HC Deb 16 May 1968 vol 764 cc1479-522

Order for Second Reading read.

7.20 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The House will be pleased to remember that it was a Briton, Mr. Christopher Cockerell, who pioneered the development of hovercraft. That pioneering lead has, thank goodness, so far been maintained, leading to developments like the bringing into commercial service on 1st August of the SRN 4, which can carry about 800 passengers, or 250 passengers and 30 cars, and which can do speeds up to 65 knots, with a range of 120 miles, and like the Hovermarine II, the rigid sidewall craft which is already in service, carrying 65 passengers, at 35 knots and with a range of 140 nautical miles.

This development over the last 15 or 20 years has been a fine example of the partnership of individuals, led, of course, by Mr. Cockerell, with the Government, through the National Research Development Council and the National Physical Laboratory, the Services and industry, led by such firms as the British Hovercraft Corporation, Hovermarine and many others. It is thanks to this partnership that our early lead has been maintained.

Now, in this Bill, we are asking the House to do some pioneering itself, because I believe that this is the first legislation in the world to deal particularly with hovercraft. It is important that we should give this lead, because we are the main manufacturers and designers and it is therefore in our interests to offer legislative guidelines to other countries. Perhaps, by so doing, we can encourage them to avoid in their own legislation provisions which might unduly restrict the expansion of this great new form of transport.

There are, however, even more urgent considerations. Already, in the Solent, across the Channel and elsewhere, commercial craft are operating. But there is great doubt about how they stand before the law. We are not totally sure that they are legally covered in operating at all. The House will know that they operate at present under permits to fly issued on the advice of the Air Registration Board under the 1949 Civil Aviation Act. This system has worked reasonably well so far, but I hate to think what a harvest it might produce for the lawyers on the question of whether this new craft could possibly be considered an aeroplane or not. This doubt is reinforced by I.C.A.O. which recently declared specifically that hovercraft are not aeroplanes.

There is another need for urgency; the need for proper safety regulations. We are proposing to establish a system of safety certification for hovercraft which will replace the present system whereby hovercraft are issued with permits to fly. An order under the Bill will probably lay down certain operational requirements, the need for a certificate of fitness and so on. The Bill enables the Government to delegate such parts of the certification procedure as may be decided after further discussion, and, of course, we shall only delegate to competent bodies.

A point of extreme interest is that, as I have said, the Air Registration Board is at the moment doing this job and will have to continue doing it for some time to come. However, there is also the question of whether Lloyds Register should, as the classification society, be brought into this. After some discussion, I have decided that we should have a working party composed of representatives of the Air Registration Board, Lloyds Register and the industry, chaired or refereed, as it were, by the Board of Trade, to see what the best organisation is for dealing with this question of certification and safety.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

Does the hon. Gentleman intend that the committee should contain representatives of land interests, remembering that in some part of the world hovercraft fly over land alone and may, in some forms, be like a train? Will this matter be considered solely by shipping and aeronautical people?

Mr. Mallalieu

No. When I said representatives of industry I meant the producers of all types of hovercraft.

Another reason for some urgency is the question of liability. The Bill sets out the framework for a system of liability which combines the aviational Warsaw system for passenger liability and the shipping system under the Hague Rules for cargo and global liability. The main feature of the system is that there will be no contracting out of passenger liability. As hon. Members know, ships can contract out, but we feel that it would be unwise to spread that to a new form of transport. The limits for passenger and global liability will be specified by order, subject to the affirmative Resolution procedure. Here again we feel that there is overriding advantage in being able to change the limits more quickly by order than by fixing the limits in the Bill.

The Bill also takes powers to deal with another reasonably urgent matter, the question of noise. The industry and the Government, through the backing of the Ministry of Technology, has been conducting a great deal of research into noise, which is an extremely bothersome matter to some areas, including the constituency of the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt). As a result of this research, considerable improvements have been made.

The main trouble is the speed of the propeller tip. Experiments with the shape and size of propellers have produced a quite substantial diminution of noise compared with that of the earlier types. It is not possible yet to say for certain what noise limit ought to be set. There are experiments with entirely different systems of propulsion, such as water jets, which may make it possible to make regulations for noise at a lower level than we can make at present.

We do not want to do anything on noise which will seriously limit expansion of the industry. Equally, we have to have regard for the comfort of people who may be subjected to this noise. So we propose at a very early date to make regulations about such things as the routing of these craft and, as soon as we can, to bring in a noise certification system which will be similar to the certification systems we have proposed for aircraft.

Then there is the question of jurisdiction. If there happened to be a collision in the Channel at present there is no certainty of which would be the appropriate court in which an action should lie. We have had representations and advice from the judges on this matter. We have decided that for hovercraft mainly in the marine element action should lie in the Admiralty Court. The House will understand that there are some grey areas here. A hovercraft may be operating mainly in the marine element but may make a certain part of its journey over land. We are retaining the right to legislate, possibly separately, for the hovercraft if it is travelling over land.

Dr. Bennett

Is this in Clause 1(1)(h)?

Mr. Mallalieu

No, this is under Clause 2, which deals with jurisdiction.

The House will see that we are asking for very wide powers. This is an enabling Bill. Hovercraft are a development where the possibilities and practices are changing, if not every month, at least every year. They are a development in which the application already spreads from land uses like trains, trailers, crop sprayers, through the amphibious skirt type of craft to types which are solely marine like the sidewall. In time—which I suspect will not be all that far distant—we are likely to have experiments with the idea of a hover ship which, depending on the sea state, can sail through the waves or float, hover, above it.

In such a development as this, we need flexibility. Because the Orders which will be needed to fill in the framework of the Bill must come before the House, we shall preserve Parliamentary control. We are not writing many things specifically into the Statute, but if in this fast changing world a new development makes some of our regulations obsolete or inappropriate, the form of the Bill enables us to make rapid adaptations.

I cannot say that hovercraft is the greatest industrial development of the past 10 or 20 years. I cannot say that because I am not sufficiently expert on all the other industrial and scientific developments which have taken place, but I can say, and I am sure the House will agree, that this development is a great one. It is perhaps the greatest development in transport for the last 20 years.

I believe that this Bill will further that development. In a sense it is an honour for all of us to play a small part in Parliamentary history by discussing this Bill today. I have pleasure in presenting it to the House.

7.36 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)

I am sure the whole House is grateful to the Minister of State for the manner in which he has put the Bill before us this evening. As he said, it is a short but very important Bill. It is right that we should give it some attention.

We on this side of the House recognise that there is an urgent need for legislation; indeed, we pressed the Minister on this matter when discussing the Anchors and Chain Cables Bill—if that is not an altogether too painful memory for the Minister of State. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) in his place. On 26th June last year my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) asked the Minister of State whether there was to be legislation, and he answered: may I tell the Committee that we have been considering this matter for a considerable time and it is the hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to produce legislation which deals with hovercraft and not with ships or anything else".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th June. 1967 Vol. 749, c. 219.] That was followed by a statement in July last year.

If the Bill was so urgent as that—and I believe it was—it seems to have been a powerful long time acoming. Now it has come we find, as the Minister of State said, that it is solely an enabling Bill. I do not believe there has been an enabling Bill like this since the Emergency Powers Bill at the beginning of the last war. This Bill contains virtually no substantive provisions. Almost the whole of the Bill is given over to conferring on the Government power to make Orders of one sort or another.

I believe it deserves special scrutiny because to a large extent the Government are here usurping the rôle of Parliament in making legislation and creating powers of delegated legislation which must be most carefully examined. It may well be that the delay and the reason why it is an enabling Bill can be explained. The Min- ister of State has given one explanation; I believe one can find others.

The first explanation I offer is that there is a growing, if somewhat belated, recognition that we are now dealing with an entirely new transport animal. These are not ships; these are not aircraft; they are a tertium quid.

This subject provides a copybook example of the way in which institutional arrangements, set up some years ago, have been allowed to influence and dominate thinking in official circles as to how these new transport animals should be treated. I believe that it has been a major obstacle to the development of the necessary legal framework within which hovercraft should operate that those responsible for the administration of this aspect of affairs have had among them a preponderant influence of aviation interests. It is relatively simple to appreciate that in the first development of hovercraft it was argued, "These vehicles float on air. That is a form of flying. Therefore, they are aircraft". Therefore, those concerned in their manufacture, in their operation, and in their powering and driving, tended to be aviation specialists. All the thinking was that these vehicles were akin to aeroplanes.

