HL Deb 09 December 1964 vol 262 cc104-11

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Aviation in another place on the appointment of a Committee to examine the future place of the aircraft industry in the British ecenomy. The Statement is as follows:

"Lord Plowden has accepted the Government's invitation to serve as Chairman and the: Committee will have the following terms of reference:

'To consider what should be the future place and organisation of the aircraft industry in relation to the general economy of the country, taking into account the demands of national defence, export prospects, the comparable industries of other countries, and the relationship of the industry with Government activities in the: aviation field; and to make recommendations on any steps and measures necessary.'

"From this House"—

that is to say, the other place—

"the right honourable Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, and my honourable friend the Member for Edmonton have agreed to serve on the Committee."

I might translate that into the right honourable Aubrey Jones and Mr. Austen Albu.

"The other members will be: Mr. David H. Barran, who is a Managing Director of the Shell International Petroleum Company Limited,

Mr. Fred Hayday, the National Industrial Officer of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, and a former Chairman of the Trades Union Congress,

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Caspar John, who was on his retirement in 1963 the First Sea Lord, and is now Chairman of the Housing Corporation,

Mr. Christopher McMahon, an economist with the Bank of England and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford,

Sir William Penney, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority.

"The Secretariat will be headed by Mr. Norman Craig, an Assistant Secretary in my Department, and the Committee will have every assistance they require from my Department.

"I should like to thank all the members for agreeing to take part in

this most important inquiry, and to wish them success and speed in their deliberations."


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for repeating this Statement. I would say straight away that, if it is desirable to set up a review Committee of this sort—and in this respect I would only comment that I well remember over the last year or so on a number of occasions the then Opposition castigating the then Government on setting up reviews rather than taking decisions themselves on the information available to them—I should like to congratulate the Government and the Minister of Aviation on the strength of this particular Committee. This is a vastly important industry into which they will be inquiring. Their job will therefore be a very important one indeed, and I am very glad to see that the Minister of Aviation has managed to recruit for this job a really first-class team.

I would also congratulate the Government on the aspect of security. I think this is one of the few important Statements by the Government which do not appear to have been fully anticipated by one means or another by our alert and enterprising Press. I think this is a considerable feather in the Minister of Aviation's cap, and I hope it is one which some of his more voluble colleagues will be able to wear.

Having said that, may I ask the noble Lord the following questions? Is it intended that when the Committee have finished their studies their report will be made public? Secondly, I have noted what is said in the Statement about speed. Can the noble Lord give us any indication of when it is hoped that this review will be completed? In this connection I would remind your Lordships that there are, of course, a number of associated reviews going on in this sphere. We learned from the noble Lord, Lord Walston, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, during the debate on the Address, that the Government were reviewing a number of important defence projects, such as the TSR 2, the P. 1154, the HS 681, the Phantom project, the Wessex 3, the AJ. 168 and so on. We also know that the Concord project is being reviewed—perhaps the most important of all. May I ask the noble Lord whether decisions on these military and civilian projects which I have enumerated will be deferred until the Plowden Committee have reported?

I think there is obviously a very strong case for that course, but unless the Committee are going to be able to report very quickly this will of course mean continuing uncertainty on the part of the Services and the industry, and it is difficult to see, if the Government follow that course, how those amicable negotiations with the French on the Concord, about which we have learned so much recently, can meanwhile proceed. Can the noble Lord let us know what are the Government's intentions on that? Finally—and the noble Lord will not be surprised to have me put this question—can he let us know whether this review will include the activities of the British aircraft industry in space, projects such as Black Knight, Blue Streak, our participation in ELDO, and so on?


My Lords, the noble Earl extracted a lot from a fairly brief Statement. I will try to answer some of his questions. First of all, on the question of publication my right honourable friend will undoubtedly do his best to provide, one way or another, as full an account as possible of the committee's conclusions. But the noble Earl will be very well aware that this inquiry will cover matters of national security and also commercial confidence, and this will inevitably restrict the amount of information that can be disclosed. But it is equally clear, I think, that it is very important that as much as possible should be published; I fully accept that.

I think the noble Earl also said we had castigated the former Government with setting up inquiries when they might have got on with the job themselves. We either can say that they should take satisfaction in our emulation of them, or we could urge, which I believe to be the case, that this is a problem which is particularly well suited for this type of inquiry. Of course, we recall the inquiries the former Government made in regard to certain parts of industry, the shipbuilding industry and so on, about which I heard no word of criticism of the conduct of the inquiry; there was criticism of the failure to take action afterwards. On the timing, I cannot, I am afraid, give an answer. The Chairman, who has only just been appointed, has been asked to press on with his deliberations as quickly as possible. I do not think we should wish the desire for urgency—and I agree it is an urgent matter—to influence the thoroughness of the Committee's review.

The final point was: will the Committee report before or after the review of certain projects? I should like to make clear that the review of certain projects is part and parcel of the whole of the Government review on Defence expenditure and other expenditure, and it is of a quite different nature from a far-reaching examination in depth of an industry. The Committee will have a large body of work on which they can start while the reviews are going on, but it is to be expected that the results of the project reviews will be available to the Committee in good time for them to take them into account in forming any conclusions and making any recommendations.


