§ Mr. Austin Hopkinson (Mossley)
The point that I wish to raise has to do with the accounts of the British Overseas Airways Corporation. I gave what short notice was possible to the Air Ministry of this being raised at the earliest possible moment. As, unfortunately, they have been unable to send a representative, I am afraid that I shall have to speak rather more gently than I might have done if the Secretary of State or his representa- 1724 tive had been present. I hope hon. Members will bear that in mind and that, if what they hear seems to be a small matter, they will realise that that is largely due to the fact that the ordinary courtesies of debate make it incumbent on me to refrain from saying anything too strong or too personal.
Nearly a year ago I drew attention to the fact that singularly little care was being exercised in the appointment of persons to positions of great responsibility in various Departments, and I gave several examples of great public disadvantage that has resulted from the absolute lack of scrutiny into the qualifications and character of people appointed to these high positions, where in many cases they had control of very large sums of public money. More recently I raised a matter which has been the cause of the greatest distress to the vast bulk of all ranks in the Royal Air Force, a matter which they regard as a blot upon the fair escutcheon of that magnificent Service. Not only that, but the events to which I made allusion have done a grave injury to Air Force discipline, inasmuch as offences were being committed at a certain station through which nearly the whole of the air crews passed sooner or later. The effect upon discipline can be imagined when air crews, passing through that station, discover that airmen and non-commissioned officers get into serious trouble and that their officers escape scot free, and not only escape, but are promoted and given special favours, and that ultimately a number of those guilty of offences find themselves in extremely well-paid positions outside the Air Force, positions into which they are allowed to get by the Air Ministry itself.
The immediate matter which concerns us to-night is that of the accounts of the British Overseas Airways Corporation. I raise it in connection with these other matters because it is a most unfortunate fact, as certain Members of the House and many members of the public are well aware, that the officers mainly responsible for those grave irregularities in that unit of the Royal Air Force are now mainly responsible for the conduct and expenditure of the British Overseas Airways Corporation. Let us see why these accounts come before the House. British Overseas Airways Corporation was set up under a Statute of 1939, Section 22 of which provides: 1725The Corporation shall keep proper accounts and shall prepare a statement of accounts in such form as the Secretary of State shall direct.Sub-section (5) provides thatthe Secretary of State shall lay a copy of any such statement and report before each House of Parliament.The accounts are made up annually from 31st March. Up to the present, and only after considerable pressure had been applied to the Secretary of State, we have only got the accounts for the year ended 31st March, 1943. Immediately after that date, a new board took over the concern. We are still waiting for the accounts for the year ending 31st March, 1944.
I want the House to understand that, so far as the 1942–43 accounts are concerned, there is no reason to suppose that, even if they were put in a form which the public and the House could understand, they would disclose anything but quite satisfactory figures. What I object to is that they are presented in a form which nobody can understand, and which gives no true view of the position of the Corporation. I do not think the House will disagree with me when I say that, under the present management of that concern, it is highly desirable that the accounts should be presented in a form in which the House may know what is being spent and what is being taken out of the Corporation's funds by some of the gentlemen concerned. All I ask is that the accounts for the year ended 31st March, 1944, may be presented in a very different form from those of the previous year. Hon. Members will agree that a balance-sheet which has been certified by Messrs. Whinney and Company may be taken as correct in form and as to the figures. The firm is one of the highest standing in the profession, and we may take the figures as correct in so far as they are figures which can be checked by the auditors, because, necessarily, in all accounts of public companies, the auditors have to take for granted certain figures, and in their certificates they protect themselves against having been betrayed into making false statements.
As anyone who has had to deal with accounts knows, a balance-sheet is really not a very valuable document. A much more important document in the affairs of any public company is the profit-and-loss account. The banks, until the last 20 years or so, were accustomed to pay more attention to a customer's balance- 1726 sheet than they ever paid to the profit-and-loss account. To their discomfort, they have found out that a balance-sheet shows a great deal about the fixed assets which may at any time become completely valueless. It does not give the really important point to a lender, namely, a knowledge of the profit-making capacity of the concern. All the banks now like to see a customer's profit-and-loss account rather than his balance-sheet. The only thing in the way of a profit-and-loss account which has been presented to Parliament in the case of British Overseas Airways Corporation is called "The Air Ministry and Ministry of Aircraft Production Account for the year ending 31st March, 1943." That account has been presented to Parliament—presented very late, but, still, presented in the end. I object to the form of the account. When a company gets into trouble one of the things the auditors look for first are the items and amounts which are lumped together. That lumping together of expenditure or receipts inadvisably and improperly has led before now to accounts being sent to the Public Prosecutor by liquidators.
To me this is a perfect example of the worst type of profit-and-loss account that any company could possibly produce. Let us take one or two examples of the way in which things are lumped together. Take the item of £816,222, which is put down asgeneral administration, including that attributable to Ministry of Aircraft Production and sundry losses due to enemy action.Presumably, it includes all the costs of the central organisation, the salaries, expenses and other pickings of the officials concerned, and they are lumped together with "losses due to enemy action." Let the House consider what a false view of the situation that may give. The losses due to enemy action might have been £1, and the other items in this sum would then be £816,221. On the other hand, the cost of general administration, including that attributable to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, might have been £1 or it might have been £816,221. The House has no means, therefore, of finding out whether the costs of central administration are exorbitant or otherwise. I hope to convince the House that in some respects they are extremely exorbitant. The item only refers to central administration because we get a previous item—— 1727Route expenditure including cost of operations and regional administration, £4,910,019.So it is clear that the regional organisation does not come into the figure which I first mentioned. Presumably, it is only the central administration which is concerned. We have no means of knowing how to split up losses due to enemy action, which may be enormous or may be nil, and ascertain the actual charges for the administration itself.
