people to be inadequate tests and which can give only the impression that somewhere somebody has something to hide. It seems to me that the case is overwhelmingly one in which frankness will carry the day.

If the Concord project is to succeed—and we must all heartily wish it success —the Government must not appear to be evading the issue, to be deceiving people, to be creating the impression that there is something to hide and to be embarked on a conditioning process—not a series of tests but a phychological softening up. This is a point to which I had intended to come, in any event.

May I quote some words used by the Minister of Technology, again on 18th July, as reported in col. 1723 of the OFFICIAL REPORT. He said: We have made available to a wider range of people an opportunity to decide whether this is an intolerable interference with privacy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th July, 1967: Vol. 750, c. 1723.] I do not quite like the tone of the words, "made available". They are curiously paternalistic.

But I leave that point. What I and the country wish to be satisfied about is whether the tests are genuine, whether there is a genuine intention by the Government to carry them out methodically, evaluate them properly, publish the findings and satisfy people that, for once, there has been a proper inquiry and not just a ritual genuflection to the altar of public opinion. I believe that most people have had enough of "fudged" inquiries. They have had enough of the situation where the Government go through the motions on the Stansted pattern and, at the end, cannot really claim that justice has been seen to be done.

I want Concord to succeed. I want people to have the opportunity to judge for themselves properly whether they can or cannot accept such penalties in the form of noise as Concord may produce. I want the Government to be prepared, if necessary, to tell us that they will insist on deviations in the flight path where they are shown by proper tests to be necessary. I very much hope that the Minister can now satisfy the House and the country that proper tests will be thoroughly carried out, and that he will tell us as soon as possible when and how this will be done.

8.2 p.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

We are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) for raising this subject. I was interested to hear him say that he wanted the supersonic aircraft without the supersonic noise. He asked why the Government have not taken action to mitigate the effects of aircraft noise. But this is precisely what they have done, because from 22nd to 30th November last year there was an international conference sponsored by the Board of Trade on the reduction of noise and disturbance caused by civil aircraft in London. The conclusions are in a report which I had assumed most hon. Members would have looked at. I shall refer to some of those conclusions later.

Mr. Richard

I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish to misrepresent my point. I said that of course I was in favour of Concord, but that I realised that one could not mitigate the effect of a sonic bang. If an aircraft flies at more than 760 miles an hour a bang will be made, and I asked the Government to ensure that it is made over the ocean.

Mr. Rankin

These are all matters Which will be dealt with when Concord flies.

One small assumption that appears in the debate is that people do not like noise; that they are alarmed by it; fear it; or dislike it. But just before I entered the Chamber I was sitting on the Terrace with friends and a number of other hon. Members. The noise created by the river steamers moving up and down the river made conversation absolutely impossible. That happens on the doorstep of Parliament, yet not a single hon. Member has ever made a protest about it to my knowledge. But repeatedly when I have been serving in Committee, windows which have been opened to allow in a breath of fresh air have had to be closed, because of the noise made by river steamers, in order that the business might proceed uninterrupted. Therefore, we accept noise. [Interruption.] I wish that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) would either rise and interrupt or keep quiet.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I was saying that the windows never fall out in the Committee rooms, as has happened in some places where there have been sonic bangs.

Mr. Rankin

I do not know why the windows should fall out of a Committee room. As far as I know, there are no self-motivated windows in the House of Commons, and there have been no windows so shattered by the eloquence which they must hear in a Committee that they fall out involuntarily. Therefore, perhaps we have a special type of glass.

I am merely stating facts without suggesting solutions. I believe that people accept noise today and that they expect it. Tomorrow afternoon we shall approve an arrangement between Germany, France and Britain to proceed with the building of an airbus which will hold 300 people and in all probability be even noisier than Concord. I prophesy that scarcely a protest will be made here against more noise being inflicted upon us, because we accept it.

This is shown by the fact that people demand speed. I know nobody who does not want to move from A to B more speedily than his grandfather and grandmother did. Because of the desire for speed we must make it a crime for people to move too speedily on the road. Therefore, we post up notices saying, "Thou shalt not move at more than 70 miles an hour on this part of the M4. If you do, you are breaking the law of Britain." The demand for speed and the noise that goes with it are both very great.

