HC Deb 17 June 1936 vol 313 cc1093-7

The provisions of section thirty-eight of the Finance Act, 1924, shall apply to the case of any person in the said section referred to dying as the result of a flying accident occurring to such person while flying on duty in peace-time in the same manner as if such accident had occurred on active service against an enemy.—[Mr. Spent.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

8.9 p.m.


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

This is a Clause to extend certain provisions with regard to Death Duties which now apply to fatal accidents in war time to members of the flying corps in the case of fatal accidents in peace time. During the last few months a very intensive training has been started in the Air Force, and officers and men are at the present moment engaged in flying far longer hours and doing exercises which are just as strenuous and as full of risks as any which they perform in war time. Officers and men in the flying corps attached to the Mediterranean Fleet have, in fact, been flying far longer hours and under very difficult circumstances; circumstances which are practically identical to those of war time and active service. As it is they are technically serving in peace time. Under legislation which started at the time of the Boer War and went up to and included 1924, if any member of the Service is killed by accident while on active service the first £5,000 of any property he has which passes to his widow, his children, his father or his mother, bears no Estate Duty, and if the property is larger than that it still bears a modified rate compared with a person's normal estate.

I will not go into the number of persons who have unfortunately been killed in the Air Force during the last few months, but it is all too well known that there have been a number of fatal accidents during the last year. It may be that to some extent these fatal acidents are due to the strain which is being put on officers and men in the Air Force owing to the intensive training which is now going on, and to the strain which has been put upon them in the Mediterranean area in connection with the operations they have had to carry out there. It seems somewhat illogical that if a married officer or man meets with a fatal accident when flying after there has been a formal declaration of war, or if he is engaged in warlike operations such as dealing with a village on the Indian Frontier or with Arabs in Irak, his widow and the children and family get the benefit of the remission, but if the fatal accident occurs while he is flying in peace time, then no such remission is given. It is quite true that under existing legislation there is a discretion that even in peace time the Treasury may give this remission, if the actual operations on which the person was engaged involve the same risks as those on active service, but, of course, it is difficult to say at any one time that the operations taking place in peace time do involve the same risks as operations on active service.

The new Clause really means that it is a decision of this House that under present circumstances the flying operations on which the Royal Air Force is engaged should be regarded as involving them in risks similar to those on active service. It may be said that it is somewhat invidious to pick out officers and men of the Air Force flying in peace time and not engaged in some other naval or military operations, but my submission is that generally speaking the training which is being done now in the Air Force more nearly approximates to the conditions which obtain in war time than the training of any other branch of the Services. Having regard to what has actually been going on in the Mediterranean and throughout the country at the present moment in the matter of intensive training, I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be able to remove from the mind of some of these married officers and men such anxiety as exists, and that when they go up they will know that if anything happens their families will get the small relief which they would get if an accident happened in war time.

It is impossible to estimate what the remission would cost the Treasury. It must depend on the number of fatal accidents, but the number of married officers and men involved who leave large estates if they happen to meet with a fatal accident at a comparatively young age is not very large. In these circumstances I do not think it would cost the Treasury a very great deal, and it would be some small appreciation by the Committee of the work which these officers and men are doing for the country.

8.13 p.m.

Wing-Commander JAMES

I feel certain that the new Clause will receive sympathetic support in all parts of the Committee. It will not be regarded as contentious except perhaps by the Treasury. So far as the possible cost is concerned, I am not an accountant, but I imagine that the anticipated yield from Death Duties is based on an actuarial calculation of the lives of old people, and, therefore, anything which may accrue to the Treasury from Estate Duty, so far as these officers and men are concerned, would be a purely fortuitous gain, and not a gain which perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer would wish to receive. The purpose of the new Clause is to remove an anomaly. A very great deal of peace-time flying is really as dangerous as, no more and no less than, a great deal of war-time flying. The hon. and learned Member has referred to the North-West Frontier of India. Anybody who has had to fly over the North-West Frontier knows that the terrain is such that flying is extremely dangerous. A very great deal of flying both for training and police work has to be carried out on the North-West Frontier, and I think it is most unfortunate that a Service which we all want to encourage should be placed under this definite disability.

There comes to my mind the question of the Territorial Air Force. I think we should do everything possible to encourage young men who have the necessary leisure to join the Territorial Air Force, but the threat to their families of the present scale of Death Duties is a real deterrent to some young men who would otherwise come forward. The casualties in the peace-time training of the Air Force are not negligible. I looked up the figures a few days ago, and I found that there have been something like 43 deaths from ordinary flying this year. Probably very few of the men left estates that benefited the Treasury, but such a case might arise and I think the anomaly ought to be removed. I sincerely appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to hon. Members opposite to support this new Clause, which would cost very little and would be common justice.

8.17 p.m.


I think my hon. and gallant Friend who has just spoken has put the case entirely from the point of view of the Service with which he has been connected. I know that the proposed Clause arises out of two particular instances which have already been brought to the attention of the House. Probably some hon. Members will remember that questions have been put to me as to whether the Treasury would not extend the provisions of Section 38 of the Finance Act, 1924, in order to give relief from Death Duties on the estates concerned in those particular cases. My hon. and gallant Friend said that no one would wish to receive money from deaths which had occurred in such circumstances. That is true, but is it really an argument for the new Clause? Does anyone wish to receive money on account of the death of anybody who dies in an accident in any circumstances? My hon. and gallant Friend then said that this is a trifling matter and that the number of such cases would be very small. He was, of course, basing himself on the assumption that the cases would be confined to members of the Air Force, but I think the Committee will see that there are many reasons why it would be quite impossible to make any distinction between the risks which are run by airmen and those which are run, for instance, by men going in submarines. We all have in our minds memories of submarines having been lost, with the death of all the officers and crew. Will anybody say that the peacetime risks in such a case are not just as great as in the Air Force?

One could multiply instances of this nature. Fatal accidents have occurred during military manoeuvres in the use of tanks and even in the use of blank cartridges. I have in mind other cases. I heard a little while ago of a man in charge of a factory making explosives for the Services. He was running risks every day of his life, and as a matter of fact there was a serious accident in that establishment which resulted in loss of life, although fortunately not his own. Once you gave up the test of hostile action or conditions analogous to it which has been maintained by the Treasury ever since the Section was first drafted in 1924, you would be led on from one case to another, and in the end there would be a serious drain on the Exchequer. For those reasons I am afraid I cannot accept this proposed new Clause.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.