HC Deb 16 October 1940 vol 365 cc790-8
Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)

I am sorry to detain the Under-Secretary of State for Air for a few minutes, on a matter which I have raised several times in the House and which I should like to bring to a more conclusive position at the moment. May I take the opportunity of reminding the House of some remarks I made on the last occasion on which I spoke—about the mix-up between the "All Clear" warnings? It will have been noticed that just recently we had an alarm with the bombs after the "All Clear," and then came the raid warning. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will take note of that. Last year I raised the question of the difference between the awards given to sergeant pilots and pilots from the commissioned ranks. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, then Minister for Air, stated that the matter was under consideration. On 15th November, he went a little further and stated he was considering the matter, and a little later he reported that the matter had been referred to a certain committee to inquire into it and make a report. It was not until August of this year that the findings of that Committee were communicated to the House. This is the one simple point that I wish to raise, and I hope neither I nor the Under-Secretary will depart from it. The hon. and gallant Member when he replied to me some time ago said that the Flying Cross and the Flying Medal were of equal value. The natural retort is, Why then have the two? It seems to indicate some lingering of the old snobbish class distinction—one of the things we hoped would depart at the end of the war—and we do not want to add to it in any way.

I do not think it is necessary to remind the hon. and gallant Member, or the House, of the meritorious service which is carried out by both commissioned officers and sergeant pilots. Last week the Ministry told me that in discharging their specific duties there was no essential difference between the two. The Minister stated that there was no class distinction and that both officers and men belonged to all classes of the population. I accept that as a fact. All of us who are acquainted with members of the Service are aware that it is a fact. Only last week we had an instance of awards being given for distinction in service to both a commissioned officer and to a sergeant pilot; both were judged on merits and both men gave service of equal value, gallantry and bravery. The Air Force is altogether different from the other Services. There might be a case made out for some distinction between officers and men in the Army or Navy on account of their longer service, and also because there is a difference in the functions of an officer in those Services. On the one hand, you have men engaged in ordering and directing large masses of men or a ship's company, in the execution of certain work. Here you have people who, when they are in the air, have to rely on their own initiative, courage and resource, without being ordered about, except for such communications as they may get through the wireless. This fact differentiates them from the rest of the Services. Everybody has reason to know with great gratitude that they perform their work with bravery, gallantry and distinction, no matter what their rank may be. We have every cause to be grateful for that.

I have raised this question because I have had it mentioned to me by the officers themselves, who think it rather invidious that, when they have performed a certain service and a sergeant pilot has performed a similar service, they receive an award which seems to indicate much greater bravery. This difference in awards was considered by the committee on the grant of honours, decorations and medals. I asked for the names of the people who formed the committee, and I discovered that of all people who might be unlikely to bring an unbiassed mind to the subject those who formed the committee were among them. When we find that the chairman of that committee was Sir Horace Wilson we cannot say that there was any democratic or broad point of view brought to bear upon the matter. Persons concerned in Departments such as the Foreign Office, the Admiralty, the Dominions Office and others gave their verdict also on the matter.

Surely the time has gone by when we need to run a Service like this on the principle of the old school tie rather than on merits. I hope the hon. and gallant Member in his reply will not raise the question which was put, although very informally, by his chief that there was no snobbery or difference between the men and the officers. Nobody said that there was. The snobbery is not there, but on the opposite side of the House. I do not refer to the hon. and gallant Gentleman but to what he represents. The fault is not with the men or with the officers. They feel that this is an unworthy distinction. The fault is in the administration which perpetuates things merely because they obtain in other Services, and without seeing that a different state of affairs exist in the Service about which I am speaking. That is the whole question which I want the hon. and gallant Member and his Department to consider.