As a user of the M4 on my way to London Airport on Friday nights, I have been repeatedly flashed at and hooted off the fast lane, when I was doing 70 miles an hour, by a car behind me that was travelling at 90 miles an hour. We have taken its number and described its occupants to the Ministry of Transport and said, "Here is somebody breaking your laws", but the Ministry have never done a blinking thing about it. Therefore, people can break the law with impunity and they do it every Friday night when I am on the M4. Perhaps they do it only when I am there. People want to move more quickly than the law allows and they therefore break the law.

The same desire is true of railways. People do not now go by slow trains. Today travel between London and Liverpool by train is just as quick as it was by aircraft a few years ago. We are now moving so fast between Glasgow and London by air that we are as a result making a noise which is unbearable for anyone underneath an aircraft carrying passengers from Glasgow to London. Yet there are more people travelling between these two places today than even B.E.A. dreamed of when it started the service. Today, instead of taking three and a quarter hours or, later, one hour 40 minutes, as used to be the case, it now takes 51 minutes to travel those 410 miles.

So nobody need tell me that people do not want to move more quickly. It is because speed is greater than ever on roads, on rails, and in the air, that more people are travelling by these methods, and people want speed. They realise that if they want to move more quickly they must accept the noise which goes with it, because speed means power and power means noise. Although the airbus engine may not drive the aircraft as quickly as a supersonic unit does, it will be as powerful in many ways, because it has to carry three times the number of passengers as the supersonic aircraft will carry.

I have heard a number of deviations from the argument about the effect of noise on a surgeon. I heard the supersonic bangs last week. I question their wisdom, but they did not startle me unduly. I told the Minister that I did not think that the timing of these tests was good, but it was a Ministerial decision and Ministers must accept responsibility for those tests. The decision was made. The tests created a disturbance.

They did not bother me greatly. I would imagine that what would disturb a surgeon engaged in a delicate operation far more than a supersonic bang would be heavenly bangs of the type that occurred in the early hours of that same morning. They woke me. Anything that wakens me in the middle of the night must be greater than the supersonic bang. Nature can create disturbances of which the supersonic engine is not yet capable. I should imagine that a surgeon engaged in giving a penicillin jab to an old lady might, when that peal of thunder came, have sent the penicillin phial right through her and out the other side.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

British and international scientists, engineers and technicians have made the supersonic aeroplane and other wonderful achievements. In that case, I suggest that they can find the answer to the bang, but I do not think that even the greatest scientists can deal with an act of God, because the Almighty is a little more important and powerful than scientists.

Mr. Rankin

If I am as lucky as my hon. Friend, some day I shall achieve his record of making four speeches in one afternoon on different subjects. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his wonderful performance this afternoon, which has been achieved with my co-operation and with the tolerance of the Chair.

The Government have been taking action. The Report insists that if action has to be taken and is to be effective it must be international. The Report stresses that no nation can do this by itself. The Conference points out that design changes aimed at noise reduction are likely to involve some penalties in operating costs. This is important, because one of the drawbacks to the more widespread use of air travel is the cost of the ticket. The conference tells us that the incorporation of design changes to mitigate cost will carry some penalties in the way of increased operating costs. This means that aircraft could be more costly. They are already a pretty costly item to the operator. Therefore, this is an inhibiting factor in securing the beneficial changes which we want to make in flying with less noise.

The main conclusions of the conference are summarised in a number of paragraphs. The first conclusion is: It is technically possible for aircraft with worth-while improvements in noise characteristics to be produced in future, but this is likely to involve economic penalties which may be substantial. This aspect evidently appealed to the representatives from all over the world, including both capitalist and Communist countries. The conference goes on to suggest steps which could be taken. For instance, it recommends that Action should be put in hand at once introduce a system of noise certification of aircraft".

Mr. Edwin Brooks (Bebington)

I am following my hon. Friend's argument. Will he explain what relevance the possibility of the reduction in noise level has to the problem of sonic booms?

Mr. Rankin

Noise is not related only to the sonic boom. Sonic boom is noise, but an aircraft which travels at 610 m.p.h. makes a noise which is quite distracting at times. I travel in one.

Mr. Brooks

I live under them.

Mr. Rankin

Also I sometimes sit under the aircraft when it is passing over on the flight path and the noise it makes is quite noteworthy and might distract a great many people. So we have to regard these conclusions as applying to noise not only in sonic but also in supersonic aircraft.