I have just pointed out one or two items which, I say, are presented in such a way that the House of Commons cannot tell what is happening. I may say that the House of Commons has been very anxious to find out something about this question of administration charges, and a number of vain attempts have been made by hon. Members to extract from the Secretary of State for Air a statement as to salaries and expenses allowances to some of the senior and most important officials concerned. We have never been able to get it. Now we want to know what salaries and expenses are paid to the Air Commodore and the rest of his friends whom he has imported into British Overseas Airways. Mark this: One by one, experienced officials who were there before, technical, commercial and otherwise, are being displaced: In many cases they are resigning voluntarily because they cannot stand the present state of affairs. Their places are being taken in many instances by ex-officers of 54 Group, some of whom have been guilty of the greatest irregularities, when they were under the command of Air-Commodore Critchley. There is absolute chaos on the engineering side, for instance, where they have displaced the experienced engineers, who were there before, with their own nominees; and so it is with other departments concerned. Nobody on earth, except those who are inside the organisation, knows what amount of money this particular group of persons is getting out of the Corporation.
When I say "getting out of the Corporation," I mean of course getting out of the public purse, because that is where all the money comes from. The particular account which I have brought to the notice of the House ends by giving gross expenditure of £8,254,310, from which it quite rightly deducts such items as revenue 1728 from other sources, interest on capital redemption, and payments from associated companies. Those items amount to £2,183,682, and a figure of £6,070,628 is the net expenditure. There is a note stating that revenue arising from carriage of mail, etc., has not been taken into account. The value of this revenue amounts, in the aggregate, to approximately £3,721,194. I admit that I do not quite understand why this amount is put like that, instead of being embodied in the account itself. Anyway, it means that the real balance is £2,349,434, all of which has to come out of the public purse. There is no other source. I do not think that the representative of the Ministry can deny that at least £2,349,434 has had to be provided by the Air Ministry to make the account balance.
I quite admit the force of the Scriptural injunction that one must not muzzle the ox that treads out the corn, but we ought in this case to be able to find out what proportion of the corn goes to the ox and what proportion to the proprietors of the threshing floor. Whether the ox is eating the whole of the corn we cannot find out. And since we are the guardians and trustees of the threshing floor the House of Commons ought to insist upon knowing the essential facts about this Corporation. This account says that the balance excludes obsolescence and is thecost of services rendered to the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Aircraft Production, in accordance with directions of the Secretary of State for Air.The first thing that is obvious is that whatever the balance is, it is always the cost of the services rendered to those Ministries. If the balance were £60,000,000, it would still be the cost of services rendered, and no matter what extravagances had been perpetrated or however inefficient the organisation, the public would always foot the bill. The cost will always appear as services rendered to the Ministries concerned, whatever the size of it may be. I hope there is some explanation for this state of affairs because, certainly on the face of it, it appears that this account has been drawn up in such a way as to give rise to the suspicion that the House of Commons is deliberately being hoodwinked.
Let us have a look at the sort of thing we find happening. The Secretary of State for Air has the appointment of the Director-General of the Corporation, and 1729 has, let us suppose, made that appointment. Suppose the Director-General had a salary of £6,000 or £7,000 a year, and he was also given an expenses allowance—a far greater allowance—free, of course, from Income Tax. In these days you will notice that there are many patriotic gentlemen who are perfectly willing to take quite low salaries in Government employment, provided they can get the expenses account, because salaries are subject to Income Tax and Super-tax while expenses are not subject to any taxation at all. Quite moderate expenses might prove very much more remunerative than quite big salaries. In the case in question, I have reason to believe that the expenses allowed are absolutely gigantic. There is no other word for it. Suppose property is acquired by the Corporation at exorbitant prices. Suppose aircraft for the use of senior officials are fitted with the most expensive fittings. Suppose the personal servants of members of this Corporation are put on the wages list of the Corporation. Suppose officials of the Corporation when they fly about the world conduct their own businesses as well as the business of the Corporation.
§ Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)
Would it not be much better for the hon. Gentleman to make his charges directly rather than to make these insinuations? He may be quite right in what he says, but would it not be fairer to the House of Commons to say directly that he accuses these people of these things?
§ Mr. Hopkinson
As the matter is in the hands of an Under-Secretary who has only just taken office, I do not think it is advisable to make any direct charge. All I can say is that these particulars have been received from a very respectable firm who vouch for their correctness. I have not been able to check up, in the time at my disposal, on these particular points. Let us put it much more generally. Let us say that we have reason to believe that a very large salary and a very large allowance for expenses has been granted, certainly to the Director-General, and as far as my information goes to other officials of this Corporation, and that as we are not allowed to know what that salary and those expenses amount to, we cannot tell in the least whether this Corporation is being con- 1730 ducted properly or not. That is the whole point——
§ Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)
May I ask a question? I agree with the right hon. Baronet that it would be much more worthy to come right out and attack Critchley, which is what the hon. Member is trying to do, but in regard to the statement that the Director-General, who is Brigadier-General Critchley, goes about the world in B.O.A.C. aeroplanes, conducting his own business, if he has any business it is the greyhound-racing concern. Will the hon. Member name any country in the world to which he would be flying at the present time and where he would conduct greyhound-racing business?
