HC Deb 12 October 1945 vol 414 cc647-60

3.48 p.m.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

In congratulating the Parliamentary Secretary upon his Marathon concluding paragraphs, I wish to say that I shall be as brief as possible on the matter that I am raising—the arrangements for the release of Royal Air Force personnel as announced by the Minister of Labour in his recent statement on demobilisation, which was, in the main, satisfactory. The Under-Secretary for Air, who has come here at very short notice, will be aware that that statement has caused very deep concern in the Service for which he is responsible to this House. It is true that the original White Paper on Re-Allocation of Man-power said: Owing to military considerations, releases will necessarily proceed at a different rate in the different Services. But can the then Minister of Labour, or the last Parliament, or the country at that time, have envisaged a disparity so drastic as this? By June next year, the Royal Navy will have reached Release Group 45, while the Royal Air Force will only have reached Release Group 28. That seems a most extreme inequity at the expense of the R.A.F. A week ago I was on my way home from South East Asia, just after this announcement had been made. I can assure my hon. Friend the Undersecretary that, at every R.A.F. station we touched—from the notorious Mauripur, about which I am in communication with him, to Shaibah, to Cairo West, to Malta—there was a most violently unfavourable reaction to this announcement among the R.A.F. men there. I found it very difficult to explain it away or to answer their argument that this was tantamount to a serious breach of the whole "Age-plus-length-of-service" principle.

First, in order to get the facts in their due proportion, would my hon. Friend, when replying, tell us, not merely the figures, because they have already been published, but the percentages, because it is not always so easy to work these things out for ourselves? We want to know the percentages of the strength of the three Services, comparatively, which will have been released by the end of next June.

It seems to me that there are two aspects of this matter which deserve special attention. First, what may be called the public-relations-within-the-Service aspect. It should surely have been explained to the men in the Air Force at the time of the Minister of Labour's statement why they were being asked to sacrifice themselves. I have already quoted once from the original White Paper in a sense which perhaps helps my hon. Friend's argument, but I shall now quote from it something which I do not think helps his argument at all. One of the two main principles of the White Paper was: the arrangements for the release of men from the Forces must be such as will be readily understood and accepted as fair by the Forces. Surely that principle has been departed from, in this instance at any rate? The statement of the Ministry of Labour was just a bare recital of facts—very pleasant facts for most of the Services, very unpleasant facts for the Royal Air Force. Surely the reasons and the explanations behind those facts should have been given, to the R.A.F. at least, at the same time. If the facts are inescapable, and the reasons are sound, intelligent Servicemen will always accept them. I think that the Minister might also consider making a broadcast giving the reasons which I hope he will be able to give us this afternoon, so as to reassure to some extent the naturally disgruntled relatives of the R.A.F. men, particularly of those men serving overseas.

The second main point is, what can be done to improve matters? Is this apparent injury to the R.A.F. irreparable? Is the plan, as announced by the Minister of Labour, final? I hope the Under-Secretary will tell us that he will explore every idea and use every device—whether re-mustering or any other kind of device—that can save the R.A.F. from having, in vulgar parlance, to "carry the can" for the other Services. What about the question of intake—the new recruits coming into the Services in the near future? Would it help to modify this disparity if a larger percentage were allocated to the R.A.F. than had been intended? If so, will my hon. Friend press for this? One point which has been suggested—the idea is not mine, it was suggested by another hon. Member of this House—is that civilian inspectors should be appointed to go round R.A.F. stations and check redundancy. That seems to me a very good idea.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State, like the Secretary of State, has the welfare and interests of the men of the Royal Air Force really at heart. I hope he will show to-day, and always, that he is looking after them properly.

3.54 p.m.

Mr. Callaghan (Cardiff, South)

I, too, will be brief, to give other speakers a chance. We want the Under-Secretary to tell us why the Royal Air Force has been singled out for this treatment and we think it is a failure in the Government's publicity machinery that that explanation should not have been given earlier. We hope he will be able to tell us this afternoon if there are good reasons.

