HC Deb 15 March 1955 vol 538 cc1244-51

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £88,960,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of the pay, etc., of the Air Force, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1956.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

We have not long left to deal with the Committee stage of the largest of the Service Estimates, but we must do the best we can in the time we have. I wish to raise a few points of detail, and then to make a general point. We have heard a great deal of discussion about the use of local and colonial forces, and, therefore, I wonder why there is a reduction in the local levies in Aden and Iraq.

In page 23 of the Estimates there is a reference to awards for languages. A first-class interpreter receives a certain award, and others receive an award for colloquial proficiency. There appears to be nothing in between. It has been pointed out to me that ininternational organisations, such as N.A.T.O., a number of our officers do work which falls between these two standards. They have to be better than merely colloquially proficient, but not as good as first-class interpreters. Unless it be for Japanese or Chinese, there is no award given for anything between a first-class interpreter and one who has colloquial proficiency.

In page 25, reference is made to bounties which I notice are to be increased considerably this year. I wish to know the reason for that. Does it forecast an increase in re-engagements for long service, because, if so, I welcome it?

I now come to the more general point. On page 19 of the Estimates there is a reference to an increase in National Service grants. Are those grants to be increased because of the increased dependence of the Royal Air Force upon National Service men in the coming year? This increased dependence upon National Service men is wrong, and the Government are at fault in accepting it. Their aim should be to reduce the numbers of National Service men until these grants become unnecessary—and yet the evidence to be adduced from the White Paper, the Memorandum accompanying the Air Estimates, and everything which Government spokesmen have said in these defence debates, is that the Government are wedded to National Service for its own sake.

Of course, for them it has the advantage of being the laziest way of manning a Service, and the Government appear to be falling back upon it as a permanent feature. Neither the White Paper nor the Memorandum mentioned the original purpose of National Service, which is to provide for cold war commitments and to build up a Reserve. We know that our cold war commitments have been reduced, and we also know that the deployment of the Royal Air Force in war is such that very little use could be made of the Reserve.

The Secretary of State forecast last year that during the year there would be a reduction in the proportion of National Service men in the Royal Air Force from the level of 26 per cent. at which it stood. In fact the proportion has remained at 26 per cent., and it is expected to rise to 30 per cent. during this year. That should be worrying the Government, and yet their whole attitude this year, as in previous years, has been one of general complacency. They have expressed concern only about the most serious shortage of skilled tradesmen. The Government must make clear what steps they are taking to reach a stage when it is possible to do without National Service.

The first step would be to make Regular service more attractive. We all agree about that, but how are we to make it so? First, if we want technicians we must pay for them. I have in my hand four pages, torn from the back of a recent number of the "R.A.F. Flying Review," and which consist almost entirely of advertisements for skilled tradesmen. Most of the advertisements offer very good opportunities, and cover electronics, high-grade radar, instrument mechanics, and positions with Fairey Aviation, Hawker, Limited, and Metro-politan-Vickers.

There are whole pages consisting of advertisements competing with Royal Air Force requirements and these advertisements come from the Royal Air Force's own journal. The only other advertisement is for a lighthouse keeper. That seems to be asking for a man who is seeking a greater degree of seclusion after living with the pressure of many people all round him in a barrack room. The Government do not seem to realise that they are in desperate competition with industry in this matter of skilled manpower.

9.30 p.m.

The second way of making Regular service more attractive, and thus reducing the need for National Service, is to deal with the problem of the education of the children of Service men who are moved from one station to another. As his father is posted about the country, a child may have to go to as many as nine schools. He may be forced to go to a Welsh-speaking community, where the instruction in the school is wholly in Welsh.

The problem has been eased for certain people in the Foreign Service, and, I am told, for certain civilians in the Air Ministry service who are sent abroad. The least we can do is to see that the position is also eased for the Service men who are sent abroad, so that while they are abroad they may be able to send their children, if they wish to do so, to boarding schools here at home.

Another obvious way is to reduce the number of postings. The other day we had an excellent maiden speech from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Woollam), who referred to his experience of the "turbulence" in the Service caused by the number of postings. I do not know of any phrase more telling than that in paragraph 46 of the recent Select Committee which reported on technical training. It reads: In fact, quite apart from the movements of trainees and National Service men, nearly half of the trained regular ground staff moved from one station to another during those six months. The six months ended on 30th April last year. I find it almost impossible to believe.