§ Mr. Hopkinson
I can only repeat that my source of information is a reputable one, and that I am told that on a recent visit to Stockholm, a representative of a firm who is no longer employed by the Corporation was taken over for that particular purpose. I have asked for an inquiry into these matters. I asked for this definitely after making a series of charges which the Secretary of State for Air admitted in toto. I asked for a full inquiry to ascertain whether my charges were correct or not. That demand has not been granted. If it is, the evidence shall be marshalled, because people will then be protected from victimisation from which they could not be protected under normal procedure, while they are in the Air Force.
Here again, I can only say that my informants, a very reputable firm, tell me there is a whole suite of rooms kept at the Dorchester Hotel for these people at the expense of the Corporation, and that the monthly bills amount to very large sums of money indeed, sums which make an appreciable hole in the resources of the Corporation itself. All this trouble need not arise if the Secretary of State would answer the question, What are the salaries and expenses allowances, tax free, which the Director-General and those members of the Greyhound Racing Association and those members late of 54 Group Training Command of the Royal Air Force at Regent's Park now receive? That seems to me a very reasonable request on the part of Parliament. We are trustees of the public money. Every penny has to come out of the public 1731 purse. Why should we not be allowed to know this? Is there anything to conceal? I think it is only reasonable that some of us should be suspicious.
The Secretary of State has taken refuge more than once in something called "Security," as if the enemy's General Staff would get valuable military information if they learned what salaries and expenses are being paid to these gentlemen by this Corporation. Security is like liberty—a good number of crimes are committed in her name at the present time. It is ludicrous to pretend that any reason of security should prevent the House from being told such simple facts as I have mentioned. Under the Act the Secretary of State is responsible for seeing that proper accounts are kept, and that proper people are appointed to these positions of great responsibility, where large sums of public money are handled.
It might be said that the Secretary of State might be trusted to carry out the will of Parliament with the most meticulous care in order to ensure that only the most suitable persons are placed in these positions in control of large sums of public money. I suggest there are reasons why one might feel a slight lack of confidence, I will not say more, in respect to the degree of care which the Secretary of State has exercised in this respect. Brigadier-General Critchley is really in control of this organisation, because it is preposterous to suggest that Miss Gower and a superannuated trade union official are really the sort of people who can check the activities of a very brilliant person like Brigadier-General Critchley. I have the honour of a very slight acquaintance with the lady in question. I know she is a brilliant airwoman, and is one of the most courageous and likeable persons I have come across in the course of my flying adventures, but to call on her to deal with very complicated financial matters of this sort is just absurd. I think she would find it extremely difficult to pull up the Director-General and say, "I am not quite satisfied with the way you are disposing of public funds."
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Air (Commander Brabner)
Does the hon. Member include Sir Harold Howitt among the people whom he would appear to consider lightweights on the Board of this Corporation?
§ Mr. Hopkinson
Sir Harold Howitt belongs to a very well known firm of auditors, but he is put in a very awkward position by this appointment, because his firm happen to be the auditors of the Greyhound Racing Association.
§ Mr. Baxter
Why does the hon. Gentleman leave the Chairman out of all this? Lord Knollys is a responsible man, yet the hon. Gentleman keeps attacking Brigadier-General Critchley.
§ Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Kilmarnock)
May I ask, as one who has known Sir Harold Howitt for 25 years, whether The is directly implicated in this? I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Member is saying, but where are we being led? I have known Sir Harold Howitt since he was Governor of Toynbee Hall 25 years ago, and it is monstrous to suggest that a person of his qualities should be brought into this discreditable picture.
§ Mr. Hopkinson
Sir Harold Howitt has been put in a very difficult position. I have nothing against the firm. They happen to be my auditors, and I have the highest opinion of them. But I think it was very hard lines to put him in this unfortunate position. There is, of course, the question of how much is exposed to the auditor. We do not know; the accounts do not show.
When the Secretary of State announced this appointment to the position of Director-General in this House, I rose and asked what qualifications this gentleman had got, and had the Secretary of State made any inquiries into his previous activities? The reply was that he was such a good and great man that any inquiry of any sort was totally superfluous. That was from the Secretary of State, who admitted he had taken him over from his predecessor without any inquiries at all. His predecessor made the appointment originally to this Training Group of the Royal Air Force. I saw the late Secretary of State about the matter, and he told me that he had not made any inquiries, that the appointment was made and that it was too late to do anything. I gave him one or two facts which I thought he ought to investigate. Again, when this present appointment to B.O.A.C. was made, I saw the present Secretary of State, and gave him a list of things which had been brought to my 1733 notice by hon. Members in this House and by other reputable people outside, eliminating everything about the correctness of which I had any doubt, and making such allowance as I could for prejudice of one sort or other. Whatever may be said about people outside, Members of this House cannot be regarded as totally irresponsible people, particularly when they are dealing with matters affecting the public interest.
When this information was conveyed to me, I checked it as far as possible, and gave the Secretary of State a very considerable amount of information. I will not say what that information was, because it may be incorrect. It was given to me in good faith and received by me in good faith, and I suggested to the Secretary of State that he ought, at any rate, to ascertain through Scotland Yard or any of the regular channels whether that information was, in fact, true or not. In actual fact he made no inquiries of any sort so far as I can find out. The information concerned was such that in many instances it could have been easily checked by those who had access to those channels of information to which I have referred.
