Orders of the Day — Air Corporations Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th April 1969.

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Photo of Mr Raymond Dobson Mr Raymond Dobson , Bristol North East 12:00 am, 24th April 1969

The hon. Gentleman is only saying what was said by the Plowden Committee in 1965: that where it can be achieved all aircraft projects should have a sale which is international.

The problem in practice is that it is most difficult to get into international markets. One can criticise previous Governments for not bringing the aircraft manufacturing people together early enough to make an impact in the way of British sales of aircraft on world markets. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is a difficult problem to solve in the way of aircraft procurement for B.E.A. and all other airlines.

The decision which was made last year, about which I had a slight reservation, to get B.E.A. to buy British was, in retrospect, quite right. It was right for two reasons. First, had it bought American aircraft it would have taken on a large capital debt which it is doubtful whether it could have solved, projecting it into these figures. B.E.A. might have got some improved operating from the aircraft in comparison with the Tridents, but it was right that we should meet the difference in the cost, if that is the particular problem which bothers B.E.A.

But that is not the full answer for the future. In one thing the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury was right—that there should be more consultation between the airlines and the aircraft manufacturers on an aircraft which fits the bill for the routes which they have. The difficulty, of course, is that, in discussions of this kind, which are continual, both sides have different answers and sometimes some difficulty in assessing actual costs, rather than a rough "guesstimate". Nevertheless, there is a need to look to the future to see whether or not aircraft manufacturing policy relates to the needs of British aviation.

The point is now being met in part at least by the sort of marketing survey which B.A.C. has done for its 3–11. One might feel that some of its sums might be wrong—for instance, its penetration of the American market—but substantially what it is trying to do is to forecast the need for a British aircraft into the international scene, and to that extent the job should be useful to the Government.

But the hon. Member starts from a different position to mine. He feels that Government intervention is totally and wholly wrong and I do not. If the Government finance a publicly-controlled Corporation, we have every right at all stages to query, qualify, discuss, amend and generally process what the airline is doing within the sort of ambit of the President of the Board of Trade's authorities.

It is unfortunate that we did not have the Edwards Report before this debate, but if it does anything at all the Report should be so substantial—I hope that it will make some satisfactory changes—that we could not have had a debate next week or the week after to do justice to it. We have been cliff-hanging for the Report for a long time, and in such a major area of policy it will be looked for as the good Report which we have not had so far for the future of civil aviation.

I think that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) was wrong to suggest that Edwards could not look ahead. The terms of reference were clear and included the term: … the prospects of the British civil air transport industry … which gave it some authority to look ahead for the British share of world markets, which is where we want to see developments.

The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury—I hope that he does not think that I am picking on him, but he made an interesting speech—was wrong to write off the foreign savings from selling seats to people for dollars or other foreign currency. He is much more of a financial expert than I, but I think that he is wrong there, because he starts from the wrong basis.

The last B.E.A. Annual Report and Accounts is a valuable document, especially for its detailed information, but it has one major defect. In the review of the year and the look ahead, it seems to be pessimistic—I was about to say "anti-Government". It seems wrong for a public Corporation owned and backed by the Government to make continual references to Government interference and pessimistic statements about doing something or not being allowed to do something else, the economic crisis and the continuation of the overseas travel allowance, described as "a travesty of justice to B.E.A.".

That might be the view of some people, but it ill behoves a public Corporation to say these things in the way that they have been said several times. I would expect it from some independent travel and tourist operators, but when the Government technically own and finance the airline, help to run it and see it through difficult passages, as with this Bill, it is not a good idea to write such statements into the Annual Report, however much the individuals responsible may feel that they are true. But the information in the Report is absolutely superb: it could not be bettered.

On National Insurance, according to my calculations, in a total wage bill of £29 million for a year, possibly now increased to over £30 million, even if the insurance stamp were increased by a shilling, it would be an increase of £0·05 million, and, if it were two shillings, an increase of £0·1 million, which are derisory sums compared with expenditure of over £30 million.

The Report is very valuable for the background of this short Bill. The hon. Member for Woking said that there was a complaint about air navigation fees increases. I would have thought that this was the wrong thing to do. There is a need to increase fees, because safety regulations for aircraft coming into British airports must be improved. If one can criticise British airports it is for the fact that very few are adequately equipped for modern aircraft, not only in runway length but by the navigational and other aids which they need. But I was very disturbed to read in the B.E.A. News of Friday, 18th April, that the lack of ground facilities at certain airports is holding up the blind landing and auto-land techniques.

I believe this is something which the Minister could usefully look at. We all know that the most dangerous time for aircraft in flight is as they land; and the object of automatic landing is to make that operation as safe as anyone can make it. It brings down the accident risk substantially. It enables aircraft to land automatically without risk to the passengers in extremely close weather conditions which otherwise would close the airfield or restrict its use. This system is valuable, therefore, from the point of view of reducing potential accidents to passengers and in relation to the ability of aircraft to land in bad or close weather, which may also be to the passengers' disadvantage at times.

On one flight returning to London I was first diverted to Hamburg. That seems a ludicrous diversion. I am not saying that in such a case automatic landing would have got me down in London but it might have done so and saved me a great deal of inconvenience and extra travelling time. The statement in a report of this kind that blind landing facilities in the United Kingdom are lagging behind, presumably because of lack of development, is something which should be mentioned in a debate of this kind. I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware of it, and I hope that he will do his best to improve it. I feel that I can give a general welcome to this Bill because it is sensibly laid out; it is making adequate provision against the background of a pledge given by the then Minister of Aviation; and we ought to have no trouble at all in passing this Measure this afternoon.