HC Deb 16 December 1919 vol 123 cc291-301

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I regret that the Secretary for War and Air is not here, because I wish to raise a question in which I know, judging from an answer he gave to an interrogation of mine recently, interests him very much. It arises under subhead K— "Awards to Inventors, £25,000." In the Debate last night an hon. and gallant Member insisted on the need for encouraging and rewarding properly inventors of new types of aircraft, pointing out that an immense saving might in the long run be effected by that Means. I should like to convey to the right hon. Gentleman the desire for some information with regard to the progress being made with the Helicopter. I want to draw attention to the immense importance of the Helicopter, which is calculated to revolutionise flying. The French Government take the question of the air so seriously that they are not at all backward in encouraging inventors in their country. They voted £4,000 for the purpose of inventions with experiments with this particular method of flight. But my information is that certain sections of the Air Ministry are very lukewarm about this system of flight, and, incredible as it may seem, already in this new Service there is apparent that same sort of spirit which preceded the introduction of steam to replace the old sailing vessel. There are certain circles which look upon the Helicopter in the same way as the old sailor looked upon the introduction of steam, and, consequently, it is not receiving the encouragement the people working on it deserve, and which I am sure the Minister for War and Air would like to give it. It is of great importance for naval work. It will simplify the carrying of flying machines. It is important to this country from a commercial point of view as well as for the purposes of naval and military defence, and it is to the interest of the country that the Helicopter should be encouraged and that England should not be behind France or any other nation in this matter.

May I also raise another point, that is in regard to the question of kite balloons, for which there is an item here? I noticed in the "Times," under the title of "Naval News," an item to the effect that sloops proceeding to the China station were having their kite balloon winches removed and the old appliances replaced. That appears to me to evidence a very shortsighted policy. Every ship sent to China should be equipped with the latest antisubmarine devices. and certainly with the kite balloon.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. Whitley)

That is clearly an Admiralty matter.

Lieut.-Commander- KENWORTHY

We are being asked to vote money for kite balloons and winches, and I would like to be assured that the kite balloon, with all its possibilities, is not to be treated as the Cinderella of the Air Service, but is to be fostered, although the immediate need for it may have disappeared.


There is one line in this Vote which requires some explanation. It is item "L"—a payment of over £16,000,000 for aircraft supplies delivered under war contracts. A great deal of criticism has been uttered from time to time with regard to the nature of the contracts made by the Government, and it has been said that owing to the slipshod fashion in which these contracts have been made, and owing also to the absence of a. break clause, the Government has been saddled with expenditure which otherwise might have been avoided. This —16,000,000, must obviously represent a great variety of material, and in view of the fact that the Air Service is subject to very quick and sometimes violent changes. we would rather like to know how much of this large sum really represents anything substantial, and whether any real use can be made of what has been supplied under these contracts, or whether it represents so much mere scrap.

Then with regard to the question of awards for inventors, I suppose nearly all of us during the War, and certainly since it closed, have received from time to time all kinds of claims—some quite sound and others very preposterous, with regard to, inventions submitted by the various Departments during the War. If I remember rightly there was a separate Department which dealt with the whole subject of inventions, located at Victory House, Trafalgar Square. But I believe the Government have since abandoned that as a separate Department. I would like to know whether this £25,000 represents money awards to inventors, who actually contributed something during the War, or whether there is going to be maintained inside the Air Service, as inside the Admiralty, some kind of provision whereby inventors will have their ideas considered, and, if necessary, tested. The great difficulty in regard to inventions is, of course, one of expense in getting them tried, and if that is going to be provided for, the sum of £25,000 is a comparatively small expenditure. One would, therefore, like to know what is to be the policy of the Air Service in regard to this matter, and are we going to maintain an inventions Department inside the Air Ministry?