It is possible that those reasons may be related to military commitments. If, in fact, they are, then that is a departure from the Minister of Labour's statement on the general programme of releases which says that, to the major extent, the rate of release will be dependent upon transport facilities. If, however, military commitments are one of the determining factors, I suggest most strongly to the Under-Secretary that he should consider the formation of a special Man-Power Board, not drawn from members of the Royal Air Force, to consider whether men are being usefully occupied. We have heard too many disquieting stories from the men themselves really to believe that that is so. One can understand men being under-employed if there is no transport to bring them home, but one cannot accept that explanation if we are to be told that "military commitments" keep them there. We saw from the Minister of Labour's Press statement that the intake into the Army is to be much larger than intake into the Royal Air Force. That should be altered if, in fact, the Air Force has to lag behind. The Minister should announce the permanent conditions of service at the earliest possible moment. Let the men know what they are taking on, let them see the colour of the horse, and they will perhaps back it.

I hope the Government will, therefore, put out that information as soon as possible. Further, will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary tell us when the groups in the Royal Air Force, which are now lagging behind, will be brought up-to date with the general release scheme? Accounting clerks are sadly behind and signals officers will be out only up to Group 13 by the end of this year. No wonder that the phrase the men use about the scheme is not, "Age plus length of service" but, "Age plus what service you are in." Finally, it would be reassuring to Members if my hon. Friend could tell us what percentage of the whole strength of the Royal Air Force is in the special groups which are lagging behind.

3.57 p.m.

Mr. Boothby (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Eastern)

I do not propose to make a long speech, because I know that the Under-Secretary wants time in which to reply, which I am sure the House will be very willing to grant him. There is great anxiety about this question. We are glad that the matter has been raised by the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg). It is a technical point, and because of that I think it is interesting to know the views of the people who are actually affected. I think the Under-Secretary and the House might be interested if I read two short extracts from letters I have received from constituents of mine. The first is from a leading aircraftman, who is stationed in Norway, and who says: We have been repeatedly told that the age plus service scheme which was agreed by all Service men to be the fairest would be carried out; but in announcing the new proposals Mr. Isaacs deliberately and quite clearly, has broken it. That is the prevailing opinion in many Air Force camps in this country and in many parts of the world to-day; and it is a view which requires to be categorically denied or explained away. This aircraftman goes on to give figures; for instance, that the Navy are releasing up to Group 45 by the end of next June, the Army up to Group 31, and the Royal Air Force up to Group 28 only. Imagine the effect these figures must have had on aircraftmen at these camps. He also gives the percentages—the Navy 49 per cent. the Army 62, and the Royal Air Force only 38. On the point of redundancy this aircraftman says: A few months ago there was a surplus of man-power in the Royal Air Force, and thousands were transferred to the Army. Even now, in camps everywhere, men are left in idleness. Here in Norway this is more apparent than ever. I am an armourer to trade, and I have been here since January with nothing to do. Had it not been for the fact that I was able to operate a Linotype machine for the printing of a newspaper for the troops out here, I think I should have gone mad. It seems to me obvious that people who were transferred from the Air Force a few months ago into the Army, because of redundancy, now find themselves—and I think the Under-Secretary will find it difficult to get out of this—in a much better position. What about the chaps in the R.A.F.? What are they to think about that? I think this is a real point; and I do not think it is fair.

The other quotation which I wish to make is from a corporal now stationed in India. He says: There appears to be a complete departure from the age plus service release scheme, and we all consider it a gross breach of faith on the part of a Government so recently elected, with such overwhelming support from the Services. That is clearly the attitude of mind in certain Commands, and I must say I think there is something to be said for it. Another point he makes: This news is particularly galling to those who, like myself, have release groups under 38 and have recently arrived in this Command (that is to say India), for I hear from a friend in Blackpool that personnel with release groups under 38 will now no longer be sent overseas; and, in addition, I have evidence of several cases of mis-employment in this theatre, and I am led to believe that is the rule rather than the exception.

It being Four 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. Mathers.]

Mr. Boothby

That is really all I want to say. I think the House is always interested in the views of people directly concerned; and what these letters show clearly is the kind of effect this announcement has had upon the average aircraftman in the ordinary R.A.F. station. If they are any indication of what they are feeling, they must be feeling pretty sore. I cannot understand how my hon. Friend, with his great experience and knowledge of publicity and propaganda, has not managed to put this thing over better than he has, even if his Department was what might be called "pulling a fast one." Mothers and wives in this country, who are getting this sort of letter from all over the world at the present time, must be in a state of seething indignation; and I feel that it is due to the House, the country and the R.A.F. that a perfectly clear statement should be made, to-day if possible, as to the reasons that led the Government to take the action they have done; and, if possible, to demonstrate to us that the action itself is not so unfair as it would superficially appear to be.