§ Mr. Hopkinson
No, only a suicide. I am afraid I read the Secretary of State a little lecture on the primary duties of Ministers of the Crown; and the terms of the lecture were such that relations between us have been somewhat strained ever since. It seems to me that one of the first duties of a Minister of the Crown is not to put the control of immense sums of public money into the hands of somebody about whom he knows nothing and about whom he refuses to make any inquiries, who has been handed over to him by a predecessor who also refused to make inquiries.
The accounts of this Corporation do not enable us to form any opinion as to the conduct of its affairs. That is the real ground of my complaint. I daresay that I might have treated the Secretary of State with more tenderness if I had known, as I know now, that he was on the books of Regents Park all this time, and was receiving from the firm supplies of foodstuffs which were the property of the airmen of the unit. He admitted this.
§ Mr. Hopkinson
For the simple reason that results of the thing are still going on. The account book suddenly comes to an end on a particular date. That is the date when it was known on the station that inquiries were in train. These food offences are trifling—about the same thing as when a baby steals a lump of sugar from the sugar basin. I definitely chose those paltry little offences in order to see whether the House of Commons was assiduous enough in conducting its public duties to take the matter up without my disclosing anything further—without disclosing, for instance, that apart from the food sold and, as the account books showed, paid for, and paid into the proper account, there was also an account showing the food that was not paid for. I have not mentioned that.
We have not got to the end of this story, by any means. Certain people on this station became suspicious. They communicated, in a rather roundabout way, with the Food Ministry. We are going back to the end of October last year. The Food Ministry sat on this, and thought about it. Then an officer of the station, whose business it was to look into these matters, became suspicious, and communicated with his superior authorities; and they gave him authority to go on with his investigation. The Food Ministry was approached by the appropriate department of the Air Ministry. I asked, when I raised the matter in this House, whether these offences were offences against the Food Regulations. The Air Minister said, "Certainly they are." The offences were perfectly clear, because the original licence for the production of food at that station was granted by the Food Ministry only on condition that the food produced was for the consumption of airmen in the unit. The account book of the unit shows that these things had been going on every week for months.
In due course the Provost Marshal of the Air Force ordered an inquiry to be made, by his own officers. An inquiry was made, and it disclosed a lot more besides the sale of food. It disclosed, for instance, what I brought up in the House the other day, when it was admitted by the Minister that packages of foodstuffs were entered up as "operational papers"—and operational papers coming from a 1735 station which was not operational. That was a bad slip. If they had just made it, "Urgent; to be delivered to the Air Ministry," it would have been all right, but they made a slip in calling them operational.
§ Mr. Hopkinson
No doubt. Eventually the Provost Marshal ordered a summary of evidence to be taken. Two of the officers concerned had to be asked to leave the station, because they were interfering with what was going on; and they left the station. Eventually the summary of evidence was completed, about the second week in May of this year. Four officers were cited as suitable candidates for a court-martial, including the commanding officer of the unit, who is also a director of the Dog Racing Association, and another officer, who, so far as I can make out, has an American record that is not all that one would expect from the holder of the King's Commission, and whose name does not appear to be the name under which he went in America. That court-martial was to take place early in July. At the very last moment it was stopped. I then saw the Secretary of State for Air, and I told him quite plainly that, as there was documentary evidence, it did not seem to me to be right to stop a court-martial which was practically in full swing. Not only that, but officers and other ranks of the Air Force were getting a little annoyed to find that the offences were not being dealt with adequately.
An undertaking had been given to the Food Ministry by the Air Ministry that the inquiry would take place and that the offenders would be dealt with properly by the Air Force. What was the punishment? Three officers were seriously reproved, two of them actually reproved by the Air Council—of whom at least two members had been on the book of the firm for a considerable period. But the reproof did not go very far, because one of them, on subsequently retiring from the Service, was allowed to keep, not his substantive rank but his acting rank—within a few weeks of being reproved for offences admitted by the Air Minister in this House, and being under the severe displeasure of the Air Council. All this seems almost incredible—at least, I hope 1736 it seems incredible—nevertheless, it is the fact.
By question and answer, and by raising the matter on the Adjournment, I have got an admission out of the Secretary of State on every charge that I have made. It is admitted that the food offences took place. He admits that he himself was on the books, that regular weekly and monthly payments were made over a long period, also members of the Air Council, and officials of the Air Ministry, whose names I have not yet given, but definitely concerned, with this group of the Air Training Command, and other officials directly or indirectly concerned. All this has been admitted, and what has been done? The officers concerned have been treated with very special favour. Some have been allowed to leave the Air Force to attend to their businesses, whether these businesses are certain classes of financial work or dog racing, or they have been transferred to the British Overseas Airways Corporation at salaries and expenses allowances at a rate which nothing on earth could get out of the Secretary of State. They seem to be having a very good time of it indeed.
I say that these offences were comparatively trivial; but what I think is a very serious thing is interference with the course of justice. When it was found that the court-martial was not going to proceed, I gave an opportunity to the Secretary of State of saying why. I said that I should raise the matter in this House unless this court-martial was allowed to proceed, and if I found any more members of 54 Group being appointed to highly-paid posts in the British Overseas Airways Corporation. The Secretary of State then told me that he took legal advice, and that his legal advisers had said that everything was all right and that no court-martial was warranted.
Here I want to put a challenge to the Air Minister. My information is that the summary of evidence noted that four officers should be court-martialled. I gave the Minister the particulars. The evidence was conclusive and did not need witnesses, because it was documentary. All that was required in the way of evidence was a copy of the food licence from the Food Ministry and the account book which showed that food had been sold outside the station. Therefore, the case 1737 was perfectly clear. What happened to the witnesses we do not know. All we do know is that some of them spent some little time in one place in the West End of London during that inquiry, and that place is the offices of the Greyhound Association. After that, they were not quite so ready to come forward as they had been before.