The absence from the Government Front Bench of the Secretary for War and of other Ministers connected with the Air Service is only an indication of the futility of the Government policy with regard to the Air Ministry. It is true we have with us the Chief Secretary for Ireland and the Minister for Education, who have listened, I am sure, most interestedly to the criticisms directed against the Government policy towards the Air Ministry. But this is only another example of the scant courtesy which the present Government pay to the House of Commons and to the country generally. I wish to address a few observations in regard to the Votes for the Air Ministry which we, paltry individual Members of this house are asked by the Government to pass. Of course, I do not expect a reply from the Chief Secretary for Ireland, or from the Minister for Education, or from one of the Government Whips. What have they to do with the matter? But it is only fair to the House that when a matter is being discussed the Minister directly concerned, or his Parliamentary Secretary, should attend to hear what is said. Apart altogether from that, I would like to direct the attention of the House to the fact that we have not present the Minister directly concerned —

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of EDUCATION (Mr. Fisher)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary for War has been unavoidably called away, and regrets very much that he is unable to be present. He has asked me to deal with the discussion, and I will do my best to answer the points raised.


I quite appreciate the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, and of course accept the explanation of the absence of the Secretary for War. (At this point Mr. Churchill entered the House) I am glad to see the Air Minister is now in his place, and 6.0 P.M.

I want to ask him one or two questions with regard to the Vote before the House. I understand there were six great airships in process of completion only a few months ago. I believe they were very nearly completed, but they have now been scrapped. I want to know if it is a case that, the sum of £144,000 which is now being asked for, represents nothing more than one airship. What has been done with the material purchased for the other airships? What about the time and money expended on them? Is it altogether wasted, now that they have been dropped Then I have a word to say with regard to the location of hangars. I know that outside the City of Dublin, the Air Minister or War Minister erected a large aerodrome at Tallaght. Has he now abandoned it? They have spent a considerable sum of money and not all British money because it was just as much Irish money, and that is why I am interested in it. They have spent that money in the erection of this large aerodrome and have since abandoned it. Has not the same thing occurred in Scotland? Did not the Air Ministry erect a great aerodrome at Rosyth or in that vicinity, and have they not since abandoned it? They have shown that they are engaged upon one policy to-day and another policy to-morrow. Throughout their existence they have proved their ineptitude for the office they occupy. That being so, the House of Commons will be doing wrong to pass a Vote of this magnitude without discussing what has taken place in regard to the erection and demolition of various great aerodromes throughout the country. We have in existence a certain number of aerodromes in Ireland. I see it is proposed to spend £64,500 on hangars. I do not know how many hangars we have in Ireland; perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will be able to inform rue upon that matter. I do know, however, that they have set up aerodromes at great public expense and at a waste of time and money, and no sooner have the aerodromes been erected than they have been demolished. Before this Vote is passed the House is entitled to an explanation of the money that has been expended upon these fruitless experiments, as they have proved to be, in Ireland and elsewhere.


In looking over this Vote I was first disposed to think that the right hon. Gentleman was asking for a very moderate sum under Sub-head A— "Aeroplanes, Seaplanes, Engines and Spares," amounting to £1,413,000, but on looking further down the Vote I notice that a very large sum appears under Sub-head L in respect of aircraft supplies delivered under war contracts. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could tell us if Sub-head L is merely Sub-head A under another form. If item L merely refers to spare parts which are assembled by the mechanicians under the supervision of his own officers, for all practical purposes that item of £16,100,000 forms part of Sub-head A. It might also assist the House if the right hon. Gentleman could say whether, in regard to the purchase of seaplanes, there is an understanding between his Department and the Admiralty, and, if there is such an understanding, whether there are any credits due to the Air Ministry in respect of purchases by the Admiralty, or, conversely, if there are any debits from the Air Ministry to the Admiralty? The right hon. Gentleman occupies a unique position with regard to this question, because he has-filled, with great distinction, the highest posts in the Admiralty, the War Office, and Air Ministry, therefore the subject of the relations between the Air Ministry and the Admiralty with regard to the supply and use of seaplanes is one upon which he will always be ready to inform the House in the fullest possible manner. It is a subject which the House regards with peculiar concern and, perhaps, with a certain amount of suspicion. The House would be more ready to pass this Estimate if it were assured that there was no possibility of the Admiralty and Air Ministry working on diverging lines with regard to the development of seaplanes, because if they were to pursue such a policy to its ultimate conclusion it could only result in the gravest financial loss to the taxpayer. We have only the right hon. Gentleman to look to as the pivotal man between the two Departments concerned.

