HL Deb 16 July 1968 vol 295 cc232-42

5.17 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill was given a very thorough examination in another place. It is primarily an enabling Bill, and we do have other business to get through to-day. I thought, therefore, it would be acceptable if I limited my remarks to a few general comments about the Bill, with an undertaking, of course, to try to answer any questions which may be posed to me. First, it may be asked: why do we need the Bill? The need springs primarily from the present uncertainty about where hovercraft stand before the law. These vehicles are new. They can be amphibious; they combine some characteristics of a ship and some of an aircraft. In many ways they are neither ships nor aircraft. All this could cause difficulty in the courts. At present they are treated as if they were aircraft for purposes of safety, and are given "permits to fly". Though the system has worked so far, there could be doubt whether hovercraft properly can be called aircraft within the Civil Aviation Act of 1949. In this context it is relevant that the International Civil Aviation Organisation has chosen not to regard hovercraft as being aircraft. Clause 2, which deals with jurisdiction, is therefore required as a matter of some urgency.

I may also be asked why so much of the required regulations are left to be dealt with by Orders, and why Clause 1 gives such wide enabling powers. The answer—the acceptable answer, I hope —is that this new field of endeavour is so much in the development stage and offers so many divergent opportunities of development that the utmost flexibility is required. The regulations will be tailored to developing requirements. In some cases it will be possible to adapt existing enactments, such as the Civil Aviation Act and the Merchant Shipping Acts. But I am sure that the House will agree that in all cases it is advisable to provide for the maximum flexibility. If we had time I have no doubt that we could discuss at length the definition of the family of vehicles for which provision is made in this Bill, and indeed the title that it is proposed to give to it. The term "hovercraft" is not, to say the least, universally accepted by those who take a professional interest in this matter. "Air Cushion Vehicle", abbreviated to A.C.V., would probably be preferred by those who are involved and take a special interest in this field. Certainly in many ways it can technically be justified as the better generic term for the different variety of craft using the air cushion principle. All this I gather was the subject of a good deal of discussion, but the Government eventually came down in favour of the word hovercraft as one which the general public appreciated and which was most widely used.

Needless to say, there are high hopes of expansion of the hovercraft industry, and it is important that we should take the lead in framing special regulations. I hope that other countries will be encouraged to follow our lead, and I gather that there are some waiting to see how we propose tackling the problem of certification and regulation. I trust, therefore, that this Bill will be given a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Beswick.)

5.20 p.m.


My Lards, I am sure that the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for introducing this small but important Bill in such a clear and concise way. The very word "hovercraft" fills most of us with a sense of justifiable pride in this outstanding British invention which seems poised, as many of us believe, on the threshold of world success. But fewer of us notice how versatile this remarkable invention is proving, not only in its capacity as a passenger-carrying marine vehicle skimming the water between Southampton and the Isle of Wight or as a two-seater pleasure craft which is increasing in popularity month a by month; but also in its industrial capacity, in lifting pallets, in moving large oil storage tanks, and in the temporary damming of rivers. In its medical capacity, there is the hover-bed designed especially for badly-burned patients; and, finally, there is its capacity in the form of the hover-rail. To cover in one Bill all these multifarious uses, with the likelihood of further differing uses being discovered later on, was, I am sure, a daunting task for any Parliamentary draftsman. For this reason, I am sure that it is right that the Bill before us to-day does no more than to provide the framework upon which the body of future law covering hovercraft can be constructed, limb by limb, by means of Orders in Council under Clause 1.

The Bill, as the noble Lord said is an enabling Bill. Although I am sure that its wide powers will raise doubt in many people's minds, it should be supported because it gives the necessary flexibility required in a rapidly-changing new technological industry and will help surmount any legal obstacle in its path of progress. Having said that, my only criticism concerns the extremely long time that this immensely energetic Government have taken to produce this simple legal framework for the industry. In 1965, we were promised that legislation was "shortly to be introduced". In 1966, we were told that it was now imminent. Now, two years later, it is born. I think it is fair to comment that this has been a rather long gestation.