This was extremely well put by the Air Cushion Vehicle Co-ordinating Committee, which published safety regulations in June, 1965, the opening paragraph of which said this: In June 1960 it was officially decided that, pro tem, vehicles then described under the generic term hovercraft should be regarded as aircraft. They would operate under Permits to Fly issued by the Ministry of Aviation. … Also the arrangement whereby the Ministry consults the Air Registration Board regarding airworthiness of aircraft would be construed to include hovercraft. This was, perhaps, a little surprising, because the title of the first British patent which was ever taken out in relation to hovercraft made no reference to aircraft. The patent was entitled: Improvements in or relating to vehicles for travelling over land or water. I believe that this recognised what we have now come to appreciate, namely, that hovercraft are essentially surface vehicles.

Yet we were very slow to recognise this. Mr. Cockerell himself, writing in an article four years ago, said this: When the newspapers first heard about the Hovercraft, they classified it as an aircraft, and, indeed, most members of the aircraft industry see it in that light, and it is so licensed. I attended a lecture of the Helicopter Society, and the eminent chairman took it for granted that it was of the genus 'helicopter'—a bad helicopter, of course, but since it could hover, a helicopter. Articles in the motoring press look on it as a new-fangled motor car—after all, cars have been riding on four air cushions for years. The Navy naturally classifies it as a ship—it goes over the sea, doesn't it? The truth is that the hovercraft is both all of these things and none of them. Yet institutionally there can be little doubt but that we in this country have allowed the hovercraft to be entirely dominated by the aviation tradition. There has been a widespread fear, which still exists in many circles, that this will continue to be so. Hon. Members may have seen the report of the speech made by Mr. C. D. J. Bland, the managing director of Hoverwork Limited, to a conference held early last month. Mr. Bland said this: Let us not allow the legislation bandwagon to be made top-heavy in this country by people Jumping on from the passing and much-battered one marked 'British Civil Aircraft Industry'. This disquiet is nothing new. Since hovercraft first went into commercial operation seven years ago, there has been growing disquiet. As long ago as 1962, a symposium was held by the Institute of Navigation at which a paper was read by Lieutenant-Commander Hardwick, who was then the chairman of a group known as the Operational Requirements Panel. Discussing the rules for the navigation of hovercraft, especially in crowded waters, a member of the audience said this: It would appear that the speakers' views tonight on collision avoidance were coloured by their background of air traffic control. Indeed, anybody who has seen hovercraft operating in the Solent or elsewhere will realise that this is still nothing less than the truth. Other speakers had taken a different line and had provoked a very interesting reaction in the discussion, that in fact this aviation influence was completely dominating the operation of hovercraft.

I believe that much of the delay and the reason why we even now have only an enabling Bill is due to this basic, almost psychological difficulty which people brought up and nurtured in the very distinguished aviation tradition in Britain have in realising that we were here dealing with something which was not an aeroplane.

A second reason is, I think, to be found in the almost inevitable and instinctive apprehension and suspicion which in official circles always seems to be aroused by something new. I do not say this in any accusatory tone at all. I merely state it for a fact. Perhaps the most memorable example of this was when we were discussing on the Finance Bill two years ago new powers for the Commissioners of Customs and Excise over the operation of hovercraft—now Section 10 of the Finance Act, 1966. On that memoratble occasion the Chief Secretary to the Treasury committed himself to a proposition which is, in the light of anything which one knew then or which one has come to know since, perhaps one of the most remarkable propositions ever given vent to in the House. The right hon. Gentleman described the hovercraft as the ideal smugglers' vehicle—it can do everything that a smuggling vehicle can do and more".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th June, 1966; Vol. 729. c. 1597.] That will rank as one of the gems of hovercraft lore. It came only a few months after we had had a hovercraft up the Thames, when every Committee of the House had had to suspend its proceedings because of the noise outside.

The third reason—here, perhaps, I am on closer ground to the Minister of State—is that we are in the midst of a very rapidly developing technology. We have had the new types of hovercraft in the sidewall, as the Minister of State mentioned. We are moving into new uses for hovercraft—moving pallets in factories, moving heavy loads across bridges so that the load is spread, even mowing grass and crop spraying. We are moving into the bigger sizes, the S.R.N.4 and, in the next two or three years, the 125-ton Hovermarine H.M.4.

It is extremely difficult to envisage what the future will bring in this remarkable sector; things are changing so rapidly. I entirely agree with the Minister of State that the last thing that we want is to wrap this industry in a legislative straitjacket which would hamper its future. There is an enormously promising development here. Britain is a world leader. We are having new firms, growing firms, and a rising overseas interest in the products of the industry.

It is essential that the legislative framework should be established in a form that allows this to happen. We on this side of the House accept that many of these matters cannot be spelled out in detail in the Bill.

The Minister of State has been good enough to describe the details of the Bill. We shall, no doubt, have a chance to probe the details in Committee. One thing which is bound to strike anyone who studies the Bill is the astonishing variety of the legislation which is necessary to be adapted to take account of the hovercraft development. There are the obvious Acts like the Carriage by Air Act, 1961, the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, and the Administration of Justice Act, 1956. But we wander into some of the real statutory byways, with the Explosives Act, 1875, the Prevention of Damage by Pest Act, 1849, and the Docking and Nicking of Horses Act, 1949. I shall be fascinated to study the details of how that Act comes to be relevant.

I shall refer in the rest of my remarks to only three matters—the definition of "hovercraft", the procedures for certification, and some of the international implications. I want to follow very closely what the Minister of State said on that last issue.

The definition of "hovercraft" is contained in Clause 4(1) and is: 'hovercraft' means a vehicle which is designed to be supported when in motion wholly or partly by air expelled from the vehicle to form a cushion of which the boundaries include the ground, water or other surface beneath the vehicle". One thinks of a hovercraft as essentially a vehicle which slides over the top of whatever surface it is on with its skirt just touching the surface and the whole weight borne on the air cushion. But the developments to which the Minister referred, particularly the sidewall machine, make that concept, as the only one, out of date.

I should like to read one sentence from an article by Mr. Norman Piper, managing director of Hovermarine, in a recent issue of the Financial Times, about the H.M.2, which has recently been launched. He wrote: The air cushion is contained along its sides by rigid side walls which remain immersed by an average of nine inches when hovering and by flexible skirts at the bow and the stern. Therefore, it is obvious that it is not wholly supported by air and that is why the definition includes the words "or partly". Is there no limit? Somebody suggested to me the other day that if one turned the exhausts of the Queen Elizabeth upside down she would be within this definition, because she would be partly supported by the air expelled from the ship. Clearly, that is not intended.

I therefore draw the Minister's attention to the definition which has been put into the guidance notes prepared by Lloyds Register of Shipping, because it is different in this point. It says: … a self-propelled vehicle which operates amphibiously or only over water, and is capable of supporting at least 75 per cent. of its fully loaded weight both whilst stationary and whilst underway on one or more cushions of air. One of the matters to which the Committee should give urgent consideration when examining the Bill is whether that 75 per cent. test, or something of that sort, should not be added to the definition of hovercraft, because otherwise we are liable to land ourselves in a nonsense.

My second point is the question of the procedures for certification and registration. As the Minister said, this is now within the powers of the Air Registration Board. I would add that certainly until recently it has been widely assumed inside and outside the industry that the Board would continue to be responsible for this matter. Of course, there would be a different register. There would be a register of hovercraft separate from aircraft but the Board would be responsible for carrying out the procedures. This would inevitably follow because of the dominance of those nurtured in the aviation tradition in this country who have come to be foster-parent of the hovercraft. There is also a tendency to say—and I do not think that people are to be criticised for this, because it is entirely natural—that possession is nine points of the law. If one has something working apparently reasonably satisfactory already, one tends not to want to change it.

I said "until recently", but I believe now that members of the hon. Gentleman's Department are becoming aware that this is not necessarily the right answer. There are powerful arguments against letting the Air Registration Board having a monopoly of certification. This is not in the best interests of the industry and those who will be operating hovercraft, and not necessarily in the national interests, because of the enormous potentiality for export.

Inevitably, the Air Registration Board, with the best will in the world, is bound to import into its dealings with hovercraft, practices, standards, concepts, testing procedures and so on which are more appropriate to aircraft than they would be to this new animal. I do not necessarily say that hovercraft should be regarded solely as ships. Not at all; but at the same time it becomes apparent that the larger vehicles are becoming more and more like ships.

A few of the points which seem to indicate more and more that it is perhaps the marine people who should become more involved in this rather than the aircraft people, are as follows. First is the question of safety. The essential fact about a hovercraft is that in the event of an emergency it sits on top of the water and therefore from the point of view of the structure, of its strength, the escape of passengers, and the stresses and strains which the vehicle must bear, it must be able to float on the top of the water and survive. This is wholly foreign to an aircraft but which every naval architect and surveyor is brought up on from his youth. Or take the question of fire. The essential thing about a ship which catches fire is that the structures should be able to endure a certain amount of damage and still survive, floating on the water.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

There have been in the past aircraft which both landed and took off on the water.

