HC Deb 25 November 1942 vol 385 cc827-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Colonel Arthur Evans (Cardiff, South)

In view of the lateness of the hour and the short time available I will come straight to the point. At Question time to-day I asked the Secretary of State for Air whether he would be good enough to make a statement as to why he had decided to dismiss men over 50 years of age from the service of the Cardiff Centre of the Royal Observer Corps. I think it is clear from the reply of the Minister that there has been considerable misunderstanding on this question throughout the country, and it is now clear that his decision applies only to personnel over 50 years of age who are at present posted to observer centres and not observer posts throughout the country. The House, of course, will agree with the Minister that in the efficient prosecution of the war, and indeed in any defence organisation, the Minister can have regard to one thing and one thing only, and that is efficiency. One would not dispute that for a moment. The only doubt in my mind and in the minds of some hon. Friends of mine, is whether this efficiency will be achieved by an arbitrary rule dismissing personnel over 50 years of age. One appreciates also that time is an essential factor in the discharge of these most important duties, the duties of plotting in an observation centre. An aeroplane, as I understand it, when it is passing overhead has to be notified immediately to the observation centre, and if, for the sake of argument, there is only 45 seconds' delay in answering the telephone, it is quite possible that that aeroplane has proceeded another four miles on its course, and, therefore, the information which has been furnished to the central authority is useless. But I think we are entitled to have some regard to the efficient work these men have done in the past. It has been agreed—in fact it has been publicly acknowledged by Ministers of the Crown—that the Battle of Britain was won not only by those gallant young men in the Royal Air Force—that the Observer Corps played a very large part also. If the R.A.F. had not been acquainted with the direction of the enemy approach, they would not have been able to muster their forces in the desired quarter.

As it is necessary for the Government to relieve Ministers of their duties for one reason or another—if they become tired, or, perhaps, overstrained—as indeed it is necessary for the Defence Minister to change his generals sometimes, so, I agree, it is necessary for the Secretary of State to examine the personnel of these Observation Centres and to see whether there are men who, either through their own fault or because of something outside their control, are not pulling their weight. These Observation Centres have relatively a small personnel. The men at present employed are generally of a very high standard. Perhaps hon. Members have seen a letter in "The Times" this morning, signed by "Four over-50 members" of one observation post. One of these observers is a retired naval commander, and the others are a barrister, a novelist, and a playwright. For three years and more, these men have been actively employed in discharging these duties. It is a task for trained men. You do not acquire that efficiency which is necessary overnight. Whereas it is possible for a commanding officer of a unit to make a confidential report on his officers to his military superior, and to make recommendations for their retention, transfer, or discharge, so it should be possible for the senior officer in an observation post to represent to his immediate superior the men that should be retained and those who should be allowed to go because they are not able to discharge their duties with the necessary efficiency. If my right hon. Friend adopted that system, instead of making arbitrary rules for the discharge of all men over 50, he would be achieving the end in view.

There is another point, which is very important. Man-power is one of the gravest problems of the time. The Government propose to substitute for these older men women under 35. The average British woman under that age is a highly efficient machine, but a machine which can be employed in other ways than on these duties, which, in my submission, are well suited to men of the type now engaged in them. Such women are doing their duty not only in the Forces and administrative services, but in the factories, and doing men's work. At this time we can ill afford to lose the men now engaged at these centres. I am not going to appeal on sentimental grounds, but on the highly practical ground of efficient discharge of responsible duties. In order to give other members and my right hon. Friend time to make their points, I will conclude.

Wing-Commander Grant-Ferris (St. Pancras North)

I rise to make two points. When I was in Malta, I had to train about 40 civilian women plotters. I found that all who were over 40 were extremely slow at their work, and one by one I had to drop them. I had to content myself with women, in the main over 30, although some were under 30. That is what goes on in all our Fighter Command plotting rooms, all over the country.

Another point is that I have had a great deal of experience in the training of both men and women at plotting and I can tell the House, in the light of two years' experience doing almost nothing else, that the women are very much better at plotting than men. It is a type of work which women's minds seem to take to automatically. If the decision of the Ministry is to employ women in all Observer Corps plotting centres in the same way as they employ W.A.A.F.s in ordinary operations, in my own experience, it is the right decision.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

I want to detain the House for one minute to say, in support of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, that two of the most efficient men in my organisation are engaged in this work. They are both over 50, and I would consider it a national disadvantage if their services were discontinued.