My information is this, and I hope the Minister will take it down and will say whether it is correct or not, that, when the Deputy Judge Advocate-General of the Royal Air Force advised, on the summary of evidence, that a court-martial was warranted against four officers, he also advised, as far as I can make out, that a court-martial was also warranted in the case of Air Commodore Critchley himself. Air Commodore Critchley, when the inquiry began, had just left the Air Force. His resignation was ante-dated three months, and he was outside the purview of Air Force law. Therefore, if the Deputy Judge Advocate-General of the Air Force suggested that he should be court-martialled, the Deputy Judge Advocate-General was wrong, because he was outside the scope of Air Force law, the minimum period having elapsed, and by quite a long time. What made it a longer time was the fact of his resignation being ante-dated three months.
The next point is that, in the Debate, the Secretary of State said that the Deputy Judge Advocate-General's opinion was supported—of all people in the world—by the Treasury Solicitor. I have made some inquiries from the War Office and the Admiralty whether there was any case on record in history where the Treasury Solicitor had been called in to confirm the findings of the Judge Advocate-General on whether a court-martial was warranted or not, and I got the reply that there is no such record. What is the position of the Deputy Judge Advocate-General in such a matter? He is the highest legal authority that the Commander-in-Chief can consult in matters of court-martial cases, and what is his position to be if he finds that a civilian solicitor, with no locus standi in the Services, is called in to confirm whether a court-martial is warranted or not?
I venture to suggest, and I am merely asking for information, that there was some mistake made by the Secretary of State, and that, on the summary of evi- 1738 dence, the Treasury Solicitor was not called in on the question whether certain officers should be court-martialled. I cannot help thinking that there has been some mistake and that the Treasury Solicitor was not called in until very much later in the affair, when other persons, besides serving officers in the Air Force, found themselves involved in the matter and they were consulting the Treasury Solicitor to ask him to get them out of the hole. That is not an accusation, but merely a request for information. I asked the Secretary of State what was the date when the Treasury Solicitor was called in, and he told me that it was some time in June. I think it is highly desirable that the House should know which statement is correct. Was the Treasury Solicitor called in, as the Secretary of State says, presumably, in perfectly good faith, to decide whether the Deputy Judge Advocate-General of the Royal Air Force was right or not in deciding whether certain people should be court-martialled or was it the case that the Treasury Solicitor was called in on another matter?
I think the House would like to know a bit more about these things, and I hope the Secretary of State can give a satisfactory reply at the present moment. I hope the Under-Secretary will realise that the House will not expect him to be able to trace all these complicated things over a long period of months and improvise a perfectly satisfactory answer, and, therefore, I think that the matter might be left over, unless he has absolute and specific information to give to the House to-day.
Here we have a Corporation, supported almost entirely by public funds, whose accounts are presented to Parliament in such a form that one cannot judge whether or not gross extravagance is being exercised by those who control it. We have also found that officers, who had certainly not added to the credit and reputation of the Royal Air Force during their stay there, being involved in all sorts of messes and scandals, are now officials of the British Airways Corporation. The efficiency of the Corporation is suffering thereby, because some of the former officials have got sick of the whole thing and have gone to other employment. For the junior officers, there is no other employment; they have got to stick it.
When the appointment was made, at that time, the Secretary of State was seriously compromised by the activities of 1739 this particular group, and sundry other officials were compromised also. Therefore, when the Secretary of State comes down to the House and says that it was the officers concerned who demanded an inquiry and who insisted on this thing being shown up and exposing it and so on, it is very interesting to know exactly the sequence of events, and whether, on 20th October last year, when these officers demanded an inquiry and an exposure of what had taken place, it was already known on the station that inquiries were being made into this particular offence and the Food Ministry was receiving anonymous letters on the subject. It is also interesting to know the nature of the inquiry demanded. Was it an inquiry into the irregularities in question or into something quite different? Again it would be interesting to know who were the officials of the Ministry who conducted the inquiry. Were they or were they not officials who were customers of the firm? All those things I would like to see swept out of the way, and they can perhaps be swept out of the way absolutely if the affairs of British Overseas Airways Corporation are properly investigated and appropriate action taken. There is at the head of it as Chairman a nobleman and a gentleman of the very highest reputation who I do not suppose has ever had any experience of this particular substratum of society for which he is responsible at the present time. I do not suppose for a moment that Lord Knollys appreciated the possibility of having to deal with this.
As a first step, may I ask for an undertaking from the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the accounts for the year ending 31st March, 1944—the first year of the new regime—shall be presented promptly to this House? It is now nearly nine months since the year ended and that is time enough to produce the accounts. They should be presented to the House in such a form that the House may know whether this particular group of persons are conducting the affairs of the British Overseas Airways Corporation in the same way that they conducted the affairs of 54 Group. The thing is pretty serious. It is known outside this country perfectly well. Air-Commodore Critchley took the opportunity a few weeks ago of abusing the Americans without any justification whatever. The grounds of his abuse were 1740 not true. He accused them of incompetence and inefficiency in a direction in which they are notoriously much better than we are, and that only causes resentment. I can assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the American authorities are well aware that the gentleman in question who went out of his way to insult and abuse them is not the sort of person whom we in this country would regard as a suitable medium for preserving an amicable state of affairs with our great Allies. Therefore we owe it not only to ourselves and to Parliament but also to our American Allies to go into this matter and make certain that the whole thing is clean and above board. If the suggestions which I make can be proved, even in a small degree, appropriate steps should be taken to make an end of this scandal in our midst.