Mr. Jenkin

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but there are very few of them today. Like the zeppelin, and the dirigible, gas-filled balloon, they seem to have disappeared. We are dealing, on the one hand, with aircraft as we understand them and as most of us fly in them and, on the other hand, ships.

Take the question of wave conditions. The Air Registration Board has a simple test of sea-worthiness of hovercraft based on wave height; but this is a notoriously difficult chink to estimate and varies greatly from place to place. The Lloyd's Register people on the other hand, have an elaborate statistical concept based on wind speed and the "fetch" of an area of water. All the captain of the craft needs to know is the wind speed and the "fetch" of the water he will be travelling over and he will know at a glance whether or not it is safe to go out.

Or take the construction. Here it seems to me that there are natural fears of both camps. The marine interests fear that the aviation people will import into their standards vastly expensive, multi-layer honeycomb materials based on their aircraft experience, and will insist on strict regulations and unduly high standards of construction. The matter was put very well in a recent article in the New Scientist which says: One effect of this is to make aeroplane parts several times more costly than similar components in everyday use. This is felt right down to simple components like locks and switches. On two grounds this rigid control is desirable in aircraft. It makes for safety in the air and it serves as a protection for those on the ground against the risk of things falling on them from above. The hovercraft, with a ceiling of perhaps 1 ft. to 4 ft., does not present either hazard. The aviation people, on the other hand, fear that the shipbuilding people will insist of great solid plates of two-inch thick steel which will make it impossible for these aircraft to fly. I think that both fears are misconceived, but they exist.

There are also the differences in procedures during construction. The Air Registration Board approves the constructors and then relies on their skill, standards and integrity to ensure that the standards are maintained. This was made very clear in the recent report of the Board of Trade on the safety performance of United Kingdom airline operators, which said this about the A.R.B.: Suitable organisations, invariably a department or division of a constructing company, are approved for this purpose so that responsibility for much of the detailed proof of compliance is delegated, but the ARB conducts extensive and sufficiently detailed investigations to assure itself that the organisation's airworthiness investigation is adequate. The classification societies—and here one thinks particularly of Lloyds Register—work on a very different procedure. They carry out a continuous survey throughout the planning, design and construction of any new vehicle for which they are responsible, with detailed supervision right the way through. They have vast experience of the marine environment. There have been great troubles with aircraft engines designed to work on a constant load having to operate in a variable environment. Lloyds knows the strength necessary if things drop on the top of a vehicle from, say, the quayside; it knows about protecting things from spray, and it knows about anchors and chain cables. Therefore, I argue from this that there are strong grounds for ensuring that the aviation experts, bred in the traditions of the aircraft industry, should not necessarily have a monopoly of the certification and registration of hovercraft.

Finally, I turn to the international aspects. I believe that there are three factors here. First, and perhaps most important, is that it is essential to establish a form of certification universally recognised in the world, as, for instance, the Lloyds Register Survey for Ships is universally recognised. The A.R.B. has agreements with some countries for mutual recognition of registration. This is perhaps a good deal less than adequate, and we should aim at the higher standard of the Lloyds Register.

There is, secondly, the question of the international treatment of hovercraft. I remind the House of what the Minister of State said—that the I.C.A.O. Conference has really thrown the hovercraft out of its nest. As someone commented recently, "they are now no one's baby." This gives a great opportunity to us to set an example. We are uniquely well placed to do so. We are undoubtedly the leaders in hovercraft technology, with a great fund of expertise, and we must not put it in peril by setting up unimaginative institutional arrangements based on no better principle than continuing what already exists.

I very much welcome and was delighted to hear the Minister's suggestion that he would set up a high-powered working party to distil from the existing corpus of knowledge about hovercraft the best and most relevant practices and procedures so as to build up a distinctive body of universally recognised hovercraft principles. I believe that in doing so we can take from aviation, marine and land experience, moulding all of these factors to adapt them to the rovercraft in all its likely environments.

With energy and imagination and an open and fairminded approach—which I am satisfied that the Minister will bring to this matter—we can set a precedent which would be followed throughout the world. This could, in turn, lead to the establishment of an international organisation which surely must come as international hovercraft travel is growing each year. I beg the Minister to call on the best brains from wherever he can get them and urged them to recognise once and for all that the hovercraft is a new and different form of transport—quite different from anything which has gone before. He should ask them to lay aside their sectional interests for the benefit of the whole industry and to create the new institutional, legal and technical framework which will be needed if this development is to yield its maximum potential.

The Bill provides scope for all this to be done. The industry has great achievements to its credit in the past. I believe that the Bill will give it every possible opportunity for the future and we, therefore, welcome its appearance.

8.4 p.m.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

I am glad to learn that the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin) and his colleagues welcome new procedures and new rules at least in some directions. After listening to the last debate, I gained the impression that they were implacably opposed to any kind of new procedures in any direction. I am relieved to hear that, towards technology, they have some open minds, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman's friends will follow him in the tenor of his remarks.

I am not qualified to follow the hon. Gentleman in his historical survey of the development of the hovercraft. Nor can I say whether it is a good vehicle for smuggling kegs of brandy. But what he said about universal certification is extremely important, and the point I want to put to my hon. Friend is whether the lack of a legal framework for this vehicle has impeded its export. I have the impression that we have not succeeded in obtaining the international market for this invention which it deserves.

There are types of terrain in different parts of the world which are surely specially suited to the use and adaptation of this kind of vehicle. I have in mind those countries where there is a large river delta or large rivers flowing through relatively flat country and where a hovercraft could impartially skim over reasonably flat land surfaces and water. They would have a tremendous advantage in such territory.

In this country, a hovercraft could hardly progress 100 yards over land without hitting a halt sign or lamp post, but there are vast areas in Africa and Latin America with huge expanses of relatively level scrub or savannah land intersected by great rivers, and I imagine that there a vehicle of this kind could provide a peculiary advantageous form of transport.

This was just an idea in my mind until the other day, when I discovered that a scientific expedition has been into the hinterland of the Amazon with one of these vehicles, and this, of course, is exactly the kind of terrain where it had occurred to me the hovercraft would be particularly useful. I have wondered whether it has been purely economic considerations or the lack of a legal framework for operating hovercraft which has so far mitigated against their widespread sale.

I endorse strongly what the hon. Gentleman has said about the need to establish some universally acceptable framework of law and regulation and certification for the operation of this new form of transport if it is to become generally accepted. It is immensely important for this country, which has a lead in this form of technology and should be able to exploit it in markets which can be creative. But I can well understand that potential operators will hesitate to buy it and operate it if they are uncertain, in terms of insurance and safety and of possible claims for damages or accidents, about how they will stand in law.

Therefore, I regard this Bill and the various regulations and so on which will no doubt be presented later as an important step forward for this country in exploiting technology in which we are in advance of the rest of the world.

8.8 p.m.

Mr. Mark Woodnutt (Isle of Wight)

I want to put at rest the mind of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). I assure him that both the British Hovercraft Corporation and Britten-Norman have agents all over the world and that between 5 and 20 hovercraft have been sold to other countries and are operating on a world-wide basis. No stone is being left unturned. Yesterday, for example, I was in the Isle of Wight with a party of M.P.s from Iran who went to look at the B.H.C. set-up. Iran has ordered two of the machines which are being built at East Cowes.

I thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker, because the hovercraft industry and the operators are vital to the Isle of Wight as well as to the national economy. Indeed, it would be reasonable to claim that the Isle of Wight is the home of the hovercraft. It was invented, designed and developed there and is now in regulation production both by the B.H.C. and Britten-Norman.

We have heard discussion about noise. The latest cushion craft whose trials I saw 10 days ago—the CC-7 of Britten-Norman—is jet-propelled and has a reduced noise-level which is rather less than the noise of the average speed boat. This is considerably less than hovercraft propelled in the conventional fashion. We also have in the Island the only two regular, scheduled operational passenger-carrying services in the world, operating the whole year round. For those of us who have had faith in this entirely new and revolutionary form of transport, since the beginning, when the inventor, Christopher Cockerell first conceived the idea while successfully experimenting in his bath, it is very rewarding to see this young and courageous industry, if not firmly established, then at least enjoying a very vigorous adolescence.

