Air Estimates, 1940.

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th March 1940.

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Photo of Mr Oliver Simmonds Mr Oliver Simmonds , Birmingham Duddeston 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

I am indebted to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because I would like to clear up the point in his mind as completely as I can. In what I say now I am not depending upon anything which any company with which I may be associated may produce. I happen to have the confidence of a large number of people in the aircraft industry. I visit aircraft manufacturing works and I know what I am being told by people who are anxious to give me the truth of the situation. Therefore, the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman that I am basing what I say merely upon a slight portion of the total manufacture of components is not the case. I was not suggesting that Members of the Opposition in particular felt disquiet. A number of hon. Members on this side have put questions to me which represented disquiet in their minds. I have tried to show that when I have looked into the cases that have been put to me I have found that the question of priority has nearly always been at the bottom of the problem. While I do not contend that there should not be changes—and I propose to indicate them—I say that substantially the programme is going through.

Where would I suggest there should be changes in the organisation of production at the Air Ministry in order to improve the flow of the programme? First, the Air Ministry would do well to pay a little more attention to the advice which is given to them from time to time by the practical men in the aircraft industry. I could tell my right hon. Friend of half-a-dozen men with first-class practical experience. They are not the gentlemen who are the financial heads of the aircraft manufacturing companies, who do not see these detailed problems coming until the work's managers tell them they are right in front of them and have to be met. There are certain trends which first-class brains in the industry see coming. Those trends in the case of a light alloy were pointed out to the Air Ministry time after time several years ago; but the Air Ministry Production Department knew better. Will my right hon. Friend try to find half-a-dozen of these people—he knows them personally because he knows the sterling work they are doing—and listen to what they say?

Secondly, since the war began there has been a growing sense of frustration in the industry, due to the muddling and meddlesome interference of new co-ordinating departments which were set up ostensibly to assist but which actually clog the wheels of production. I give one example which was brought to my notice a few days ago by the head of a company supplying a number of large aircraft manufacturers. He wrote: In a recent conversation with X (a well-known aircraft manufacturer) I ascertained that some time ago they had been requested by the Air Ministry to furnish a list of all the materials which they bought outside, and it is apparent that the Air Ministry have been urging supplies for this list without any reference to the aircraft manufacturers' actual requirements. Again: This position is corroborated by Y (who is the works manager of another large aircraft works). He called yesterday, and in the course of conversation it transpired that he had provided a similar list some time ago and annoyance had been caused to many of their very good friends amongst their suppliers by the Air Ministry urging them to deliver items for which they themselves were not pressing. I agree that some co-ordination was necessary, but for heaven's sake do not let us have the industry continually interfered with by Departments which are behindhand in their knowledge of the requirements of aircraft manufacturers or, alternatively, are urging the production of articles which, as has often happened, had already been delivered. There is really need there for an investigation by my right hon. Friend.

I turn now to another side of my right hon. Friend's duties—Civil Aviation. An hon. Member besought my right hon. Friend to take a greater interest in this problem. What is the position to-day? What are other countries doing? Since the war a new feature has come into the civil air communications of Europe, and that is that Lisbon is the terminus of the Pan-American trans-Atlantic line. Holland is about to run a line there. Germany is proposing one viaSpain. Italy already has a line to Lisbon. We are still waiting to connect up with the Pan-American service. I was pleased to hear from my right hon. Friend that he hopes it may come about soon, but I think he will forgive me for saying that he has hoped for the last two and a half years to have an air line to Lisbon and I am not certain whether the hopes expressed to-day are of any different calibre from those we have heard so frequently in the past. Italy has recently established a service across the South Atlantic. She is about to operate a line to Tokyo. In the United States of America there is a tremendous boom in civil aviation, and instead of one being able to book a seat at the last moment, as was the case a year ago, seats now have to be booked well in advance. The Scandinavian countries are making a bid. There is a joint commission from Norway, Sweden and Denmark in New York at this moment negotiating with the American Government for a Scandinavia-New York service.

In the light of all these developments elsewhere, what is the British outlook for civil aviation? I think it was succinctly put in an answer which the Under-Secretary gave me last Wednesday, when he said that on 31st August last there were 63British civil aircraft operating on overseas air routes, and on the 27th February last 45. That shows almost a 30 per cent. reduction in the aircraft we are using. Here is one of the saddest stories of all in so far as it affects British air prestige, particularly in America. In November, 1938, the Cavalier flying-boat, operating on the United States-Bermuda service—a dual service, with first an English boat and then an American boat—crashed. The Americans constantly expected us to re-open that service. Fifteen months have passed, and it is being noted in the United States that still the Cavalier is not replaced. We must not open services, particularly from other great countries to parts of the British Empire, unless we are prepared to maintain them even if we meet with some bad luck.

Again, I noted with interest that my right hon. Friend suggested that the Empire services were operating satisfactorily. All the information that comes to me is that they are operating intermittently, and I should like to have some more information on that subject. Pan-American are operating a Transatlantic service. We have no Transatlantic service. My right hon. Friend observed that the programme last year proceeded without a hitch. I do not know what programme that was, because certainly part of the programme was the operation of large "G"boats, the flight of which across the Atlantic was promised us so many times by the Under-Secretary last year. Altogether this is a sorry picture, and we have to add to it the recent deplorable decision about internal air lines. I will not dwell upon that because I know other hon. Members will, but there has been a ruthless striking down of many young aircraft operating units which could have done valiant work both in war and in peace time, and I am left wondering about the direction of British civil aviation.