4.3 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Strachey)

I am very glad that the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) and other hon. Members have raised this matter because I realise that it is one on which the men in the Forces feel very keenly. It is a matter about which I believe there is an explanation—two weighty reasons, at any rate, which must be taken into consideration. It is very valuable therefore that I have this opportunity this afternoon to put them before the House. First, I do not think we want to exaggerate what has happened. I have seen in the Press and elsewhere an extremely exaggerated view of those facts. I have seen it stated that there is no speed up but rather the reverse in releases from the R.A.F. So far as the present is concerned, that is, up to the end of the year, this of course is by no means the case. Under the Ministry of Labour's recent announcement the R.A.F. releases 338,000 men by the end of the year. That is over 100,000 more than were to be released under any previous announcement. So, for the remainder of this year there is a very rapid speed-up in releases from the R.A.F., at least equal to the speed-up in the other Forces.

I stress that because I think we should all be wise to take, as hard and fast, and, as far as one can humanly say not subject to revision, only the figures down to the end of the year. So far as these hard and fast figures to the end of this year are concerned then, there has been a rapid speed-up in releases from the R.A.F. in common with the other two Services. It is when you come to the forecast of what will happen in the first six months of next year, that great anxiety has undoubtedly been caused in the minds of members of the R.A.F. and no doubt their relatives, because they see that it is forecast that in the first six months of next year there will be only another 140,000 added to the 338,000 who are released up to the end of this year. They see that, consequently, not now, but next year, the rate of release from the R.A.F. will be very much slower than the rate of release from the other Services. They see that in terms of groups, for example, not so much in comparison with the Army—there is no great disparity there—that we propose to release up to 28 Group by midsummer next, while they see that in the case of the Navy they are going up as high as 45.

This question of groups is connected with the point just made of evenness of release as between trades. I think the hon. Member who raised this matter will find if he looks at the figures and facts as circulated in the Official Report that the naval release, going up to Group 45, is achieved, rightly or wrongly, by a very much greater degree of unevenness as between trades than we have foreshadowed for the R.A.F. It is thus a little unreal to compare Air Group 28 with the Navy's Group 45, as I think it will be found that there has been a bigger spread-over in the case of the Royal Navy. You can have it either way. You can reach a comparatively high group by causing great unevenness, or the release can be kept more even as between groups.

But that is really a side issue. The tact remains, and I face it, that as at present forecast, in the first half of next year the rate of release from the R.A.F. so far announced is considerably slower than that of the other two Services. The hon. Member asked for percentages. The fact I am dealing with is reflected in the forecast which showed that the VE-Day strength of the Royal Navy will have been reduced to 52 per cent. by midsummer next, the Army to 36 per cent. and the R.A.F. only to 58 per cent. I give these approximate figures because they show a disparity, but they also show the limit of the disparity. It is not the enormous disparity which some people have in mind when they have looked entirely at group numbers. When all that has been said there is this disparity—the Minister of Labour forecast a substantially slower R.A.F. release in the New Year. Why is that and what is the justification for it?

The reasons, whether they be justifications or not, are two. In regard to the first one I ask the House to clear away any misconception that this release scheme is a sort of private enterprise show by each Service working separately. It is not that at all. The speed-up in release which was announced by the Minister of Labour was a most carefully taken decision by the Government as a whole working with the Chiefs of Staff and the three Services. It is a planned scheme in which the rate of release of each Service is dependent upon the rate of release of the other two Services. It was only by that plan that the Government could see their way to do the two things they had to do. One was to meet our world-wide commitments, and the other was to get a million and a half men out of the Forces by Christmas and 3,000,000 men out of the Forces by midsummer next. Both those objectives had to be achieved, and the only way in which they could be achieved was by having this appreciably uneven rate of release as between the Royal Air Force and the other two Forces.

That was for two reasons—first, that when the survey of our world-wide commitments and the ways in which we could meet those commitments, which the Government called upon the Chiefs of Staff to make, was made, it was soon found that by far the most economical way of meeting those commitments in man-power was by retaining relatively substantial air forces and relatively small ground forces. In other words, you can occupy or police a country either by divisions or by squadrons. And it is very considerably more economical in manpower to do the job as much as you can by means of squadrons and as little as you can by means of divisions. If your total forces at the end of the period—in this case 30th June next—consist of a relatively high number of squadrons and a relatively low number of divisions, you can do your maximum amount of work and can meet your commitments with a minimum of man-power. Therefore, when the survey was made the Chiefs of Staff and the Government found that the only way they could get the over-all figure of 3,000,000 men out of the Forces by 30th June was by this uneven division in the rate of release between the Forces.