§ 5.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)
It does seem to me that, while the privilege of every Member of this House to say anything he likes without coming under any strictures and to be outside legal machinery should be preserved, the hon. Gentleman has gone far beyond his privilege as a Member of this House to-day. I apologise, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if I appear to be suggesting that you did not call him to Order and that therefore you justified what he has said.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Charles Williams)
I accept no responsibility for what an hon. Member says. An hon. Member does that on his own responsibility. My job is only to see that he keeps within the Rules of Order.
§ Mr. Baxter
Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I feel rather bitterly on this subject, because General Critchley is a very old friend of mine. It is a friendship which has not been broken by quarrels. He is a decent fellow. He is not only temperamental, but demonstrative. It has been said of Critchley that he never lost an enemy. That is true. But it is more or less equally true to say that he has lost very few friends. I served on his staff during the last war for a while, and he was a first-rate and an honourable officer. I learnt a lot in serving under him and I was proud to serve under him. Subsequently, after the last war, he threw up what looked like a brilliant military future. At 28 he was a brigadier in the 1741 Regular Army. He threw it up to try to do business for the Empire. He had big ideas and lost more or less the money he had, and got into difficulties, which were perfectly honourable and merely the failure of endeavour.
§ Mr. Baxter
I do not propose to go into any of these things at all. The hon. Gentleman can use his many pet phrases. His slimy trail has filled this House this afternoon, and I am not prepared to add to that slime. I can tell the House what I knew about this man at the end of the last war. His administrative capacities were so genuine and his energies so great that he had a good career in France. In 1917 every Canadian officer under the rank of major who came to this country had to come to his school at Bexhill. He was a first-rate administrator, indeed, so good an administrator that, finally, the Royal Corps, which I think was then entering into the Royal Air Force, appointed Critchley to run the whole of the Air Force cadet training scheme at that time. I am proving nothing, but I maintain that when a public servant has his character impugned by such a statement as has been made to-day, I am entitled to do something on his behalf. [Interruption.] I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton (Dr. Russell Thomas) that I am out of Order in doing this.
§ Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)
Surely it is not really a question of the hon. Member telling us what his own personal views of General Critchley's character may be. The hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) has made charges of a very grievous nature. Whether those charges are true or not, can no doubt be proved by the Government spokesman completely throwing aside the charges made by the hon. Member.
§ Mr. Baxter
Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I am sure that you of all men will agree that, if the privilege of this House is used to attack a public servant who cannot defend himself, it is equally the privilege of an hon. Member to defend that man if he believes that he 1742 should be defended. Critchley, after the war, took up greyhound racing. I do not decry greyhound racing. Taking to dogs is not a good way of making a living but it appeals to masses of the public and makes a lot of money.
§ Mr. Hopkinson
Would the hon. Gentleman allow me to interrupt for one moment? I do not think he is giving us the proper history to go straight from Sandling—which was the particular place he left—to greyhound racing. What transpired in the interim period in Mexico?
§ Mr. Baxter
I shall not bore the House with the details of Critchley's activities. I want to come to this. As this war approached, he prepared a splendid and vast scheme for training Air Force cadets. When many of the rest of us in public life were not prepared, Critchley was working on it, and he had the whole scheme ready. The late Sir Kingsley Wood accepted it at once, and the present Secretary of State for Air in this House has paid tribute, not once but three or four times, to the energy Critchley put into this, and the tremendous strength it proved to the Royal Air Force. I think these things should be said.
For reasons which I cannot quite understand, at one moment the hon. Gentleman opposite speaks of this comic opera business in Regent's Park as piffling offences, as nothing at all, like a beggar stealing a piece of sugar out of a bowl, and at the next moment as so grave, that courts-martial should be held. The pendulum of his reason swings from side to side, never knowing when to stop. I cannot tell, for the life of me, whether he thinks that it is the gravest military offence ever committed, or of no importance at all—he said both 20 times over.
Then another thing. The hon. Member dealt with Critchley and the greyhound staff going to B.O.A.C. I had no idea that this was coming up on the Adjournment, and I have not been briefed in any way by anybody to-day, but five or six months ago I lunched with the directors of the B.O.A.C. On that occasion Critchley told me that there were altogether two people who had gone with him from the Greyhound Racing Association—one was a commissionaire, the other was his personal secretary. I believe that 1743 to be true. I do not know whether the position has altered since that time but that is what it was then.
§ Mr. Hopkinson
Would the hon. Member allow me? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, to my knowledge.
§ Mr. Hopkinson
As far as I know, seven was the full number from 54 Group and the Greyhound Racing Association.
§ Mr. Baxter
Then seven. Then these seven greyhound officials—messengers, or something like that—are replacing expert engineers and traffic managers? It is a ridiculously false picture we are having to-day. Finally, the hon. Gentleman deals only with one man—the Director-General—surrounded by food offenders from Regent's Park and by greyhound trainers, or some such thing.
§ Mr. Baxter
I see, directors of the Greyhound Racing Association. The only one he has with him to my knowledge is Wing-Commander Walter Wilson, a staff officer of the highest experience and character, a flying officer in the last war, a man who has followed Critchley's career wherever he has gone, and has been a great help to Critchley, a man of the utmost honour and probity, with a fine military record behind him in the last war, and a useful one in this.