The only possible reason, as I see it, for this delay is the immensely varied list of previous Acts to which this Bill will refer: the Dockyard Port Regulation Act 1865; the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act 1928; the Explosives Act 1875; the British Nationality Act 1948; the Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949; the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962; and last, but by no means least, the Docking and Nicking of Horses Act 1949. Perhaps the noble Lord when he comes to reply could enlighten us as to what relationship this last Act has to the Hovercraft Bill.

My Lords, the necessity for this fairly urgent hovercraft legislation was demonstrated in another place during the Second Reading debate when, despite the fact that the Sea Speed and Hover Travel companies have been operating for the past three years and carrying over 100,000 passengers a year, as recently as May 16 the Government's view was: We are not totally sure that they are legally covered in operating at all."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 16 / 5 / 68, col. 1480.] With this in mind, I think it fair to ask the noble Lord this question. How soon do the Government expect to introduce an Order covering the operating of these services? Is it to be in this Session, or in the next Session, or next year?

Another factor came to light in another place. It was the difficulty that the Government were having in deciding which body should be responsible for the certification procedure. As I understand it, a Working Party has already been set up by the Government and is, in fact, examining this question at the moment. Should it still be the Air Registration Board (to which I should like to pay tribute for the work it has done in the past), or should it be Lloyd's Register of Shipping or should it be yet another new body? Perhaps the noble Lord could indicate later how soon he expects a decision on this issue to be announced. This Bill is so wide that it gives those of us who are interested in many aspects of the matter the opportunity to seek information from the Government. I hope that there will be others besides myself and my noble friend Lord Bessborough. I hope that Lord Granville of Eye will also take part.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his offer to reply to questions. I should like first to ask about the progress of the hover-bed, although I know that this does not come within this Bill, for it is not strictly a vehicle. I am a little concerned about the hover-bed, because in our short debate last March the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, failed to reply to a question on this subject. I was even more concerned to see that in another place during the same debate the Government spokesman, when winding up, stated in reference to the honourable Member for Eastleigh: He spoke of the air cushion bed. I have not heard of that before …—[col. 1517.] I think that is rather an extraordinary remark from any Government spokesman speaking on a Bill of this sort. As I understand it, there have been various trials in hospitals which have demonstrated its effectiveness in use for badly-burned patients. I should like to ask the noble Lord if he can say whether it may shortly be installed for general or limited use in hospitals and what interest has been aroused by other countries abroad.

The second question comes within the scope of the Bill. It is this. What is the latest news of hover-rail? I believe I am right in saying that the N.R.D.C. has awarded a £2 million contract for the development of the hover-rail and that there is a new company now set up at Cambridge. Could the noble Lord tell us how long this development programme is likely to last before a commercial judgment on its future can be evaluated? Is it intended that there should be any collaboration with other countries on the development that will take place?

The third question I should like to put to the noble Lord is this. Can he tell us what export figures have been achieved by the British Hovercraft Corporation with their S.R.N.5 and their S.R.N.6? Also, assuming the operating costs of the S.R.N.4 prove economic—and I am sure the eyes of the world are on this aspect at the moment—what is the estimate of the potential world market for this craft? While speaking on the S.R.N.4, I should like to mention to the noble Lord the concern felt at the way the British Railways Board are prepared to purchase and operate only one craft at present. It does not seem to present a good picture of confidence, nor a picture of enthusiasm, nor a picture of reliable service. Yet here is the time, on August 1, when this magnificent new craft is about to be launched and I do not think that the British Hovercraft Corporation have been given the support they deserve by a nationalised transport undertaking.

