HC Deb 31 July 1934 vol 292 cc2566-76

4.30 p.m.


I cannot say that I feel extremely happy with regard to the subject which has just been under discussion, but it is not my intention to pursue it, beyond saying that I know the difficulty which anybody must have who takes on a great organisation like the Admiralty, and I have felt the same thing in connection with a younger organisation such as the Air Ministry. I rise this afternoon; with sincere apologies to my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air, for having kept him until this late hour, to deal with the question of civil aviation. We had a Debate only yesterday upon the broader issue of air armament which took the trend usual in these Debates and became a general discussion on disarmament rather than a discussion on the actions and the programme of the Government with regard to the new squadrons. I think it will be agreed that we are falling into a, very sad habit, in that when we discuss air matters the Minister who is primarily responsible for the Department in this House is never allowed to speak. I think that we have had three Debates of this kind without any opinion having been given on technical matters by the responsible Minister. I am sure that he will not blame me for raising this question which gives him an opportunity of speaking to us from that Box, because he seldom does so and I am sure that he is very welcome to the House when he does intervene in these discussions.

The Lord President of the Council yesterday gave us very definite views as to the future policy of the Government in reference to the increased number of squadrons. The right hon. Gentleman sang the Londonderry Air with a faithfulness which was surprising. The right hon. Gentleman on air matters has always shown certain philosophic doubts which to me have been singularly attractive, because this question of the air is much more complicated and difficult in all its branches than questions affecting the two older Services. It may be said about aviation in general that it is a hot-house growth due to the tremendous activity which was concentrated upon it during the War. Let us imagine what would have been the result had the motor car only been invented during the War and had been tied to the War Office. To-day we would have been going about in tanks and not 'ordinary motor cars. That is the case with aviation. The whole trend of design and development has been tied up with military requirements in a way which has not been for the good of aviation. It is much too late to-day to go into the recommendations in the Gorell Report, but I hope we shall have an opportunity on a future occasion of dealing with that. I wish to thank the Minister and the Under-Secretary however, for having adopted so generously and so quickly many of the recommendations in that report.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend for some guidance as to what is the true policy of the Government in regard to the air. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought in the world on this question. One school of thought maintains that aviation is nothing but a new form of armament and that everything must be subservient to that idea. The other holds that aviation ought to be a blessing to mankind and that the fact that it has military uses is very unfortunate. Frankly, I cannot help saying that I belong to the latter, though I know I am in a minority. The difficulty is that one seems quite unable to take both sides in this matter. One wants to know what is the policy of His Majesty's Government one way or the other.

One of the curses of the whole movement has been the question of subsidies. After the War it was thought that if national Governments could only subsidise aviation, there would be born and there would arise a new form of transport, knitting the world together from an international point of view, for the good of mankind. But the very reverse of what man thought was going to take place has taken place. The people who give the subsidies see well that the machines that are produced because of the subsidies are machines which will be used, should they want them, for war purposes, and in Germany this state of affairs has become simply farcical, for this reason: Germany has not any military machines at all, and yet she has used the power of subsidy to such an extent that the network of civil aviation throughout Germany is nothing short of astounding, though there is not one service that would exist to-day if it had to earn money and exist on its own earnings. It is entirely built up and kept up, as civil aviation, as a potential menace in war. We had our Debate yesterday on our new squadrons. What was the underlying fear which animated us in order to get our increased squadrons? It was not the fear of France. It was named definitely by Members here that it was Germany, and yet, as I say, Germany has not one military machine. Could anything be more ludicrous than that, that a nation without a military air force at all can threaten the world to such an extent that we have to increase our expenditure upon our air armaments?

The right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council has, I know, in his heart very many misgivings as to the future of this dangerous weapon, and his speeches on the subject are looked upon almost as the Bible up and down the country. I hope he will, through the mouth of the Under-Secretary of State, tell us what is at the back of the Government's mind as to what can be done internationally to see that this race does not go on again. We all agreed yesterday to an increase, but we may go on from increase to increase without really; getting any solution of the matter, and I would ask him to consider this proposition that internationally we should agree that subsidies should not be granted, because subsidies do produce a machine which is essentially not a civil machine. If there were no subsidies throughout the world, it is true that there would not be so many air services, but the services which would be running would be services which would pay.