To conclude I want to say this. The hon. Gentleman opposite speaks with harshness, yet I think he is entirely right to express dissatisfaction with that balance-sheet. That I accept entirely, and I am sure the House does too. The expenditure of public money should be scrutinised most carefully by this House, and no reputations or friendships or enmities should stand in the way of that being done. But why suddenly treat the Director-General as if he is not to be trusted, as if he is to be a man in complete charge and then, suddenly, with a lowering of the voice, almost with reverence, speak of Lord Knollys, the Chairman, as if Lord Knollys knows nothing of it? Why does not the hon. Gentleman 1744 stand up and say, "How dare we have a Chairman so inept, so innocent, so unworthy that he does not know what kind of balance-sheet is going out under his signature? "I think the whole thing this afternoon has been a contemptible, cowardly bit of enmity and malignant clowning on the part of the hon. Gentleman opposite.
§ 5.55 p.m.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Air (Commander Brabner)
I must first apologise for not being in my place when the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) raised this question, but I had no warning that it was to be taken on the Adjournment and, while I did have a warning that it might be taken on the Consolidated Fund Bill, subsequently that was found to be out of Order. I have had absolutely no opportunity of briefing myself to answer the hon. Gentleman's accusations. Therefore, I ask, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, through you for the consideration and possibly the sympathy of the House in doing what I can to make a case against the whole gamut of allegations made by the hon. Member.
I listened with the greatest interest—I may say I was almost enthralled—to the tale of misery and woe which he put before the House. I understood the hon. Gentleman originally to raise questions of the validity of the B.O.A.C. accounts, but a large part of his speech was, in my view, devoted to rehashing the Debate on an Adjournment Motion which he had taken some weeks ago and which I felt—and I thought that the House felt then—had been completely dealt with, and extremely adequately, by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air. Be that as it may, there are a number of things which I would like, most respectfully and humbly, to put before the House, not in detailed answer to the hon. Gentleman's criticism, because I cannot do that now. However, I may say that if he likes to make these allegations on a future occasion I shall have the greatest possible pleasure in answering every single one of them in the greatest detail. There is an answer and it can be given, and I apologise to the House for not being ready with it to-day.
First, it seems to me that as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) has said we have this continued and malevolent attack upon the Director-General of B.O.A.C.——
§ Mr. Hopkinson
On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. May I ask if it is in Order to attribute malevolence if a Member attempts to do his duty to the public? What is your view?
§ Mr. Hopkinson
The hon. and gallant Gentleman, I think quite accidentally, attributed malevolence to me, in bringing up this matter, and it does not seem to me to be quite in Order.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Perhaps I might remind all hon. Members of the House that there is a Rule that we should not impute motives to anyone on any matter.
§ Commander Brabner
I apologise, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I seem to have transgressed the Rules of the House, but the hon. Gentleman has made a prolonged attack upon the Director-General of the B.O.A.C. I feel that he is dealing with a man in a vacuum. I cannot conceive that Lord Knollys and Sir Harold Howitt are so gullible as to have all the wool that this hon. Gentleman has brought to this House pulled over their eyes time and time again. The hon. Member opposite has testified to the high qualities of Sir Harold Howitt and the hon. Member for Mossley said that Sir Harold Howitt's firm audits the accounts of the Greyhound Racing Association——
§ Commander Brabner
And the hon. Member's own, but I cannot see how any gentleman of that calibre can be expected to sell his soul for the ability to audit the accounts of the Greyhound Racing Association. It seems incredible to me. Therefore I feel that sooner or later we must give B.O.A.C. a chance to get on its feet without these continued aspersions on the activities of its members.
There is one further point, and that is that there is a direct chain of responsibility—and I confess to speaking upon this as a back bencher myself. At one moment the House is asking for a number of free and competitive companies to run the air affairs of this country; next, the Secretary of State sets up an organisation and says "This should be responsible to me solely and not to the Air Ministry, and I will appoint a Board of Directors who are entirely free and independent to do what they like——
§ It being Six o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Blathers.]
§ Commander Brabner
This Board of Directors has been appointed by the Secretary of State for Air. They are responsible only to him for the efficient running of the Corporation. They appoint the officials of the Corporation, and the Director-General is appointed by the Board of Directors. So far as I am aware, the Secretary of State for Air has no responsibility at all for the officials of the Corporation.
§ Mr. Hopkinson
The Act of 1939 lays it down that the Secretary of State shall make these appointments, which he did and which he announced to the House on 20th May, 1943.
§ Commander Brabner
I accept that, but the fact is that though he appoints the Board of Directors, that Board was given a free hand to get on with the re-organisation of the Corporation. That is the Secretary of State's responsibility. He is responsible for the Board of Directors, and they are responsible for the Corporation. That, I hope, will deal with the question of the responsibility of my right hon. Friend for the Directors.
On the question of accounts, there is nothing sinister or wicked about the fact that they are not yet ready. I think I am right in saying that they will be ready early in the New Year. The difficulty is that collection has to be made from all corners of the world of all the pennies and halfpennies which go into the Corporation's coffers, and that takes time. It is, however, being done with reasonable efficiency, and, as I have said, the accounts for 1944 will be ready early in the New Year, which is about the same delay as has occurred before. I would like to make a further observation about these accounts. It is clearly quite, impossible for the accounts of Transport Command to be discussed in this House. I do not think any Member would come here and suggest that there should be an inquiry into the affairs and internal administration of Transport Command. I suppose I ought to be careful about describing B.O.A.C., but whatever its status as a 1747 Corporation it is entirely engaged on war work and, therefore, subject to all sorts of military hindrances and so on which would render the accounts quite valueless, even if they were produced, unless Members knew the entire facts which lay behind the accounts.
