HC Deb 20 January 1965 vol 705 cc197-202

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

78. Mr. MAWRY

To ask the Minister of Aviation whether he will now make a statement on the future of the Concord project.

The Minister of Aviation (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

We have now completed the review of the Concord project which we set in hand in October and we have exchanged views with the French Government.

We had, and we still retain, some doubts about the financial and economic aspects of the project. We have, however, been much impressed by the confidence of our French partners and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has informed the French Prime Minister that we stand by the treaty obligations into which the last Government decided to enter.

During the coming months we shall be discussing with our partners the detailed programme of development and production.

Now that the uncertainty over the future of this project has been removed I am sure that all those concerned with it on both sides of the Channel will press forward with a real sense of purpose. In this, they will have the full backing of Her Majesty's Government.

Mr. Mawby

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for this very belated statement, may I ask whether he is aware that my only knowledge that this Question was to be answered at this particular time was from reading about it in the newspapers? Have we not just had about enough of government by Press conference?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the statement which he has made, because I think that all of us know that the state of doubt into which the whole question has been put has had very wide repercussions right outside the whole of the Concord project. Is he aware that, as I have constituency interests in these wider aspects, I am certainly very pleased that he has now decided to continue with this project?

Will he bear in mind that in the future it would be better if the views were exchanged before public statements were made and then we might be able to make more progress?

Mr. Jenkins

I have often heard hon. Members complain that their Questions were not answered on the day for which they were put down, but not frequently complain that they were answered. There is no question of this announcement being belated. The message was delivered to the French Prime Minister yesterday morning.

Mr. Maude

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is customary to inform an hon. Member that one of his Questions is to be answered if it is so far down the list as No. 78? Is he further aware that it is not a very satisfactory procedure to make an important statement with international implications in such a way that the Opposition are not given an opportunity to see the statement in advance of its being made?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that while there will be widespread satisfaction that the Government have decided to go ahead with this project, there will be some sorrow that he has chosen a somewhat ungracious form of words in which to make this announcement? Could the right hon. Gentleman, however, confirm that the statement he has made means that there is no change in the progress of the programme from the form in which it was left by the last Government and that there is no change in the programme as it was originally planned? In that case, does he really feel that any great service has been performed to this country or the aircraft industry by what has happened since October?

Mr. Jenkins

I think that the procedure which has been followed in relation to the answering of this Question has been in all respects the normal one. As for the questions of substance which the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) has asked me, as I have said, we propose to discuss with the French Government exactly how we proceed with the project and they are very willing to do this with us.

I do not imagine for a moment that the hon. Member, at any rate, wishes to suggest that we should spend at least £140 million of British taxpayers' money on this project without considering very seriously whether we proceed in the most economic and reasonable way. We have, however, no intention of getting the worst of both worlds and spending the money and losing the market, but exactly how we go ahead depends to some extent on the rate at which the Americans are proceeding behind us and on the exchange of views with our French partners, which we are now proceeding to hold.

I do not apologise in the least for the fact that we undertook this review. In view of the vastly increased cost and hazardous nature of this project, I think that we were fully entitled—indeed it was our duty—to review it.

Mr. Shinwell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we on this side of the House congratulate him and his right hon. colleagues on the successful conclusion of his negotiations? Is he aware that we consider that he displayed wisdom by undertaking this necessary review before coming to a decision? Is he also aware that those on the Opposition side who have already spoken and those who would like to speak are having great difficulty in concealing their disappointment at this announcement?

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that nobody blames the Government for reviewing a project of this magnitude, but that what we do blame them for is the hamfisted way in which the First Secretary went about it by publishing the White Paper? Nevertheless, may the right hon. Gentleman be assured that the news he has given will be well received in the aircraft industry? Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind, during the discussions to prolong the production programme, as has been suggested through the Press, which is our only source of information these days, that this may well add to the ultimate cost?

Mr. Jenkins

I am glad to know from the hon. Gentleman that nobody, in his view, blames the Government for this review. I think that it has been very reasonable indeed to carry out the review, and that, as it was being carried out, it was better that we announced publicly that we were doing so rather than carry it out in a hole and corner way.

Mr. Snow

Is my right hon. Friend aware that both he and other Ministers on the Front Bench who, I trust, will continue to scrutinise most carefully the loosely and casually contrived agreements which we have inherited, will have our full support?

Sir J. Eden

Although the decision which has been announced by the right hon. Gentleman is welcomed, is not the arrogance and complacency with which he announced it typical of the whole attitude of the Government throughout their examination of this project? Has the right hon. Gentleman made any assessment of the damage that this has done to Anglo-French relations and future co-operation with the French on other aircraft projects, and can he say, also, what assessment he has made of the ultimate cost of the Concord project as regards the possible cancellation of the TSR2?

Mr. Jenkins

I do not believe that this has done damage to Anglo-French co-operation, and I think it extremely foolish to take the view that one cannot enter into international collaborative projects without either or both partners having a sensible look at a project as costs increase and as circumstances develop. I do not believe that even the hon. Gentleman would wish to suggest otherwise.

I am not able to anticipate any decision about the TSR2, but it would be extremely foolish, and in the worst interests of the aircraft industry, to take the view that or e project cannot go ahead without the other.

Mr. Rankin

Do I understand from what my right hon. Friend has said that he has decided to go ahead with the production of the prototype and that, at that point, there will be a pause for some further thought? If that be so, can he tell us how he will manage to keep together the experienced teams of different types which will be needed for the production of the Concord itself?

Mr. Jenkins

I do not think that the problem which my hon. Friend has in mind will arise. But we should like to know as much as we can about the performance of the prototypes before entering into a very heavy production commitment, compatible with the fact, as I said earlier, that we are determined not to spend the money and then not catch the market. Therefore, to some extent, it depends on our competitive position vis-à-vis the Americans, but there is no danger of our allowing any teams to be dispersed before we go ahead.

Mr. Marten

I believe that the right hon. Gentleman said that he had some doubts and reservations about this project. To clear the air and get matters straight, will he say what those doubts and reservations are?

Mr. Jenkins

I expressed those doubts and reservations on the economic and financial aspects of the project to the House of Commons for about 30 minutes on 5th November last. I do not propose to repeat them now, but I do not propose to withdraw them, either.

Mr. Maude

The right hon. Gentleman has not really answered the most important of the questions which I asked, namely, has the decision which he has announced made any difference to the position as it was left by the last Govern- ment? In other words, has there been any modification of the plan for development of the Concord at all? Secondly, with reference to what he said about discussing this project regularly and closely with the French from now on, could he tell us what he has been discussing with the French since last October?

Mr. Jenkins

I said in my original Answer, and I repeat to the hon. Gentleman now, that we shall discuss the detailed programme of development and production with the French in the coming months.

Mr. Maude

Has not this sort of discussion been going on all the time?

Mr. Jenkins

The previous Government discussed it with the French and they also produced an escalation of costs to more than 200 per cent. of the original estimate, which is what we greatly hope to avoid in the future. What we propose to discuss is how we can go ahead in the most economical and the most effective way. It is extremely foolish of right hon. and hon. Members opposite to take the view that there is nothing which needs discussing and nothing which needs watching extremely closely.

Mr. Maude

The right hon. Gentleman has not answered the first part of my question.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this matter on supplementary questions.