With regard to Sub-head J—Petrol and Oil, £1,522,100—perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could inform us if there is any prospect of this Vote being smaller in the coming year. The elements which lead me to expect such a result are—first, the Bill dealing with the agreement with the Anglo - Persian Oil Company, and, secondly, the prospect of the country where these wells are situated and adjoining the great pipe - line to the coast being more peaceful. We are led to believe that it is more peaceful to-day, and if there is any prospect of it remaining so for the next twelve months we shall expect this Vote for petrol and oil to be considerably less in the coming year. Taking the Vote as it is, the expenditure on petrol alone is one which this House ought to query and examine in the fullest possible manner. It would reassure us if the right hon. Gentleman could give an assurance that the sum would be smaller in the next year and in years to come. With regard to Sub-head K—Rewards to Inventors—it is a great disappointment to Members on all sides to find that the newly-created Air Ministry, with this great science of aviation in its infancy, and progressing every day by leaps and bounds, can only afford £23,000 for the encouragement of inventions. That sum might well be increased by thousands at the expense of some of the items in the other Votes. There is no sub-head which has so strong a claim for an increase. Perhaps it is not possible for the right hon. Gentleman at this stage to increase the amount, but I certainly object to this miserable pittance. One inventor, bringing to the right hon. Gentleman one valuable invention, might well expect the whole £25,000 to be paid to him. During the War and up to the present we have had a melancholy history of inventions being scrapped or turned down by the War Office and Admiralty. We are not in a position to say how far the alleged claims of these inventors were properly made. It has always been the weakness of Government Departments that they are not prone to take up and utilise the ideas of the various inventors which are submitted to them. Has the right hon. Gentleman any machinery by which he encourages new ideas among his staff being brought to the notice of the Minister or head of the Department? The right hon. Gentleman is aware that there is a suggestion-box in every large manufacturing firm, and some of the greatest improvements in industrial machinery to-day have come out of the suggestion-box It would probably prove of great assistance in the development of military aviation if the right hon. Gentleman would consider the advisability of making some such provision as that. The hon. and gallant Member for Leith (Captain W. Benn) has raised the question of providing the best possible optical instruments for pilots. Would not that come under the head of "Rewards to Inventors"? These optical instruments are changing from day to day. It is the least our pilots may expect when they are being sent into the air at great risk to their own lives, as the experience of every day only too unhappily reminds us, that the Ministry should provide them with the best possible optical instruments. It should set aside an adequate sum for the encouragement of inventors in effecting improvements in these optical instruments on which the lives of these pilots very often depend. These points are of considerable importance, and, in regard to them, the right hon. Gentleman should give us an explanation. We feel deeply indebted to him for the fulness with which he has explained the various points we have already raised.


A Minister has to be very careful not to offend the House by apparent abruptness, and, on the other hand, not to delay the progress of business by his own explanations. I will try shortly to answer some of the more substantial points which have been referred to by the various hon. Members who have spoken. As to the £25,000 for inventions, that admittedly is a small sum, but, in the first place, the Inventions and Research Department has only really begun to develop its station during the last few months. It is probable that more expense will be incurred on that account in later years. Also there are several important claims for inventions made during the War which are still sub judice and which are likely to mature, not in the current year but in the currency of the next financial year. I made a mistake a few minutes ago in saying that the Appropriations-in-Aid on Vote 1 of £450,000 was in respect of the airship. Of course, it had nothing to do with that at all in the item" Appropriations-in-Aid, £545,000" on this Vote is contained money received on account of the airship that has been sold. We are endeavouring to dispose of all the airships, with the exception of three, which are reserved for certain purposes. We hope to sell them to a company which will take them over under certain conditions. The Government will participate in any advantages which are gained from their use. I may have some more detailed statement to make on that subject when Parliament reassembles.


