Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st March 1955.

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Photo of Mr Woodrow Wyatt Mr Woodrow Wyatt , Birmingham Aston 12:00 am, 1st March 1955

We have also, I am afraid, a grave prospect ahead over the all-weather plane, the Javelin Fighter, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) referred this afternoon. I understand that it has a fuel capacity of only 800 gallons, which gives it a very short time in the air—far too short a time for the tasks which it may be called upon to perform. If the present Javelin flies slowly the tail sinks and the wing blanks out the tail to that there is no control over the plane. I think that it would be very optimistic to expect to see it in service for some years to come.

Even on the deterrent side, we are sadly behind schedule. We rely on obsolete Canberras and Lincolns, and the other bombers are not coming on as they should, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley pointed out in his very able speech today. Everybody knows that there is a grave crisis in aircraft production. The Government like to claim that it is the fault of the Labour Government. Although we have not been in office for three and a half years, nevertheless anything which goes wrong is still our fault. It shows a rather touching faith in our ability to foresee the future and to govern even when we are not in office.

First, the party opposite says that the decision that supersonic flight was not possible for manned aircraft was at the root of the trouble. That decision was only operative for a few months. No Gov- ernment could have overridden the scientific advice received on the matter at the time. If they had, and if there had been fatal accidents, the then Opposition would rightly have been able to criticise that Government.

Secondly, we are told that the 1949 economic crisis cut off much-needed finance. I am perfectly willing to concede that caused some slight delay, but this was before high priority was given to rearmament in the 1950 and 1951 rearmament programmes, which were later taken over by the present Government. I do not think that this fact can be said to have had a good deal of effect upon what has happened since this Government have been in power. Thirdly, we are told that the trouble is caused because the Labour Government planned too big a step forward from the old type of aircraft to the swept-wing type, without having any intermediate aircraft. Although it is important, that does not account for the Government's failures in the last three and a half years.

Upon coming into office the Government gave us a clean bill for what we had done in the matter of the supply and production of aircraft. Time and again Government spokesmen congratulated us upon what we had and forecast a rosy future. I could quote for another hour from Government speeches illustrating this point, but in order to save the feelings of the Under-Secretary of State for Air I shall not do so. I shall, however, quote a little of what he said in a moment. At the same time that they were giving us a clean bill the Government announced a scheme of super-priority to get fighter aircraft, and, later, bombers into production. That was at about the time when the Prime Minister said that he felt naked. The Government then had no feelings that there would be any difficulty over production.

During the debate upon the Air Estimates in 1952, in referring to the concern about delays which had been expressed by the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Lucas)—who knows a great deal about these matters—the Under-Secretary said: He suggested, also, that none of the Swift and Hunter fighters would be introduced into service in 1952-53 or, perhaps, even in 1953-54. It is unwise to prophesy, but I shall be disappointed if this suggestion is not proved wrong in the event."—[Official Report, 18th March, 1952; Vol. 497, c. 2273.] It is indeed unwise to prophesy. Next year the Prime Minister said that the rate of deliveries of aircraft and equipment was in most cases satisfactory and up to expectations. During the debate upon the Air Estimates in March, 1953, the Under-Secretary of State said: We intend to form our first squadrons of Swifts towards the end of the year and Hunter squadrons will follow."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th March, 1953; Vol. 512, c. 1515.] Where are they? In the Memorandum to the Air Estimates in 1953 we were told that a Valiant bomber would be entered in the London—New Zealand air race in October, 1953—which showed that the Government thought that preparations for it were well advanced. When October came there was no Valiant; only an excuse. The Under-Secretary also announced that he hoped that the Valiant would be in operation in 1954, but it is still not in operation.