My Lords, I appreciate that the Government's decision cannot be held up while this inquiry is going on—I think that is not unreasonable; but surely it would be reasonable for the Government to give an assurance that in these inquiries, which, in their result, may entirely cut across the whole structure of the aircraft industry, and indeed other industries, the Government will take the Committee into their confidence and will use them as a consultative committee while they are conducting inquiries into the Concord and other matters? Otherwise, the Government's action might completely stultify any action that the Committee is going to take. It seems to me an admirable Committee, and it would be a great misfortune if they were not used by the Government on these critical matters at a critical time.


My Lords, I appreciate the way in which the noble Earl has put these suggestions. I am rather doubtful whether it would be appropriate for a Committee of Inquiry, which is in a sort of semi-judicial capacity—certainly in an independent capacity—to take part in discussions with the Government. It would bring the Government much more deeply into the work of the Committee. Obviously, it would be desirable if the Committee could report; but I do not think the Government can abrogate their present-day responsibilities both in relation to expenditure and defence. I certainly have noted the point of the noble Earl, and will pass it to my right honourable friend.


My Lords, obviously, this Committee is a high-powered Committee, with a wide range of most important subjects to cover. Inevitably, it must take a considerable time before it can report to Her Majesty's Government. I am sure we all agree that the one thing we want to avoid is industrial lack of confidence and industrial uncertainty. In view of that, would the Government consider asking the Committee to make a series of interim reports upon various projects, and for Her Majesty's Government then to give an endorsement or a rejection of such recommendations as the Committee may make, in order that there shall be an avoidance of the possibility of industrial lack of confidence in a most important industry?


My Lords, again I appreciate the noble Lord's suggestion. Like the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, he knows a great deal about the aircraft industry. But here again, I think I can only say that I take note of what the noble Lord said. I do not think I can quite go along with him in his reference to projects. I feel that there are urgent decisions in regard to particular defence projects on which it will simply not be possible to expect an interim report. But I should like to have an opportunity to consider it. As the noble Lord said, it certainly is highly desirable that this Inquiry should be conducted in an atmosphere of goodwill and, I hope, confidence.


My Lords, I recognise that it may be necessary to set up this Committee. No doubt the noble Lord opposite will have read Robert Heller's report in the Observer of November 8 last, entitled "The Agonies of Air Appraisal". Equally, there can be no more appropriate chairman than the noble Lord, Lord Plowden. But as the Committee includes an ex-member of the Trades Union Congress, Mr. Fred Hay-day, it seems to me fair that some executive member of the aircraft manufacturing side should be appointed in order to give his views in a permanent capacity to the Committee.

May I, finally, ask the noble Lord one question? Last week, in regard to the Concord project, he said that there was no question of cancellation, so will he assure the House that progress on that project will not be suspended while the Committee is studying the position of the British aircraft industry? According to the Observer on November 1 last: Whitehall expects that the Concord project will be a dead duck by Christmas", I understand the words "dead duck" to be a Whitehall expression. Would he assure the House that that is not so?


My Lords, I really think that the noble Lord is taking advantage of a Statement which was concerned with the setting up of a Committee. I do not think I will follow him into his Press researches on the Concord. I stand by the remarks that I made in this House only a few days ago. Nor can I understand his suggestion that somehow Mr. Hayday, who is a member of the Committee and is a most able and well respected trade union official, should be equated with a member of the aircraft industry. I do not see that this is relevant at all. This is, in fact, a well-balanced Committee. There is experience of all kinds—from the Services and from the Government service. There is a well-known economist—I know he is good because he is my son's tutor at Oxford, and I hope he will continue to be. Then there is Mr. Barran, who is managing director of Shell International Petroleum. It seems to me that this change would in fact damage the nature of the Inquiry. The important thing is that all those who wish to give evidence should be free to do so. I think that if they were represented on the Inquiry—indeed, if there were, say, a serving Air-Marshal, or someone of that sort—this would inevitably rather weaken the position of those who wished to put forward views.


My Lords, I appreciate the further information that the noble Lord has given in reply to supplementary questions, and I hope he will go back to his right honourable friend on the points which my noble friends have put, because it seems to me that the projects which we have in mind are really the guts of the industry, or will be a large part of the guts in the late 'sixties and the 'seventies. May I just ask him whether he is able to answer my last question—namely, whether Lord Plowden's writ will run into the British aircraft industry's activities in space?


My Lords, I am sorry; I had forgotten to answer that. I am afraid I cannot specifically answer the question. I have a recollection that it will cover aero space. Certainly, I will look further into that, but I am afraid I cannot give a specific reply. I am pretty certain that it must be concerned with this side of the matter.

I cannot give any undertaking that, beyond the general points that have been made by noble Lords opposite, there could possibly be a hold-up of decision on particular projects. It may well be that some of them can go along. But I think noble Lords will also agree that it is highly important that decisions should be taken, and I am most doubtful whether the Committee would be able to issue an interim report soon enough to be helpful. But I will pass this suggestion on.

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