Since the announcement by the Government of their intention to introduce this legislation, I have wondered at the wisdom of being so hasty. None of us has yet sufficient experience to know precisely what sort of legislation is needed. The proof of this is in the Bill, which as has already been said by the Minister of State and by my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin). It gives the Government the power to legislate by Order in Council as and when required over a very wide area indeed. My fear is that the House will be presented over a relatively short period of time with a mass of Orders in Council and we shall finish up with hotch-potch legislation.

Nevertheless, on balance I welcome the Bill, subject to certain safeguards, and am comforted by the very cautious way in which the Minister of State has presented it to us. As to definition, I share the views already expressed and welcome the fact that the Bill recognises a hovercraft as a completely new category of vehicle—neither a ship nor an aircraft. Some of our law relating to ships would obviously not be suitable for hovercraft, and most of our law relating to aircraft would be quite unsuitable. This is a new category of vehicle, and I am very pleased it is recognised as such.

I am told by the British Hovercraft Corporation that the American and Japanese legislation that has been introduced specifically recognises hovercraft as a ship. If this is the case it could lead to awful conflictions, if we have craft operating in international water classified as one thing by one nation and another by another nation. The Minister of State would be wise to consider some sort of international body to look at the implication of these laws before we become too deeply involved in legislation.

My main concern is about the accuracy of the definition in the Bill. Broadly it defines hovercraft correctly, but having consulted with the experts in the Isle of Wight—and I am no expert in aerodynamics—I am told that the definition, while broadly defining a hovercraft, excludes a hovercraft such as SRN6 when it is operating in what they class the "trapped air mode"—that is when it is entering harbour. I am told by the designers that in this condition it does not expel air but merely maintains it under pressure beneath the aircraft. This is a minor point, but we must take it into account if we are to get this definition accurate.

The other point drawn to my attention is that which has already been made partially by my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford, namely that this definition includes other vehicles. It would include a helicopter operated in ground effect, since this expels air and forms a cushion between the rotor and the ground. If one takes this line of reasoning further, which I hesitate to do as I am not an expert, I am told that, strictly speaking, any aircraft is supported by pressure which forms a cushion whose boundaries include the surface of the earth and the aircraft. This is the case with aircraft flying at a high altitude, but this extends over a considerable area, and the argument is rather a tentative one. It is clear that when the Bill merges from Committee the definition must be more accurate than it is now.

I have a brief definition here, which has been suggested by the British Hovercraft Corporation, and I would like to put it on record. The Corporation does not claim that it is the best definition. It says that it could still be improved, but it is more precise than that which we have in the Bill. It says first of all that the vehicle should be called an air cushion vehicle and that it is necessary in the definition to define a technical term known as ground effect. This is the definition which the Corporation has given: A hovercraft is an air cushion vehicle. An air cushion vehicle means a vehicle or craft which depends for its functioning on ground cushion effect and is incapable of rising into the air to a height greater than that at which, in respect of any such vehicle or craft, the ground cushion effect ceases to have any, or substantial influence. For this purpose, the expression 'ground cushion effect' shall mean the load-bearing and lifting propensities exhibited by a mass of air or other gas vapour when compressed and constrained to interpose itself as a cushion between the underside of such vehicle or craft and substantially within its platform and the surface over which it is intended to operate. I have been studying this for about four days and I get more confused every time I look at these definitions. I have discussed it with the experts and at the time I was quite convinced that their definition is a much more precise and accurate one than that in the Bill.

The Government seek wide powers to introduce Orders in Council. I hope that they will exercise considerable restraint and only recommend Orders when they are absolutely necessary. Having heard the Minister of State, I think that this will be so. Nothing is worse than legislation consisting of masses of unrelated Orders which may conflict with one another. I hope the Minister recognises that eventually, and again not too hastily, a consolidating Bill will be required.

Second, I hope the Government will recognise the importance of consultations with manufacturers and with operators before Orders in Council are prepared. The operators and manufacturers have most of the know-how on hovercraft, and it is essential that they should be consulted before the Orders are prepared, so that restriction on practical research can be avoided. We should also avoid restricting the opening up of new operational services. The Bill should provide that consultations will take place with industry and operators before Orders in Council are placed before the House.

I am a little disturbed to read that only Orders made under Clause 1 (1), paragraph (f) to (k), and subsection (3) (f) are subject to a Resolution of both Houses of Parliament. This complex legislation is being done by Orders in Council and, therefore, all Orders ought to be subject to a Resolution of both Houses of Parliament.

My third comment concerns the amateur hovercraft operators. There is in existence a hover club of Great Britain. It is a flourishing, active and vigorous organisation. It holds rallies and meetings all over the country, and it has a very large volume of support. Young people who take part in this worthwhile and interesting activity make everybody hovercraft-conscious wherever their rallies are held. They also contribute something very worthwhile towards research and development. I would not like to think that in making Orders in Council amateur hovercraft enthusiasts are forgotten. It would be quite easy in catering for the professional and for the industry to restrict the activity of the amateurs.

I ask the Minister to bear this in mind, and also to bear in mind that, if an Order cannot be so drawn as to make a distinction between the one and the other where necessary, then Clause 1(3)(a) can be used in differentiating between different types of hovercraft.

The definition of hoverports includes any piece of beach which may be used for landing a hovercraft. This could be restrictive, and I would like to see included in that definition a stitpulation that it is for hovercraft carrying freight and/or passengers for reward. I am thinking again of the amateurs and not wishing to be unduly restrictive on their activity.

I support the Bill, subject to the reservations I have made, and I would take this opportunity of paying a tribute to all those who are engaged in this very vigorous industry.

There are four SRN4s now under construction at a cost of £1¾ million, each capable of carrying 30 cars and 250 passengers. When one realises that one of those will be operative and crossing the Channel in August of this year, and that it will do the journey in 20 minutes, one wonders whether it is worth while proceeding with the Channel Tunnel.

8.25 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

In the course of this interesting debate some important ideas have been put forward. When the hovercraft principle was first developed and put forward by Mr. Christopher Cockerell 12 years ago, what was in mind then was purely an amphibious vehicle. Since then the principle has branched out in many directions.

We still have the amphibious craft that goes over land and sea. Second, we now have a wholly marine craft with side-walls and propellers in the water that goes purely on the water. Third, we have a land vehicle which goes over land, mud flats, deserts or the frozen wastes of Canada. Fourth, we have the agricultural vehicles for crop spraying. Fifth, there is the weight-lifting vehicle for abnormal loads on the roads; sixth, those that are used for the movement of heavy storage tanks and the like; seventh, fork lift trucks on the hover principle; eighth, pallet container movers; ninth, cranes tenth, the hover train which can be pulled by the linear induction motor. All sorts of applications are being developed at the present time, and there are no doubt more to come.

The hovercraft is becoming a very specialised tree with a great many branches and, in my view, we must have separate rules and regulations for each application of the hovercraft principle as it comes along. I welcome the Bill because it gives flexibility for this to be done, if indeed it goes far enough. For instance, I am not certain whether it includes, or will include, agricultural vehicles that are worked on the hovercraft principle and which go only on farms.

I will confine myself to the marine vehicle, which is the chief form of hovercraft. That is an air cushion vehicle that spends 95 per cent. of its time on any journey going over the water. This must be treated as a ship, or mainly as a ship. It is subject to the same rules of the road as other ships. Its element is the sea. It does not ride completely clear of the waves. It responds to and contours the waves, but it does not ride quite clear of them.

In my view, hovercraft must be subject to the Board of Trade and Lloyds like any other ship. In particular, as hovercraft are now in close competition with hydrofoil craft, having about the same speed and commercial applications, and, as hydrofoils are treated as ships and made subject to Board of Trade regulations and Lloyds registration, that is an additional reason why hovercraft should be put on a similar footing. We may have to temper the wind to both hovercraft and hydrofoils, however, because they are both very fast marine craft and are not exposed to the sea for long periods: for example, they are not at sea for weeks, only for hours.

I reinforce my plea that they should be treated as marine vehicles for a number of reasons, one or two of which have been mentioned. The first is that of international considerations in that other countries already treat them as ships. Then there are safety factors concerning bulkheads, liferafts and lifejackets. Although they are lighter than usual, they must have a full complement of safety equipment in case people should fall into the sea. I must say that I much prefer the marine philosophy of trying to save every soul on board. The aircraft philosophy is not so exacting. If there is an air crash, frequently one feels that the operating company think that they have done very well if they have saved four or five people.

There are certain aircraft ideas built into hovercraft which I do not like very much. The SRN 4 has a gas turbine on the roof of the cabin, which is protected only by a very thin steel sheet. I understand that it is about 100th of an inch thick. That may be satisfactory for aircraft purposes, but that sort of thing is not good marine practice. Then there must be fairness between hydrofoils and hovercraft. A hydrofoil has to carry a 7 per cent. penalty in payload because it is treated as a ship, whereas a hovercraft is not.