May I give one illustration, which I think will be pertinent? B.O.A.C., instead of being able to range the world to buy aircraft best suited to their job, have to accept and operate whatever aircraft the Air Ministry can afford to give them, at whatever expense, having regard to the military situation. To give an example which does not appertain now, I think I am right in saying that B.O.A.C. were using, at one time, some Whitleys for transport work. Anybody with experience of flying knows how utterly unsuitable those aircraft are for any sort of commercial, passenger or transport work or, indeed, for operational work, as the crews who flew in them at the beginning of the war know. The Corporation was given these aircraft and had to use them, whatever the cost in petrol, man-hours, crews and safety.
Unless an extremely long and detailed statement, which is quite beyond the power of any Ministry in war-time, were given, the accounts would be utterly valueless. Naturally, as the aircraft situation improves the quality of the aircraft which they have to use will be far better, and they will become much more a commercial corporation in the true sense of the word. The detailed accounting of any air line is a very complicated and heavy business. It is quite impossible for these accounts to be put out by B.O.A.C. or the Air Ministry with the staff available in time of war. The hon. Member is complaining of delay in getting out the balance-sheet and accounts which we already have, but they would not be out for another two years if we had to give in detailed breakdown all the figures he has requested. The staff is simply not there to do it. A lot of water will have to flow under the bridges before it is possible to induce the Minister of Labour to give us the accounting staff to do this, or there will have to be very great inducements to produce the accounts in war-time with the staff available.
I have asked for the indulgence of the House on coming to this Box for the first 1748 time, but I make no apology for having been a critic in the past of our operations in the air. It is clear that this is one of the most serious and important international questions in which this country will be engaged after the war. Since I have been at the Ministry I have taken the trouble to call for a report of all complaints, or the reverse, which have been received by B.O.A.C. in the last 18 months. I also called for criticisms, and I got them. If the House will not think me indelicate, one of the only criticisms that people took the trouble to write in and mention was that they thought there should be a down draught rather than an up draught in the lavatories of aircraft, because it would be an improvement to the passengers concerned and possibly to the general convenience of all who were travelling. Seriously, that is one of what I might call even the major complaints that have been received. Against that I have an immense document relating to all sorts and conditions of men who have travelled by B.O.A.C. all over the world, and it is not everyone who is well treated who, when he has had a comfortable journey and has enjoyed it, takes the trouble to write and thank the company. It is only the man who is disgruntled and gets a rough time who thinks the company is rotten.
I thought we should have a great pile of letters saying how bad the company is. It is quite the reverse, unless the hon. Member suggests that the machinations of the Director-General are such that he suppressed the correspondence, but that is not what I have been able to unearth up to now. I would like to read the comments of a gentleman who is well known to myself, a very senior and powerful admiral, who was carried about the world by this service at a time when he was extremely ill. I found by chance a letter from him in this great document. He is a man who is not liable to mince his words from time to time, and he writes:When convalescent I was flown home by British Overseas Airways Corporation to this country last Wednesday. I simply cannot thank enough all concerned in the Corporation for the efficient and sympathetic way in which they organised and attended to my comfort and well being.He goes on to mention certain names of officials of B.O.A.C. I would like to mention the proprietor of a powerful 1749 American newspaper who travelled by the B.O.A.C., and wrote saying how comfortably he was treated, what attachment he will now have for the particular aircraft that he flew in, and of the immense consideration with which he was treated. This is a large docket, and I would be happy to go through it with the hon. Member afterwards, but I will not bore the House with it any longer. It contains 70 or 80 pages of congratulations on the operations of this Corporation. Therefore, I would suggest that this is a service which is vital to this country, for better or for worse. Whatever our views about the private operation of air lines and so on, this is a service which is carrying the British flag all over the world in time of war in competition with other nations. This is one of the best ambassadors—or the worst—that we can possibly have.
§ Mr. Kenneth Lindsay
While the hon. and gallant Gentleman is on this international point, will he say whether there is any control over what the Director-General says in public? I am referring to his speech the other day, which was a great shock to many people.
§ Commander Brabner
I think I am right in saying that it was a great shock to the Director-General, and that he has been left in no doubt that such effusions are quite out of order and that they will not occur again. There is no question about that. That is why I say that this is an organisation which is our best, or one of our worst, ambassadors. I think that it has improved immensely in the last 18 months or two years. There is no com- 1750 parison now with what it was two years ago. I therefore suggest to hon. Members that we should give it a chance to get on its feet and to show the British flag in an efficient and proud way wherever it operates. We should give it a chance to settle down without these continual attacks on the staff. They are most unsettling to everybody concerned. I am not concerned at the moment, because I have not a brief, about the rights or wrongs of the particular allegations made by the hon. Gentleman. I am not in a position to answer now, but I will do so on some future occasion. Let us give this Corporation a chance to work in an efficient and powerful manner. Let it settle down and do its job. When it has had a chance to get on its feet, then let us come to the House and make criticisms about how it is run, how it is organised and whether it is doing the job we want it to do, and not keep on with these petty pin-pricks as to what happened in a certain unit, or as to who goes dog racing and who does not, and so on. Incidentally I understand that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is very happy about the results from the Greyhound Association and that they are a source of immense revenue year after year. I am not going to be drawn into an argument regarding their activities. Let the B.O.A.C. be given a chance to do its job, and perhaps it might be discussed in a more high-minded and sensible way at a later date.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at a Quarter after Six o'Clock.