HC Deb 13 April 1920 vol 127 cc1596-602
Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I have an Amendment down to the Schedule, on which I intended to raise a question of considerable importance, namely, whether the inclusion of the Air Force in the Army Act is desirable. I should like to ask your ruling, Mr. Whitley, as to whether I should be more in order in moving the deletion of Clause 27 than in moving, as stated in my Amendment, the deletion from the Schedule of the lines which apply to the Air Force?


The hon. and gallant Member will be more in order in dealing with that on Clause 27, because, as far as the Preamble is concerned, that must be in accord with the Clauses of the Bill, and therefore he would be too late at the other stage.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I beg to move to leave out the Clause.

I am very much obliged, Sir, for your ruling. I should have said, "Preamble." I did not expect the Bill to be brought on quite so hurriedly, and I apologise for not having prepared my notes with greater care. This Clause raises the question whether the Air Force should be included in the Army (Annual) Bill. This is the first Army Act which has included the Air Force, as I have ascertained since the Bill was read a second time last night. I consider that it is very unfortunate that this attempt is now being made, and I hope the House will resist it, for two reasons. The first is, that the Air Force, by an act of this House, is as much a separate Service from the Army as is the Royal Navy. Strictly speaking, I believe, we do not have a Royal Navy Act. It is not illegal to keep a Fleet of the King's ships, but it is illegal to keep a standing Army, and therefore this Act of indemnity is brought in. I do not know if it has been laid down that it is illegal to keep a standing Air Force, but apparently it is accepted by the Law Officers of the Crown that it is illegal, because they seek powers, under this Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill, to include the Air Force. I think it is unfortunate that the Air Force has been bracketed with the Army in this manner. The whole endeavour of the great majority of hon. Members of this House, both in the last Parliament and in this, has been the creation and maintenance of a separate Air Force. I know that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Maid-stone (Commander Bellairs) will hold a different opinion, which I respect very much; but he holds that opinion because he thinks the sea part of the flying service should be under the Royal Navy. I am certain that he will support me in objecting to the whole of the Air Force being coupled with, and having the appearance of being attached as an annex to, the Army. That is even more objectionable from his point of view of the Royal Navy having the control of its own Air Force.

My second reason for objecting to this inclusion is as follows:—The time might easily arise when the people of this country might consider that their liberties were best preserved by the maintenance of an armed militia on the Swiss model—a citizen army, a Territorial army, or something of that sort—and they might consider that their liberties were not being preserved by keeping up a standing army. Personally, I hope they will reach that view, because I think that democracy will best be served by a citizen army. At the same time, the Air Force is so technical that I do not think it would be possible to have a citizen Air Force. If you are going to have a fighting Air Force at all, you will always have to have a long-service, highly trained, professional Air Force. Therefore, circumstances might, and I rather think will, arise in which it might be desirable to object to the maintenance of a standing Army, while it might be realised that a standing Air Force was necessary. This is not at all a visionary argument, because I think that, with the development of armaments, the fighting forces will be eventually merged into the Air Force, and that, without doubt, in the time of most of us, you will have an international aerial police, of which every country will furnish its quota. If this not at all imaginary situation should arise, we should be precluded from objecting to the maintenance of a standing Army without at the same time objecting to the maintenance of a standing Air Force, and therefore I do not think the House ought to pass this Clause. If once we admit this precedent, we shall always be prevented from objecting to the keeping of a standing military force, because at the same time that would deprive us of what some of us might consider to be very necessary aerial defences. This is an objection of great substance against Clause 27, and I do not think the Government would lose very much if they dropped this Clause, and brought in another Bill called the Air Force (Annual) Bill. I think hon. Members will be quite prepared to assist its passage through the House. I am sure Members of both wings of the Opposition would support me if I suggested that as an exchange for the concession, and I appeal to the Government, therefore, to drop Clause 27 and to bring in another Bill called the Air Force (Annual) Bill, which will do away with this very great objection of having the Air Force sandwiched in with the Army.

Commander BELLAIRS

The hon. and gallant Gentleman has succeeded for a brief moment in what he was angling for, for me to give him a little breathing space. I agree with him that there ought to be a separate Bill, but it ought not to be an Annual Bill. The Navy is organised under the Naval Discipline Act, which is revised from time to time. There ought to be a Discipline Act for the Air Force. The reason we have an Army (Annual) Bill is that Parliament, by Resolution, pronounced a standing army to be unconstitutional. But there my support of the hon. and gallant Gentleman ends, and there will be quite time for the Government to have a breathing space if we pass the Bill as it stands, and perhaps in another year, when the Air Force has had more time to consider its discipline, they will be able to produce a separate Act for the discipline of the Air Force.