It is quite true that in the recent Gorell Committee I put in a Minority Report in which I pleaded for the divorcement of civil aviation from the Air Ministry altogether. But I will say this about our own Air Ministry, that they have been far and away the most honest of all the Ministries concerned with air up and down Europe. If you look at what they have done, the line running between London and Paris is the only one in Europe that could exist to-day without a subsidy. It flies by itself; it actually earns money, and I want the House to observe that when you get a line of civil aircraft paying as that one does, how different it is from any war machines. No one can pretend, I believe, that the London-Paris great air liners would be of any use in war. They would be of very little use in any event. There you see the divergence straight away from the wedding of these two separate and distinct things, the military and civil machines. I would ask my right hon. Friend to tell us broadly what really is in the mind of the Government.

Is the Air Force to rely upon its own right arm for the defence of this country, or is it going to look upon civil aviation as a sort of ally to be brought into use in case of need I It seems to me that we are at the parting of the ways. Either we encourage civil aviation to thrive by itself in every way we can, or we take the other method and wed civil aviation to the military side. Frankly, I think that would be a deplorable policy, because it would never allow civil aviation to develop in the way it should and which is so urgently required.

4.41 p.m.


I am afraid that I cannot follow my hon. Friend's argu- ments. On the one hand he says, that the subsidy is providing a type of machine in use for civil aviation which may be useful in war, and, on the other hand, he tells us that various types of machine will be no use at all in war. Yesterday we had complaints that our machines are definitely inferior to those of the Germans in speed and performance and would be quite useless for military purposes, whereas the subsidised German machines are not only efficient for civil flying but could be made available for war purposes.


The English subsidy is less than anybody else's.


But I understood my hon. Friend to say that we should divorce civil aviation from any Government subsidy, and that at the same time we should see that it becomes an economic unit, and by"we" he, of course, must imply the Government and this House. Surely the two things are incompatible. If civil aviation is not an economic unit, we should have to subsidise it. Civil aeroplanes can be turned to military uses, but that applies equally to horses and motorcars. I am quite prepared to accept my hon. Friend's view that flying is a boon and blessing to men but it is equally true that it can also be turned to military uses and the military side of the Government, including the military side of the Air Ministry, must pay some attention to it. The War Office gave a form of subsidy to light-horse breeding for many years to make sure that there was the type of horse required for cavalry and artillery purposes if necessary. Again, the Government gave a subsidy to commercial six-wheeler motor-cars because it was seen that the six-wheeler was absolutely essential to military transport. Therefore I suggest that the Government are well within their rights in giving a subsidy to civil aviation as long as it requires one, so that we may assure ourselves of a sufficent number of trained pilots, a sufficient reserve of machines and, what is still more important, the plant with which to make machines should they be called upon for the defence of this country. Now comes the question of what form the subsidy should take, and there I share my hon. Friend's view that if the subsidy is accompanied by too much restrictive legislation and red-tape, it may have the effect of retarding instead of improving the progress of aviation. There have, indeed, been many complaints from aircraft manufacturers on this score. But the private owner, I think, is more concerned with the conditions relating to the issue of the certificate of airworthiness, and these have been considerably relieved from red-tape since the Air Ministry handed over the inspection of aircraft due for C. of A. renewal to Lloyds and the British Corporation.

There are two questions I would like to ask the Under-Secretary. One of the most efficient forms of subsidy that the Government can grant and the greatest fillip they can give to aviation, would be to see that there is an aerodrome conveniently accessible to the heart of London. I have raised this question before, and I raise it again in the hope that some steps have been taken in the interval. There are, of course, two ways of doing it. One is to select a site in London. In flying over London one sees Wormwood Scrubs, which appears to be an ideal site. I do not know far what it is used, or to whom it belongs. Probably it is operated by the Forestry Commissioners or the Department of Woods and Forests, or the Ministry of Agriculture, or by them all jointly. If that is not possible, there is another alternative, namely, that Hendon should be vacated by the Royal Air Force. The protection of London should not be in London itself, but should be operated from a ring of aerodromes further a field. To have an aerodrome in London is only to give a target to enemy bombs. It might be possible for the Royal Air Force at Hendon to be moved to Kent or the coast of Suffolk, so that Hendon could be used as an airport for London. The third alternative is that if no such area nearer to London is possible, the London Transport Board and the railways should be approached in order to provide a railway giving a 10-minute service to any one or two of the existing aerodromes outside London. It is important that the railway or tube should run actually at the aerodrome. That is most important of all, because a passenger or pilot and he can fly 30 or 40 miles in the time that he has to wait for the conveyance to turn up.