The Report suggests that an aircraft should be certificated for airworthiness and also for the amount of noise it makes. It goes on to make another valuable recommendation, pointing out that this is not a problem that we in Britain alone are interested in but that it is one in which all countries are interested. In effect, it says that our research into aircraft noise should be international and urgently pursued and that there should be close liaison between the countries concerned with such research. This would mean that, when a supersonic aircraft of one country wanted to fly over another country which had no supersonic aircraft as yet, the second country would be more amenable in coming to an arrangement about the speed at which the aircraft was to fly over it.

There are one or two little suggestions, such as improving the characteristics and instrumentation of aircraft so that improved approach procedures with reduced power could be adopted, because it is as it is coming down and going up that an aircraft can make a great deal of noise. The Report went on to conclude: The conference has established, however, that the substantial reduction of disturbance from aircraft noise without inhibiting the essential development and expansion of civil aviation is a practicable objective. This Conference inquired into the problem we are discussing—a problem that must be inquired into closely. It told us that, by going ahead and trying to limit noise, we are not at the same time going to inhibit the essential development and expansion of civil aviation. Thus are we reassured in our desire to do things more quietly—what a wonderful idea that we should do things more quietly—not only in the air but also at home, where one sometimes yells at the kids if they are too noisy, and in the House of Commons.

8.22 p.m.

Mr. Edwin Brooks (Bebington)

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) for initiating this debate on an important subject which has aroused a great deal of public interest. Newspaper correspondence columns are laden with letters of anxiety and it is clear that many thousands of people are very anxious about the implications of the tests that are being or have recently been carried out. It is obvious that the argument over sonic booms will be complicated. During the last few weeks, they have been almost as loud and certainly more continuous than the celestial bangs we have been suffering during the tests.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) has contributed to the general debate in stressing that the problem of noise is not simply one of sonic booms which are merely one additional factor, although serious, in what has become a national scandal. What seemed to me particularly disturbing about his contribution lay in his early remarks, because he described to us, how a few hours ago, he was sitting with friends on the Terrace, where they held a totally inaudible conversation. If we are to be reduced to a state where, if we invite guests to the House, we can communicate only by sign language or lip reading, or perhaps, as time goes on and our senses develop, by telepathy, I suppose that we shall learn to live with noise.

Another disturbing aspect is that so few hon. Members have protested and that so few of the public are any longer outraged by the deterioration that has taken place in our environment over many years. We have to some extent been corrupted by the very persistence, by the all-pervading character, of the noise which day and night descends upon us.

To that extent, this debate is important because we are now at least in a position where we can, if we look ahead with sufficient foresight, guard against falling into the trap into which we have so often fallen—of feeling that there is nothing to be done about the inexorability and inevitability of progress.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Over many years, many hon. Members, headed by Sir Rupert Speir, persistently campaigned against the increasing development of noise in everyday life. This resulted in the setting up of the Wilson Committee, the Report of which the Government have done nothing about.

Mr. Brooks

The hon. Gentleman is right in the first part of his intervention. I am not suggesting that, as the years have gone by, all of us have been notably silent in our reactions to this noise problem. I was specifically taking up the point made by my hon. Friend and drawing what seemed to me legitimate conclusions.

I suppose that I can claim, if it is wise to do so—which I doubt—a slight responsibility for these tests which are making us human guinea pigs in that I sought, in an Adjournment debate last February, an undertaking from the Minister that research would be carried out to establish the tolerability of supersonic flying over this country.

Like many who have spoken, I have also received a large number of letters from all over the country and I add my view to those expressed that these letters are in my experience universally coming from people making serious representations. They are not letters from cranks. They are from people deeply anxious, and I hope that these representations will be taken with equal seriousness by the Government.

However, any pleasure that I might have felt a few weeks ago that my call for research had at last been answered has, I regret to say, been sadly eroded in the event. I share the view that has been widely expressed in the last few weeks, not only here, but throughout the country, that these occasional, infrequent, daylight-only tests are of little, if any, objective value. Indeed, they could be positively misleading.

I appreciate—or I thought this was the position until this afternoon—that further tests are planned, including tests with the real article, the prototype Concord, which will be flying as from spring next year. I say I thought this was the position, but I am now just a little worried by an Answer to a Question which I put to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology this afternoon. It is a short Question and a short Answer, but I hope the House will bear with me and perhaps share my feeling that this is an Answer to a different Question.