It is unfair to go on quoting from speeches by the Under-Secretary, because he has been made the victim of his Government's policy, and we know that he is only the ultimate spokesman for what has been done by other people. I think that all hon. Members on this side of the House admire his courage and tenacity in dealing with Questions and other difficult topics which are thrust upon him. Nevertheless, the words are there, and I do not think that we can refrain from bringing them out once again. Last year he said: …because of the immensely improved cannon which the Hunter and Swift will carry, the rate at which the day fighter force as a whole will be able to hurl high explosive against the enemy will be increased by more than nine times in the coming year."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th March, 1954; Vol. 524, c. 1366.] That is not so.

In the face of all these promises, after the Government had been in full possession of all the facts for months and, in some cases, for years, no charges whatever can be laid against the late Labour Government. All these promises of future expectations have been made by the Government with knowledge of all the facts and without any sideways blame—and not very much credit—being given to the Labour Government.

The Hunter has been delayed partly because there has been a certain amount of disorganisation in the firm making it. This is only a minor reason, but it is a reason, and I understand that the Ministry of Supply has now told the firm to cut down the building of this aircraft from 30 a month to 25 a month until certain alterations and processes are completed. This is not the fault of the firm. It has never had adequate supplies of parts, and super-priority has not been able to give it even a smooth flow of copper piping. Consequently, there have been many idle hours in this factory. This is typical of the sort of thing which has been going on in the aircraft industry. There have been 325 modifications of one mark of the Hunter alone. I agree that the modifications were not in all cases very serious ones, but nevertheless there were 325.

When this plane first flew in the autumn of 1951, it was discovered that the air brakes were completely unsatisfactory, and it was not until last summer, nearly three years later, that manufacture began on the modification to make the air brakes work. That was the fault of the Government's arrangements; it could not have been the fault of the Opposition.

The Minister of Supply said yesterday that there were no modifications made to the Hunter since October, 1951, which were intended to extend its performance beyond that originally conceived. I understand that one such modification was made only recently. It was a major modification to the wings in order that more fuel tanks could be fixed so that the plane could take on more fuel to give it more flying time. That is a modification intended to extend the performance beyond that originally conceived. Modifications, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick knows, are at the root of many of the delays in the production of aircraft, and they come about, broadly speaking, in three ways. First, at the request of the Ministry of Supply inspectors to bring the plane up to the safety standards or other Ministry of Supply specifications; secondly, as the result of the experience of the pilots flying the planes; thirdly, as the result of requests of the Royal Air Force to add something to the performance of the plane that was not originally intended.

This constant demand for modification, coupled with the inability of the Government to make up their minds, has caused the delay with this plane, the Hunter, and the other planes of which we have had all these complaints. The Government can in no way blame that on to us. Super-priority failed miserably because it gave priority to everything, and not to one or two things in particular. That it failed and that the wrong method was being used is shown by the fact that on 1st March, 1954, the Minister of Supply announced a completely new system to clear up the muddle created by the Government in the aircraft industry. If super-priority had worked—and it had been in operation then for two years—the Minister of Supply would not have found it necessary to make a special announcement in this House—and a very long one—describing the arrangements for the new system to supersede super-priority.

If we are to get these aircraft and guided missiles, we must first of all have a vigorous, energetic and forthright Minister, because I do not think that the fault has lain so much with the structure of the Ministry of Supply as in the way it has been operated. The Prime Minister knows this, or he would not have appointed Lord Beaverbrook as Minister of Aircraft Production during the war. Somebody of at least equal enthusiasm ought to have been appointed to drive through these projects. Instead he appointed the present Minister of Housing and Local Government, and I do not think he will object if we feel it was not a very successful appointment.

The Minister of Supply must cease to be a post office. He ought to be second in rank to the Minister of Defence. He ought to have the authority to veto the additional modifications demanded by the Services as and when he thinks fit. Other wise there will be no end to the modifications. There ought to be some kind of control over the electronics industry. By their financial policy the Government have encouraged the electronics industry to stop work on defence and to work almost entirely on making television sets. There have already been considerable hold-ups ——