Orders of the Day — Ministry of Aviation (Transfer of Functions)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th August 1966.

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Photo of Mr Cranley Onslow Mr Cranley Onslow , Woking 12:00 am, 5th August 1966

I must apologise to the House for not being able to be in my place when this debate began. It was for this reason that I did not seek to intervene before the Financial Secretary spoke. I am most grateful for the opportunity of hearing him. I do not wish to quarrel with some of the points he made, although while it is undoubtedly true that there is a continuing momentum for decisions in the history and the future of the aircraft industry, for some months it has been arguable that decisions ought to have been taken much sooner than they have been needed and that many others still remain outstanding.

Secondly, it is ironic and fortunate that some decisions were deferred because, curiously enough deferment of decisions about the purchase of aircraft by British airlines until the advent of the present economic crisis must have greatly strengthened the hand of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Aviation in insuring that B.E.A. continued to purchase its aircraft in this country.

I hope that the management of British European Airways will now make it un-mistakeably plain to the industry and the country that the aircraft which it is to buy and which, I am delighted to hear, are to made in this country are fine aircraft in their own right. I hope that there will be no recriminations or continued quarrels on this score. What we need now is a demonstration of confidence in the capacity of the British aircraft industry to make commercially efficient competitive aircraft, as I am certain that it can, and although the Minister has said so, we are still waiting for B.E.A. to make this perfectly clear, as I hope it will.

I am sorry that the Financial Secretary relied as much as he did on the conclusions of the Plowden Committee. We could have a prolonged semantic debate about the meaning of the word "comparable" in this context and I challenged the Minister on this issue when the matter was debated in February My own views were powerfully reinforced by what lord Plowden himself had to say about what he meant by "comparable" when he discussed his Report and the circumstances in which his Committee had been obliged to prepare it when he made clear in a debate not only that he had scarcely been given time enough to complete a proper report, but that he had meant the word "comparable" to have a different meaning from what the Minister evidently imagined.

The Order contains the decision to hive off some of the powers of the Ministry of Aviation, perhaps the easiest of the decisions to be taken in this dismantling process, although not entirely insignificant. The Board of Trade will have a fairly long list of work under at least three of the main headings of authority transferred to it. Urgent decisions have to be made about civil airport policy, some of which have been affected by the credit squeeze, but which are nevertheless urgent and which must be made. Some might have overridden the necessities of the credit squeeze, particularly that concerning the construction of the cargo terminal at Heathrow which will be a major currency earner. I am sorry to hear that it is likely to be seriously affected by the stringency which the Government have imposed.

Important decisions have to be taken about traffic rights. New traffic rights have been obtained by negotiation in the Western hemisphere and must be taken up, but if they are not promptly taken up by B.O.A.C., I hope that there will be no doctrinaire objection on the Government Benches to their being taken up by other operators, because they are all part of British trade and British venture, and the fact that the British Government have secured rights ought not to mean that they will allow those rights to be taken only by the nationalised Corporations.

Thirdly, there is the issue of air safety, which is extremely urgent. I have been rather disturbed at certain incidents at major and minor air displays in the country when spectators seem to have been placed accidentally at hazard. There have been one or two rather nasty near-misses and one or two fatalities. The Board of Trade should direct its attention to this aspect of air displays.

The importance of air safety to the public will increase greatly as the number of passengers transported in a single aircraft increases, as it is likely to do in the years ahead. Once we get the 230-seater aircraft, the jumbo-jets, carrying large numbers of people through the air who may at any one time be placed at risk of their lives, the importance of air safety and the vital necessity to maintain the highest possible standards must become all the more obvious. I am certain that the Ministry of Aviation understands this and I have no doubt that the Board of Trade will equally understand it, but both should be aware that the public will want to know and to be assured that the matter is given the most serious consideration.

However, the Order will still leave the most important decisions about the transfer of functions to be resolved. Of course I accept that difficult and delicate and finely balanced decisions are involved. But I hope that there will be no decision of major significance announced except in the House. Announcement of decisions could probably be deferred until the House reassembles.

I hope that when they will be published, on or after 18th October, they will be published here, not through the columns of the Press for sure but while Parliament is sitting for certain, and that we shall have an opportunity to debate them. The mere fact that they are finely balanced decisons and not decisions which commend themselves one way or another on party political lines, makes it all the more important that Parliament should have an opportunity to debate them and that the expert opinion on both sides should be brought to bear.

I hope—perhaps this is a political point—now that the industry has been given the prospect of getting on with constructing for B.E.A. in particular, but also I hope for world markets, civil aircraft which will satisfy domestic and world needs over the next 10 years there will be no doctrinaire determination on the Government's part to distract the industry from its task by imposing on management the confusion, the uncertainty and upheaval which would result—which must inevitably result—either of a forced merger of the two main manufacturing organisations or of governmental control. The aircraft industry is now in a position with its order books to go ahead on a healthy basis for the next five years. For heaven's sake let it be allowed to get on with this and do the job it is capable of doing. Do not muck up the whole thing by throwing a nationalisation spanner into the works.

We are witnessing the first stage of dismantling the Ministry of Aviation. I nevertheless still believe that activity in the air, whether it is defined as aviation activity or aerospace activity or whatever it may be, is and should be considered as a composite unit with all the various branches connected one to another and related one to another. They must be discussed in connection with one another. While it may be arguable—I take the Minister's point—that where there are conflicting interests and conflicting points of view put forward for argument at Cabinet level, there may be advantage if this should be done by two, three or more Ministers each representing a point of view, for Parliament, the industry and the country there would be enormous advantage to derive from the establishment in this House of a specialist aviation or aerospace committee which could keep the whole matter under review.

I hope that this is a subject on which when we eventually get down to some suggestions about the formation of specialist committees the mind of the Government will be found to be not entirely closed. I am encouraged to see a half nod from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation. Perhaps before he and his functions finally disappear he will convert it into a whole nod.

I renew my apologies for not being present initially in this debate. I am grateful to have had the opportunity of putting these points to the Government.