I imagine that I shall get the old reply: These things exist, and these people value these things, etc. I have, for instance, been told that those who win the Military Medal are just as proud as if they won any other kind of award; is that a suggestion that they would be less proud at winning the Distinguished Flying Medal? I do not care which award you make it; there is no need for a distinction of award merely on class grounds—because that is all it amounts to—for men who are performing equal service. To say anything further would merely be repeating the same point. I hope I have put the point very simply and in a few words. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, we know, is an adept, managed to put this thing off for a good number of months, but he never went so far as one who has the reputation of being a little further advanced than his present chief, in defending this archaic system. In justice to the men in this Service, I hope that we have reached a point where we are prepared to set aside class considerations and to remember that we are in a war in which everybody has to do his part, and in which we have not got an Army or an Air Force based upon some economic urge, but in which everybody goes because he feels he is called to the defence of his country. We give the Victoria Cross to men of outstanding bravery, regardless of whether they are in the ranks or not. In fact, I believe I am right in saying that a sergeant pilot has the honour of being the youngest holder of that decoration. The time has passed for perpetuating these differences. I hope the hon. Gentleman and his Department will think again and see that these distinctions are no longer maintained, but that one award, call it what you will, shall be given to the pilot, whether he be a sergeant or a commissioned officer, for services of equal merit and bravery.

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

The longer I listen to the hon. Gentleman as a debater the more do I admire him, in that he is so clever in putting up, as it were, an Aunt Sally and then knocking it down. He takes the arguments which he knows are weakest in his case, and then he says, that he hopes I shall not use them in support of my case. The proposal for the abolition of the Air Force Medal and the Distinguished Flying Medal and the substitution of the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Force Cross was, as the hon. Gentleman knows, referred to the committee on grants, decorations, honours and awards, on which all three Services were represented. The hon. Gentleman scarcely did justice to that committee when he sought to import a certain amount of prejudice in criticising its constitution. He cited the Departments that are represented upon that committee. After all, the very Departments that he cited are necessary components for a full consideration of this particular case, and the committee did consider the matter fairly and comprehensively. If I may say so, I endeavour to be a little more broadminded than the hon. Gentleman on this subject. Very good arguments indeed can be produced on both sides, but the committee came to the conclusion that it was their considered view that no change should be made in the present arrangements, and their decision was a greed to by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for War and the First Lord of the Admiralty, who had a report of the deliberations of the committee in front of them. As I say, arguments can be put forward on either side. It may well be that it is a pity that this distinction was ever made in the past and that it was ever instituted, but, as we know, the past is the past and what we have to do now is to accept the situation as it is and act accordingly.

There is a strong case against the suggested change. Firstly, different awards have existed for a long time and there is no evidence in the Service of any great feeling in favour of a change. Again, honourable associations and traditions have been attached to these medals; men who win these medals as sergeants may subsequently receive commissions and they are no less proud of their medals when they receive their commissions than they were to receive the awards when they were sergeants. The hon. Gentleman said that this distinction was a sign of snobbish feeling. I cannot brush away, as he did, the strength which lies in the argument that, in the ranks of the Air Force commissioned and noncommissioned men are found intermingled. My hon. Friend brushed away again the effect that this proposed change would have upon the other Services. He said, "After all the Air Force is different; in that Service the officer and the sergeant are pilots and perform the same duties." Therefore, I presume that the hon. Member is not pressing that if this is introduced into the Air Force, it should be introduced equally into the Army.

Mr. Ammon


Captain Balfour

An N.C.O. may be the captain of a tank, in the same way as an N.C.O. may be the captain of an aircraft, and he may have a commissioned officer under him. The hon. Member agrees, as he has just indicated, that in the Army the N.C.O. should get the D.C.M., while the officer gets the M.C. for doing the same job. If the hon. Gentleman explores his case further, he will find a weakness in it. If he introduced a system of similar awards in the Air Force, he would have to introduce it in the Army for certain duties, and in the Navy for certain duties. Finally, he would have to abolish the distinction altogether.

Mr. Ammon

Would not that he a good thing?

Captain Balfour

It might be, but the hon. Member has just told us that he is not pressing for that.

Mr. Ammon

I want it in the Air Force first.

