HC Deb 18 November 1970 vol 806 cc1212-7
4. Mr. Cronin

asked the Minister of Aviation Supply if he will make a statement on the progress and future prospects of the Concorde airliner.

6. Mr. Barnett

asked the Minister of Aviation Supply if he will give the current estimate of research and development costs of Concorde; and if he will make a statement.

8. Sir G. Nabarro

asked the Minister of Aviation Supply whether he will make a statement on Concorde.

14. Mr. Sheldon

asked the Minister of Aviation Supply if he will make a further statement on the Concorde project.

Mr. Corfield

The two Concorde prototypes have now completed 310 hours of flight testing and both have flown at Concorde's cruising speed of Mach 2. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in congratulating all concerned on reaching this important milestone in the programme. As regards development costs, I have nothing to add to my statement on 28th October.—[Vol. 805, c. 193–6.]

Mr. Cronin

When will the Minister be in a position to make a statement on the prospects of commercial success of the Concorde? Will he give the House a firm assurance that if there are indications that the Concorde will be a commercial success, the project will not be cut in the search for economies?

Mr. Corfield

In reply to the first part of his question, I can only refer the hon. Member to what I have already said, namely, that I expect that the greater part of the tests will be completed by the middle of next month. I shall then have talks with my French opposite number, but I do not expect that the evaluation of the tests can be completed to the extent that is necessary to expect firm orders to eventuate until about March.

Mr. Barnett

Will the Minister confirm that all past estimates have been fantastically unreliable? Can he assure the House in any way that the present figures are not likely to reach, say, at least £1,000 million? If he cannot assure us of that, can he, in the circumstances, at least tell the House that it will not be a commercial proposition in any way? If so, why is he going ahead with the project.

Mr. Corfield

I think the hon. Gentleman has put forward a number of hypotheses on which I would not be prepared to give even a hypothetical answer.

Sir G. Nabarro

While dissociating myself entirely from the last question—that this aircraft is unlikely to be a commercial proposition in the future—may I ask whether my right hon. Friend would not give some satisfaction to the House, and a crumb of comfort to me in all the questions that I have asked him, as to the maximum financial commitment over and above the £800 million already committed by the taxpayers of this country to this aircraft?

Mr. Corfield

The estimate I have already given is the best estimate that can at present be given as to the cost of completing this aircraft. [Interruption.] An hon. Gentleman opposite says that it is not a very good estimate, but about 40 per cent. of the increased cost is due to increases in the cost of the raw materials for which his right hon. Friends had more responsibility than anybody else. That is a fact. I should be delighted to give my hon. Friend crumbs of comfort, but I am sure that he will appreciate that it is quite impossible for me to put my hand on my heart and give a guarantee on anything.

Mr. Sheldon

Since there is no likelihood of this being a commercial success and it obviously is a commercial loss of a very high order indeed—[Interruption.]—that has been stated by the Minister himself—can the right hon. Gentleman say how much of the £825 million is likely to be recouped, how much is likely to be lost, and when he will draw this billion pound folly to an end?

Mr. Corfield

As I think my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) said many months ago, it is quite clear that this stage would be the worst possible stage at which to think of cancelling this project. [An HON. MEMBER: "A referendum?"] I have no doubt that if the right hon. Gentleman had a referendum in his constituency the answer would be overwhelmingly in favour of the project.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards

Would my right hon. Friend say whether the estimates are based on the assumption of supersonic flights over land being banned and make an early statement on that aspect?

Mr. Corfield

The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question is, Yes; as to the second part, this is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Benn

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman how long the current arrangements with the French on forward expenditure last? That is to say, when is he expecting that, after evaluation of the tests and orders have come in, he will be in a position to decide whether a full production programme may go ahead and by what date?

Mr. Corfield

I expect that it will be some time towards the end of March, but it may be necessary to take a limited decision in the middle of next month in regard to a certain amount of the early parts of the production programme which the right hon. Gentleman himself originally authorised.

12. Mr. Adley

asked the Minister of Aviation Supply what representations he has received from the Anti-Concorde Society about damage attributable to supersonic testing of aircraft; and what reply he has sent.

Mr. Corfield

I have in my present capacity received no such representations, although, of course, I am very well aware of the views of those supporting the Anti-Concorde Project.

Mr. Adley

Will my right hon. Friend take note of the very great damage to the morale of those, in his constituency, mine and others, who work in the aircraft industry and who are not helped at all by the frequent pronouncements of this politically motivated organisation? Is he aware that if a pro-Concorde society were formed it would have a very different and larger membership?

Mr. Corfield

While I accept the latter part of my hon Friend's remarks, I am bound to say that when I read the voluminous reports from this society when I was in Opposition I came to the conclusion that these were people who were best at spoiling their own case.

15. Mr. Bob Brown

asked the Minister of Aviation Supply if, in view of the further escalation of costs, he will now withdraw from the Concorde programme.

Mr. Corfield

No, Sir.

Mr. Brown

While I appreciate that the Minister would want to get the best out of the trial flights, may I ask him whether he would assure the House that once he gets evaluation from the trial flights he will consider suspending the programme? Does he, with hand on heart, believe that the nation can afford the luxury of Concorde at the expense of welfare milk, school milk, and increased prescription charges for the registered disabled?

Mr. Corfield

I stress to the hon. Gentleman that the crux is the commercial factor rather than only the technical, because all the signs are that the technical tests will be successful, and it is then that we shall be able to judge the number of orders and, therefore, the aircraft's commercial viability.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the commercial success of Concorde to a large degree depends on confidence in the project, and that questions such as that just asked by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Bob Brown) do nothing but harm at this stage?

Mr. William Rodgers

Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the commercial success will be measured in terms of planes sold, and can he, therefore, say what the anticipated price of Concorde will be and what proportion of that price will be attributable to development costs?

Mr. Corfield

That is one of the factors which I am proposing to discuss next month with M. Mondon.

16. Mr. Bob Brown

asked the Minister of Aviation Supply what are his plans for recouping the expenditure incurred by the United Kingdom in the Concorde project.

Mr. Corfield

We aim to recover a part of the development costs through a levy on sales.

Mr. Brown

Is the Minister, then, conceding that it just is not possible ever to recoup the huge capital outlay by the taxpayers of this country on this wasteful project?

Mr. Corfield

Yes, I think that that has been the bipartisan approach for many months.

Mr. Marten

Is that true if one takes the stretched Concorde into account and if sales of them go very well—if there is no American supersonic aircraft?

Mr. Corfield

I think that this is moving into the realms of hypothesis on which it would not be wise to base a commercial or financial decision. On present expectations it is wise to recognise that we shall not recoup a large part of the development costs.