HC Deb 24 February 1977 vol 926 cc1772-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ashton.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Terry Walker (Kingswood)

The entry of the Concorde aircraft into New York is, to my mind, vital to the longterm interest and success of this great project. I believe that the British Government have a duty to protect British investment, and £800 million of British taxpayers' money has been invested in the Concorde project. Our French partners have also invested £800 million of their money.

We are in the lead in supersonic travel, and that lead and our whole investment is now being threatened by the action of the New York Port Authority in refusing the entry of Concorde into the port of New York. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade will take the opportunity to tell us more about our rights to operate Concorde, and whether he considers the action of the New York Port Authority to be against the spirit of the Bermuda Agreement. Will he tell us also whether Concorde has been able to meet the noise limits at Kennedy Airport? That is the red herring that is being used against us.

Perhaps my hon. Friend will tell us also whether we have been able to give the New York Port Authority all the information that it requires for the operating of Concorde through the port of New York. The attitude of the new American President, President Carter, in this affair is important. During the presidential campaign Mr. Carter appeared to be very anti-Concorde and against the trial period. The Government should tell us frankly tonight what his attitude now is to the trial period for Concorde in New York, so that everyone may know the position. Is he for it, or against it? I believe that this is a significant fact in the way that things are to go.

Perhaps the Minister will tell us also what the British Government have done so far, in the early days of Mr. Carter's presidency, to make their views known to him about the whole operation of Concorde in New York. We should like to hear from my hon. Friend what the British Government would do if the New York Port Authority once again, on 10th March, refused Concorde entry into the port. Would we take legal action? Some of us cannot really understand why the lawsuit has been postponed. I hope that whatever line we take we shall keep closely in touch with our French partners in this project. Whatever action we take, I hope that we shall take it together.

The Minister may be interested to know that the Bristol Evening Post tonight carries as its main leader a story about Concorde and the co-operation between that newspaper and two major French regional newspapers in publicising a campaign by their two nations' aerospace workers which tells New Yorkers: 'Let Concorde In'. The article points out that the aim is to obtain 100,000 signatories. We invite every citizen of Bristol and of Britain to sign our petition. That co-operation is taking place between the two cities of Bristol and Toulouse, and the Bristol Evening Post and the two French newpapers are publicising the campaign. Therefore, there is certainly great co-operation between both nations on this matter.

Many jobs will be at stake in Great Britain and France if Concorde is cancelled. I believe that we are being opposed by the vested interests in America. They want us to consider cancellation of the project in order that they can take our technology across the Atlantic—it would not be the first time that British technology had found its way across the Atlantic—to build the next generation of supersonic aircraft.

I believe that we are being opposed in this matter not only by the New York Port Authority, but by the American airlines, PanAm and TWA, which realise full well that they will be hit if Concorde does a regular run. More people will want to fly by Concorde.

We are also being opposed by American aircraft manufacturers, who realise that their sales will be hit when Concorde is flying world-wide. Other airlines throughout the world will have to buy Concorde, and that will hit the American market.

I believe that the Americans in general have shown by their attitude that they are envious of the lead that the French and ourselves have over them in supersonic travel.

New York's attitude has changed rapidly of late. The business and trade union communities now want Concorde to be allowed to come in, because they see trade and commerce being sacrificed to other cities in the United States with passengers going to and coming from Washington just to fly by Concorde. There are significant changes in attitude, because conferences are being cancelled in New York as people want to fly by Concorde. They see New York losing status in commerce and as a conference centre. I hope that that consideration will be borne in mind by the New York Port Authority when it makes up its mind about the entry of Concorde in a week or so.

I believe that there is hope, but the crucial question surely is: what will the Government do if on this occasion the New York Port Authority once again says "No" to Concorde?

Many jobs in Britain and in France are threatened. In constituencies represented by hon. Members here tonight, in and around Bristol, 700 men are under threat of redundancy. We rely very much on the continuation of the project. I say "the continuation of the project", because we are looking forward to the Mark II version, which will surely come. I believe that the present Concorde is but a prelude to supersonic travel. I do not believe that the workers concerned will be prepared to sit back in the face of a decision to ban Concorde again. Retaliatory action will be demanded against America and must be thought about by the Government if this attitude persists. The opposition might be peaceful at first, but we must bring home to the American people and the President how damaging to Anglo-American and Franco-American relations a ban on Concorde would be.

If the ban continues, many of us expect our Government to take the very strongest action against American interests in this country. Hon. Members have been to France to discuss the joint Concorde project with French parliamentarians, who have long supported rather stronger action than we have so far been prepared to take to secure the free access of our aircraft into New York, I am sure that we would have their support and help in any action we might take to secure the free entry of Concorde into New York.