Captain Balfour

I do not think it would be a good thing, for there are certain distinctions between officers and N.C.Os. in regard to uniform and other matters. To award the C.B.E. to the N.C.O. and the Good Conduct Medal to the brigadier, would not be in accordance with tradition and good discipline. I am sure the hon. Member is aware that with the Distinguished Flying Medal there goes a financial benefit to the recipient, provided that he is not of warrant rank. He gets £20 gratuity on discharge, or, if he retires on pension, 6d. a day extra pension. The hon. Gentleman did not say whether he proposed, if what he wished came about, that officers should also get that extra financial benefit.

Mr. Ammon

If the hon. and gallant Gentleman is asking me, I do not see why not. On the other hand, that monetary award is given, no doubt, on account of different economic conditions; and it could still be given.

Captain Balfour

Then we should have an inconsistency. Is the monetary position of the N.C.O. very much different from that of the junior officer if you take into account the budgetary obligations of the two in relation to their pay? Does the hon. Member propose that this financial benefit should be given to officers, or that it should be abolished for other ranks? If he proposes that all people should get the financial benefit with the decoration, he is introducing a new principle. If he does not propose that the financial benefit should be given to N.C.Os., he is proposing to penalise them by comparison with their present state. If he proposes that one class of recipient should get the financial benefit and not the other class, he is proposing to create a financial anomaly. There has been no undue delay in dealing with this matter. It has had to be considered by the chiefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, who are engaged in fighting the biggest battle that the world has ever seen, and who are dealing with other matters of primary importance. If we all had our lives to live over again things might be very different, but we have to accept things as they are. This has been the subject of fair, impartial review, and it is felt to be better, on balance, to leave matters as they are. That is a decision which, I believe, is in accord with the majority wish of our Services.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

One of the Minister's principal points was to accuse my hon. Friend the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) of adroitness in his argument. If we are to seek for a specimen of adroitness in argument in this Debate, the Minister himself must be considered the winner. Apart from that, the principal appeal he makes for maintaining this distinction is an appeal to tradition. We recognise that there are many traditions that are worthy of being followed. One does not depart from tradition and wipe out the old landmarks without full and careful consideration and very important reasons for doing so. There is something in the Bible about not removing the [...] landmarks, but the reason that I rose to my feet is to press this matter once again, and to say to the Minister that I fear he is a member of an Administration that has its eyes on the past and is expecting that, after this war; we shall find ourselves back in the position in which we were when the war started. That will not be the case. We closed an epoch when this war started. There is no road back that way, and I wish that the Government and the Minister himself would recognise that position. The appeal to tradition will not stand.

The main criticism of my hon. Friend against the committee which made this decision which the Minister is attempting to defend was that it was composed of departments, which, in the main, rely upon tradition for their guidance. It was not that there was any personal animus against individuals on that Committee, but that these are the old traditional hidebound departments of the Government who have come to this decision. One could hardly expect that they would make any other decision, but I can assure hon. Members that outside this House—whatever may be the opinion in the House itself, and we have not had an adequate opportunity of having the opinion of the House recorded upon this matter—there is very great perturbation about the class distinction that exists in connection with these awards. I will go the length of saying that public opinion is outraged by the way in which these awards auto- matically take a different form for the officers and for the ranks. I believe that the Minister will be forced by public opinion—and he is flouting public opinion at the moment—to make the change which is being demanded by my hon. Friend.

My attitude towards this matter is even more advanced than that of my hon. Friend. I would seek to make this change not only in the Air Force, but also in the Army and the Navy. I recognise the point of the argument of my hon. Friend that, in the practice that is being carried on at the present time, there is a primary claim on the part of the Air Force personnel to be treated equally as between officers and men, but I would not stop there. The maintenance of this old traditional method of making these awards is a regrettable indication of the fact that those who are in charge of our Forces today do not realise that after this war is over we have to come out into a new world, which is in process of being fought for to-day. I believe that we have regrettable and deplorable evidence of the Government mind in the speech of the hon. and gallant Gentleman to-day, which, I think, in its sentiments will require to be altered before public opinion in this country is satisfied upon this matter.

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