HC Deb 09 August 1920 vol 133 cc172-81

Order for Second Reading read.

The SECRETARY of STATE for AIR (Mr. Churchill)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill is not only a matter of national interest, but of international interest. It is the Parliamentary embodiment of the Air Navigation Convention, which was signed at Paris on the 13th October last year. This Convention was the result of long and laborious conferences, at which a great number of States were represented, and most of the States represented at the Convention have signed it to the number of over 30, including the self-governing Dominions, which rank for this purpose as separate States. It is probable—indeed, it is almost certain—that the volume and structure of air navigation laws, which are embodied in this Convention, will attract to themselves the remaining States, and will thereby become the governing air navigation laws for the whole world. The passage of the Bill in every country is necessary to enable the ratification of the Convention to be made. The basic principles of the Convention are simple. In the first place, it is framed on the assumption that complete territorial sovereignty shall be asserted by each Power over the air space over its own territory. Subject to this, there shall be mutual undertakings for freedom of aerial passage in times of peace for the aircraft from other places. To carry this out, this, Convention provides International Rules, which have been elaborated in great detail. Amongst other things, there is the registration of aircraft, certificates as to air-worthiness, ruins for navigating the air, rules affecting the qualifications of pilots, customs rules, etc. It is quite clear that aviation is in such a rapid and continuous transition that it will be quite impossible to embody rules governing its development once and for all in any cast-iron code; therefore a special feature of this legislation is the setting up of a Permanent Commission, composed of representatives of the contracting States, and this Commission is empowered, subject to the basic principle of the legislation, and of the Convention, to alter from time to time the technical annexes of the Convention in step with the march of aviation.

There are certain other general provisions of the Bill, in addition to the obligations of the Convention, which consolidates the powers contained in pre-existing measured dealing with aviation. The present Bill deals with somewhat special points which draw attention to the general question of aviation. For instance, local authorities are not at present empowered to establish and maintain aerodromes. Many of them desire to do so. In some cases they have promoted Private Bills to secure this power. Civil aviation would benefit, and there would be a real partnership in peace time from the fact that in the neighbourhood of the great cities and centres of population there would be convenient landing grounds. This Bill proposes to give the local authorities power to acquire land for the purpose of aerodromes by voluntary agreement. The law of trespass and damage is investigated and dealt with in this Bill. Hitherto there has been no definite principles in regard to air trespass or damage done except by aircraft. The provisions of the Bill substantially follow the recommendations of the Aerial Transport Committee of 1918, which aims at reconciling the rights of landowners in the superincumbent air following on organisation for civil aviation by abolishing actions for mere aerial trespass—that is to say, aeroplanes flying over the ground owned by the landowner—and to substitute instead absolute liability by the owners of aircraft to compensate injured persons on the ground without any question of proof of negligence. This question was closely examined during the passage of the Bill in another place. Indeed, I should have mentioned earlier to the House that this measure has been carefully and laboriously examined at the other end of the passage, and comes down to us with the imprimatur of the House of Lords.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

No royalty in the air!


We are not only challenging, but even abolishing that. We preserve the right of the individual on the ground to some protection from objects which may descend from the superincumbent air. In its present form the Air Ministry consider that the balance is held reasonably between the interests of civil aviation on the one hand, and the rights and remedies of the ordinary civilian on the other. There is also a provision dealing with criminal jurisdiction, for crimes committed in the air, whether in your own country or by your own subjects over other countries, or over the sea between the countries. There is no provision at present for dealing with such occurrences. Such is a brief, and I hope a temporary survey of the main provisions of this important aerial Convention. I should like to say, that while I doubt very much whether there can be any just cause of controversy about the principle of this measure, there may reasonably be considerable ground for difference in regard to matters of detail. We do not propose to ask the House to dispose of this measure before the end of the year. There are lots of very intricate points connected with the liabilities of individuals and the principles of aerial navigation which would undoubtedly profit by the detailed consideration of a Committee of this House. I suggest that the House should approve the principle of the Convention by giving this measure a Second Reading, and the matter will then be free for remission to a Committee upstairs as soon as we meet again in the Autumn, when it can then be made the subject of detailed examination. I hope the House will accept these few words of introduction as sufficient for hon. Members to give a decision on the broad principle upon which the Bill is based.


As the Secretary of State for War has truly said it would be unadvisable to hurry the stages of this most important Bill, and I join with the right hon. Gentleman in hoping that the Committee stage of the investigation of the various Clauses of this measure will be undertaken with a due sense of responsibility, and the very important commencement we are now making in regard to the regulation of aerial navigation. Nobody can look back upon the history of the development of the railways of this country without realising how short-sighted Parliament and public authorities were as to the future of our railways. It is no exaggeration to say that many of the most acute of our inconveniences in regard to the termini and the junctions of our great railways are very largely due to lack of foresight on the part of Parliament and the various authorities concerned.