I asked the Minister of Technology …by what means he measures the true volume of public disquiet over sonic boom tests, when telephone lines to his department are jammed for long periods. I tabled this Question shortly after I had information that several hours were necessary by some trying to get in contact with the Ministry to make protests.

This is the Answer: The recent tests did not creat booms comparable to those that will be made by supersonic airliners"— this we have already been told, but I should like to return to that point in a moment— and a public opinion poll would have proved nothing. Later tests—if they are held—would provide an opportunity for a scientific survey of public reaction. No decision on future tests has yet been made. If it is the case that no more rigorous and scientific tests are carried out in subsequent months, I shall be forced to assume that we have had an exercise in public deception.

I should like to go back through that Answer briefly and explain why I think this stricture is justified. The Minister has said: The recent tests did not create booms comparable to those that will be made by supersinoc airliners …". Yet if it is true, as in my own recollection of a recent television programme the Director of the Concord project took great pains to stress, that the booms expected from Concord would not be so significantly higher than the Lightning booms, then this Answer is meaningless. He was pressed on the point several times by the interviewer, and I am sure that a transcript of that interview would confirm the point that I am making.

However, I am more concerned about the latter part of the Answer. The Minister goes on to say: …and a public opinion poll would have proved nothing. This, with respect, is absolute nonsense. A public opinion poll carried out on a proper sampling basis would have established public reaction to the tests which have been carried out. To say that a public opinion poll properly carried out would have proved nothing is absolute gibberish. He goes on: Later tests—if they are held"— I would have thought that by now it was obvious we need further tests— would provide an opportunity for a scientific survey of public reaction. By implication it is already admitted that the tests which we have just experienced were in no sense scientific. If this is so it seems very serious indeed that the people of this country have been led to experience what have undoubtedly, as we have heard from letters read to us, been distressing experiences for reasons which are non-scientific and were in any case, if we had carried out scientific tests, such that a public opinion poll would have proved nothing at all.

I appreciate, or at least I thought I did, the motive behind these tests. It is to recoup the maximum return from the £280 million—£250 million plus £30 million intramural expenditure—of British taxpayer's money which has already been committed to the research and development programme. But if we are to pursue maximum profitability at the cost of irretrievably damaging our physical environment, particularly the all-pervasive environment, the very skies of earth, then we shall be guilty of that same foolish short-sightedness which we rightly condemned in 19th century capitalist Britain.

The Government may attempt to justify these preliminary tests on the grounds that something is better than nothing and we now have at least some evidence from field tests of public reaction to these specific booms.

I come back to the point which I made earlier—that if we are now to have on television responsible people connected with the Concord project telling us that these tests are meaningful in terms of what Concord will involve, all I can say is that my faith in the objectivity and motive of these tests is very badly shaken. Of course the tests lack meaning in any scientific sense. We do not test a representative sample.

I would accept that protests following consecutive tests might have some interest to us and even some slight value scientifically, but, as has been said many times, the telephone lines have often been jammed by protests. I put down another Question today: To ask the Minister of Technology, when he intends to install an adequate number of telephone lines to receive the complaints over sonic booms sent to his Department. My right hon. Friend answered. The numbers of lines available were increased substantially when it became apparent that many people preferred to telephone rather than write, and as a result the delays in getting through were reduced. This is like Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps we have proved one thing from these tests: we do not know what the public reaction to sonic booms is, not even those made by the Lightnings, but at least we know that people normally prefer to telephone rather than write to Ministers. This is an achievement of some moment and perhaps we should give it a moment's silence in reverence.

But, in all seriousness, is this the sort of preparatory work which should be carried out before tests of this sort are undertaken? Is it true that we can have only one telephone line with a number of extensions when thousands of people are telephoning and then half way through finding that the number of lines available has to be increased substantially so that as a result the delays in getting through are reduced, although there were still delays and apparently no method of recording calls so that people did not have to wait for half an hour or an hour or more to get through?

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when I tried to ring up the Ministry of Technology on a serious matter from the House of Commons the other day, I could not get through for half an hour because of the protests? Can he say how many lines the Ministry of Technology has?

Mr. Brooks

I am not the one to say how many lines the Ministry of Technology has, or whether it has any lines. I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman got through after half an hour; he obviously received privileged treatment.

