HC Deb 07 March 1929 vol 226 cc709-15

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a number of Air Forces, not exceeding 32,000, all ranks, be maintained for the Service of the United Kingdom at home and abroad, exclusive of those serving in India (other than Aden), during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1930.

Commander BELLAIRS

Early in the afternoon my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chatham (Lieut.-Colonel Moore-Brabazon) made a very incisive speech which aroused the interest of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and will, I have no doubt, be of interest to the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip to-morrow when they read it. He came down from great personages to myself and said that I was in favour of doing away with the Air Force. That is rather a crude way of putting it. I am in favour, like he is, of the co-ordination of our Fighting Forces to prevent overlapping. I happen to think that the best method of doing it is by merging the Air Force into the Army and the Navy and handing over civil aviation to the Board of Trade just as the Mercantile Marine is controlled by the Board of Trade. I think that in so delicate a force as the Air Force, which can only operate in fine weather and by day with certainty, with about 250 miles of bombing range, it is a very difficult matter indeed to adjust things so that we can save expenditure, as I believe we can, by substituting the Air Force for coast defence and the Air Force on occasions to get rid of the use of cruisers. It can only be done by merging them into those forces. I can give two instances of the unfortunate effect of the present arrangement. One is the bombing accident which took place in India. That accident was clearly due to want of co-ordination between the Army and the Air Force. There is also the question of the staff college. That college was built after the War was over, and it ought to have been built at Camberley, but the Air Force removed it as far as possible from the soldiers. The hon. and gallant Member for Hertford (Rear-Admiral Sueter) challenged me once again on the question of bombing squadrons.


I have allowed the hon. and gallant Member to go a little too far already. He must not attempt to answer in Committee speeches which were made in the House.

Commander BELLAIRS

I recognise that that is so. I will not reply to the hon. and gallant Member now, but will wait until the Navy Estimates. He is much more successful than I am in rambling in debate. He is the crimson rambler of debate. I will speak generally. The hon. Members who represent the Air Force have no conception of relative costs. The Master of Sempill said, the other day, that we could get 500 bombing planes for the cost of one battleship. A bombing squadron is the unit of the Air Force. The Air Force has no other fighting unit. For an expenditure of £19,000,000 gross, the Air Force is going to get 82 squadrons. If we divide 82 squadrons into £19,000,000, we get a cost for each squadron of £230,000. I heard to-day that the cost of a battleship is £500,000 a year, whereas the cost of a bombing squadron is £230,000 a year. What rubbish it is to say that we can get 500 bombing planes for the cost of one battleship.

For every two squadrons in existence, we can only get one squadron into the air at a time. We cannot put the whole Air Force into the air at the same time, and it is a very liberal allowance to say that one bombing squadron out of two can be put into the air at once. Sir Hugh Trenchard has estimated that the wastage of aeroplanes in war will not amount to the 30 per cent. per annum wastage in peace time, but to 80 per cent. in the first month of the war. The aeroplanes will waste away at the rate of 80 per cent. per month. We can, therefore, well understand what tremendous wastage there is in aeroplanes in time of war. The Under-Secretary of State for Air gave some very remarkable figures about the United States. The actual expenditure of the United States for the financial year 1928–29 was £12,929,000 for the Army and the Navy combined. That compares with our £19,000,000, when we have deducted the cost of civil aviation. We now know, for the firs; time, the official figures of the French expenditure. The French expenditure, after deducting civil aviation, is a little more than £13,000,000. Here we have the remarkable fact that for a little more than £13,000,000 the French get something like twice or three time? as much strength as we do. I would like to know what the Secretary of State for Air has to say on that point.

One hon. Member suggested that the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs should take part in this Debate. Had the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs taken part in this Debate and introduced these Estimates, I can imagine him saying that he had negotiated the Locarno Pact, and had got rid of two possible enemies, France and Germany, the only two countries that are within bombing distance of this country and that therefore, we had no risks from either of those two countries. Then he would have told us that the Cabinet bad given directions to the fighting Departments that for ten years they were not to anticipate any outbreak of war. They had a period of assured peace from 1926. I draw attention to that because there is no relation between civil expenditure and war expenditure, as far as I can see. Nearly all of it, under a war Ministry goes to war expenditure, and not to civil flying. That would not happen if we took away civil flying from the Air Ministry. I do not think that this is a matter for the Committee of Defence.