Therefore I think it is very wise to start by a Convention. Air navigation is an international affair as distinguished from our railway system. Some amusement was created by what the Secretary of State referred to as trespass. Technically everything that flies over any piece of ground without the permission of the owner has committed a trespass. Cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum, et ad inferos. That has been swept on one side by the practical necessities of the case. There are very many important matters that arise on it. It is not a question affecting large landowners alone. Men holding very small bits of land have rights which have to be considered in connection with nuisances that undoubtedly will arise. The public interest must prevail, while the rights and privileges of individual owners, small or great, are safeguarded. That will be in the public interest as a whole and I am sure if the Committee, rightly chosen, settles down to its work—not in too great a hurry— and consider it in a proper sense of perspective as to the future and what the plans of to-day may mean to the future—if it deals with it in a broad way with the expert knowledge which it can always have at its disposal it will produce a sound, sensible and fruitful piece of legislative work for this country.

Colonel GREIG

No doubt many hon. Members like myself have received communications in reference to this Bill. I am glad to have the assurance of the right hon. Gentleman in charge of it that in Committee it will be open to us to go into many details, especially on the Clause dealing with trespass and the possibility of damage. It is a most important and complicated Clause, and I hope it may be possible to meet the objections which some people entertain to it at the present moment. Another Clause which we shall have to consider is the one enabling local authorities to set up aerodromes with their accessories. There is a very important Sub-section in that Clause which gives a local authority providing an aerodrome power to carry on in connection therewith any subsidiary business ancillary to the carrying on of the aerodrome. We shall have to consider that in Committee and safeguard it, because such a power may throw an additional burden on the ratepayers. With regard to the Bill as a whole, even although we may have objection to it in detail, its principle is such that I hope the House will give it a Second Reading.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

It is not often I have the pleasure of welcoming any measure brought in by the Secretary of State for War, but I most heartily welcome this one. My only regret is that it was not brought in months ago. I sent a copy of this Bill to a very distinguished airman, and he replied as follows: Very many thanks. Anything you can do to hurry on this Bill "— I do not know what power he thought I had to hurry on Bills— will be appreciated by all the aerial world. It has been in abeyance for months, and this is the root of the slow progress of civil aviation. I speak with great diffidence on aerial matters, but I gather, especially from those who are engaged in civil aviation—in the manufacture of aeroplanes and in commercial aviation—that there have been complaints at the delay in bringing in this Bill. I dare say there is good reason for the delay, but the Committee which sat to deal with the whole question of civil aviation did so in the spring, and I must say that, if what I gather be true, the Air Ministry have been very remiss in regard to putting the findings of that Committee into effect. It is a great pity, and we may have lost ground which we shall find it difficult to regain. The only explanation I can suggest is that the right hon. Gentleman has been too much engaged in other matters which are not his real concern, and has not been able to pay attention to his legitimate duties in this matter.

I welcome this Bill for another reason, which is of some importance. The hold over aeroplanes in every country is very rigid. They have to be well registered, and so on, and if this form of legislation is going, as the right hon. Gentleman hopes, and as I hope, to be the model for the different nations of the world, the very fact that aeroplances have to come into a new set of regulations, whenever they cross a frontier, will do more to break down artificial frontiers than anything else. The very fact that there are these regulations—in most cases of necessity—and that, during a flight, say, from here to India, perhaps a dozen or fifteen countries will have to be crossed, will do more to bring about real, practical internationalism than anything else. Hon. Members who read this Bill will visualise similar Bills in a dozen different languages, and the unfortunate aviator taking long-distance flights, as he will shortly be able to do, will have to be acquainted with them all. That will lead to a great hope for the carrying into effect of the real, practical international idea.

Civil aviation in this country certainly needs all the assistance it can get. The right hon. Gentleman told us that it had to fly by itself, and so on, but it does need some help from the Government. I may be permitted to tell the House that one firm already is engaged in regular flights between London, Paris and Brussels; that in the first year it has carried 4,400 passengers and 68,000 lbs. weight of goods, and that it has flown 100,000 miles. That is on a purely commercial basis. It shows that something can be done, and that a start has been made. Apart from that, however, it is hanging fire. It is not attracting capital. I do not want to go into the various reasons for that, but whatever they are it does really need Government encouragement. I am sorry to see that aeroplanes which might have been utilised—some of those war machines which are best suited for commercial purposes, such as the Handley-Page bombers—are being sent to Danzig at the present time, instead of being used for commercial aviation in this country. I mention that as showing what the using of our limited aeroplanes in ventures means to the country.