What about the tests? We have had no night flights at all, although it is obvious that if Concord is to fly it will have to fly at night to justify its carrying capacity. The booms have been few and far between, just the odd one occasionally. But, of course, if Concord is flying and the American SST is flying in large numbers in 10 or 20 years from now, we will not have one boom at eleven o'clock in the morning, but it will be boom, boom, boom, all day and all night, not just for a few months, but for all our lives and our children's lives and our grandchildren's lives. That is the prospect to which we have to look forward.

It is true that the booms have lacked the intensity of Concord and yet someone looking through a microscope knocked it out of adjustment because he was so startled and someone fell off a chair. The booms from Concord will not be nearly as great as will be the booms from the American SST, because it will be a much bigger plane flying at mach 3 instead of mach 2.2. Although it is some exaggeration, in my present mood I feel like saying that the tests which we have had have been like the telephone pips in comparison with what we will get from the Boeing SST.

If this is to be the product of skilful lobbying by the pro-Concord lobby, many of us will feel disposed to throw our weight into the anti-Concord agitation. Yet I have doubts about whether a simple antagonism to Concord is the answer. We have passed the point of no return. It is worth considering whether if Concord were to be scrapped the American programme, already facing severe financial strains and anxieties, might be wound up with a sigh of relief.

In the Financial Times of 19th July there was an article by the California correspondent pointing out that by the time the SST American supersonic transport is ready for commercial operation, the bill will have come to about 3,400 million dollars. This will have been provided in the form of 726 million from the Government, 1,300 million from the airlines and 310 million in the form of tax concessions, but that will still leave Boeing with about 1,000 million dollars to find, which may be as much as twice the company's present net worth.

This is the scale of the expenditure about which we are talking. This is the loading that scarce specialist scientific men and materials will have to bear if Britain, America and other countries go in for supersonic transport programmes. If I thought that scrapping Concord would mean abolishing supersonic transport as such, I would feel that the case for cancellation was made. However I must say that, pending an explicit agreement between the supersonic manufacturers, and this includes Russia and France, to declare a ban on SSTs, I am wary of the American motive in stimulating the anti-Concord pressure in Britain.

This game is not being played for marbles, but for billions of pounds worth of potential orders. For us to pull out—even if it were contractually possible, which I doubt—would be to sell the pass on sophisticated aero-technology to the United States of America. Therefore, we may have to learn to live with Concord, even if we should resist the blandishments of those who want us to love it. Learning to coexist with new, noisy and dangerous forms of transport has been a recurring dilemma since the Industrial Revolution.

It has not always been solved successfully, and the Buchanan critique is testimony to our failure to segregate dangerous vehicles from vulnerable pedestrians. In the case of Concord and the Boeing, too, the parallel of the motorways solution is worth considering. We separate traffics to ensure their safety and efficiency. A balance has to be struck. Today, we need to plan for the segregation of the supersonic to ensure peace of mind of millions of people.

The choice is quite stark and simple. Either we plan for supersonic flight paths over sea, or we shall have supersonic blight paths over land—a mounting barrage of supersonic booms, a perpetual thunderstorm rumbling across the heavens—and this must not be our legacy to future generations. I do not think that it is necessary, even if we do not accept the place of the SST in our global transport system.

The great world ocean routes can be employed. Most of the world's cities of 1 million population or more lie on or near the coasts. The SST can fly over the polar route, between Western Europe and East Asia and avoid populated areas. It can fly to the overwhelmingly coastal cities of Latin America and it can cut the travelling time to Australasia from Japan, from Panama and Southern Africa. Much of the Southern hemisphere is ocean, and as development proceeds in those regions we shall see new scope for the SST on routes which are at present ill-frequented.

Concord is a practical proposition and can be a massive earner of foreign exchange. If we can reconcile the legitimate commercial pursuits with the protection of human beings down below, we should not be too despondent. Even if the market is cut by a factor of perhaps 40 per cent. it would still be a viable proposition. The research and development costs of Concord have been met solely out of the British and French tax-payers' pockets. There is great ambiguity over the production financing of the plane. I hear that the French Government are now considering, or may well be committed, to another £100 million plus, in addition to the £250 million already spent on research and development, to get the production lines moving.

I hope that no decisions are taken on this problem, or at least announced, before we resume after the recess. Whenever the decision to finance production is taken I hope that the reluctance of the contractors to contribute a penny of their own money to research and development or production financing will be reflected in profit margins.

