HC Deb 22 February 1934 vol 286 cc603-8

Order for Second Reading read.

8.51 p.m.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for AIR (Sir Philip Sassoon)

The primary object of this Bill is to enable airman pilots of the Air Force Reserve to be given the same course of training as that which is given to officer pilots of Reserve at the present time. At present an airman in the Reserve cannot be given more than the statutory period of 12 days' training, but it has been found that this is not really sufficient to enable those of them who are pilots to master the full course. This proposal arises out of the more comprehensive Reserve training scheme mentioned to the House last year when I introduced the Estimates. That scheme has proved most economical and efficient. It has saved money, improved training, and increased flying time, but, as the House will realise, the full benefit of it cannot really be taken in 12 days. The Bill therefore provides power to make Orders-in-Council increasing the maximum period of training to 24 days. That does not mean that the whole 24 days will always have to be taken, and I do not think in most cases it will mean more than 16 days, but it is desirable, as the House will readily appreciate, to allow some small margin for weather conditions and also for the contingencies of individual cases.

In the Memorandum to the Bill it will be seen that the additional cost is very small. Based on the present number of the airman pilot Reserve it is only £120 per annum. The Bill also gives power to make certain other changes in organisation and in the training for the Reserve, both in the interests of economy and efficiency. First, there is provision for airman observers, who will also require this maximum of 24 days' training, and, secondly, provision is made for training reservists ab initio as pilots and as observers. Obviously, they will require a rather longer training in the first year. A maximum up to six months is allowed in this Bill for the first year. In practice, so long a period, as those hon. Members who are familiar with flying will realise, will not always be required. I may add that the position of men already in the Reserve is expressly safeguarded, and this period of training in their cases will be purely voluntary. I hope the House will give a favourable reception to the Bill, which is put forward entirely in the interests of efficiency and, I beieve, in the long run, of economy.


What is meant by that £120 per annum?


It covers the extended period of training.


For each person?


No, for the whole thing.


This Bill seems to us to be the natural corollary to the policy already adopted by the Government and to be in the interest of efficiency; and we do not offer any opposition.

8.56 p.m.


This Bill seems to be concerned with the removal of a disqualification as between officers and non-commissioned officers, and it appears to me to be a Measure that ought to be supported. Its object is to make for more efficiency in the Air Force, and as long as the world is committed to the absurd maintenance of a system of national forces going for each other from time to time, it is obviously necessary that our forces must be as efficient as possible, and, in fact, more efficient than any other force. For that reason, I gladly support the Measure. None the less, I hope that the Government will pursue their other policy in connection with disarmament, and that as time goes on it will be less and less necessary to pass Measures of this kind. I understand the position to be that formerly the training period was 15 flying hours to be carried out in the year for officers and men on reserve and only 12 days was allowed for the men and 24 days for the officers. Now the flying time has been raised to 20 hours for both and the time extended to 24 days for both officers and men.

I should like to know how that disqualification came about. Is it suggested that an officer becomes qualified much more slowly than an airman? My right hon. Friend might give us some explanation why it ever occurred. I understand that the extended course is required because they have to learn, in addition to ordinary flying, navigation, photography and bombing. If the airmen could take their holidays and get away for the training in the summer, it is possible that 12 days would be enough, but in practice it is found that they cannot get away for the summer and are only available in the foggy bad weather of the winter, and that that is the reason why it is necessary to have this extended period. It seems to me that the Bill makes for equality and efficiency, and therefore should be supported. It will help the training of men to a high state of efficiency, and if later on these airmen or officers are able to volunteer for and play an effective part in an international air police force, so much the better.

8.58 p.m.


Although those hon. Members who are interested in air matters are only too delighted to see that the Air Ministry is devoting itself to these minor routine problems in air training, I am sure my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that this particular Measure does not leave one in a state of intoxicated elation when one realises that the great peace—talking democracy—or shall I say autocracy—the United States of America is just adding 120 squadrons to its air force while we have to be satisfied with £120. If we smile upon my right hon. Friend's petition this evening, I hope he will bear in mind the considerably agitated state of mind in which the country and this House is at the moment on account of the grave deficiency in our aerial defences. We all, I am sure, sincerely trust that when the right hon. Gentleman comes to us in a few weeks time with the Air Estimates, he will show that this state of affairs is very quickly to be remedied.

8.59 p.m.


I want to ask a question as regards pay and allowances. I presume that pay and allowances under the extended period will remain the same as under the short period. I presume also that the pension rights for dependants in the case of any unfortunate accident will remain for the extended period as for the short period. There is just one complaint that I have to make. The Financial Memorandum to the Bill says: As no decision has been reached in regard to the training arrangements for these classes, it is not possible to give an estimate of the expenditure that might be involved. I know the expenditure will be very small, but hon. Members will agree with me that it is a very bad principle for any Government Department to bring forward a Bill and to ask the House to sign a blank cheque, even though it may be a very small one. The fact that it is small is no particular excuse for the crime itself. I do not feel that any Government Department has a right to bring forward a Measure and say that it is not possible to state the cost because no arrangements have been made. Why should not the Department make adequate arrangements before the Measure is brought forward? The House of Commons is the custodian of public expenditure, and it is not right that any one Department should bring forward a Measure asking for a blank cheque from us and expect, because it will be for a comparatively small sum, that we shall grant it. In future the sums may get greater and greater, until eventually the public will turn round and tell the House of Commons that it is not guarding the public expenditure to a sufficient degree. I ask my right hon. Friend to tell us why this Bill should have been brought forward without the arrangements having been made and the expenditure settled, and also approximately what expenditure will be entailed when the arrangements, which should have been made already, are brought about.

9.2 p.m.


The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Thanet (Captain Balfour), who always takes such a lively interest in any matter concerning the Air Force, says that it is a mistake to ask the House for a blank cheque even if it is a small one. I suggest it is better to ask for a blank cheque which is a small one than for a filled-in cheque which is a big one. We have not been able to state the figure, because we do not know how many men will be training or how much it will cost. The Order-in-Council will be placed before the House, and it will have an opportunity of seeing what the expenditure will be. The reason we are asking for Orders-in-Council in this Bill is that we do not want to bother the House two or three times over on this particular matter. It is entirely out of consideration for the hon. and gallant Gentleman and other Members that we do this, knowing full well that when we know what we want it will be a small sum, and that the House will have an ample opportunity of considering the question again.


Will the right hon. Gentleman reply as to the reasons for the different periods of training for the officers and men?


It was because in 1918 we took over the Reserve Forces Act of 1882 applying to Army reservists and applied it to our own reservists. In the old days, there were not the questions in regard to training, which now arise for us in a new form.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House for Monday next.—[Sir G. Bowyer.]