I seek assurances from the Government about these matters, which so vitally affect our investment, our technology, and the employment of our workers in the great supersonic adventure in which we and the French have been involved. We ask the Government to protect the interests of Concorde from the attacks that are taking place on it and to do all they can to secure the entry of Concorde into New York.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Ron Thomas (Bristol, North-West)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker) for this opportunity for me to give wholehearted support to what he has said about this brilliant project. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is faced all the time with trade statistics showing the heavy importation of finished and semifinished manufactured goods, and he knows that if Britain is to hold any semblance of a lead as a producing and manufacturing country we should be concentrating our resources on industries like the aerospace industry.

Projects like Concorde, which are all the time thrusting forward the frontiers of technological advance, represent the spearhead of our technological advance in aerospace. The Concorde project represents 12 years of the harnessing of the technological skills and brilliance of the workers at Filton. Bristol has a historic reputation for opening up new dimensions and frontiers, and Concorde is a technological monument in that tradition. Bristol is proud of this brilliant and world-beating project. I believe that most British people are also proud of it.

My hon. Friend mentioned the jobs at stake. But it is not simply that. If we are to retain an aerospace industry at the frontiers of technological advance, we need arrangements like the Concorde project and the new stretched version, and so on. America will eventually go supersonic, and we are concerned and suspicious that the aim of the Americans is to get hold of that technology and thereafter to exploit it in the years to come, whereas Bristol and Britain should have been doing exactly that.

I welcome the rôle that the Bristol Evening Post has taken on. It has always given wholehearted support to Concorde and the Bristolian traditions of innovation and moving forward to new frontiers. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to taken whatever measures are necessary to ensure that Concorde gets entry into New York, because I believe that the future of the British aerospace industry depends on the supersonic age and on Britain keeping its lead in it.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. John Cope (Gloucestershire, South)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker) and the Bristol Evening Post on the initiative they have taken. I support all that has been said so far in the debate.

My point of specific concern tonight is the disgraceful misrepresentation in New York of the recent Civil Aviation Authority report—the Directorate of Operational Research and Analysis report —which concerns the noise data from the first eight months of the operation of Concorde at Heathrow. This has been disgracefully misrepresented, not least by the New York Post, which is not nearly as admirable an organ as the Bristol Evening Post. Admittedly the report is a little misleading and obscure in the way in which some of the data is presented. The New York Post has been using the report to represent Concorde as being unsafely noisy—which is wrong—in its operations at Heathrow. A United States aeroplane, the Boeing 707, was the noisiest aircraft using Heathrow over the relevant eight months covered by the report. Not only that, but a United States carrier was responsible for the noisiest aircraft at Heathrow during that time.

I hope that the Minister will take every opportunity, as the British Consul in New York has done, to correct the highly misleading information which has come out from the report and the anti-Concorde lobby.

10.16 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Clinton Davis)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker) for raising the matter tonight and for the support that he has obtained from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) and the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope). They spoke for the city of Bristol, which is the city of Brunel and rich traditions of innovation. The hon. Members spoke well for that city.

New York is the key to the success of the Concorde project. Let there be no doubt about that. It is by far the most important of the North Atlantic routes. It is the route for which Concorde was primarily designed. It is the route which British Airways and Air France must be able to exploit if their investment in the Concorde fleet is to pay off. And it is a route for which there is enormous demand, as has been proved by the services to Washington that are now in operation.

My hon. Friend was right, therefore, to express his profound concern lest Concorde should be denied entry into New York. I am sure that he speaks not only for his constituents but for the many thousands in the manufacturing firms, the airlines and others who have devoted so much effort and skill into making Concorde the most remarkable passenger aircraft of its time.

For all these reasons my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the President of France have sent personal messages to President Carter emphasising their concern about the delay in allowing Concorde to serve New York.

President Carter's statement in response was friendly and courteous. He stated in categorical terms, his support for the decision made by Mr. Secretary Coleman just over 12 months ago to give Concorde a trial period of 16 months at New York as well as Washington.

President Carter's statement also pointed out that he could not direct the Port of New York Authority or the Governor of New York to reach a particular decision in this matter, and here lies the heart of the problem.

The debate gives me the opportunity to restate and to underline our firm position. First, we have treaty rights entitling us to operate Concorde to New York. Secondly, the air services agreements between the United States and Britain and France, specifying the requirements that airlines and aircraft must meet before they can operate services on any of the agreed routes to the United States, have been met in full by the airline and, indeed, by Concorde. Thirdly, the Port of New York Authority is not entitled to withhold those rights.

In addition, Concorde has been subjected—the first civil aircraft to be so treated—to the full Environmental Impact Statement procedure laid down under the United States National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

The airlines and the Governments of Britain and France complied fully in this regard with the requirements of United States law, although they made clear at the outset that their co-operation was without prejudice to their treaty rights. Concorde passed all these rigorous tests, and the outcome of the exceptionally thorough investigation carried out by Mr. Secretary Coleman was to authorise services to both New York and Washington for 16-month trial periods.

Since 24th May last, Concorde has been operating to Washington with great success. The facts speak for themselves, and the exaggerated claims of the critics have been demonstrably canfounded.