8.44 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology (Mr. Edmund Dell)

May I first join with those who have complimented my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) on having raised this debate on what is a most important subject. I hope that I will be able to deal adequately with the debate despite the absence of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology to which the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) referred.

My right hon. Friend also regrets his absence. He would have preferred to reply to this debate. He made a statement in the House and answered Questions about it. This is a debate on a most important subject concerning all of us, and clearly concerning the quality of life in this country. This subject will have an important effect upon amenity and health, which we hope to assess. I am as concerned as any hon. Member that we should not do anything which would unnecessarily damage the quality of life or have an effect on amenity or health. My view of technology is that it should enrich life and not impoverish it. It is in that spirit that I approach this subject.

Hon. Members have said that we should not disregard the message brought to us, to them and, indeed, to the Ministry of Technology by the many letters and telephone calls which we have received. We will not ignore them. The letters contain information which will be of very great importance in the ultimate decision which has to be made. Against these considerations, there are balancing considerations which cannot be ignored. All hon. Members who have spoken have welcomed the fact that we are developing the Concord and have hoped that it will be a success. Hon. Members must remember that there will be an economic penalty to be paid if it were decided by this or any other country that supersonic flight over land could not be permitted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court suggested that an assurance had been given that the Concord would not fly supersonically over the United Kingdom and that my right hon. Friend had not dealt with that question when he raised it on 18th July. My right hon. Friend said: I do not recall an assurance being given" —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th July, 1967; Vol. 750. c. 1720.] of the sort to which my hon. Friend referred. Since then, I have made it my business to check whether any such assurance was given. No such assurance has been given at any time.

Mr. Richard

The point which I was making was that the Minister of Technology did not deal with the rest of the questions which I asked him, namely, what was the object of the tests and how much worse they would get.

Mr. Dell

I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that no assurance of the type which he suggested has been given by the Government.

We have made an estimate of the likely effect on the market for Concord of a decision to ban supersonic flight over land, and we believe that it could reduce the potential market by about 40 per cent. This is only an estimate, and we cannot be certain that that would be the effect, but this is the scale of the problem. A decision to ban supersonic flight over land would undoubtedly cost this country a very considerable amount of money in lost sales.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Surely we are not arguing that an aeroplane could fly supersonically over land. It can fly supersonically over this island and not give any trouble as long as the supersonic bang resulting from breaking the sound barrier takes place elsewhere. Surely the hon. Gentleman is not arguing against that happening?

Mr. Dell

If the United Kingdom bans supersonic flight over this country, we must accept that that will give a lead to other countries which are not so conveniently placed as we are. Equally, it is not simply a question of aircraft leaving airports in the United Kingdom, where undoubtedly the problem of when those aircraft achieve supersonic speed could be easily handled. It is also a question of flight paths across the United Kingdom from, for example, the North American Continent to destinations in Europe.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) asked me where the flight paths were likely to be located. This would be a matter of judgment and estimate. We have looked at this matter, and I assure him that flight paths would be likely to pass over the United Kingdom at several points. This is an aspect which we must consider.

Mr. Onslow

We were told originally that these tests would be confined to southern England. Am I now to infer that the flight paths would cross over several points in southern England only or that there are other points in northern England which might be affected where tests so far have not been mounted?

Mr. Dell

Flight paths might pass over many parts of the country other than southern England.

The other aspect is that we all want to make Concord a success. Concord is a technological triumph for this country and France. It is an aircraft which represents a considerable technical lead over anything that the United States has so far achieved and we will have it in the air well in advance of the United States. This aspect of the Concord as a technological triumphy for this country must also be considered, and we want to make it an economic success.

I emphasise, however, that on this important subject the Government have not yet made up their minds what should be the right policy to adopt. They will probably not make up their mind about this for some time. Probably further tests will be needed. If they are carried out, a scientifically conducted social survey will be conducted with them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks) criticised an Answer which he received today which stated that an opinion poll on the current series of tests would have proved nothing. That conclusion should be entirely acceptable to my hon. Friend. We have not really had a test of the effect of supersonic travel over this island on health and amenity. We have had 11 supersonic bangs. My hon. Friend should accept in the terms of his own argument that a public opinion poll about this would have proved nothing.