Lastly, the staff of the Air Registration Board is grossly overworked. The Edwards Report on the charter aircraft companies brought that out very clearly. There are not enough inspecting officers to go round and, if the hovercraft industry became a very big one, they would not be able to do their job properly. I conclude, therefore, that we must have a law for each special application of hovercraft.

Of course, there is nothing new under the sun. At a very interesting conference on hovercraft and hydrofoil craft held yesterday, all sorts of people gave different views on the operation and running costs of various kinds of craft. Mr. L. Heyward of Westland Aircraft told the conference of a Swedish philosopher and scientist named Swedenborg who produced a hovercraft model in 1716 which was worked by pedals and a pump. Apparently it hovered off the ground, but an engine would have been necessary for it to be efficient, and anyone using it would have been in danger of losing an arm or leg. Then, in 1912, a man called A. U. Alcock of Perth, Australia, produced a hovercraft of sorts which consisted of a wooden platform with compressors and a propellor. He called it "Floating Traction". With his daughter on it, he demonstrated it in Perth and in this country. Then, I remember reading that in the last century, river craft on the Mississippi worked with air cushions beneath them to give them extra lift. The British invention, however, takes the form of a peripheral circular air cushion beneath the vehicle to make it stable and provide complete lift.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt) has pointed out, there are many problems remaining in the hovercraft industry. One of them is the cost per ton knot. As Lord Wynne-Jones commented in another place in the course of his very interesting speech, these vehicles must be looked at from an economic point of view, and he referred to their cost per ton knot. It is speed, multiplied by the tonnage, multiplied by the cost. He pointed out that the SRN 6 worked out at £600 per ton knot and the SRN 4 at £400 per ton knot, which is as high as a Boeing aircraft. The ordinary ferry, on the other hand, works out at about £200 per ton knot. In the case of the SRN 6, a third of its horsepower is taken up in lifting it off the water. Many of us doubt whether too sophisticated versions of hovercraft will be economic. They have to be made as simply as possible. In other words, what we need is the simplicity of marine construction.

I remember a few years ago a man telling me that he made seats both for London buses and aircraft. He said that it was a marvellous business because the seats that he made for aeroplanes were almost the same as those that he made for London buses, but that he was able to charge three times as much for aircraft seats. That is why it seems to me to be so important that we should get marine constructors with simple applications, rather than aircraft people making these forms of hovercraft. I was very pleased to see Vosper and Hovermarine entering the business, with their experience of ships and marine construction, which with any luck should be cheaper than aircraft construction.

Subject to these few points—and, no doubt, many other points which will be raised on Committee—I support the Bill, but I hope it is going to cover every application, including agriculture, abnormal loads on roads, and all the rest, which will come along in due course.

8.36 p.m.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams (Hornchuch)

I want to intervene on a very narrow point and will not detain the House for any length of time. I am particularly concerned about the definition of a hovercraft and a hydrofoil, because if it is defined as a ship there are going to be certain difficulties as regards the River Thames. At the present moment, ships can be navigated on the River Thames only by qualified navigational officers or with the help of Trinity House pilots. So, if the definition of a hydrofoil or a hovercraft is that, a high degree of navigational skill is certainly going to be required for what is essentially a small craft.

On the other hand, if the definition is "a small craft", as far as the River Thames is concerned this will entitle Thames watermen and lightermen to navigate the craft within the landward limits of the River Thames. I would seek assurance from the Minister that, if this is the case, the ancient rights of watermen, going back to 1514, will be honoured in respect of hydrofoils and hovercraft.

8.37 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

It is a far cry from that modest little Anchors and Chain Cables Bill, in which the nautical characteristics of hovercraft were first discussed, and that Finance Bill to which my hon. Friend has already referred, when we first heard about the ideal smugglers' vehicle, to the attempt at a definitive Bill concerning hovercraft which we have before us tonight. At first sight, of course, one's response is perhaps, as it has been in other instances, that here is a Bill which gives the Government powers to do anything. We are accustomed to these from this Administration: they come on all subjects. But on this occasion I can say quite fairly that this is almost certainly the only form in which such a Bill could be drafted on this particular subject. The Minister has clothed much of the Bill in his statement and has given us some idea of what it should look like. This makes it a little less bare than the original statement, which really gave one absolutely no clue about the intentions of the Government. We have not got much to go on yet, but this must mean that we are going to have a very interesting Committee stage on this Bill. There is going to be a tremendous lot of work to do on it.

The basic point which every hon. Member who has spoken has picked up is the difficulty about definition. The hon. Member who spoke last but who has not remained in the Chamber in the customary manner, I suppose because he has had to go and do something else, brought this up and tried to get some definition which would not infringe existing rights. Others of my hon. Friends have brought up various forms of definition and I think that we are going to have quite a job. The definition and registration of these things are still not forecast even in the Minister's statement. At least tonight we know what they are not going to be, and it is the first time we have had that information.

We know that hovercraft will not be aircraft. That, at least, is something. My hon. Friends have adduced a variety of arguments on that point, and I agree with pretty well all of them. It has been ridiculous to have these craft regarded as aircraft. Even when wearing their "maxi" skirts they cannot rise more than two or three feet, and in their usual "mini" skirts they are only a matter of inches off the ground or water surface. To call a hovercraft an aircraft was a nonsense, especially as one of the earlier developments was done by the Chrysler motor company in America. That development was going on concurrently with the work of the N.R.D.C. in this country, and the vehicle was intended to be nothing but a road vehicle.

We shall have great difficulties in arriving at a definition. I join other hon. Members in saying that we want the hovercraft divorced from the aircraft world, and I should be glad to see it divorced, also, from some of the aircraft techniques. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham-Cooke) gave us some of the terribly damning statistics of cost for the aircraft type of hovercraft. We are not here concerned to legislate for the economics of the matter, but it is generally true that hovercraft are required to work in places where there are not already existing transport facilities. The countries where hovercraft will be of value in that way cannot afford the cost of aircraft-type manufacture applied to a land vehicle. We have a long way to go yet in exploring the possibilities of substitution of bent sheet-metal by, perhaps, balsa wood and in investigating the use of other materials.

We shall have to spend a long time on the definition in Committee. As my Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt) told us, when a hovercraft is moving off the beach and going on to water, it often travels on trapped air other than air which it has itself expelled. This puts it, so to speak, on all fours with the ordinary planing speed-boat, the pleasure speed-boat which whizzes around off our shores and is generally slithering along on a carpet of bubbles trapped between itself and the water. We want to make sure that the definition of hovercraft does not by any mischance include that sort of thing.

When I happened, most regrettably, to be torpedoed, the ships in which I was on both occasions remained afloat for quite some time because they were filled with empty oil drums put there for just such an emergency. We must be careful that things which enclose a great deal of built-in bouyancy and happen to become waterlogged do not somehow become translated into hovercraft. I am mentioning these points because it will be the marginal cases which cause the difficulty, as in any question of definition.

I come now to what I regard as one of the biggest points of all. I am surprised that there has been no reference to it in the debate. I am speaking quite late on, and I thought that somebody would pinch the point before I could use it. I refer to the rule of the road. I am reminded—with my legal training—of the famous case of R. v. Haddock, Sir Alan Herbert's case which arose on the Putney tow path. The infernal Mr. Haddock was rowing a dinghy at a time of abnormally high spring tide. He met a car coming in the opposite direction and, being afloat, insisted on his right of way. The car had to keep on the river side of the two path, where it went into a few more inches of water so that the engine stopped. The police brought a case against Mr. Haddock for sabotaging the car.

That is not altogether pure fantasy in the present context. In the constituency of my Member of Parliament, there is a vast expanse of flat sand called Ryde Sand, which is traversed by hovercraft frequently. This sand is not particularly firm, but it is firm enough. I have seen motor cars on it. If hovercraft going over the sand obey the rule of the sea, port to port, and keep to the right and cars going over the sand obey the rule of the road and keep to the left, I foresee some interesting collisions occurring.

The Bill has made no provision for a firm rule of the road concerning these machines. I admit we are putting a problem which is almost insuperable, because any rule of the road that we make for these machines will have to apply equally to the grass cutter or lawn mower which is pushed along and works on a hover basis. Therefore, we shall have to do some careful thinking about that in Committee. Anyway, that is one point which has been completely missed.