One of the many aspects of the hovercraft industry, which I consider has a very great future, is the development of the small pleasure hovercraft which will seat two, four or perhaps six passengers. As the noble Lord will know, there are already quite a number of British companies specialising in this field with their eyes not only or the home market but on potential markets abroad. There are also a number of clubs which have been formed and I believe that this legislation, or rather the legislation which is to follow within the framework of this legislation, as regards matters of registration, safety of construction and noise, will be a very useful guide-line to manufacturers and customers and will create an added confidence in this new form of pleasure craft.

I would conclude, my Lords, by repeating my welcome to this Bill. Despite its permissive character, I believe it is the only practical way to allow the necessary flexibility of legislation to cover a very rapidly changing technology. I do not think that it is a form of legislation that many of us would wish to see often, but I believe it suits the purpose of hovercraft development. It is, of course, only stage one of legislation for hovercraft and I hope it will not be too long before stage two is introduced by Orders. I believe that the Bill is an important landmark for the industry and in the short history of the hovercraft. For those who believe that only the tip of success in respect of hovercraft manufacture has been shown, and that there is much more to come, the Bill is a welcome recognition of the importance of the industry, and for that reason I hope that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading.

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, asked me to support this Bill, and I must say that I am very glad he has gone over the subject so very carefully. When I get on my feet no one knows when I am going to stop, but now it is quite simple. We have this afternoon been away among the bog myrtles, the crofts, and the coulees, and I feel that the time of the House has been delayed. The noble Earl has covered the whole subject completely, and you will be glad to hear that I feel there is very little that I can add. I am a member of the Inventors' Society: I myself try my hand at inventing, and I appreciate that this is a British invention. Legalising it in this Bill will mean that we are supporting an invention which has been copied all over the world and, so to speak, putting the trade mark of British goods on it, which I consider is a step forward.

My Lords, one aspect was not mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, but is important. The spread of bracken throughout the world is very serious, and all sorts of ways have been tried to stop it in out-of-the-way places where the loss of grazing land in some countries is very considerable. Attempts have been made to destroy the bracken by means of spraying machines attached to helicopters; but the helicopter is not altogether suitable because in some of the valleys "choppers" have crashed. The f over-craft may well play an important part in the future in the disposal of bracken—at least I hope so. I am glad that we made the hovercraft a "lady" and have made, or are going to make it, a recognised mechanical invention. It will be of help to everybody like the tractor, the train and the teacup.

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support what has been said by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, about the importance of encouraging exports in this field. It so happens that this year I have travelled to Vancouver, in one direction, and to Irkutsk, in the other. Over hose vast frozen wastes, with enormous rivers wandering across them, it seems to me that the hovercraft must have an enormous future. It is not dependent only on open water on which to travel: it can travel equally well over frozen, or partly frozen, ice or snow, or over reasonably flat land. I should like to see a big export market develop and every facility given by the Government to the companies concerned to try the craft out in different circumstances.

In this connection it is important that the permissive powers given in this type of legislation should be used in order to assist the companies concerned and that they should be as little restrictive as possible. Such restrictions as are applied should be only those that are vital to the safety of life, and perhaps the prevention of excessive noise in our country. I hope that we shall not by the regulations we issue under this legislation discourage prospective buyers from abroad from trying out this type of craft because they think it has turned out, for some reason, to be objectionable or dangerous in our country. I should be grateful if the Government could give us an assurance about how these permissive powers will be used.

5.36 p.m.


My Lords, I am bound to say that the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, took my invitation to ask questions very literally. I will do my best to answer those that he put to me, but if I cannot give him all the answers I will try to find out and write to him later. I am very grateful for his general welcome to the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, asked for an assurance that the enabling powers which the Bill will provide will not be used in any restrictive sense. I think I can give the noble Lord that assurance. Whatever is done will be done after the fullest consultation with both the manufacturers and users. I think that there is a happy relationship with the representatives of these people now and I am certain that eventually the Orders which are brought forward will be designed to enable the maximum development of this invention. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Strange, for his comments. The noble Lord is an inventor of note, and I thought he was most generous in the way he referred to this invention by a rival in his field.

