HC Deb 17 February 1919 vol 112 cc692-6

The purposes of the Air Council shall include all matters connected with aerial navigation.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."


I wish to ask a question as to the present position of civil aviation and the Air Council. We saw the other day that General Sykes had been appointed to deal with civil aviation and had resigned his position as a general officer. May I ask, not offensively, under what authority the Government appointed anyone to deal with civil aviation before passing this Bill. I have looked very carefully through the three Acts of Parliament which have been passed dealing with the air in 1911, 1913 and 1917, and there is no power at all to appoint anyone to deal with civil aviation. The Act of 1917, which constituted the Air Council, is purely a military Act. The whole thing deals with the military position. I see General Sykes is receiving some remuneration for his services. I do not know how on earth it is done. Someone has said, "This is a very curious Parliament and we do very curious things." The Government has appointed this general officer to deal with a subject that he has no power to deal with under any Act of Parliament, and I assume they are paying a salary which they have no power to pay him at all. I should like a little information on that point. I am not quite sure how far the Air Council in its present form is the right body to deal with civil aviation. It is a purely military body, formed for military purposes and on a military basis, and you are going to put the whole control of civil aviation in this country—I am not using the term offensively—under a military autocracy. I do not think that is right. This Bill has come so suddenly and it is not being debated at any great length, but I think two Amendments ought to be made in this Clause. I think the words "the purposes of the Air Council shall include all matters connected with aerial navigation" are a bit too wide. That power might include the manufacture of civil commercial aircraft and so forth. I think the words in the second line should be amended to include certification, inspection, and so forth. That would be ample to start with. Then I think there ought to be some civilian members on the Air Council. I would suggest a sub-section to the Clause to the effect that there should be civilian members attached to the Air Council to act only in connection with the question of civil aviation. The appointments would naturally be left entirely to the Government. I think the whole of the commercial side of aviation will feel rather seriously if they are put entirely in the hands of military officers. I have not the slightest word of complaint against the military officers of the Air Council, for whom I have the highest respect, but military officers do not always in a position of authority get on with the commercial world. I think it would be better that two or three members should be added to the Air Council for civilian purposes. Formally I move the omission of the Clause.

General SEELY

In regard to the first point raised, namely, that there was no power to appoint Major-General Sykes as a member of the Air Council, the answer is that there was power to appoint him to look after civil aviation. We were so legally advised on the subject, but there was not power to appoint him a member of the Council. This measure when it becomes an Act will give us power to have a member of the Council for civil aviation. That is the object of the Clause. I can assure my hon. Friend that the vigilant eye of the Treasury would certainly never have allowed a salaried post to be improvidently made. That is one of the things on which they do keep the tightest outlook and the tightest hand, as I have reason to know. I think there is no doubt that legal power resided in us to appoint a controller of civil aviation. This Clause will give the man responsible for civil aviation a seat on the Air Council. In regard to the merits of that appointment, I would say that we were all exceedingly glad when General Sykes took the position, and I think the aviation world in general will be glad. When General Trenchard, I think with universal acclamation, came back as head of the military and naval sides of the Royal Air Force, and General Sykes was approached with a view to his taking the civilian side, at any rate for the present, all those whom I was privileged to consult wore unanimous in saying that with his peculiary alert brain, which has been dealing for many months with the very problems on which aerial navigation is concentrating itself, namely, long distance flying in the air, we had an ideal man. It is quite true he is a soldier, but he has been a great many things besides, and the fact that he is now at his own request ready to serve civil aviation by severing his connection with the Royal Air Force, except so far as he remains on the retired list, will be an indication to the aviation world, to aircraft manufacturers, flyers and others, that he is whole-heartedly devoted to the interests of civilian flying. The reason why a soldier was selected is that just for the moment practically everyone who is interested in flying, with a few exceptions, has joined either the Flying Corps or one or other branch of the Service, and with hardly an exception all the pilots belong to the Royal Air Force. Thus for the moment it is almost certain that you will find the best man within the ranks of the Royal Air Force of the Army or the Navy. That that will continue to be so I do not say. I should say it will not, but at present it is the case.

With regard to making the Council more civilian in character, perhaps my hon. Friend did not observe that we have a considerable number of civilians on the Air Council. I shall, I suppose, shortly be demobilised. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Churchill) is already demobilised. A civilian, Lord Londonderry, who is a member of the Air Council, will represent the Department in the House of Lords. Then we have Sir Arthur Duckham, Sir James Stevenson and Sir John Hunter, the last still technically a member of the Council. Therefore, there is a large civilian element, and though some of these gentlemen are there specifically for the purpose of concluding contracts and generally winding-up the affairs of the War, one of them will certainly always remain, and I should think, as time goes on, it will probably be the case that the man to whom the destinies of civil aviation are confided will tend more and more to be a business man, a civilian, even though he may have served in the Royal Air Force. I hope that will satisfy my hon. Friend.


There is also the question of the very wide scope of the Clause.

General SEELY

I have made a note of that, and I hope the hon. Member will not press the point. I can assure him that we have no intention of going into the aircraft manufacturing business, and if we ever attempted to do it, what I say now would be brought up against us and make the thing impossible, for a Ministerial pledge is a Ministerial pledge that has to be kept as long as the Government survives. To confine it rigidly to the points specified would be inconvenient. I can assure the Committee that we have no ulterior motive whatever in making the Clause so wide. It is not unprecedented in its wide nature. It is necessary that the Air Ministry should have the power to act to the best advantage in all matters connected with aerial navigation or transport We do not want to act in order to hamper the industry. On the contrary, as I have said more than once. But I think it is necessary that we should have the power whenever the occasion arises to make the necessary Regulations, that any other Government Department has, in regard to land or air transport.

Captain BENN

I cannot support the hon. Gentleman behind me in regard to this Clause, because I understand it is a Clause by which the Air Council seeks power not only to deal with all these aerial matters, but to prevent other Government Departments interfering. That seems to be an extremely desirable thing. The air is an element that must be treated as a whole, and it must be controlled as a whole, so far as the State is concerned, in the hands of one authority. I would point out, however, that the civilian has a very proper and well-grounded suspicion of military control. The names of the most successful machines during the War prove how much we owe to the civilian manufacturer. I have no objection to the appointment of this brilliant officer (General Sykes) to the position of head of civil aviation, but the right hon. Gentleman must remember that the Government has been so constructed that the whole of this Air Ministry is put in what we think is a subordinate position to the War Office, and that emphasises tenfold the suspicion that the public must have of the military element in the Ministry. I hope myself that so far from military predominance after the War, this Ministry, which deals with the most progressive of sciences, will be kept in touch with the most progressive of civilian opinion.

Clause 3 (Short Title and Duration) agreed to.

Bill reported; as amended, to be considered To-morrow, and to be printed. [Bill 6.]