HC Deb 17 March 1947 vol 435 cc147-51

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a number of officers and airmen, not exceeding 370,000, all ranks, be maintained for Air Force Service, during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1948.

9.43 p.m.

Colonel Wigg (Dudley)

There is one important matter the House should consider. I heard with some interest the Under-Secretary say that his Department has gone to the limit of self-criticism in assessing the manpower needs of the Royal Air Force. That is very satisfactory, but the final determination as to whether the number of men asked for is required must not rest with the Air Ministry but with this House. Before the war, it was the practice of all the Service Departments to give the fullest possible Estimates, and certainly the Air Ministry had a very good record in this respect. But the Estimates which the House are now considering—Vote A in particular—give less information than they did before the war. Perhaps it is asking too much that after the first full year following the end of the war prewar practices should be brought into operation, but I ask the Secretary of State to assure the House that when he comes to the House this time next year if he cannot give as much information as was given before the war, he will explain to the House why he is unable to do so.

This may appear to be a small point but it strikes at the heart of the very important principle that the Service Departments shall give the fullest possible information. I hope the Royal Air Force will set the other two Services a very good example.

9.45 p.m.

Wing-Commander Shackleton

In the light of this sudden military incursion by the hon. and gallant Member for Dudley (Colonel Wigg) I feel it is appropriate that a former member of the Royal Air Force should support the views which have just been expressed. I realise that the right hon. Gentleman is in some difficulty, as was his colleague the Secretary of State for War the other evening, but the feeling is very strong that members of this Committee should be given more information and I respectfully submit that there is much more information that we should be given. I believe that the Air Force makes much better use of its manpower than does the Army but, nevertheless, it must be for the House of Commons to judge the matter, and if it were possible to give us even the composition of the Air Force in terms of trades, in terms of the respective uses of the different members of the Air Force, the number of air crew, the number of fitters, etc., it would enable us to form a better judgment.

I do not wish to be hard on the Secretary of State for Air because I feel that the Minister of Defence is really responsible, and I am sorry that he is not here to listen to this Debate. I hope the Minister of Defence will be here when this matter is raised, as I hope it will be raised again, on the Naval Estimates.

Wing-Commander Millington

I rise to associate myself with this appeal for more information. What I am most concerned about is for some statement from the Secretary of State analysing the men, not into trades but into allocation and deployment over the face of the globe. I could cite him, if he wished, instances of manpower in this country misemployed, men completely demoralised by the fact that they are receiving inadequate training, men who have been in the Service for a couple of years but have never yet learned a proper trade. It is important that this Committee should have a full opportunity of examining the deployment of all Forces but, in particular, of the Royal Air Force, over the whole world, so that we can make a proper and fair judgment on the efficiency and the efficient use of our air manpower.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

I ought to say at once that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Defence was in bed yesterday with a temperature, that he was here for the first half of today's Debate, and that I think he went away in order to be in adequate form for later events which are coming on not far from now. Of course I am in the fullest agreement with my hon. Friends that the Air Ministry ought to supply as much information as can be supplied. For my part I regret, for many reasons, that we are not giving yet as much information as used to be given before the war. There are two reasons for that: One is that the supply of information has now become an international question. It is not generally realised that it was an international question before the war and that, under the Covenant of the League of Nations, every member nation undertook the obligation to supply every year full information about all its Forces and its preparations for war. We are now just beginning to work that same thing out in the United Nations committees. We certainly have not yet reached the stage at which decisions can be made; when they have been made, I believe we shall give every kind of information about the Reserve, and that that information will be printed so that everybody will not only have a certain number of figures placed before him, but will know that they correspond to reality.

The second reason is that, supposing I tried to tell the Committee what squadrons were operational and what were not, I should be gravely embarrassed to give them any figures that would stand up to a close examination. Some squadrons are operational in the sense that they are on the station where they are supposed to be, that they are flying, that they are fully efficient, but they are well below their proper numbers: Others are operational in the sense that they are up to numbers so far as aircrews and other things are concerned, but they have not enough servicing manpower to enable them to do the flying hours which we would desire. The whole thing with this very rapid run down of the total strength of the Air Force in a very short time, which was the main burden of what I said this afternoon, is that we are in a transitional condition, and, until we pass from the transitional era, I am afraid we shall not do all that we should like to do for the Committee in this regard.

But we have no objection in principle. We would like to give as much information as we can. I wish to say a word about those who have not had proper training in any particular trade, although they have been in the Force for a considerable time. The Air Council have been giving close attention to this question of training. They are not at all satisfied that the present courses being given to those who come into the Force are the best that can be devised. They think it practically certain—and I think it certain, but I speak as an amateur—that there must be quite different kinds of training for a national Serviceman, who comes in for a short time, and the long Serviceman, who is making it his career. In any case, my hon. Friend can be assured that not only the Air Council. but the manpower committee to whose work we attach so much importance, are going thoroughly into the whole business of courses of training, and drastic changes may come.

Colonel Wigg

I am not altogether satisfied with the statement. Of course, I accept my right hon. Friend's assurance, but I want something more. Will my right hon. Friend next year when he pre- sents his Estimates, put in the memorandum a statement why an explanation cannot be given?

The Chairman

The right hon. Member has dealt with the point raised and cannot deal with a matter in the future.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That a number of officers and airmen, not exceeding 370,000, all ranks, be maintained for Air Force Service, during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1948.