HC Deb 27 November 1968 vol 774 cc477-80
25. Mr. Ellis

asked the Minister of Technology if he will make a statement on the progress of the Concorde project.

31. Mr. Wall

asked the Minister of Technology if he will make a statement on the progress of the Concorde project.

Mr. Benn

Manufacture of the two prototype aircraft is now complete, and first flight is expected early in the new year. Manufacture of the two preproduction aircraft and of the static test specimen is well advanced, and work has started on the fatigue test specimen and on the first three production aircraft.

Mr. Ellis

Has my right hon. Friend seen in the Press speculation about cuts from the French side due to their financial difficulties? Could he say what effect this will have on the programme and also what representations he has had from the French Government? Does he also, as many Members do, deplore the kind of speculation that this project is in danger, when we all know that it is not true?

Mr. Benn

It is true that one difficulty that faces me is the speculation, which tends to be extreme in character. We have had some examples this morning as a result of the statement made yesterday in France about their economy measures. We were not consulted, nor would I expect to be consulted, about them. To the best of my knowledge, it does not affect the progress of the project during 1969, and I have no reason to believe that it will have any bearing on the future of Concorde.

Mr. Wall

Will the Minister confirm that there will be no comparable financial cuts on the British side, and can he also state categorically that it is the intention of both Governments to carry the project through to its conclusion?

Mr. Benn

Through to its conclusion means that flight testing will take place, as planned, next year. But Concorde will decide its own future. Let us be quite clear. If it succeeds and people buy it, it will be a success. If it does not succeed and people do not buy it, it will be a failure. If people could realise this and not think that it was the machinations of the Governments concerned that was the cause of the trouble, some of the speculation would not occur.

Mr. Dalyell

Is it not extraordinary when my right hon. Friend says that he does not expect to be consulted?

Mr. Benn

I certainly would not have consulted the French Government about measures taken as part of our own economy discussions at different stages involving central economic policy in either country. Of course not. If there were to be a change by either Government that affected the progress of the project, that would be different. But I understand that this is rephasing of payments by the French Government, and I would not expect to be consulted about it.

Mr. Michael Hamilton

Is the Minister aware that, whilst we welcome the Concorde project and wish it well, Salisbury for seven hundred years has strained every muscle to keep the spire up and it is not anxious now to see sonic booms knock it down?

Mr. Benn

I do not want to knock down old cathedrals, in case anyone believes that I do. This is why we have had these recent tests, which have been welcomed by the Deans and Chapters who found that Concorde gave them the opportunity to see whether they are safe anyway.

Mr. Brooks

Will the Minister make a distinction between measures which the French Government properly took to defend their own economy and measures which are bound to have a bearing on our economy and upon which there is a mutual sharing arrangement between France and Britain? In these circumstances, is he entirely satisfied that this is purely rephasing of the expenditure for 1969?

Mr. Bean

My Department is in close touch with our opposite numbers in France, as we expect, about a project of this kind. The project has been affected by decisions taken unilaterally, including our own decision to devalue last year, which affected the calculations of the cost share on each side. I am satisfied that the measures announced yesterday will not affect the progress of the project next year. I cannot go further than that.

Mr. Marten

Can the Minister, nevertheless, give a categorical assurance that there will not be any similar cuts by Britain?

Mr. Benn

I will be perfectly candid. I have always looked at this programme from the point of view that I am responsible, first, to see that it should succeed and, secondly, to see whether there were economies to be made at any point, be- cause I am also responsible for public money. If it were possible, as a result of the programme, to make an economy, perhaps by improved management, I should think it right to do so. I would not be doing my job if I did not have regard to the money that I am spending at a very high rate on Concorde.

Mr. Palmer

Will my right hon. Friend, who is a Bristol Member, give an assurance to his fellow Bristol Members that no financial difficulties will be allowed to stand in the way of the completion of Concorde?

Mr. Benn

No, I will not give that assurance. I never have given the assurance that no financial difficulties will stand in the way. If, as a result of major redesign difficulties, we found that the cost of Concorde had risen to the point where it had no prospect of being a commercial success, both Governments would look at it. I have never given unqualified assurances about Concorde. I have done this, I think, quite rightly, although I am a Bristol Member. I live with Concorde during the week and at weekends. I do not think that anybody else in the House does.

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