There is no doubt whatever, of course, that this has fallen hardly upon the members of the Force for which I speak. They are particularly wanted because they can do this particular occupying and policing job more economically than ground forces can do it, but I realise that this is little consolation to the individual airman who finds that he is going to get out appreciably later than a soldier or a sailor in the same age and service group as himself. But is it something which my Noble Friend and myself should have resisted at all costs? Is it not rather true that there is an overriding necessity before this country, not only for the sake of the men in the Services to get them out as soon as they wish, but also for the reconstruction of this country and for the industrial life of this country which must be put on its feet again at the very earliest possible moment, to get the highest over-all figure out of the three Services taken together?

This appeared to be the way, and the only way, in which this could be done. That is the first reason which has led His Majesty's Government to make this particular plan for release from the Forces, but it is not the only one. There is another reason of at least equal importance, and it, too, unfortunately for the Royal Air Force, bears hardly on us. In order to observe the principle of the age and service group as between the men at home and the men overseas, an immense and urgent transportation task arises. That is the task of getting the men home from the Far East, Italy, and all over the world; and in that task the Royal Air Force is imperatively needed. I wonder if the House quite realises—I did not realise it until I got the figures put before me and added them up—the immense magnitude of the transportation task which faces Transport Command, and not only that Command—it is wider than that—in the next nine months? It turns out that between now and 30th June next we have to meet a task of moving almost exactly 1,000,000 men and women over various journeys. That is a transportation and trooping task of a magnitude which, I suppose (with the exception of the repatriation task faced by the United States Air Force last summer over the Atlantic with much greater resources), no Air Force in history has ever dreamt of facing before. The over-all release scheme, the indispensable leave schemes from the Far East, the return of men after their tour of duty in all three Services—none of those can be looked at unless the R.A.F. can move those million bodies in the next nine months.

That is a task which bears most heavily on the R.A.F., and, in addition to the very big rôle which, as I have just said, it is called upon to play in meeting our worldwide commitments, it means that we need a larger proportion of the Force, 58 per cent, as compared with 52 per cent, of the Navy, to be retained within the R.A.F. next summer. It means that between 600,000 and 700,000 men—add the figures up for yourselves—are needed in the Royal Air Force next midsummer. Those two reasons will account in the New Year for the smaller rate of release from the Royal Air Force as compared with the other two Forces.

Think what would happen, for example, if we, facing that transportation task, released a rapidly increased number of men. That transportation task cannot just be done by anyone. It cannot be done by new recruits. Hon. Members have mentioned the question of intake. It is a valuable suggestion and will be taken up, but I am afraid we should delude ourselves if we thought it would help very much in the short run. You cannot put on to this enormous trooping job any but experienced men. I do not mean merely experienced pilots and navigators. Those are very important, but I mean also men experienced in maintenance tasks both here and at the staging pests which have to be made from here to Singapore.

It may interest the House to know that Transport Command makes a rule that two full journeys to the Far East and back have to be made by each crew which goes out, carrying freight only, before they carry passengers. Yet even with the very great efforts which we make in the interests of safety there probably will be crashes and accidents in an immense task of that sort. If we relaxed in the very slightest, or allowed our experienced men to go, I am afraid that the accident rate might become one which this House could not possibly allow to continue. In all, we calculate that, during the six months of next year, and not merely in Transport Command, because half at least of Bomber Command will be engaged in the task, and counting the share of Maintenance Command and the training and auxiliary services which are backing up the transport services, some 40 per cent. of the entire man-power of the R.A.F. will be engaged in this transportation task. The switch-over of man-power from the war-time tasks of the Royal Air Force lo this new task having to be carried out at the same time as hundreds of thousands of men are going out of the Service, is a problem of remustering such as no Service has ever had to face before. Because then the R.A.F. is the most economical way of meeting our commitments and because of this huge transportation task, the rate of release which we thought it safe to forecast for the first six months of next year is an appreciably slower one than is possible for the Army and the Royal Navy.