I have the feeling that, 10 years after the war, it is a grave confession of failure that this amount of posting should still continue. I believe that some of it results from the mania for wall charts and the balancing of subordinate commands. If an electrician is missing at a certain station, without considering all the other human factors involved and, indeed, the Service factors, too—because an unhappy Service man is not a good one—an electrician is moved there to keep the pattern perfect, so that the squadron or unit is well-balanced. I ask that this human side be considered at all levels of the Air Force because those men who are pushed around are the men we want to encourage to stay on, and thus reduce the need for National Service men.

We need, too, to reduce the requirement of Regulars by the policy of sending more equipment out for maintenance by civil contractors, and also by a policy of bringing in more civil servants rather than Service men. It was amazing to hear the Under-Secretary say last week that one-third of the staff of the Records Office still consisted of Service men.

The Government's manning policy has failed. I fear that, because of the easy answer of the National Service Acts, the Air Ministry and the Government are not treating it as the serious problem that it is. They should be working now to create a manning situation in the R.A.F. when it would be possible to do away entirely with National Service, which was introduced for conditions which scarcely prevail today and are less likely to prevail in the future.

Mr. Beswick

I should like to support my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) on the necessity of cutting down the period of National Service to a point which would eliminate the National Service element altogether. The more specialised the Service, the more expensive the training, and the more essential it is to get long period men into the Service.

One way of doing that is by improving the conditions of the Regulars. I should like to see more figures showing the cost of training the succession of National Service men. Money saved in that direction could be divided into pay and allowances for the Regular men. I should like to know what it would amount to. I am sure that we could increase quite significantly the payment to the Regular men if we were able to cut out some of the most expensive training of the National Service men.

Although I feel very strongly about the National Service principle, I must say that National Service men on parade in the Royal Air Force always seem as smart and as efficient as any individuals could be. It would be wrong to suggest, or to give the impression when we criticise the idea of National Service, that we are criticising individual men. I have seen them often on birthday parades and elsewhere. I have asked how many men were National Service men, and the answer has been 60 per cent. or 70 per cent. It seems extraordinary that we can get these individuals up to this efficiency in the short time that they have been in the Service. It is only right to say so.

Another point arises about educational allowances. I had a number of Questions on the Order Paper to the Minister of Defence about the possibility of giving allowances to Service men abroad who had children to educate. I have been told on successive occasions that the matter was being considered. Would the Under-Secretary of State be kind enough to tell us now what has prevented a decision so far being reached favourably to the ex-Service man who has this educational problem to contend with? The principle has been allowed in the case of the foreign service people in the Foreign Office; why should it not be allowed in the case of foreign service of this character?

The Chairman

Does this matter arise under the Vote?

Mr. Beswick

At the moment, there are no allowance figures in the Estimate, for the simple reason that the principle has not been admitted. I am asking whether it has been agreed that the educational allowance should be paid to the men serving abroad, in which case it should appear in the Vote. The fact that it does not appear in the Vote is what I am complaining about. Having said that, I will leave the point, hoping that the Under-Secretary of State will be good enough to tell us what the obstacle is in this matter.

My next remarks come under Subheads E and F, which cover lodging allowance and local overseas allowance. I took the opportunity last summer to take part in an expedition of the Royal Air Force Flying College to the North Pole. It would be churlish if I did not say how much I appreciated that opportunity and how impressed I was by the team work and technical efficiency of everybody who took part in the operation, from the air commodore to the airman who brought our hot soup when we were actually over the North Pole. I was impressed by the general spirit, and I take this opportunity to pay a tribute to those with whom I was privileged to fly on that occasion.

I have a question about the pay and allowances of the Royal Observer Corps. A very small number of people is in the Corps and I understand that a proportion of these were to be established. The numbers are to be increased again, I understand, and the Air Ministry are trying to wriggle out of an undertaking which it gave to establish a given percentage of Royal Observer Corps personnel. Is it necessary to have these quibbles?