Lieut.-Colonel JOHN WARD

I wish to say a word or two on the proposition which has been put forward, more particularly "i" dotting and "t" crossing of the speech of the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Commander Bellairs). He wants Clause 27 struck out of the Bill, because then there would be a possible chance later on of avoiding the constitutional objection to an armed land force by bringing in a permanent Act. He does not wish it to be an annual Act. I am sure hon. Members who represent the Labour interest are going to do nothing to weaken in the slightest degree the old constitutional safeguard that no armed land force of any description can be kept in these realms without passing an annual Act of Parliament. The proposal of the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) is that that time-honoured safeguard of our liberties shall be abolished and that one branch of the Force, which may be as time goes on very important both for actual offensive mass operations on land as well as on sea, and may be the predominating force possibly for striking and for defence as the years go on, should be excluded from the Army (Annual) Act. There has been civil war in this country to maintain this Constitutional right of the people, and I do not think the Labour Members, however much the hon. and gallant Gentleman appeals to them, are going to separate this possibly most important branch of the land forces of the Crown from the Army (Annual) Act and the privileges and rights which it gives the citizen as the result of that Constitutional practice and privilege. What both hon. and gallant Gentlemen are aiming at is to get another Department established for military affairs.

Commander BELLAIRS

The other Department exists to-day. The Secretary of State for the Army is Secretary of State for Air on a separate Department.

Lieut.-Colonel WARD

But if it was a separate Ministry, it is a moral certainty that it would be a much greater and more expensive Department than it is now. The object is to get behind the express wish of this House for economy in military expenditure and they hope to get it by a side wind. It is true, no doubt, that the Air Force is an extremely technical Department, but this War has produced several Departments which might just as reasonably claim separate Ministries to deal with them. Tanks and machine guns and a host of other things have shown themselves to be most important. Why not a Ministry for artillery, one for infantry and one for cavalry? You might go on ad infinitum. If Labour Members listened to the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) for a moment they would be letting themselves in for an infinitely greater expenditure in military affairs than exists at present. I warn them, therefore, not to be led into giving countenance in any way whatever to the suggestion that there should be a separate Act of Parliament, apart from the Army (Annual) Act for the Air Force and a separate Ministry, and by some subterfuge avoid in the Constitutional principle that there must be every year an Act of Parliament. We are exercising a privilege in passing this Act. If it does not pass within so many days every soldier can walk out of barracks if he chooses. This gives us an enormous power and we are not going to whittle it away as the result of soft speeches from the hon. and gallant Gentleman.


There is no hidden meaning of a dangerous kind, from the point of view of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, in the change which has been made in the title of the Bill, bringing together the Air Force with the Army. When the Air Force was first constituted in 1917 it was provided by Section 12 of the Act that the life of the Air Force was to be the same as that of the Army, and Amendments of the Army Act were made to operate automatically as Amendments of the Air Force Act, subject to such modifications as might be made by Orders in Council. Therefore, the form of the Army (Annual) Bill remained unchanged, and it was still called the Army (Annual) Bill. But this method of legislation has proved somewhat unsatisfactory in practice, firstly, because occasionally it has proved a matter of considerable difficulty to adapt Amendments of the Army Act so as to make them applicable to the Air Force, and conversely there was no method provided whereby Amendments could be made in the Air Force Act which were not required for the Army. Consequently, the Bill of this Session consists of three parts. First of all, there are the Amendments of the Army Act itself, to apply to the Army, there are the Amendments of the Air Force Act which apply especially to the Air Force, and there are the Amendments in Part III. which are common to both Forces. That is the whole explanation of why the Bill has been presented to the House in the present form. With regard to what has been said as to making the Air Force a permanent force, without the necessity of having to come to this House for the renewal of its existence, it does not require any words of repudiation from me. I do not think the rights of the people are going to be set aside by any such suggestion as that. As to the suggestion of the hon. and gallant Member (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) that the time may come when the Air Force is not only the more important force of the two, but possibly the only force, and that we would in such a case be hampered by the fact that we have what is called an Army and Air Force Act applicable to the Air Force, and that we should, thereby, still be tied to the existence of an Army, we may leave those circumstances to be dealt with when they arise, and we should find means to relieve ourselves of an unnecessary Army and concentrate upon the Air Force.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I must say something in reply to the hon. and gallant Member for Stoke (Lieut.-Colonel J. Ward) because he has done me an injustice, which I am sure he did not mean. When this Bill came on last night for Second Reading, the hon. Member for South Hackney (Mr. Bottomley) desired to bring up the question of courts-martial, but that was ruled out of order on the Second Reading. I was afterwards called upon, and if the hon. and gallant Member would look at the OFFICIAL REPORT he will sec that my object in the form of this Amendment is to safeguard the right of the people to refuse the Crown permission to a standing army, which he has so ably defended. If he thinks that I am in any way wishful to weaken that ancient constitutional power by my Amendment, I ask him to believe that he is entirely mistaken. I want to strengthen that constitutional power. I want to have a separate Act brought in for the Air Force, but not for the purpose of allowing the Air Force to be kept on without having to come to this House for permission. I want one Act for the Army, and another for the Air Force. I am, however, iinclined to agree with the suggestion of the hon. and gallant Member for Maidstone (Commander Bellairs) and to give the Government a little breathing time and not to press the Amendment to-night. I hope, however, that next year, if the hon. Baronet who represents the War Office is in his present position, that he will agree that two Acts should be brought in. It would be more satisfactory in every way, especially if there are separate Amendments required for the Air Force. I ask permission to withdraw my Amendment, but I do seriously suggest that it would be more satisfactory if the two Acts were separate, and I am sure the hon. and gallant Member for Stoke will agree with me after my explanation that that will in no way weaken the ancient constitutional right of the people to forbid a standing army if they wish it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.