Does the right hon. Gentleman mean to say that the Government will not lose anything in regard to the construction of those airships?


I have not the slightest doubt that the Government will lose enormous sums of money in regard to aeroplanes, airships, aerodromes, and all the gigantic business of air warfare, which was proceeding with ever increasing speed and ever intensifying volume when tile Armistice occurred. The great effort of the Air Force was to be made in the currency of the present year, and enormous plans had been made. The £16,000,000 under L represents the liquidation, and in some cases the completion, of a great mass of technical equipment for the Air Force for which contracts had been placed at the time of the peace by the Ministry of Munitions. A large portion of the contract has been taken over by the Ministry of Munitions. We were in a very difficult position when peace came to know what to do. The air industry was entirely new, and had been created entirely under the pressure of war. A very large number of working people had been taken from the neighbourhood of their homes to new centres to make all these different commodities, and new plant had been put down by entirely new firms, which sprang up simply for the purpose of war manufactures. Suddenly it had to be stopped, and we had to solve in each case the difficult problem whether it was more worth while to finish the article or to scrap the whole production at that moment. That was complicated also by the conditions of the labour market, which in December and January last were the cause of very grave anxiety. The whole of the munitions contracts were being shut down all over the place, and more than a million people were being turned off, and at the same time men were coming home front the front seeking employment, and we found it necessary, with various lines of production, to go easy in winding up these establishments. No doubt we incurred expense thereby, but looking at the situation as it was at that period I cannot think we were wrong in taking the labour element into consideration. However, when the War came to an end there were certain expenses arising out of the War, and this is part of that expense.

I was then asked about the Helicopter. There is no doubt at all that if civil aviation is to achieve really wide development., it must be through the agency of some quite different kind of aeroplane from that which is used at present. The great speed involved in landing aeroplanes at present, and the length of ground which they require to pull up in will always invest with an element of peculiar danger that form of travelling. It is all very well for war or for adventure, but the moment you come to ordinary peace time commercial purposes safety is the first consideration. If this invention were successful, it would undoubtedly give us a machine which, if the engines stopped, would descend like a parachute, quietly and gently, and sit down on the ground without anyone being hurt. It would also give us a machine which would rise practically straight from anyone's back garden, and the extraordinary fact is revealed by investigation that it is by no means impossible, scientifically and theoretically, that the Helicopter machine would not only rise and descend perpendicularly, but when it progressed laterally it would be capable under certain conditions of developing very great speed. It is true that the inventor, Mr. Brennon, who has been studying this for a very long time—I started him on it when I was at the Ministry of Munitions—does not make the claim in regard to great lateral speed, but some scientists who have worked it out theoretically think it is by no means impossible. However, progress has been disappointingly slow, and indeed we have not yet succeeded in making a machine which will ascend into the air, and the whole field is extremely speculative; but it is certainly a matter of very great interest, which should be pursued with the greatest energy by all who are interested in the future of civil aviation.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that this very important investigation is not only not being hampered, but is being pushed from headquarters, because my information is that it is not?


I do not think that can be so. I think every person connected with the Air Service has been profoundly excited by the idea of such a flying machine, but their excitement would be tempered by a considerable measure of scepticism as to whether it would be likely to be achieved. Anyhow, I take great interest in the matter myself, and as long as I think there is any hope of a favourable result being arrived at along these lines I will see that the experiments are allowed to continue, and the inventor who is working on them has every possible facility. Of course, in all these matters one has to be careful not to spend money unless there is a good prospect of arriving at a result, but some latitude should be accorded in the matter. A substantial reduction in regard to petrol and oil may be expected in next year's Estimates. That is not due to the fact that we shall be getting supplies of oil for nothing from the Anglo-Persian field. We shall not. The cause of the reduction will be the large diminution in the number of persons flying for military purposes in the Royal Air Force.

Question put, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

The House divided: Ayes, 230; Noes, 42.