If we are to have the extra number and feel that they are essential, could we not establish the same proportion of the 80 as it was agreed to establish of the original 40, if I remember the figures aright? Cannot he give way on this point? Is it a question of money, or what is it? I am suggesting that he should give way to the original establishment of men serving in the Royal Observer Corps.

Mr. Wigg

Can we have information from the hon. Gentleman on the mission of General Templer in connection with the Royal Air Force? As the hon. Gentleman knows, General Templer is going to the Colonies to look at the organisation and administration of colonial forces and the Royal Air Force is concerned with that. If, Sir Charles, you have any doubt about my being in order, I should like to help you. I am raising this on Subhead C, "Pay, &c, of Local Personnel Abroad."

I am concerned with the Royal Air Force levies in Iraq, the personnel of the British Army lent to the Royal Air Force, and the Aden Protectorate levies. The numbers are not substantial, but at one time it was a considerable force and it goes back to the First World War. One would like to know whether General Templer is taking this in his stride on his way out. What I am really after is what General Templer is up to. If he is not looking into that part of the Royal Air Force which falls under Subhead C, I take it that he has purely an Army mission. If the hon. Gentleman would give us any information about the part played by the Royal Air Force in the use of colonial forces and how far that is a permanent policy, I should be very much obliged to him.

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

A very large number of questions has been asked in a very short time. I do not profess to be able to answer all of them, but I will do my best.

The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) started by asking about the reduction in local levies. That matter was also asked about by the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). This reduction does not apply to the Aden levies. It only applies to the Iraq levies and it is a deliberate and planned reduction of that force consequent upon the re-deployment in the Middle East and our changed requirements there. So far as I know, General Templer has not been asked to investigate that at all.

Mr. Wigg

I am much obliged.

Mr. Ward

The hon. Member for Lincoln asked why the amount for bounties was increased. The increase for bounties is necessary because the provision in 1954–55 was based on the assumption that the bounty schemes then in existence would come to an end in December, 1954, but in the event it was decided to extend those schemes. We hope that many people will take advantage of them and that they will be tempted by them to re-engage and extend their engagements. We hope this will be one of the added incentives we are always trying to provide.

The hon. Member for Lincoln and the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) asked about National Service. They wondered when we would be able to do without it. I do not think we have ever made any secret of the fact that we cannot possibly do without it until we can get enough Regulars to man the Armed Forces and meet all our commitments in peace-time. Therefore, the question really is how we are to get more Regulars. I wish there were more time to develop that now. We are doing all we can about it. We do realise that we are in competition with industry. Of course, that makes our task immensely more difficult because the temptation to go to industry and live a civilian life instead of seeking a career in the Royal Air Force is very great. But we are looking all the time at our outside methods—that is, publicity, and so on—and particularly at conditions inside the Service, to try to attract these people.

9.45 p.m.

We know that turbulence—numerous postings—is one of the disincentives. I dealt with that in my speech in reply to the Amendment during the debate on the Air Estimates the other day. I pointed out then that this problem is not easy to deal with, because we lose about 75,000 airmen every year, which is equivalent to turning over the whole of our ground strength every three years. Therefore, for that reason alone—and, of course, there are other reasons—it is not easy to reduce the number of postings.

We have, however, been able to do one or two things to try to solve the problem, and we are now trying to make do with temporary manning shortages on stations rather than filling vacancies immediately so as to keep down the number of postings. We have also been able to screen N.C.O.s who hold key positions on their stations and to keep them there for five years. There are various other measures, too.

I dealt also last week with civilianisation. We have made considerable progress in the matter of civilians employed by the Air Ministry and the giving to civil contract of work for the Royal Air Force. Here again, however, industry itself is very short of the highly skilled technical men that we and industry must have if one or other of us is to do the work. We are finding difficulty in recruiting civilians in some places, particularly in outlying isolated places where they do not like living.

The increase in respect of local overseas allowances is due mainly to an expected increase in the number of families in local overseas allowances areas consequent upon the redeployment from the Canal Zone. I would ask the hon. Member for Uxbridge to allow me to write to him about the R.O.C.; I will look look into that very carefully.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £88,960,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of the pay, etc., of the Air Force, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March. 1956.