Some aspects of the problem can be tested. Tests can tell us something about supersonic flight over land. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) referred to dangers that might arise from supersonic flight over land. We can assess from tests whether such dangers are real. In France, between 400 and 500 supersonic flights over land are taking place without any known danger. In the United States, supersonic flights are currently taking place over land without any known danger. We can, however, assess this problem by means of tests.

Equally, we can assess the effect upon health. This was referred to by the hon. Member for Bristol, West, whose concern I recognise. We can assess to some extent the effect on amenity. We can assess the effect on physical structures, a point which the hon. Member for Bristol, West also made, although our present view is that the only buildings which are likely to be affected by the sorts of pressures which any likely supersonic bangs would cause would be buildings which are already in a very poor condition. The hon. Member may have seen the article in The Times of Saturday, 22nd July, which referred to the tests which have taken place at Oklahoma City, where it was shown that the supersonic bangs did not cause significant damage even to buildings which had been specially weakened to test what the effect might be.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Can the hon. Gentleman give an idea of the force of the Oklahoma City tests? Can he marry the experience there with the effect in this country if we had a heavy sonic bang on things like church windows, of which we have a much greater number, and on high buildings which might have loose parts, which might be shaken off and fall on people below?

Mr. Dell

The pressures used in the Oklahoma test were referred to in the article in The Times. It stated that the pressures were of the order of 1.5 lb. per sq. ft.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. He said that the effect would depend to some extent on whether buildings were defective. That is my point. In my constituency, two-thirds of the property other than council flats and houses is already nearly tailing down. Indeed, there was an occasion when a man went out of the front door, slammed it and the house fell down. This is no laughing matter. What will happen when we get a few heavy sonic bangs?

Mr. Dell

I remind my hon. Friend that the point I am making is that this is precisely the sort of question, of the effect of supersonic flying on buildings, which could be tested by means of a test. I am merely drawing to the attention of the House that it is only specific matters which can be tested by means of tests such as those which took place in Oklahoma City. One thing which, I think, is of the highest importance in this matter cannot be tested, and that is, what would be the effect on people, not of tests which everyone knows will come to an end, but of the realisation that supersonic bangs would be going on indefinitely and would be a permanent characteristic of life in the future. This is an aspect which cannot be simulated, but on which in the end judgment will have to be made. It is, clearly, an aspect of which the Government are aware and will take into account when a decision comes to be made.

I can give this assurance to the House, that there will be no further tests this summer, and that if further tests are conducted at a later date an announcement will be made, and there will be, as has been said, a more systematic attempt to assess public reaction.

I have been asked why we conducted this sort of test. The short answer was given by the Minister of State on 4th July, when he said: Before undertaking any major programme of sonic bang tests it would be desirable to have a relatively small preliminary exercise." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th July, 1967; Vol. 749, c. 1568.] This is what this has been, a relatively small preliminary exercise.

The hon. Member for Woking suggested, in one of his more high-flying moments, that we were attempting by this means to condition the population. It would indeed be interesting if we could condition the population by means of 11 sonic bangs. We should have a sense of proportion, and realise what in fact has happened. We have had 11 sonic bangs. This compares with the number of supersonic bangs during the Oklahoma-City tests, which amounted to 1,250. This is certainly not a conditioning operation.

On the contrary, and this would have been welcomed, I should have thought, by my hon. Friends who have doubts, the real effect of what we have done, and which was in a sense the real purpose, is to alert public opinion to the problem, which has been mentioned before in the House, of the effect of supersonic bangs. My hon. Friend the Member for Bebington raised this during an Adjournment debate in February. Remarks which have been made on this subject in the past have been treated with a deafening silence. Public opinion previously was not aware of what a supersonic bang really was. Now the public knows something about it, and we are in this country beginning to form an informed opinion on the issues which are involved.

Mr. Richard

My hon. Friend is very good at giving way. Would he deal with the point which, I think, is crucial? Answering questions on 18th July the Minister of Technology said in effect that we were having a small exercise to see what would be tolerable. We have had the exercise. Can my hon. Friend say whether, in the considered judgment of the Government, it is tolerable or it is not tolerable?

Mr. Dell

I have already told my hon. Friend that we have not yet made any decision whether it is tolerable or not. We have not yet got the information to decide whether it is tolerable or not.

I would, with respect to my hon. Friend, suggest that this sort of textual criticism of what my right hon. Friend and others have said in the past will not help. We have to establish the facts and make a decision in the light of such facts as we can establish.