We ought now, after eleven years of the Air Ministry, to have a general stocktaking inquiry. We have had inquiries into the Admiralty in the past and inquiries into the War Office; but we have had no inquiry of a public character into this question of the Air Ministry. There have been private inquiries, but no inquiry of a public character. We want to look into this question of subsidies which has been raised by more than one speaker to-day. Subsidies are now paid to Imperial Airways at the rate of £18,750 per aeroplane. After 11 years we have only 20 commercial aeroplanes, a number which will be increased to 24 when we have established the new routes. When one remembers the forecasts of 11 years ago about freight-carrying aeroplanes, the results are simply ludicrous. The Air Ministry obscures them by giving us figures in ton-miles. We are told that the aeroplanes carry as many as 147,000 ton-miles in a year. That represents a mere wagon load carried a certain mileage. Compare this with the railways, which carry 18,332,000,000 ton-miles in this country in a year. And when you come to sea carriage you have 40 times as much carried by sea as you have by the railways. The passenger subsidy amounts to about £14 per passenger, whereas the railways carry people to Paris for nothing. Now we stipulate, in this new contract that the Air Minister has made, for 425,000,000 horse-power miles on European routes. I ask the Air Minister: What on earth is the good of a stipulation of that character? Where is the gain? In the year 1926, the Imperial Airways went 549,000,000 horse-power miles. Why then, have we come down to a minimum of 425,000,000 horse-power miles? To my mind, the only remedy is to hand over civil flying to the Board of Trade, and subsidise only for services rendered. That is the method we have invariably adopted in the past, except when we got panicky about American ships, and gave subsidies for the "Lusitania" and the "Mauretania."

We have the enormous advantage of an Empire land service as well and ought to be supreme in civil aviation. We have the best inventors, the best mechanics, and our people have such a natural genius for aviation that it is quite true that we possess the safest civil aviation in the world. The insurance rates on British planes prove that, they are insured at a much less rate than foreign planes; and they carry more passengers because they are regarded by the passengers as being safer. Our planes each carry 6.64 passengers, while foreign planes carry 3.68. Had we applied the same policy to the railways the War Office would have controlled them. The great Duke of Wellington opposed the construction of the Portsmouth to London railway on the ground that it would facilitate invasion. If the Mercantile Marine had been put under the control of the Admiralty do hon. Members think we should have succeeded in rearing up the great Mercantile Marine we now have? Of course we should not; and we shall not have the chance of rearing civil aviation as long as it is associated with a military department. I want to read to the Committee what the Coolidge-Morrow Committee said in regard to this matter. It was a very influential Committee and heard a great deal of evidence. They reported: To put civil aviation under a military department is to make the same mistake the world believed Germany to have made. That is to say, that she subordinated civil interests to military policy. They further said: The union of civil and military air activities would breed distrust in every region to which commercial aviation sought extensions. That is clear proof, I think, of one of the great dangers of associating civil aviation with a war Ministry. As it is getting late I do not propose to detain the Committee any further. The Minister for Air will not be able to deal with gas bombs on London and all the rubbish that is talked nowadays of wiping out London, but let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman. You judge a tree by its fruits, and by its failure to give us a sufficient force for the money, and its failure in civil aviation, the Air Ministry stands condemned as an extravagant Department.


My hon. and gallant Friend has never disguised his dislike of the Air Ministry and all its works. I have known him make the same speech three or four times before—

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

And we have heard you make the same speech three or four times before.

11.0 p.m.


At this late hour all I will say to him is this, that it is a significant fact that in the last few months France, a country which had no independent Air Ministry and was at one time stronger than any other country in the world, has recently adopted an organisation almost exactly like our own. That makes me think that we are not quite so bad as my hon. and gallant Friend thinks we are. When it comes to a comparison of the expenditure of this country and that of other countries, while it is very difficult to get comparable figures I do not think that any impartial investigator would arrive at the kind of conclusion at which my hon. and gallant Friend has arrived. He says that the Air Force costs more here than in other countries, but if he applied that kind of comparison to the Army or the Navy he would find the difference very much what it is between our Air Force and Continental Air Forces.

As to his further comments about dividing the Air Ministry into three parts, I must speak with care, because beside me are the President of the Board of Trade and the Parliamentary Secretary, and it is to these colleagues that he would transfer civil aviation. I can only say that in the early days of flying it is much better to have all these branches of aviation—military, naval and civil—concentrated in one department. I believe that it is more economical, and I am certain that it is more efficient. I believe that, however many justifiable criticisms hon. Members may find against my administration of the Air Ministry, we have laid our foundations firmly, and proof of that is the fact that other Governments have built upon them.