HL Deb 02 December 1991 vol 533 cc4-6

2.44 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to secure the introduction of a successor to Concorde.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Reay)

My Lords, the Government believe that industry should take the lead in defining the need for such an aircraft and in securing its introduction. Although government support is already being provided for research into basic technologies, many of which are relevant to supersonic transport, it is too early to say what direct part, if any, government might play in the evolution of such a project.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that not very precise Answer. Is he aware that it is now 15 years since I gave Concorde her certificate of airworthiness and that a period of that duration without a successor aircraft even being in sight is unique in the history of the civil aviation industry? Does he realise that supersonic aircraft such as Concorde are a very important part of Britain's civil air fleet?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I acknowledge my noble friend's great experience in these matters. It is not possible to give a precise answer because it is not possible to foresee the future clearly. We believe that it is up to the aviation industry and not to government to decide on the future strategy of the industry and to decide whether or not a particular project is viable. We do not believe that we should second guess industry or support prestige programmes which have no commercial justification.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, can the Minister explain to the House to what extent Concorde has proved a commercial and financial success? Can he also say which country has benefited most, if at all—France or the United Kingdom?

Lord Reay

My Lords, it is my understanding that Concorde has been a commercial success for the airlines which operate it. However they did not have to pay the development costs. Those amounted to £880 million net and resulted in the sale of only 14 aircraft. That translates into £4.6 billion at present day prices.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, will the noble Lord ensure that all the development costs of any second Concorde, so far as they are provided by the Government, are taken into account in considering its commercial viability and that we avoid repeating the financial disaster of the first Concorde?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the Government believe that such projects must be justified commercially and be initiated by industry.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, would it not be unfortunate if Britain and France, having pioneered this new form of aircraft and having spent the moneys to which the noble Lord referred, nevertheless left it to others to develop further aircraft in the series? Would that not be a further illustration of the way in which we seem to pioneer new developments and then leave it to others to benefit from them? Would it not therefore be desirable for a major effort to be made on the lines of the initial Question of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and for us to concert our efforts with our French friends in order to maintain our lead in this area?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord has given a fair picture of the situation. Any successor to Concorde is certain to be an international project. Secondly, a considerable amount of activity is taking place involving British industry. For example, British Aerospace is involved with Boeing, Aerospatiale, Deutsche Aerospace, McDonnell Douglas, Tupolev, Alenia of Italy and JADC of Japan in a group which is studying the viability of further supersonic transport aircraft. I should add that Rolls-Royce and SNECMA are also working together on the aero-engine aspects of such a project.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, in his reply to the first Question of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, the Minister implied that the Government were looking to the private sector and private capital to fund a successor aircraft. Bearing in mind the enormous costs of producing such an aircraft, does the Minister not agree that if the Government adopt that stance there will be no successor? Does he agree that both this Government and the French Government will have to be involved financially if such a successor, which is so necessary, is to be produced? Because of the necessary technology governments will have to be involved and must not stand aside and let such a project fall.

Lord Reay

My Lords, as I tried to indicate, we believe that it is up to industry to come forward with a commercially and industrially justifiable project. If it does so, government support for a specific project of that kind might be considered.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, does my noble friend's repeated suggestion that it is a matter for industry only show that the Government do not appreciate the enormous build-up in the prestige of the British civil aviation industry and of British technology generally to which Concorde, with its great success, has given rise? Will he not at least pay tribute to that?

Lord Reay

Yes, my Lords. I recognise that technically Concorde has been a major success, but I have emphasised that overall its commercial position is doubtful. I agree with my noble friend that it has played a flagship role through the airlines which operate it and that it has brought them prestige, but any future project must be commercially justifiable.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, although I sympathise with the Minister when he says that the Government cannot see the future clearly—that is what he said—will he give rather greater sympathetic consideration to the suggestion of his noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter; namely, that there is a case for the Government being pro-active alongside industry in making sure that technological innovation of that kind can be pursued? Will he also assure the House that, in the event of such a project being pursued, the Government will, over the next six months—because that is all they will last—be prepared to give an undertaking that they will not commit the crass error made by the Conservative Government of the 1960s in not ensuring that there was a break clause in the agreement with the French with regard to the production of Concorde?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the Government are doing a great deal for the aerospace industry. For example, over the past 10 years, they have provided over £970 million of launch aid for the development of new aircraft and aeroengines. We also support research under the civil aircraft research and demonstration programme into several basic technologies which might be of value to future supersonic programmes. One of those of particular relevance to supersonic transport projects is work under the CARAD programme on advanced aluminium alloys, including alloys reinforced with ceramics.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, can we not look to the Front Benches to set an example to us poor others by avoiding the sillier forms of party persiflage?

Lord Reay

My Lords, on this side of the House we try to do so.