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

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for South Cardiff (Colonel Evans) for giving an opportunity of raising this matter on the Adjournment, and I apologise to other hon. Members who may have wished to speak. I am sure that they will appreciate that time is limited, and I am glad that we have this opportunity, because I hope to be able to clear up some misconceptions. There is no question of wholesale dismissals in the Royal Observer Corps. The change we are now proposing is due to altered operational requirements and the extended operational duties of the Royal Observer Corps. It affects approximately 1,400 personnel out of the total strength of the Corps. There have been many unwitting misrepresentations in the Press as to the effect of this order. It has been represented that it is a reflection on the good work which the Royal Observer Corps have done. There is no question that the Royal Observer Corps members have fulfilled patriotically their part in the air defence of this country, but new methods and new equipment must be operated to the maximum efficiency, and to this end the order for the gradual replacement of the over fifties and the substitution of them by immobile women is introduced in order to increase the efficiency of plotting and telling.

The Royal Observer Corps plays a vital role in air defence. It is the ears and the eyes of the Royal Air Force. It plots and it tracks all the aircraft, both friendly and hostile. This is necessary from the operational standpoint; particularly at night, otherwise it is impossible to separate the tracks of friendly and hostile aircraft. It will interest the House to know that the vast increase in night operational flying and in other types of night flying, including night instruction, over the last two years has made the work in these observation centres to-day approximately of the same pressure and volume as was met with during the relatively short time of the blitzes when the air force of the enemy was at its greatest against this country in 1940–41. There is a constant and ever-increasing pressure going on in these centres. It will interest the House again to know that the Royal Observer Corps has guided, in conjunction with other methods, an average of about 20 bombers a month to safety, and the figure was about 40 last month. But the figure should be higher. It has to be higher if we are to get the maximum safety among all these bombers which are returning from offensive operations over Germany. When I said the results should be better still the House will be with me when I say that we should be ruthless in our determination to introduce methods to get the highest efficiency in this service, irrespective of personal considerations.

Sir Waldron Smithers (Chislehurst)

May I ask a question?

Captain Balfour

No, Sir. The order does not affect men on posts, many of whom are over 50, who can still efficiently carry out their work, very often in exceedingly difficult conditions in posts. It only affects men at centres engaged in this plotting and telling. The work on which they are engaged corresponds almost exactly to the work carried on in Fighter Command operations rooms. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North St. Pancras (Wing-Commander Grant-Ferris) said, we are having in our Fighter Command operations rooms to reduce our top age. The work is of a novel sort and requires young, active brains to adapt themselves to it.

There is an old cry, "Too old at 50," which may apply to some things and which may not apply to others, but it certainly does apply to this particular type of work, which imposes a constant strain which, as we have found by experience, young people can stand the best. Some hon. Members over 50—I am not quite there myself—still do work competently and efficiently in various walks of life, but how many over 50 could suddenly learn all there is to know about the conversion of sound circle heights into corrected heights, involving angle distance plotting and a new method evolved by scientists working directly for the Royal Observer Corps, and the accurate computation of range and angle by plotters, all in a matter of seconds? After all Fighter Command is responsible for the safety of this country from air attack and has found it necessary to impose a top-age limit, for this work, of 35. We have had anxiety for the last 18 months as to the work carried on at these centres, and now that new and complicated apparatus which I know the House would not expect me to enlarge upon here to-day is being introduced for operation by the Royal Observer Corps, quite frankly we are worried as to whether our top age limit of 50 will give us the required efficiency. Indeed, the time may come, as pressure on the R.O.C. centres becomes greater and more scientific apparatus is produced, when we may have to go below 50.