I want to touch on one or two of the hampering conditions for civil aviation at present. There is an aerodrome near my constituency which has been used to a limited extent, and a few flights have taken place from the neighbourhood of Hull to Holland, purely on commercial lines, and they brought back cargoes of clothing and dyes and so on, articles of great intrinsic value for small weight. These aeroplanes have got to fly, first of all, from Hull to Lympne. There is an aerodrome there at the same place where the Conference is sitting to decide whether we are to plunge into a fresh twenty years' war or not. The official reason given by the Air Ministry is that they cannot limit the aeroplanes to fly over the North Sea. I put it to them that there is not very much more risk, after all, in flying across the North coast of England to Holland than from skirting the coast and flying across the Channel. If the men like to take the risk and insurance companies care to insure them, that is their business, and they do not want to be dry-nursed in that way. The remedy would be to appoint local customs officers at these different stations, and when the municipal aerodromes are established I think that will be found to be a necessity. There will have to be in each municipal aerodrome one or two local officials who could avoid that great delay and that great detour. I am talking now of a very practical commercial proposition which has been put in operation and has been much hampered by the present rather archaic Regulations. That brings me to the great danger of the possibility of too much red tape strangling the industry. It wants Government encourage- ment, and yet it does not want grandmotherly supervision or Government officials. I believe the right hon. Gentleman is not in favour of red tape, and I hope he will turn his energies from more dangerous courses into seeing that there is no hampering bureaucratic form of red tape and so on to check the development of air navigation.

I am one of the few who think the whole future of the country lies in the air, and I make no apology for spending a few moments on one or two points connected with it, though I feel myself ill-fitted to deal with so technical a question, but, nevertheless, I give my observations for what they are worth, and I hope they may be of value. One way of really encouraging civil aviation would be by the formation of a strong aerial reserve. If the mechanics at the municipal aerodromes and the pilots flying in commercial companies were enrolled as a matter of course, just as the officers and most of the seamen in our great shipping lines are as a matter of course members of the Royal Naval Reserve, that alone would do much to help on civil aviation. It would keep the men together, and it would be something in the way of a subsidy, and, furthermore, it would encourage young men to go into the Air Service. A year ago I might have said that I hoped we would be well on the way to general disarmament. I am afraid the actions of this Government have made that a dream for many years to come. They have let us in for an era of wars and strife. Hon. Members may treat the matter lightly, but I take it seriously. Perhaps I am pessimistic. But an efficient and flourishing aviation service in this country, and the development of civil aviation in every way, is of the very first importance, if for no other reason than the need of a great reserve of trained airmen and trained mechanics. For that reason I welcome this Bill.

I do not know whether I would be in order in saying one word about the rival claims of aeroplanes and lighter-than-air ships. I do not wish to pursue the matter in detail, but I do wish to say that I believe the people, especially in Germany, who are pinning their faith to the super-Zeppelin are entirely on the wrong tack. I was very sorry indeed to see the advertisement flight of one of the great dirigibles over London the other day. I have no interest one way or the other, but I do feel that the rigid lighter-than-air ship was simply a passing phase, while the aeroplane engine was an uncertain factor. Just as the sailing vessel has given way to the steam vessel, so I think the lighter-than-air Zeppelin with its many disadvantages, will give way to the aeroplane. I think the money we are spending on rigids to-day might be much better spent—without subsidies, of course—in encouraging and helping civil aviation.

11.0 P.M.

If any Member of the Government is going to reply, I would like to ask him one question. I see in Clause 4 that not only the Dominions, which the right hon. Gentleman said were treated as separate nations, are left out of this Bill, therefore confining its provisions to the Crown Colonies and Protectorates, but also any territories mandated to those Dominions. The question I should like to put is, Do the mandated territories not belonging to the Dominions, mandated to this country, come into the provisions of this Bill? It is just an interesting point. I do not know whether it raises any particular point of international law. Personally I think the whole fabric of mandates is dissolved, but I should like to know whether a mandated territory, especially that of Mesopotamia, is included, and, if so, whether we are entirely in order under the law of the Covenant of the League of Nations in including it. I can see the advantages, but I would like to know if the opinion of the Law Officers has been sought on the point, or whether this provision will be in any way submitted to the Secretariat of the League. I raise it in no spirit of hostility, although the whole system of mandate is a reproach and a stain. This Bill is of first-rate importance, and I am extremely disappointed that we have to wait until the autumn. I hope it will get a quick passage then, and that it will be improved.


I am in no way opposed to the Bill, but I hope that in Committee the ordinary householder will be more completely protected than at the present time against people who for amusement or otherwise come dangerously near their houses in flying to and fro. There is also the question of municipal trading. I hope certain limits will be imposed.


Those are matters for the Committee stage.