The noise monitored there, according to the monthly reports issued by the United States Federal Aviation Administration, confirms all the predictions on which Mr. Coleman based his decision. Now the New Yorkers have living proof that it is our estimates of what Concorde would be like and not the wild allegations that others have made that have been manifestly vindicated.

I now wish to refer to recent highly misleading Press articles, to which the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South referred, which have appeared in New York and in London, based on a CAA report of the first eight months of Concorde operations at Heathrow. The classic device has been used of quoting from a respectable authority out of context and omitting the relevant factors. In fact, the reaction to Concorde's operations at Heathrow has been well below the forecasts made by its critics; as recorded in the CAA report, there were less than four complaints per movement. The main point, as I have already explained is that in the United States of America the federal authorities' own measurements at Washington are confirming the validity of the Concorde data that we supplied and hence the environmental predictions for New York on which a trial period was recommended.

Although we have always stood on our treaty rights—and we shall continue to do so—our record in presenting the case for Concorde in the United States has established that we have co-operated to the full with all the investigations carried out in the United States—just as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), the Minister of State, Department of Industry, indicated at the Coleman hearings.

We participated fully in all the procedures and inquiries leading up to the Coleman decision. We answered every single question addressed to us. We have given the Port of New York Authority all the information that it needs to judge Concorde. It has said that it wants to be satisfied about the results at other airports. Well, those from Washington are available to it from the FAA. All the measurements taken at Heathrow and at Paris have been made available to it. In addition, we gave it every facility to carry out its own surveys of public opinion around Heathrow.

The take-off procedure, designed to minimise the noise from Concorde on communities close to Kennedy, has been flight-tested and all the results have been given to New York. Indeed, it was invited to take part, but chose not to do so. The certification authorities in the United States of America, as well as in Britain and France, have all declared themselves satisfied that it is safe and the FAA considers also that it can be flown by normal airline pilots. I am confident, therefore, that Concorde will comply with the Kennedy noise limits as they are currently applied to other aircraft.

All these facts are beyond dispute. I say, therefore, that not only have we done everything possible to allay the anxieties of those living close to Kennedy, who understandably are concerned about their environment—anxieties which have all too often been unscrupulously inflamed by some—but also we have done everything possible to convince the Port of New York Authority that it would be utterly wrong to continue to deny entry to Concorde.

I have been asked what we have done about presenting our case in New York. We have presented our case to the people of New York with vigour but with fairness. I am glad to report that many New York organisations, representing labour, business, tourism and other interests, have recently declared their support for Concorde. I believe this shows that we have already convinced many New Yorkers that Concorde will not only be acceptable to but will be positively welcomed in New York and that it will make a significant contribution to the wellbeing of that great city.

Despite all this, the port authority has now deferred its decision three times. We have been informed that it will consider Concorde at its next meeting on 10th March. We look to the PNYA to take the right decision at last, and to do so for five reasons. First, President Carter's statement says that the Concorde trial at Kennedy should be allowed to start. Second, the port authority has all the information it needs. Third, the experience at Washington shows that this information is totally correct. Fourth, New York will benefit from Concorde services to Europe. Fifth, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister himself has said, continued exclusion of Concorde services from New York would be ill received by British public opinion.

I ask the House to imagine what would have been the position if the boot had been on the other foot and we had kept out an American Concorde in this way. Indeed, there is no doubt that workers and unions are becoming restive and disturbed at this threat to British and French technology, and thus to their livelihoods, as is evidenced by the fact that United Kingdom and French trade union leaders have already made joint representations on this very point to the United States Embassy in London.

As soon as the decision is taken the airlines will want to get down to making their preparations, and there will be a lot of work they must do with the port authority. I do not know how long this might take, but I am sure they are very anxious to start as soon as they can. I look forward to Concorde having its inaugural flight into Kennedy this spring.

I must make it clear that we have every right to expect the decision to be taken on 10th March. If that does not happen, or if it goes against Concorde, we shall have no alternative but to press the challenge to the port authority's powers.

The court hearing has now been postponed three times to give the port authority more time to take its decision on its merits. President Carter's statement should now have a strong and positive influence on the port authority. Therefore, it was right to postpone the law suit for a few more days. But, if no decision emerges on 10th March, I think we will have to conclude that there is unlikely to be a decision, however long we wait, and the question of the port authority's powers will have to be resolved.

I hope that this will not be necessary. This is not a matter that should require the intervention of the United States courts or which should give rise to dispute between friendly Governments. Failure by the port authority to respond, coupled with a failure to act in accordance with United States treaty obligations, would be a serious and regrettable development. We and the French Government, with whom we work and will continue to work very closely in all this, would have to consider all the implications very deeply. In any case, such a failure would be deeply resented by all those concerned to see Concorde a success, not only in Bristol but far wider, throughout Britain and France.

The British and French Governments have done all they can to avoid such a situation arising. It therefore lies in the hands of the port authority to let Concorde prove itself in New York. I sincerely hope that the authority will do so.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have participated in this important Adjournment debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.