On the question of the regulations, I should say that at the moment the Hovercraft Consultative Committee, set up to advise on the Orders and regulations, and representative of the interests to which I have referred, are now working on the Orders. In answer to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, it is not possible to give exactly the time table for the laying of Orders, but it may well be that the first one will be brought in quite expeditiously. Recognising the need to limit their restrictive capacity and to ensure their helpful nature, a little extra time spent on this task might well be advisable.

The noble Earl asked me about the relation to this Bill and the hovercraft to the Docking and Nicking of Horses Act, 1949. I am not absolutely certain, but as I follow it, it would seem that horses which have been dealt with in this way cannot, without permission, at the present time, be brought into this country by either aircraft or ship. It would seem that there is a possible loophole and they might he brought in by hovercraft. Similarly, as I understand it, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act makes it illegal to bring unlawful Commonwealth immigrants into this country by aircraft or ship, but under the present law the captain of a hovercraft would not be caught by the Act. Under this Bill the position will be dealt with.

The noble Earl asked me about the hover-bed. In fact, he gave a very reasonable explanation of this bed. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Kennet was not aware of all those details. I should like to say to the noble Earl that on some future occasion, when he has charge of a Department, that it will be more than likely that there will be some technical development with which he will not be completely familiar. The hover-bed has been devised for the treatment of people suffering from severe burns. Air is pumped into the bed from a mobile unit. The patient is laid on the pockets, which open away underneath, forming a perfect seal along the side of the body, so that the patient is left floating on a cushion of warm, sterile air.

The N.R.D.C. are now sponsoring the construction of a two-bed clinical trial unit by Allen and Hanbury Surgical Engineering Limited, and at this stage of development the beds are being used under the strictest of surveillance and I think that it is a little premature to discuss its full application. We must wait and see what is learned in this experiment. Having said all that, I must now tell the noble Earl that the hover-bed is one form of the air cushion principle which is not covered by this Bill. It is not a vehicle, and we are here talking about vehicles. But I hope that this information will be useful to him.

I was asked about the position of exports. Of the 47 or so S.R.N. 5 and 6, built or under construction at B.H.C., 26 have been or are being supplied to overseas orders. The B.H.C. exports to date, I gather, are worth about £5 million. Hovermarine have received three firm orders for the H.M.2 from overseas customers and have a further ten unconfirmed foreign orders. This firm estimates that about 90 per cent. of their output will be for overseas requirements. The noble Earl asked about an estimate of the world market. I have no doubt that B.H.C. have made a survey. I am not aware of the figures they have come up with, and to some extent the figures cannot be definite, certainly not final, because a good deal of the activity at the present time is in persuading parts of the world that they are a market for this new form of transport.

The noble Earl asked about the position of the Working Party which has been set up to consider the certification and registration of this new vehicle. I understand that there were discussions at the Board of Trade between the Air Registration Board and Lloyd's about the way in which registration and certification will be dealt with. Both these important and experienced bodies are interested in this, particularly A.R.B. who have carried responsibility so far. I understand that both organisations are now considering what has been said and will submit proposals, and further discussions will take place.

With regard to certification of small sporting hovercraft, small craft of this sort will presumably have safety requirements, but just as we have contrived in relation to yachts and gliders, for example, to encourage amateur builders and operators the same principle will be applied to sporting hovercraft. The noble Earl asked about the tracked hovercraft experiment about to take place at Cambridge. The position is that the N.R.D.C. have formed a subsidiary company, Tracked Hovercraft Limited, to continue the development work on the hover-train. It is expected that in about two years they will have a manned tracked hovercraft motel in operation. Initially they are building a test track of about five miles, to be extended later to ten or twenty miles. The commercial application, of course, will depend on the lessons learned from that experiment. I think that I have dealt with all the questions, but if not, having read what the noble Earl said, I will endeavour to send him the answers. In the meantime, I hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.