HL Deb 01 February 1973 vol 338 cc725-9

4.19 p.m.


My Lords, it may be convenient if, with the leave of the House, I now reply to a Private Notice Question put earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Beswick. My honourable friend the Minister for Aerospace has just answered a similar Question in another place, and I will use the same words. He said:

"I very much regret that Pan American Airways and Trans World Airways have felt unable to purchase Concorde at present. Both have, however, indicated that they will maintain an interest in the future of the programme, and be open to further discussions with the manufacturers. I very much hope that both airlines will decide at a later date to order Concorde.

"The manufacturers are now engaged in an active sales campaign and are in detailed negotiations with a number of other airlines. The British and French Governments will continue to give the manufacturers every support in these negotiations."


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for making that Statement on a matter in which there is considerable public interest. First, as I have done before, I must declare an interest with B.A.C.; but because of that interest I say the more confidently that those associated with this great project, and all those who wish it well, will approve the indication in this Statement of the Government's position, and especially when they say that they are giving continuing support to the manufacturers in negotiations that are now continuing. It is right to make clear that it is options and not orders that have been cancelled, and it would he quite wrong to allow this action by companies with temporary financial difficulties to determine the future of this great Anglo-French effort. I hope the noble Lord will agree that this undoubted disappointment should also be regarded as a challenge, and that he can make this the occasion when there is a decisive shift in initiative, so far as technical innovation is concerned, from the United States to Europe.

Finally, may I, as one who has always been in favour of the most open of open Governments, ask whether the noble Lord will agree with me when I say that the maximum public support for this project will be ensured if the maximum of facts are known by the public? In that light, would he therefore at this time consider very sympathetically the Amendment put down by the Opposition in another place to the Concorde Bill, asking for a Select Committee to look into the matter?


My Lords, I do not know whether I have the position right, but am I to understand that the Government are going to proceed with the production of Concorde irrespective of whether or not orders are forthcoming? If not, have they any plans for employ- ing in alternative schemes workers now engaged on the Concorde project who may become redundant?


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for what he has said. I am sure that what he has said reflects the view of the House as a whole. I quite agree with him that this is a disappointment, and at the same time a challenge. He asked whether maximum public support would be better obtained through the publication of facts, and, to that end, that a Select Committee be set up. The House will probably be aware that on December 11 last the idea of a Select Committee was turned down in another place. But, having said that, I would put it to the House that what has to be considered is whether or not setting up a Select Committee at this time would make it easier to carry out negotiations and to make sales of Concorde. This is the main consideration that is before us, but I will certainly convey to my honourable friend what the noble Lord has said.

The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, asked two questions—an "either/or", really. We are certainly going to proceed with production. There are 16 production aircraft at present being manufactured. Five letters of intent have been put in, and 33 options are still outstanding. With the nine firm orders already received—that is to say, those from British Overseas Airways Corporation and the French—that makes a total of 47 in all. The noble Lord was right also to put the alternative: if we did not go on with it, what would the effect be? There are 24.000 people employed at the present time in this country in connection with Concorde.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that his remarks are very reassuring and this is not the time for the Government to lose their nerve? Would he take into account that, though the United States are not proceeding with their own supersonic transport, the Soviet Russians are, with the T.U. 144, and that Britain and France and the E.E.C. cannot be left out of what is an international race, having gone so far? Nevertheless, is my noble friend aware that many figures are bandied around about the economics and the performance of Concorde? If he does not set up a Select Committee, could some Green Paper be published by an independent body giving the economics of the aircraft, once and for all to "kill" those who try to knock Concorde?


My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. I can assure your Lordships that the Government have no intention of losing their nerve. Certainly nothing has been said in this House to-day which would in any way tend to shake their nerve. My noble friend is of course entirely right about the Russian T.U. 144, which will be coming into production in 1975. We believe that we have a better plane than they are producing, and we believe it is certainly the intention of B.O.A.C. and the French at the same time to be the first, or, rather, equal first, in flying international services with a supersonic type of aircraft. If I may answer the other question about the Green Paper, again I will put this to my honourable friend. I fully agree it is important that the public should be apprised of the facts.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that this decision by Pan Am and T.W.A. was not taken in any way on the technical merits of this aircraft, which have been superb, but was taken as a result of the fact that these two U.S. airlines and other airlines over-ordered in anticipation of a growing number of air travellers which has not in fact been realised? They therefore find themselves with too many aircraft, too few customers, and an adverse profit position. This is the reason why they have deferred any final decision on Concorde. Will my noble friend bear in mind that I endorse what has been said and that I feel that more information should be made available? I cannot help coming down against having a Select Committee, because one has to remember that a large amount of evidence would be given to that Select Committee. There is a strong anti-Concorde lobby, which seems to be very vociferous in our media, particularly on television, and I can see selective quotations appearing from that Select Committee which could be used against Concorde and might make the sale of this successful aircraft difficult for those who were driving ahead with a really worthwhile project. Lastly, would my noble friend bear in mind that, although the Atlantic route is important—it is a Blue Riband route—those of us who have to travel to the Far East, to Japan, and particularly to Australia, are longing for the day when we can travel in Concorde and not take 36 exhausting hours over the journey as at present?


My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend on the matter of the Atlantic route's being by no means the only route that is to be flown. The Far East route is in some ways easier than the other; and of course, being further off, it is in some ways all the more important. As for the reasons on the part of these two airlines for deferring purchase, it is for them to give the reasons, and not for me. Some of us will of course have read the morning papers, but I should prefer not to comment further. As to the idea of a Select Committee, again the factors which the noble Lord has mentioned will be among those that will be taken into account by my honourable friend.


My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that there is some commercial jealousy in the world of our great achievement in this supersonic aircraft, and that therefore it would be complete and absolute madness to cancel it? This puts us years ahead of the Americans in supersonic travel. I should like to support my noble friend behind me, Lord Orr-Ewing, and the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, opposite. I support them most strongly in what they have said.


My Lords, again, I cannot go into the psychological motives of others. But, apart from that, I entirely agree with my noble friend.