Members of the Air Committee of this House went the other day in an air liner to Bristol, and they were impressed by what they saw. One thing that impressed them deeply was the advance that has been made in producing a really efficient crude-oil engine, which is called the Bristol Phoenix. I should like to ask the Under-Secretary what experiments have been made by the Air Ministry in this particular development, because it appears to be an important one. They told me that one of these engines fitted to an aeroplane had already reached the height record for crude oil engines, and that while the tankage of this machine when filled with petrol gave only a four hours' cruising range, it gave a cruising range of 10 hours when filled with crude oil at a vastly reduced cost. There seems to be a future for these machines, and they should be fitted with the utmost expedition to some of the long-range flying boats in the East Indies and elsewhere. I should be glad to hear if tests have been made, and if any progress has been achieved in this direction. In America, progress has been stopped because of the oil interests, but in this country we are free from that sort of thing, and I should be glad to know whether there is any defect in these engines that prevents their being adopted or, if not, whether progress has been made with their development.

Captain GUEST

We shall not have an opportunity of asking a question for three months, and I want to ask whether, in relation to the expansion programme which has been announced, there will be a Supplementary Estimate?

4.49 p.m.

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

I think that the Session could not end better and the holiday could not begin in a better atmosphere than that the last two days should be devoted to a certain extent to air Debates. It was a great pleasure to me that, as my hon. And gallant Friend the Member for Wallasey (Lieut.-Colonel Moore-Brabazon) was not able to get in in yesterday's Debate, he was able to speak to us for a short time this afternoon. I know he would have liked a longer time in which to develop his views on what he described as the tying-up of civil aviation with military aviation. He said there were two schools of thought on this matter, one consisting of those who look upon flying as a boon and others who look upon it as a calamity, and be wished to know the view of the Air Ministry on the subject.

The object of the Air Ministry is to develop flying for either military or civil purposes so long as they are needed. We hope, as everybody must hope, that the day will perhaps come when military aviation will not be needed, but when that will be is not for the Air Ministry to decide. It is a question for human nature all over the world to settle. Meanwhile, I say with the greatest confidence that this country, more than any other country in the world, has done everything it possibly can to divorce civil aviation from any military atmosphere. Our whole view, our whole policy, and our whole aim has been to develop civil aviation for purely specific and commercial purposes, and I think that when we look round and see the enormous sums spent in other countries we may be well pleased to see the already very successful results we have had in this country for comparatively small sums of money.

My hon. And gallant Friend the Member for Wallasey gave us to believe that the way to make commercial aviation really fly by itself would be not to give a subsidy at all. If that were so, His Majesty's Government would be the first to fall in with his views, but I am afraid that is not the case. I fear that for a certain number of years a moderate subsidy, such as is all that this Government allows, will be necessary. I think I cannot do better than quote the words in the Memorandum to the White Paper published with the report of the Committee on Private Flying: British air transport policy, unlike that of almost every other nation, has, in fact, been directed throughout first and foremost to commercial development for pacific and Imperial purposes. Therefore, although we naturally look upon civil aviation as an object of the greatest importance, and one which needs the greatest possible assistance, we do riot in any way look upon it as an ally from the point of view of military purposes. My Noble Friend the Member for Central Bristol (Lord Ansley) raised a point which he has brought up on other occasions and which is obviously of the greatest importance, and that is the location of London aerodromes from the point of view of their accessibility. He knows as well as I do the difficulties of the situation. Wormwood Scrubs, which he suggested, is already accessible as a forced landing place, and whether it could be entirely devoted to a great central aviation As far as crude oil engines are concerned, we are, and have been for several years now, experimenting to the best of our ability with this particular form of engine. Other countries have done the same thing, and although perhaps the Noble Lord would say that more use has been made of it in Germany than in this country, I can tell him that in other countries where experiments have been going on the experiments have not progressed so satisfactorily as ours. Considering the difficulty and complexity of this new form of fuel, the progress that we have made has not been unsatisfactory, and we shall continue our efforts.


Are any air service machines in commission using oil fuel?


Not in this country. I believe there are in Germany. They have, on certain occasions, used crude oil, with moderately successful results. I do not know of any others. In reply to my right hon. And gallant Friend the Member for the Drake Division of Plymouth (Captain Guest) I can assure him that we are fully alive to the developments in other countries. I cannot give a pledge because that is not possible at the moment.

4.56 p.m.


It was in pursuance of a reply to a question which I addressed to the Lord President of the Council, and upon his suggestion, that some of my hon. Friends hoped to-day to raise matters in connection with the memorandum of the Secretary of State for Air on the Report of the Gorell Committee on Civil Aviation. May we express the hope, in view of the fact that we have not been fortunate to-day in raising the matter and in view of its enormous importance to the country and to those interested in civil aviation, that we may be given an early opportunity to discuss this question on the reassembly of the House?

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three Minutes before Five o'Clock until Tuesday, 30th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this Day.