I will not detain the House longer. The rest will be a most interesting Committee stage. There will be plenty to do. I do not know whether it will be the Committee or the Minister's high-powered working party which will have to do most of the thinking, but all of us will be scratching our heads a fair amount before the Bill emerges as an Act of Parliament.

I commend the Government for managing to squeeze it in, despite the disarray in the Government's affairs to which I alluded earlier today. I think that this part of the Government's legislation will be given the welcome that it deserves.

8.46 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

This Bill is certainly interesting, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) has made it even more interesting by what he has said.

I have a great constituency interest in the matter, because the Isle of Thanet, and Ramsgate in particular, will, we hope, provide the first major hoverport in this country. We also have an international interest, because we have been able to welcome to our shores those from other countries who are combining in the operation, from a Swedish background, to provide the company know-how necessary to become the first major private-enterprise operators, although now established as a firm British concern.

It is important to remember that this is an international Bill, not merely for consumption in this country. It is the forerunner for providing the framework of legislation which will obviously be carefully scrutinised in due course by every country in the world as they in turn proceed to use hovercraft, whether they have hovercraft of this nature intended primarily for marine or other purposes. Thus, this country will export not merely the skills of Britain in the manufacture of hovercraft; we hope to teach other countries something of their operation. We propose then to show them how the fine Government brains of this country can introduce the right definitions and legislation, so that they will have the know-how for regulating registration and the necessary safety and other controls to secure that the public can enjoy this new invention to the full.

When one cannot define something it is sometimes better not to try to do so. In my view, the hovercraft is not a marine craft; it is not a road vehicle; and it is not an air vehicle. It is a new vehicle. We will not be able to define it, as I see it, as a marine vehicle or an air vehicle or a road vehicle. The simple fact is that it is a combination of all three, according to where it is used. Thus, all the legislation necessary to control its effects will mean that when it is being used on the sea it will have to conform to the regulations relating to the sea. When it is being used primarily as an instrument in the air, it will be subject to certain of the rules laid down for air traffic, and the problems will not be the same as when one wants to use it on land. When it is to be used as a hover train, no doubt it will have to conform to the rules for the passage of trains.

My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt) raised the question of hover clubs. I am anxious that we should give real encouragement to the amateurs. I remember how much active discouragement there was when, as a young man, one wanted to fly. Older members will remember that when we were young we were all pilots. Prior to 1939 every one of us used to fly aeroplanes. Nobody flies an aeroplane today. No one can afford it unless he is very rich, and anyway nobody has done anything to assist the flying clubs.

I hope shortly to become a member of a hover club. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Leader of our party, I propose not to be a great sailing man. I hope to be, instead, a great hover man, and to enjoy membership of the hover club. I think that this craft has an axciting future. It will not only go over the sea, but over lakes and also over land. I remember a long argument about whether Lydd would have been a better place to establish the hovercraft than Pegwell. The argument was that it would cost less situated at Lydd than Ramsgate because it would travel over land for two or three miles before going out to sea.

I want to ensure that whatever we provide in the regulations which will follow the passing of the Bill into law we do nothing to inhibit the operations of those who in a small way will run small hovercraft. I want to ensure that this new instrument is brought to the notice of a now world of people who can great discovery. I want the this country to participate in be a great new adventure.

It is obvious that the Bill was drawn up in a great hurry. I say "obvious" because it is about as wide an enabling Bill as one could get, and I should like the Minister to say something about that. I do not pretend to be at all definite about it, but I think that under Clause 1(4) it could be said that Dover should be taken out on the ground that it was being run by Britain Railways and should be exempted from the Order, whereas Ramsgate or Pegwell might have to comply with other totally different commercial arrangements. I am not saying that there is anything of that nature which would be hostile to private enterprice interests, but I should like to know whether it will be possible to use the power for different purposes for different types of hovercraft, even if the craft are of the same size, dimensions and particulars. I cannot believe that that is what is intended, but that ought to be investigated.

If it is intended to say that there will be different regulations for safety and registration according to the size, dimension, volume, and so on, analogous to the regulations under the Factories Acts, I accept that that is proper, but if it is intended to say that certain classes of hovercraft should be exempt from control we must be careful. On the other hand, if it is drawn so wide simply with a view to being narrowed later, because the draftsmen did not know what else to do, I accept that, and it can be considered in Committee.

Hovercraft can have a profound influence on the future of tourism here and overseas, upon the type of tourism in this country and where we export it. It has not been recognised that we shall be able to send to France daily, about every half an hour, hovercraft moving people to and fro and also profoundly affecting freight, particularly light freight, which is difficult to move to and from this country at the desired speed.

I found this fascinating, because only last Saturday, by pure chance, I was talking to the managing director of Swedish. Hover Lloyd, Mr. Colquhoun, when some industrialists appeared who manufacture in my constituency. Within only a few minutes they became thrilled at the prospect of being able to send freight by hovercraft at highly competitive rates. We in Britain have not yet realised the enormous advantages of hovercraft for passengers and freight as well as for opening up European countries to our tourism.

We obviously need to move rapidly not only to France but to Holland, Belgium, Denmark and the other low countries and this kind of export will bring intercommunication. All these things foreshadow a great future for this industry. The Ministry and all of us must be humble and must listen carefully to the advice of the very few people who have the true know-how, and must be willing to use this Bill for two or three years as a forerunner. But in sanctioning it in its outcome, we should recognise that, in a few years, we may have to review its effects, and I hope that any Minister will do so.

I must end on my only note of criticism. For the second time this week, the President of the Board of Trade has not attended a debate which it was absolutely essential for him to attend. He was not here for our debate on tourism and seemed to have no interest in it, and he has left the same Minister here this time. This is not just a matter for the Ministry of Technology but presages a great future for trade and industry and I hope that there will not be a third time when he is absent from a debate at which matters are discussed which are very important and which he should hear.

I know that he has put up in his place a charming and very careful listener in the Minister of State, but I hope that these words, which we expressed last Monday as well, will bear some fruit and this new President of the Board of Trade will recognise our feeling that this is an important subject, one to which the most careful attention should be given, because of the bright future which it offers for our country.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. David Price (Eastleigh)

Although this has not been a long debate, it has been an interesting and worth while one. Like my hon. Friends the Members for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt) and for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) I, too, live on the Solent. At one stage I thought that the debate would become a Solent affair, but the intervention of my hon. Friends the Members for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) and for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) prevented that from happening.

To those who live on the Solent, hover-craft are part of our everyday life. For many hon. Members, however—particularly for those who are not present, which is the majority of the House—they still remain a matter of curiosity. The main development of hovercraft has taken place in our part of England and we have, therefore, taken a particular interest in their success. Compared with the original inspiration of Christopher Cockerell and the work of Hovercraft Development Limited, a subsidiary of the N.R.D.C., Vickers, Westland and now firms like Vosper and Hovermarine, the Bill may seem small beer, but it is, in its own way, important, as the debate has shown.

The present uncertainties about the legal status of hovercraft could hinder their future development and, more particularly, their commercial prospects. Equally, in the absence of defining a legal régime for them, if an unfortunate accident were to occur I imagine that the professional colleagues of my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet would make a real meal of it. This is the habit of lawyers, and rightly so when Parliament has not been sufficiently "on the ball" in producing relevant legislation or if it has produced untidy legislation. The Bill is, therefore, timely.

In approaching the Bill, both the Government, in drafting it, and the House, in deciding whether to give it a Second Reading, are faced with a dilemma over the treatment of hovercraft. On the one hand, there is a certain urgency to determine an appropriate legal régime for hovercraft—we have all the arguments of whether they should be treated as ships, aircraft or land vehicles—and one cannot help reflecting that, in the argument about whether they are fish, fowl or beast, it may be that they should be treated as duckbilled platypuses; in other words, we must consider whether they should come under the law of the sea or the air or whether a new law should be devised for hovercraft. Hovercraft are now operating commercially, so that there is urgency for the House to determine exactly how they should be treated legally.

On the other hand, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, the present state of the art is developing rapidly. New applications of the air cushion principle are increasingly being identified and tested. Thus, from the technical point of view, there are strong arguments for leaving the issue open for as long as we can so that future development into new spheres is not excessively restricted by detailed regulations which may be appropriate in one connection but inappropriate in another. This point was clearly expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight and my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet.

Let us consider the current applications. We have been talking a lot about the marine applications, but even there they vary. On the Solent we have hovercraft operating as ferries. My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet said that this summer they will operate across the Channel. The conditions there, although both at sea, are different. We know from design studies done by Hovercraft Development Ltd., now British Hovercraft Ltd., that oceangoing ships using the air cushion principle are within prospect.