Mr. Onslow

Perhaps it is perverse of us to pay too much attention precisely to those words, but may I remind the hon. Gentleman again that the Minister of Technology, whom I am glad to see with us now, said on 18th July, We have made available to a wider range of people an opportunity to decide whether this is an intolerable interference with privacy." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th July, 1967; Vol. 750, c. 1723.] It has now been put to us that this cannot have been the purpose of the test, and surely the Ministry must have learnt that the result cannot show whether this was tolerable or not?

Mr. Dell

On the contrary, quite clearly it could have been established by the tests that this was an intolerable interference with privacy. From the evidence which we are now analysing, one conclusion might be that it is not and that future tests will have to take place. That is the next decision which we have to make. We have achieved the object of informing people about the nature of a supersonic bang.

Criticism has been made that better facilities for complaints should have been available. Perhaps I can inform the House at this point that about 250 claims have been made in respect of damage, though it has not yet been established how far any of them are justified. In addition, we have received something like 6,000 letters, postcards and telegrams, and about 3,000 telephone calls have been noted.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

There are a lot more on the way.

Mr. Dell

There may be, and they will be analysed as well.

We have been criticised because we did not sufficiently increase the number of telephone lines available to receive calls making complaints about the supersonic tests. In fact, we did increase the number of lines available, but the House should accept that, in practical economic terms, nothing could have prevented the jamming of lines in the hour or so after a supersonic test had taken place.

In any case, the essential point here has been not the number of complaints made but the types of complaints made. We accept and readily concede to any critic that the complaints received do not represent all those which people might have wished to make either by letter or telephone. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham has just said, there may be other complaints on the way.

What they have enabled us to do is to analyse the types of criticism which people have and the strands of opinion which have been revealed. These will help us in another respect because, if there are further tests, the analysis that we are now conducting of letters and telephone calls which have been received should give a great deal more information upon which to base the questions which should be asked by the social survey or opinion poll which we would conduct contemporaneously with any future tests. It should help us to analyse and understand the problem and we should, if necessary, be able to carry out a very much better survey as a result of the information which we have from these letters and telephone calls than we would had we not engaged in this small preliminary exercise this month. At the moment, we are analysing the letters and calls which have been received, and we shall make further statements on the results of that analysis later.

During the course of the debate, I was asked a number of specific questions. The hon. Member for Bristol, West asked about damage caused by foreign aircraft if they were permitted to fly supersonically over the United Kingdom. This is a contingency which negotiations with other countries about supersonic overflying must take into account. Pending those negotiations, I do not think that anything further can usefully be said.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether, should it prove necessary, it would be possible to prevent supersonic overflying of the United Kingdom. The answer is that it would be. We are reasonably satisfied that there are no existing international agreements which would affect this matter.

Mr. Robert Cooke

I am sorry to ask the hon. Gentleman to give way again, but what about British aircraft flying over or leaving the United Kingdom and doing damage? Are the Government liable for those, whether they are operated by a nationalised concern or by some independent airline in the future?

Mr. Dell

This is part of the international code of behaviour which will have to be decided by international negotiation.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington, who has spoken several times on this issue, is, in essence, right. This is a strategic moment at which we have to decide our attitude to one important factor which will seriously affect the quality of our environment. The problem of whether supersonic aircraft will be allowed to fly over the United Kingdom, and if so, with what restrictions, is undoubtedly an issue of first-class importance. In the end we will have to balance the economic advantages which will derive from the uninhibited sales of Concord and from supersonic travel against any damage to health and amenity.

The Government are not yet ready to make their decision, and further tests may be necessary before they are in a position to do so. I can pledge that the Government will not make their decision without the fullest consideration of all the issues and values involved.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

The hon. Gentleman must answer the question put to him. Will supersonic planes taking off from Heathrow create supersonic bangs over this country, or over the sea? Will supersonic aircraft from France, Germany and Amsterdam create supersonic bangs over this country?

Mr. Dell

The hon. Gentleman should have listened to what I was saying. This is a point which we have to decide. As a result of the information that we have, and possible further tests, we have to decide whether to allow supersonic flights over this country. I repeat that this matter has not yet been decided.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

This is most unsatisfactory. The hon. Gentleman has not answered the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), or answered the points raised by other hon. Members. I beg to move, That the debate be now adjourned.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

I cannot accept the Motion.