HC Deb 14 March 1940 vol 358 cc1502-6

Third Resolution read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Montague (Islington, West)

I do not want to launch a long discussion, but I wish to draw the attention of the Under-Secretary to one matter. I have already raised it in a Parliamentary Question, and the reply I received was that it was being examined, and was found to be a difficult one. I should be grateful if he could now tell me what stage has been reached in the examination. The subject of civil aviation was raised the other day, and many hon. Members regretted that the war was interfering with its development. I share that regret, and regret further that the action of the Government appears to be handicapping severely the prospects of restoring civil aviation at the end of the war to the position it occupied before the war. I refer particularly to civil aviation inside this country. I am not sure of the number of civil aviation firms that run lines in this country, excluding those run by the railway companies, but I think it is between seven and ten. They have given excellent service to civil aviation inside the country. Our position, on this side of the House, is that aviation should be a national concern, but that position is not accepted.

Those companies are at present not allowed to continue, owing to the military situation. One can quite understand that, but the Government have taken over the machines of those organisations, which were run by well-equipped and experienced people, who desire to remain in some sort of practical existence ready for the end of the war, when they can resume operations. They are told, however, that they cannot obtain satisfaction in that respect, and they are practically disbanded. Their aeroplanes are taken over and they are given to understand that, when the war is over, they can go back to the old conditions and restart those civil aviation companies. That, of course, is quite out of the question, unless a skeleton organisation is allowed to remain and to employ the valuable services of those people.

As it happens, the railway companies are exempt from these conditions. They are allowed to continue, because their services go across water, they are told. The fear of those firms is that, at the end of the war, they will have no aeroplanes and that there will be no particular reason why they should be given an advantage by the Government against other kinds of competition. The railway companies have carried on all the time, their machines not impressed at all, but constantly in use for civil aviation purposes. They will have a virtual monopoly of internal civil aviation. We—or at least, I, for I am speaking on this point for myself—think that is a rather unfortunate possibility. If we can get an assurance from the Under-Secretary of State on this point, it will be very useful indeed.

10.29 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Captain Harold Balfour)

In a very few moments I hope I shall be able to answer the point put by the hon. Gentleman. We have had to consider in what way, in order to win the war, we could best use the equipment of civil aviation, either by taking it over or by using it for Royal Air Force purposes. We have had to apply that principle to internal lines and equipment, and we have decided that we are justified in allowing sufficient equipment to be retained in civil aviation to keep certain internal lines operating which are of national importance. We consider the definition of "national importance" to be, broadly, where a line goes over water and there is no alternative form of service of land transport.

It is purely fortuitous that the lines which conform to that definition are in the main those which have been associated with companies in which the railways have interests. Take, for instance, a line to Jersey, a line to Belfast and certain lines to Scotland going over water; we would consider those as being in the national interest. But while the Royal Air Force needs equipment badly, we could not consider the continuance of other internal lines, such as lines running to the East coast or to the Midlands. It is fortuitous that these companies which have held licences in peace-time on those routes overseas are companies which now continue and are associated with the rail- ways. As regards the rest of the companies, we are requisitioning their equipment, and there will be ample opportunities for skilled personnel either in the Royal Air Force, in the aircraft industry or in other forms of industry as our national munition effort gains weight.

We are allowing only barely sufficient equipment to maintain these lines of national importance, and indeed, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, those railway companies which are to be allowed to retain their equipment are going to have at least half of it taken away. We shall allow them only just sufficient to run those lines of primary importance. The other companies will have their main equipment requisitioned. I would submit to the House that the incidence of war hits everyone individually, to either a small or great degree, and indeed it hits many commercial enterprises which have had their trade taken away, and which have been virtually wiped out of existence. These companies are indeed more fortunate than other commercial companies, in that they have been maintained with financial provisions which up to the present time have prevented them incurring any losses at all since the outbreak of the war. They will have their equipment taken over at a reasonable price and their personnel will have opportunities for reasonable employment.

As to the state of civil aviation after the war, I cannot say. No one can say how much money we shall have for assisting such enterprises. Therefore, we cannot say what will be the condition of civil aviation after the war, and I do not think we should be justified, in dealing with the companies now, in holding out hopes that, at the expense of the taxpayers, we should set their organisations going after the war. The railway companies which are continuing to run will not have sufficient equipment to expand over the routes which these other companies have been running on hitherto. To-morrow afternoon my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is seeing the representatives of the companies which are particularly affected. He will explain to them the situation, but I trust that I have succeeded in reassuring the House and the hon. Gentleman that there is no favouritism to the railway companies, that we are trying to deal fairly and reasonably, but while the Royal Air Force urgently requires all these aircraft in order to fulfil its obligations to the Army we must put these things first.

Mr. Montague

There is just one more point. These aeroplanes are obviously for Army co-operation, because as civil aeroplanes they cannot be used for military purposes. Why should these companies have their planes taken over in order to do Army co-operation work?

Captain Balfour

I can explain that in two sentences. These machines have been used for Army co-operation work before and since the outbreak of war. We find that it is not satisfactory to have a civil organisation fulfilling a direct responsibility of the Royal Air Force to the Army. Further, we are now having to expand the numbers of aircraft required for this Army co-operation work. There are no more civil aircraft available. We should have to use Royal Air Force equipment and pilots for the supplementary need. We should then have the extraordinarily unsatisfactory position of having a half-civil, hall-military organisation, which is manifestly impracticable if we are to fulfil our obligations to the sister Service with maximum efficiency.

10.36 p.m.

Sir William Everard (Melton)

With regard to the negotiations with the light aeroplane clubs, can my hon. and gallant Friend give an undertaking that some agreement will be reached at the earliest possible moment? The negotiations have been proceeding for a long time.

Captain Balfour

An agreement can always be reached if both sides are willing. We are anxious to come to an agreement. In fact, the clubs have received a letter to-day from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which puts the position very fairly, and shows that we have the desire and the intention to requisition the greater number of civil aircraft. We have taken 84 so far, and we are going to take another 258, leaving another 102 small lighter types, for which we have no use. If the clubs approach the matter in the same spirit as we do, there will be no difficulty in coming to a solution.

Question, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution," put, and agreed to.

Fourth Resolution agreed to.

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