We see the different types of marine hovercraft. There are the characteristics of the skirted hovercraft of the S.R.N. family as against those of the sidewall type which were originally developed by Denny's. That firm then unfortunately went into liquidation, but the development has been brought forward again by Hovermarine and I believe that Vospers is showing an interest in it as well. A regulation which would apply to the skirted hovercraft may well be inapplicable to the sidewall hovercraft.

We know of the use they have been put to in defence, not only by our Defence Department but in the United States of America. The Minister of State had some experience of this in the Navy Department. It may be that some of the restrictions which are right to impose on hovercraft operating in the closed waters of a river estuary would be in no way applicable to use of the similar principle as an assault craft for use by marine commandos.

There has been very little mention in this debate of the tracked hovertrain, but the N.R.D.C. is now going ahead with pilot experiments and tests in East Anglia where it will construct a few miles of track to see whether the hovertrain principle will be an economic and realisable project. It is quite clear that in that case neither the law of the sea nor the law of the air is in any way applicable.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) mentioned the rather more ambitious amphibious use of a craft which would spend 30 per cent. or 40 per cent. of its time travelling over land as opposed to the craft plying to the Isle of Wight which spends probably only 5 per cent. of its time over land. This may create different problems.

Another use which has been hardly touched on and which has considerable prospects is that of the hoverpallet, the use of the air cushion principle for lifting heavy loads. We would probably have to think of bringing that within the general ambit of the Factories Acts, with appropriate amendments. Then we have the large tracked overland hoverfreighters operating over cushions, or more likely, where they are wheeled or tracked vehicles, using air cushions for extra power, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wan-stead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin) suggested, for dealing with the problem of taking heavy loads across bridges.

Another matter which has not been mentioned is the air cushion bed. Those of us who have seen this in use realise what a major development it is for dealing with severe burn cases. There has also been some experience of it when paraplegics are suffering seriously from bed sores. No one would suggest that we should apply any of the regulations we have discussed as appropriate for the air cushion principle in hospitals, yet this is an exciting application of the principle. One of my hon. Friends spoke of the possibility of using hovercraft for crop spraying. That was getting a little more into the environment of the law of the air.

Can we, or ought we, to attempt to have common basic rules for the conduct, safety and legal status of all applications of the air cushion principle, or should they be treated case by case? The Bill recognises that the hovercraft is a vehicle of a new kind but in the illustrations of present development which I have given I go a great deal further and suggest that what is new here is the air cushion principle. This is the centre of the new development. It is a new method of propulsion. Its potential application goes wider even than the hovercraft as we understand it today, and I have given some examples.

I compare the air cushion principle with the principle of the internal combustion engine. We all know that the internal combustion engine was originally used as a motive power for locomotion. We also know that the internal combustion engine can be used as a motor to drive an electric generator. This is a very common use of it. Nobody would suggest that the rule of the road which applies to an internal combustion engine in the form of a motorcar or a lorry should equally apply to the use of an internal combustion engine as an electrical generator.

I suggest from that example, with which Government Departments and the law are now familiar, that we apply the same approach to the air cushion principle. If in deciding how to frame all this the Minister of State and his Department think, not in terms of hovercraft, but in terms of the air cushion principle, I think that they may find it a little easier to distinguish between the various applications. I prefer to approach the problem by securing a legal status for what we have been calling hovercraft case by case. I am sure that this is what my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet was arguing. Thus the legal status would be defined according to the particular use, or let us say, the primary use to which the air cushion principle is applied in each case and, what is equally important, according to the environment in which it operates.

Take the case of the S.R.N.6s operating in the Solent. One does not need to get into the higher metaphysical points of whether they are ships or something different. The plain fact of life is that they are operating in a marine environment and, if things were to go wrong, what they would collide with would be ships. It might be my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) leading the House of Commons Yacht Squadron. It could be an oil tanker. What I can assure the House they will not bump into is a Boeing 707. Therefore, I cannot help feeling that the Air Registration Board in that case is not entirely the most appropriate body to consider registration and certification.

Most of the hovercraft currently in use would seem to fall into the maritime classification. Thus it would appear to me that it is the law of the sea that is applicable and not the law of the air, but it does not follow from that fact that all applications of the air cushion principle should be made subject to the law of the sea. On the contrary, as my hon. Friends and I have argued, it would be ridiculous to apply the law of the sea to a tracked hovercraft or to a hover-pallet. Doubtless, modifications will have to be made to the existing legal régimes to accommodate the peculiarities of a hovercraft or the air cushion principle, but I do not believe this is beyond the wit of the law makers. If this is not done, the development of hovercraft could be effectively frustrated by the imposition of anachronistic regulations.

I want to encourage the Minister of State to be bold. I realise the difficulties a Government Department faces in these matters, because we all know the important part that precedent plays in the life of any Government. When in doubt, go back to precedent. The rate of technical change today is such that adherence when in doubt to precedents, instead of being an illumination of the problem, can darken it. I have sympathy with the current generation of civil servants, because the pace of change is far faster than their predecessors ever had to experience. The case of the hovercraft illustrates my point very well. In Committee we shall want to go into some detail on this.

As I interpret the Bill, it is the Government's object to try to avoid these hazards, and I believe that this is what Clause 1(1,k) endeavours to do particularly. The Minister's opening speech fortified me in this view.

The Bill takes power to deal with the major matters affecting the legal status of hovercraft—registration, fitness for use, safety, crew qualification—of which no mention has been made—the investigation of accidents, and the regulation of noise and vibration. As some of my hon. Friends have been quick to point out, it is only an enabling Bill and everything depends on how the powers in it are implemented in the subsequent orders. We on this side of the House are in this case prepared to support the wide enabling powers, because of the varying nature of hovercraft and because we do not wish to frustrate their development by demanding precision at this stage of their development.

Nevertheless, we would like an undertaking tonight from the Minister that when we get the first order or orders under the Bill we shall be given them at a reasonable hour and will have a reasonable amount of time to debate them. If they come very late in the evening one is up against Standing Orders and so on. It will be evidence of the good faith which the hon. Gentleman has engendered in this debate if they are brought on at a reasonable hour and we have a chance to discuss them. The difficulty of this procedure is that such orders are unamendable. Hon. Members on both sides of the House could be put in the difficult position of agreeing with the purpose of an order but genuinely feeling that certain items in it could be dealt with differently. They would find themselves constrained either to support something which was not quite right or to vote against it, which they probably would not be minded to do on any Second Reading grounds. Therefore, I very much hope that the Minister and his Department will discuss any proposed draft with all the interested parties before presenting it to Parliament, so that in a way there is administratively a Committee stage, which we cannot have on the Floor of the House because it will be an order and not a Bill.

I was also pleased to read in Clause 1(3): An Order under this section may— (a) make different provision for different circumstances or for hovercraft of different descriptions; This seems to me an absolutely essential feature of what I understand to be the Government's approach and the approach which I and my hon. Friends have been putting before the House tonight.

Both my hon. and learned Friends the Members for the Isle of Thanet and Twickenham raised the question of the hover clubs and the amateurs. I hope that the Minister will refer to them in winding up, and that he and his Department will give consideration to that point before the Committee stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham raised the interesting problem of the "rule of the road" at sea. I might add that there is also the whole question of navigation lights, because I have seen a hovercraft coming into port winking away as if it were a large jet airliner landing at Heathrow, which I did not think is entirely appropriate when it was coming in amongst ordinary yachts and dinghies.

My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight raised the very important question of definition and certification, which is obviously a matter we shall have to go into in Standing Committee. He and some of my other hon. Friends said that it would be desirable if we could define hovercraft, at least in their marine application, in the same manner as other countries, and he pointed out that they certified them in the same manner as they certified ships. This is a very strong point in favour of Lloyds Register rather than the Air Registration Board dealing with them in their marine application.

I shall not bore the House with the details of how various countries handle that, but shall just mention that Japan, the United States of America, France, Italy, Sweden and Norway all treat them under the same general discipline and régime as they treat ships. Therefore, it would seem not unreasonable that we should follow similar practice.

In dealing with technical definitions, I shall not compete with my hon. Friends in putting up alternatives to the hon. Gentleman but I leave the hon. Gentleman one idea to mull over with his officials. This is whether we should not try to define hovercraft in terms of the air cushion principle expressed mathematically rather than in words. In my period of office at the Board of Trade, I never succeeded in persuading the Parliamentary draftsmen to define things mathematically. I wanted to do it in connection with the definition of monopoly. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman may feel on this occasion that there could be a mathematical definition and I am sure that the N.P.L. might be able to assist. He might find it more helpful in this than the lawyers.