What are the possibilities of to-morrow? These obviously depend upon our designing and manufacturing new types of aircraft to-day. This problem of the manu- facture of British civil aircraft is a hardy annual. We have had committee after committee upon it. Let me recall what a committee, whose work I think was endorsed by the whole House, said in March, 1938. The Government's comments on the Cadman Committee's report, in paragraph 35, was: The Government accept the view of the committee that British aircraft constructors should play a vigorous and creative part in the development of civil aviation. Again, in paragraph 38 of the comment it says: The Government are also fully in agreement with the committee as to the desirability of stimulating the development and production by the aircraft industry of suitable types of civil aircraft. In June, 1939, my right hon. Friend appointed a further technical committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. Harold Brown, and they reported, inter alia: It cannot be too strongly emphasised that British aeroplanes will only attain a prominent position in the world market if they are of outstanding merit and if development proceeds according to a well considered plan. I would emphasise those words "according to a well considered plan." The report continued: Unless the Government is prepared for many years to come to furnish considerable sums for civil aircraft development and even to subsidise the airline operators there is little or no hope of this country winning a leading place in civil aviation. The committee then refer to the Civil Aviation Development Committee, which, they say, should be given a high status, with direct access to the Secretary of State, and go on to say that they would view with serious misgivings the creation of a committee with a lower status or more restrictive terms of reference than those proposed. The whole of those recommendations have running through them these two thoughts: first, that there must be a plan, and, secondly, that there must be continuity. What is the position to-day? The Under-Secretary told us at Question Time last Wednesday that on account of the altered circumstances due to the outbreak of hostilities my right hon. Friend did not proceed with the appointment of this committee which was recommended by the Harold Brown Committee last June.

I am glad to see that he is now proposing to set up some committee, but let us be clear on this point: the setting up of this Civil Aviation Development Com- mittee will do no good unless there is a new attitude of mind towards the development of civil aircraft on the part of the Air Ministry and the Air Council. Of all the technical personnel in the Department of Civil Aviation which is stressed as being so essential by the Cadman and Harold Brown Committees only the dead wood remains. My right hon. Friend became quite lyrical in the House last year when he told us of the marvellous new type of planes he was having manufactured by the Fairey Company and by Short's. These have been dropped, at any rate for the time being. Only the Flamingo air liner being manufactured by de Havilland is proceeding. Those machines about which my right hon. Friend was so enthusiastic, as he had a right to be, which were being designed and produced by the Fairey Company and Short's were being made for this reason, that to-day we are at the beginning of a new epoch and era in air transport. We have ceased to be in the normal-pressure-cabin era and have come to the sealed-pressure-cabin type, which, as many hon. Members know, can fly at an altitude of even 35,000 feet without the slightest distress to the passengers. We are taking no action with regard to the devlopment of those essential machines. We are leaving it to the United States of America to perfect their manufacture at our expense.

It is a fair question to ask, Why should civil aviation be allowed to continue in time of war? I thank Heaven that the Admiralty has never debated whether the Mercantile Marine should be allowed to continue in time of war, and is it not absolutely true that the civil air marine is as essential to our export trade as the Mercantile Marine? Speedy mails are essential if we are to take seriously the export drive about which Ministers so often speak and about which they seem to do so very little. Further, in time of war, air transport means prestige. I have heard with dismay of the effect produced by German air liners in the Balkans, where not one day in the week do people see British aircraft. The right hon. Gentleman will have a grave responsibility if he cannot at the end of the war turn over a large number of the workers in this colossal industry to the manufacture of civil aircraft. He has said himself, and I agree with him, that civil aircraft can become a great exporting industry. History may repeat itself. Dur- ing the years 1914 to 1918 we allowed the American mass-produced automobile to get into the European and Empire markets, and we have never been able to get them out. With the great orders for military aircraft which we are placing, enabling manufacturers on the other side of the Atlantic to write off their plant and factories, we are running the risk of the same thing happening with regard to civil aircraft after this war is ended.

What is needed? There are men in the Department of Civil Aviation whose personal qualities I admire, but I regret to have to say that there are one or two of the heads of that department who have not the drive and energy that will put us at the head of civil aircraft manufacture. In the second place, we must have the restoration of a balanced outlook towards civil aviation among the members of the Air Council. The spirit of war induces us inevitably to uproot all that is unwarlike, and unless we hold ourselves very firmly in hand, we shall destroy a great deal which ought to be allowed to remain. I believe most firmly that civil aviation ought to be maintained in lively existence. The military members of the Air Council may say that they cannot allow any great proportion of the productive capacity of this country to be diverted in time of war from military to civil aircraft, but it is not a question of 10 per cent. or 5 per cent. or even 1 per cent. If the Air Ministry would agree to a fraction of 1 per cent. of aircraft production capacity being retained for civil purposes, that would enable civil aviation to go on. Intense loyalty to military aviation can becloud one's vision as to what is necessary for the ultimate development of the civil air services. That is the position we have to face.

I should like to conclude by recalling what my right hon. Friend said in a speech which he made on this subject in March of last year. He said then: In my opinion the problem most in need of attention and quick solution is the development and production of British civil air liners which, in merit, reliability and performance, can compete with the best that is now being produced in other countries. That is certainly not the position to-day and that is why American aircraft have to be purchased by the operating companies.…The objective…is the production of British civil air liners of outstanding merit and performance which can be used by the operating companies and, what is even more important, can be sold in the markets of the world. It would be great satisfaction to any one of us, and to myself, to assist in the production of a British machine which was sought after on its sheer merits in the markets of the world, and which on those merits gave rise to demands for its successor."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th March, 1939; cols. 2397 and 2398, Vol. 344.] My right hon. Friend had the right idea last year. I ask him now to do all he can to see that some fraction of our aircraft manufacturing capacity is devoted to civil aviation.