Have I, therefore, to end these remarks by saying that the men and women of the Royal Air Force must simply bear their burdens? To some extent I am afraid that, for the reasons I have given that is the case, but I do not think that we need leave them entirely without hope. I think there are two legitimate grounds for hope here—

Mr. Boothby

May I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he is proposing to do anything about redundant staffs by cutting them down?

Mr. Strachey

That is bound up with the problem I have mentioned, and I am glad the hon. Member has mentioned it. It is bound up with the problem of remustering. The whole force is being re-sorted at the same moment as numbers of men are leaving it. Men may be redundant in one command at the moment, but they are desperately needed in Transport Command and the like, and in the re-sorting out and retraining certain individuals may feel that they are redundant because they have not yet been put into their new jobs.

Mr. Callaghan

All hon. Members have instances of re-mustering being hampered because people fairly low down in the R.A.F. hierarchy will not send names forward.

Mr. Strachey

No process of this sort is perfect, and that is a matter of individual cases from which we cannot draw general conclusions.

To resume, it seems to me—and I have no more information on this point than any other hon. Member—that when we are looking, not three months but nine months ahead, in the very nature of things the world situation is bound to change, and as it changes it must be reviewed by the Government and the Chiefs of Staff. The commitments which will face this country must obviously change also. They may, of course, change for the worse, but they may also change for the better, and we may find that it is possible, looking ahead to the first six months of next year, to get a review of the world situation, and it may be possible to lighten that burden of occupying and policing functions which is falling heavily on all our Forces, and especially heavily on the R.A.F. Then as to the transportation task, this is a matter largely of the availability of shipping. No one would, if they could, bring these men home on this scale by air transport. It is not really an economical or sensible method if we had the shipping available, especially as we have to do it in converted aircraft such as Stirlings, which were never built for such purposes. It would be far preferable if the shipping could be made available to take over part, at any rate, of this enormous trooping task from the R.A.F.

There is the prospect, which I think has improved in the last few days, that in the new year the shipping position will be appreciably easier. If it is so, there again I think the Royal Air Force can legitimately ask on behalf of its airmen and airwomen for some substantial easing of the very heavy burden which falls upon them and which necessitates their slower rate of release.

Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)

; While sharing the hopes of the hon. Gentleman, hon. Members have asked whether he will consider, in consultation with his colleagues, whether some form of financial compensation might be paid to Servicemen whose rate of demobilisation will be retarded beyond the average rate.

Mr. Strachey

That is a question for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than for me. What I do ask the House is to say quite frankly to airmen that while the figures of releases to the end of the year are hard and fast, and will be as far as is humanly possible realised in the quantity and at the speed stated, in the nature of things a forecast running six or nine months ahead is by no means, and cannot possibly be, so hard and fast. There is, therefore, the possibility, when looking so far ahead, of revision. We recognise this in the Royal Air Force by only promulgating the groups due for release in each trade three months ahead; beyond that we must regard any prospect which is given as subject to revision. But whatever revision is made, a heavy burden will still fall on the Royal Air Force, and the airmen and airwomen who did so vast a work in the war; for they are asked, for the remaining months of their service, to play a very large part in our occupying and policing forces and in the work of transporting: home their comrades of the other two Forces.

Major Ungoed-Thomas (Llandaff and Barry)

Will the hon. Gentleman explore the possibility of remustering members of the other Forces into the Royal Air Force?

Mr. Strachey

That is a possibility which we will certainly consider very care- fully, but I am afraid it would not provide very quick relief.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, Southern)

The hon. Gentleman has made a statement which, I fear, will give very little satisfaction overseas. Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby), if I had known that this Debate was to take place I could have brought along a letter couched in even more censorious terms about the arrangements than even that which my hon. Friend has read out. May I ask that the Minister should look into the possibility of mitigating the effect of this announcement with the utmost despatch? In particular, to-day he has mentioned nothing about leave. A letter which I received this morning pointed out that many men in the writer's unit had had no leave for four, five or six months, a state of affairs which undoubtedly exists in some units. Would it not be possible to make arrangements for increased leave facilities for the men who, under present circumstances, are having to engage in extended duties?

Mr. Strachey

That, of course, is a shipping and air transportation question. The more men brought home on leave, the greater the pressure on the transport available for men coming home for release or at the expiration of their term of duty. That again is a burden on the transport function of the Royal Air Force.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes past Four o'clock.