These centres contain people of a fairly high average age, as many of the younger men of the Royal Observer Corps have gone to the Forces. Of the 1,400 persons engaged we have 25 over 70,280 between 61 and 70, and the balance of the 1,400 are between 51 and 60. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) used the argument that he had men over 50 who were splendid men and who could do this work. I would not deny that in exceptional cases men over 50 can do this work, but you cannot introduce a system to check the individual efficiency of each man. After all, the yardstick of age is what we have accepted in our public and industrial life as being broadly the measure by which we say whether a man shall or shall not continue his, work. There are always exceptions, but so much above the Fighter Command age limit is our top limit of 50 that I do not think it would be possible to legislate for exceptional cases. We must accept the yardstick of age. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Cardiff asked about the man-power position. Well, the men displaced will be given the opportunity of transferring to Royal Observer Corps posts in the neighbourhood. Their work will be in exposed places and not so pleasant, but already there are men of 50 doing this work gallantly, and I see no reason why they should not be able to do this work as well. We shall transfer them to Vacancies where we can, and the balance will be available for other war work.

Of the 1,400 men, some 200 are full-time and the remainder are part-time. These 1,400 men will be replaced by 700 immobile women under 35. These men will be given the opportunity of working at the posts, and the remainder, I am quite sure, will be glad to do their part in the war effort by fire-watching or doing some other national work in which their services will be useful. I submit it would be better to have those 1,200 men, or such proportion as we cannot absorb at the posts, on fire-watching or some other form of war work, and to take 700 immobile women who, after all, are not so physically strong for fire-watching and other forms of war work, but who are particularly suitable for this work at the Centres, as we have found by experience, and let them do that work for which they are suitable. I submit that the resistance to this order and the protests are largely based on misapprehensions. The order is not unpopular in large sections of the Royal Observer Corps itself. We have had complaints from posts in several places in the country as to the slow working at the Centres. We hope now to make the functioning of these Centres so efficient as to ensure their continuation as a vital part of our air defence, able to absorb this new technique and these new appliances, able to adapt themselves to these new methods and to the increased work as these are met with. We save man-power, we use women where men have previously been used, and we release those men for other forms of work for which they are more suitable than they are for that on which we have employed them in the past; but more than that—what I am sure the House will accept from me as being the most cogent argument of the lot—we have a greater chance of saving the lives of our airmen by increasing the efficiency of our air defence system.

Wing-Commander James (Wellingborough)

I think the agitation and anxiety on this matter were due to a misunderstanding. I have taken a great interest in the Royal Observer Corps for a long time, and I have had an opportunity of seeing something of their work. There has, of course, been great unevenness in the efficient operation of the Corps which has to be levelled out. A new and hand-picked officer—not a Regular but an auxiliary—having a very distinguished record at Fighter Command, was, I understand, given the task of surveying the position some time ago, and after very careful examination of the problem he has come to certain conclusions, which I am quite certain are right conclusions. There is, however, one small matter which arises out of this Debate. There must have been a slip somewhere, in that this anxiety was ever caused. This matter ought never to have got out in the way in which it did. Anxiety was caused among men at the posts, who were not affected by the Order, by premature Press reports. The only point I wish to put to the Minister is whether he will endeavour to see that in future, when a really sound scheme is to be brought out, the Air Ministry's public relation officers will give the necessary directions to the Press so as not to cause unnecessary anxiety,

Lieut.-Commander Hutchison (Edinburgh, West)

I was very interested, as I am sure the whole House was, in hearing from my right hon. and gallant Friend the Under-Secretary of State about the duties and functions of the Royal Observer Corps, but I wish to ask him to reconsider the question of some selective medical examination of the men over 50. I feel there is great disparity between one man and another, and it seems a pity to throw aside on to the scrap heap, as it were, from this particular duty many men who are more receptive and capable than others. It would save a great deal of time if they were retained, instead of having a lot of young women trained for the work.

Major Petherick (Penryn and Falmouth)

I can well understand the motives which prompted my right hon. and gallant Friend to explain this matter to the House as he has done, and obviously anything which helps to save the lives of airmen is commendable. Nevertheless, it will be necessary now to train 700 immobile women who may be carefully selected but who, because of the fact that they are immobile, cannot be taken from surrounding districts. As there are a great many men over 50 who are extremely efficient and who have very rapid minds, will not my right hon. and gallant Friend consider accepting recommendations from the respective controllers at the centres that such men shall be retained?

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.