I hope that he will take seriously the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford on the question of certification of maritime hovercraft. I need not go over the points again. We can go into the details in Committee.

I wish the British hovercraft industry every good fortune in its exciting adventure. Commercially, it is just beginning to get airborne. It has a long way to go before it begins to get any return for its initiative and enterprise in the form of realised profits, and I trust that the orders under the Bill will enhance and not hinder its commercial prospects, because its resulting success will be to the benefit not only of the companies concerned but of the nation as a whole.

9.22 p.m.

Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu

Perhaps I may reply by leave of the House. In using that phrase, I must refer to the comments about the absence of my right hon. Friend. No one regrets his absence more than I do. It is not through lack of interest either in tourism or in the development of this great new industry that he is absent. He has been completely absorbed during the past week in the negotiations with E.F.T.A., and, indeed, is still absorbed in the aftermath. He would very much like to have been here to take part in the debate.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price) asked me for some assurances about the Orders. He asked that, when presented to the House, they should be discussed at a reasonable time. I cannot give that assurance. I am not the Leader of the House nor the Patronage Secretary. But, for what it is worth, I give the assurance that I shall do everything possible to see that we so arrange our business that these Orders, many of which will be immensely important, are discussed properly and at a reasonable time. I shall certainly put this point to my right hon. Friends.

The hon. Gentleman also asked for an assurance that we should have a sort of administrative Committee stage in dealing with the Orders—that we should consult all the interests concerned, especially the operators and manufacturers. I give that assurance absolutely. The hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) suggested that all of us should be humble in this matter, that we have a small body of experts and should listen to their advice. We are doing and will continue to do that, and I give that absolute assurance, too.

I am prepared to give another assurance, namely that when we have had these discussions with the industry and have the Orders in draft, but before we bring them to the House, we should enter into inter-party discussions, which I would very much welcome. It is perfectly obvious from the tone of every speech made that we take a tremendous pride in the industry and are concerned to serve it with the best possible legislation.

Mr. David Price

May I say from this side of the House that we very much welcome that offer.

Mr. Mallalieu

The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin) said that he could not wait to hear what was the connection between hovercraft and the Docking and Nicking of Horses Act, 1948. Hovercraft, being neither ship nor aircraft, are left out of the provision of various Statutes. This particular Statute has to do with the transport of horses by sea, among other things. At present there is no regulation governing the transport of horses by hovercraft. Under Clause 3 and the Schedule we are making sure that, where it is necessary, this can be done in accordance with statutory regulations.

There are other loopholes in the law. It is not absolutely clear that we have any power to deal with the transport, by hovercraft, of drugs, illegal immigrants or high explosives. Again this is the purpose of Clauses 3 and the Schedule. One point raised by the hon. Member for Eastleigh was new to me. He spoke of the air cushion bed. I have not heard of that before, and I too have a personal interest in this. Quite clearly we will not restrict in any way the use of this in hospitals.

Clearly there are all manners of different types of hovercraft and different uses of the hover cushion principle. We propose to take powers to treat different types in different ways. It is different types and not different persons or places, that is to say we shall make regulations for the use of a particular type of hovercraft and it will not matter at all who uses that type. Exactly the same regulations will be in force.

My hon. Friend the Member for Horn-church (Mr. Alan Lee Williams) surprised me, because I had not thought about the ancient right of the Watermen of the River Thames being affected by this Bill, and I shall guard those rights with my life. Reverting to the different types and different treatment, I come to what the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham said about different environments. Take, for example, the rule of the road. It is bound to be a commonsense judgment. If the craft is operated in a marine environment, then it is governed by the rule of the road of the sea. If it is operating on a road, which it is not allowed to do at the moment, it would be governed by that rule of the road. If it is operating on sand, which is neither road nor sea, it is the devil takes the hindmost, as far as I can see. Different regulations would be needed depending on the environment.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price) expressed surprise at the flashing amber light which suggested that the hovercraft was about to run into a Boeing 707. This is probably a good thing which should be retained in view of the peculiar operating characteristics of a hovercraft, particularly at speed, and its propensity to move sideways to its line of flight. I hope the Minister of State will give an indication that the flashing amber light will be retained.

Mr. Mallalieu

I had noted that point. I have noticed hovercraft showing red and green lights, but they were coming broadside on, so I did not know which was which. It is a considerable point.

We have had a fair amount of discussion on the definition, and a very detailed alternative definition was suggested by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt). I could not take it in as it was read, but I shall have a look at it. I shall, also have a look at the idea of a mathematical definition, but, since I have unhappily failed to pass school certificate even in maths, I do not know what it means.

Some fears about the definition that have been expressed this evening are perhaps unfounded. For example, one fear was that the definition would not cover hovercraft when they are coming into port and are in the trapped air condition. The definition says that a hovercraft is a vehicle which is "designed to be" mainly supported by air expelled. Therefore, even if it were coming into port and not expelling air, it would be covered by the definition because it is designed to be supported when in motion by air expelled.

We have also had considerable debate on the definition that was suggested by Lloyds using the 75 per cent. test. We wanted something wider than that so that we could make regulations for air cushion vehicles which are dependent only as to something less than 75 per cent.—perhaps 40 per cent. or 20 per cent.—on the air cushion.

The hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) and the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight made reference to the Hover Club and to the amateurs who are now taking to the construction of hovercraft. The Bill proposes to take some powers to regulate the "kitchen garden" hovercraft. There are clear reasons why we should. Some of them are made at home and transported by road to rallies. In the past, they have not always been well designed. I have lived in fear that a propeller might fly off one and hurt someone present at a rally. I believe that some provision is needed to regulate the construction of these craft.

In our regulations, I should like to see these small craft dealt with in much the same way as we deal with small yachts, so that they are left very much on their own and not made subject to the restrictions and regulations applied to larger craft. Certainly I will do everything that I can to encourage hovercraft clubs and, helped by the Air Registration Board in this instance, will give advice to anyone who asks about the essentials for safety when constructing these small craft. In no circumstances do I want to put them in a straitjacket or discourage the very exciting zeal shown by a great many people in building hovercraft. Apart from being great fun, I am sure that their activities will help the industry considerably.

I feel that the interest of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) is somewhat divided between hovercraft and hydrofoils. However, we need not go into that tonight as hydrofoils are not covered by the Bill. He asked whether we intended to cover agricultural vehicles of all types. We are taking powers to do so. I do not know that it will be essential to have regulations for hover mowers, but it will be necessary to take precautionary regulations for hover crop sprayers.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Will the Minister bear in mind that agricultural vehicles on the hover principle may have to go on roads from time to time when they cross from one farm to another?

Mr. Mallalieu

If they were permitted to go on roads, they would be covered by the provisions of the Road Traffic Act. It would be wiser at present to transport them on trailers between farms rather than going under their own steam or, rather, over their own air. There might be considerable dangers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) raised a number of points which are of importance to the industry. He asked whether the lack of legislation was interfering with export sales. There is no evidence of that, though it could well be so in the future. One of the reasons for getting ahead with legislation is so that prospective buyers abroad may have some idea of how they stand.

There have been considerable sales, and the possibilities are enormous. Here, I return in spirit to my old Department and pay tribute to the Services for the way in which they have spread the story of hovercraft throughout the world. The Inter-Services Hovercraft Trials Unit was first of all out in Borneo, where the hovercraft was a remarkable success operationally. Then, on the way home, it went across the rice fields in Thailand, where it was such a success that the Thais immediately bought one, but unfortunately from Japan. Then came the experiments carried out in the Middle East. They were not successful at first because the sand clogged the machine. However, the designers have got round that difficulty now, and we hear of Iran placing orders and that the possibilities there are considerable.

There were trials in Latin America. In Canada there were tremendous trials. They went further north than any moving vehicle had been, dealing with the ice at its most awkward stage, when it was breaking up. It is all right when it is solid or lot there, but when it is breaking up it is very dangerous. They made a tremendous impression upon the Canadians. I would say to my hon. Friends, as I say to the House and as I say repeatedly when I go abroad, that these machines have a wonderful future.

I have tried to cover some of the points that have been raised this evening in this most pleasant and useful preliminary debate. But I have been made extremely conscious, if I was not so already, of the amount of thought and work that will have to go into the Committee stage. I am so much alarmed about some of the legal implications of the Committee stage that I have half a mind to ask if I can be accompanied by one of the Law Officers of the Crown. It is obviously going to be hard work for all of us. It has become very apparent from the discussion we have had tonight that those who are members of that Committee and take part in its proceedings will be concerned with one objective only—to make as good a Bill as possible for an industry of which we are rightly proud.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).

  1. HOVERCRAFT [MONEY] 145 words