HC Deb 25 January 1955 vol 536 cc105-9

Order for Second Reading read.

7.28 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

May I start by adding my warmest tribute and that of my noble Friend the Secretary of State to those tributes which have already been paid by the House to the valuable work of the Select Committee?

The best thing I can do in moving the Second Reading of the Air Force Bill is briefly to outline the main, differences between it and the Army Bill which has just received a Second Reading. The Select Committee has gone on the principle that the Army and Air Force Acts should correspond except where particularly marked differences in the functions and conditions of the two Services exist. We accept that principle, and the differences which I shall describe conform to that principle and to the recommendations of the Select Committee.

Parts I of the two Bills, dealing with enlistment and terms of service, are not exactly alike, because the Royal Air Force has not adopted the 22 years' initial engagement. Part I of the Air Force Bill, however, embodies the improvements recommended by the Select Committee in so far as they are applicable to the Air Force Bill. For example, the paragraphs dealing with enlistment have been redrafted, and those dealing with the enlistment of aliens have been amended.

Part II of the Air Force Bill, which deals with discipline and the trial and punishment of offences, corresponds closely with Part II of the Army Bill. Clauses 24 and 26, however, which deal with offences committed with intent to aid the enemy, or through cowardice, have been extended to cover certain offences peculiar to an air force. Examples of this are giving false air signals, failure to use the utmost exertions to carry out warlike operations in the air, and causing the capture of Her Majesty's aircraft.

A further difference is to be found in Clauses 44 and 46. Clause 44 contains subsections (2) and (3), which do not appear in the Army Bill, and which deal with damage to, or loss of, Her Majesty's aircraft, or aircraft material, where the offence is wilful. There are two additional paragraphs in Clause 46 dealing with aircraft and aircraft material where the offences due to negligence.

Part III of the Bill, apart from nomenclature, is identical with the Army Bill. Part IV, which deals with billeting and requisitioning of vehicles, also very closely corresponds to the Army Bill, but in Clause 172 provision has been made for the requisitioning of aircraft and the stores for them. Incidentally, the provision in the Army Bill about horses, mules, food and forage has been left out. We shall, therefore, no longer be open to the charge that the Air Force Act makes more references to horses than it does to aircraft.

The general provisions in Part V of the Bill are similar to those provisions in the Army Bill, but there are minor differences in Part VI. The main difference is in Clause 205, which deals with the classes of persons subject to military, or Air Force law, as the case may be. Officers of the Territorial Army and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force are subject at all times when they are on the active list to military or Air Force law. Army Reserve officers are generally so subject only when they are performing military duties.

Under the existing Air Forces Act air force reserve officers are subject to the Act at all times, but in the Bill this has been modified to exclude the many reserve officers whose only liability is to be recalled in emergency. Therefore, in the Bill only those reserve officers with a training liability and officers of the training branch of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve will be subject at all times to the new Air Force Act.

The Air Force Bill is two Clauses and one Schedule shorter than the Army Bill, because it is unnecessary in an Air Force Bill to make special provisions for the Royal Marines or the Home Guard. There is, however, a provision for Royal Marines who are attached to the Royal Air Force to become subject to Air Force law with modifications. Apart from these differences, the Air Force Bill is almost exactly the same as the Army Bill which has just been given a Second Reading after a longish debate. It closely conforms with the recommendations of the Select Committee, and I therefore now commend it to the House.

7.34 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Henderson (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

I do not dissent from the view expressed by the Under-Secretary that the Air Force Bill is almost exactly similar to the contents of the Army Bill and that, therefore, he was justified in merely drawing attention to the differences between the two Bills. At the same time, I should have been much more critical if, as he himself pointed out, we had not had a fairly full debate this evening on the contents of the Army Bill as well as a fairly full debate on 12th November last year.

I am quite sure that he will agree with me that the juxtaposition of these two Bills should not in any way suggest that the Royal Air Force has to play a secondary role to that of the Army. There are 270,000 officers and other ranks in the Royal Air Force whose Service careers and Service lives are to them just as important as the careers and lives of those who are serving in the Army are to Army officers and other ranks. Indeed, today the Royal Air Force has a primary role in the defence of our country, very largely through the modern developments in the science of war.

I suggest, therefore, that we should not be too anxious merely to follow at the tail of the Army. After all, when the Army Act was first introduced the Air Force did not exist. The Royal Air Force has been in existence for less than 40 years. When, in 1917, there had to be a constitution for the Royal Air Force, regard was had to the existing Army Act. The Royal Air Force Act, 1917, was very largely a repetition of the existing Army Act. Apparently, what was good enough for the Army was quite good enough for the new Air Force.

It may have been, but there was one great difference. Times had changed and the men who were wanted for the Royal Air Force belonged to a generation with new ideas and with standards different from those of the men who, for a variety of reasons, had found themselves in the Regular Army of 1882, or thereabouts. That situation applies with greater force to the youth of today, whether destined for the Army, the Air Force, or the Royal Navy.

Undoubtedly there was much in the Army Act and in the Air Force Act which was out of date for both Services. The great merit of the Air Force Bill and the Army Bill—and the great value of the work of the Select Committee—is that, while they are in no sense revolutionary in their nature, they are solid, workmanlike, and sensible, and bring our military and Air Force law up to date.

As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) pointed out, neither Bill touches the problem of how to secure a sufficient number of Regulars. The Under-Secretary of State for War, who spoke in the previous debate, said that the Army Council was very much concerned with improving conditions, not only to attract recruits into the Army, but to encourage those on short-service engagements to re-engage. The same applies to the Royal Air Force.

The Under-Secretary knows as well as I do that it has been the policy of the Air Council for some years—by increased pay, better housing, and better married quarters and through seeking to bring pressure to bear on the Ministry of Education to secure better educational facilities—to bring about greater recruitment in the Royal Air Force. The Under-Secretary will agree that one of the matters which must give him and the Minister great concern is the comparatively small numbers—although the percentages may be satisfactory—of the three or four-year-term men who are re-engaging for a period of 22 years, or up to 55 years of age.

He would agree there is every encouragement to make Royal Air Force life a career because of the new code for promotion, in spite of criticism from one or two quarters, I agree that the Air Force Bill guarantees the fundamental rights of the individual Service men without in any way impairing the basis of discipline without which an Army or an Air Force would quickly degenerate into a rabble.

It seems somewhat incongruous that two separate but almost identical Bills with more than 220 Clauses and six lengthy Schedules should be necessary. Presumably if the naval discipline code is brought up to date, which I imagine is a likely development, we shall have a third Bill framed on similar lines. One day we may achieve greater uniformity between the three Services. If we do then, instead of three disciplinary codes which are broadly similar though contained in three separate Acts, we may have one defence Act with special provisions to cover the essential differences between the Services.

The whole pattern of defence is changing in modern conditions. Inevitably the lines of demarcation between the Services will tend to disappear. Meanwhile, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, East (Mr. M. Stewart) said when we considered the Army Bill, we on this side of the House welcome the Measure. I should like to enter the same caveat that, so far as we may move Amendments in Committee, our object will be to improve and certainly not to weaken the Bill. On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends I welcome the Measure.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Redmayne.]

Committee Tomorrow.