HC Deb 11 December 1956 vol 562 cc395-404

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wills.]

12 midnight.

Mr. Eric Johnson (Manchester, Blackley)

I should not have sought this opportunity to raise the question of the promotion prospects of squadron leaders in the Education Branch of the Royal Air Force, which question I have been pursuing for about a year in the various ways open to me—and I must apologise for doing so at this late hour—had it not been for the fact that we seem to be going backwards rather than forwards in this matter.

It was as long ago as 20th January that the Under-Secretary of State wrote to me to the effect that the Committee whose task it was to consider the problems of career planning was reviewing this question and that he was very conscious of the importance, in the interests of both the officers concerned and of the Royal Air Force as a whole, of reaching a fair solution of these problems. Then, on 7th August, the Secretary of State wrote to me and said he hoped the problem of promotion to wing commander could be considered in isolation and in advance of the general study which the Committee was making of the Education Branch. However, on 28th November. in reply to a Question which I put to him, he said the Committee had not completed its study of the Education Branch. and in reply to my supplementary question he said that the problem was not one of immediate urgency.

The state of affairs to which I want to draw attention concerns a number of those squadron leaders in the Education Branch of the Royal Air Force who joined between 1947 and 1950 and who attained the rank of squadron leader between 1950 and 1954. My complaint is that when they considered joining they were given to understand that their prospects of promotion were certainly reasonable, at least to the rank of wing commander. Those officers are now people in their early forties. It was not until they had been in the Branch a little time that they discovered the real position. The real position is that they will have to stay on until the maximum retiring age for squadron leaders, which is 53, in order to get their retired pay, and yet their prospects of improving their position by promotion during that time are virtually non-existent.

It is, of course, perfectly true that promotion in the Education Branch is by selection after attaining the rank of squadron leader, but I think it should be remembered that those squadron leaders who were promoted betwen 1950 and 1954 and who were granted permanent commissions about 1948 were post-war candidates, and in their selection it is true to say that the highest qualifications for any part of the scholastic profession outside the universities were demanded. Indeed. Air Ministry Pamphlet No. 200 said: The possession of a university decree (preferably with first-or second-class honours) will ordinarily be a requirement for appointment to a permanent commission. The result is that there are about 58 of these men in this category. who are undoubtedly men of outstanding ability, and who ought not to be passed over, and yet many, indeed most, of them will never Bain promotion to the rank of wing commander and none of them to the rank of group captain.

I believe the reason for this long delay in promotion is to be found in the history of the Royal Air Force Education Branch. Prior to 1946 the Royal Air Force Education Service, as it was then called, was a civilian branch. It was paid according to the Burnham scale with certain modifications and with conditions appropriate to the Civil Service. When the Education Service became a uniformed branch of the Royal Air Force in 1946. however, those who had been recruited before the end of 1938 and who were still serving and were granted permanent commissions—this is the important part—all retained the existing Civil Service contract whereby they could remain in the Service until they reached the age of 60, irrespective of rank. That is the reason for the block in promotion, because the compulsory retiring age of other officers in the Education Branch is 57 in the case of a group captain, 55 for a wing commander, and 53 for a squadron leader or flight lieutenant.

On 6th February this year, my hon. Friend wrote to me and stated that no officer had been denied promotion because of the category of officers who stayed on until they were 60 years of age. That may well be, but, whatever happened in the past, it seems to me perfectly certain that in the future the presence of these officers, who can remain until the age of 60, will block promotion to the rank of wing commander for all other categories of officer.

As I understand the position from Answers given to me and to various other hon. Members from time to time, there are now 42 wing commanders serving in the Education Branch of the Royal Air Force, 41 of whom can serve until they reach the age of 60. That in itself is an obvious block to promotion. because the normal retiring age for a wing commander is not 60, but 55.

I understand that there are likely to be some 36 vacancies for wing commanders over the next twelve years, but there are 143 squadron leaders. Twenty-nine of them. of seniority between 1946 and 1950. can go on serving until the age of 60, but there are about 58 in the category of which I am speaking, of seniority between 1950 and 1954, who are in virtually the same age groups as these other people and they retire at the normal age. It seems clear, therefore, that their chance of promotion before reaching the retiring age of 53 is very slender. As I have said, they are in their early forties. They are at an age when they feel that they must either get on or get out. I assure my hon. Friend that they would all infinitely prefer to get on, but the future seems to allow them no prospect of doing either. It is a matter of both justice and immediate urgency that these people should be told exactly their position and whether their prospects are good or bad.

So far, I have been trying to show that there is a definite lag in promotion. I would now like to turn to something which seems to me in some ways to be even more serious. The conditions of service for officers accepting permanent commissions in the Royal Air Force are set out in Air Ministry Pamphlet No. 200. I have with me copies of the 1946, 1949 and 1955 editions of this pamphlet, and I agree that in all of them it is made perfectly clear that promotion after attaining the rank of squadron leader is by selection.

The point is, however—and I have corroborated this over and over again—that these officers, from answers to questions they put when considering joining, were led to suppose that the prospects of promotion to wing commander were much better than was the case. One expression which was used was that statistically their chances were fifty-fifty. Some were told, indeed, that their prospects were rather better than that. The later editions of the pamphlet state the compulsory retiring ages namely, 53 for a squadron leader and 55 for a wing commander. But I have looked very carefully through all of them and I cannot find in any part of them any suggestion that there is a category that can stay on until 60 years, irrespective of rank.

I have also a pamphlet entitled "Education Branch of the Royal Air Force," which I believe was produced in 1950–51. On page 26 will be found the words, A substantial proportion of officers are promoted by selection above the rank of squadron leader. I understand that that pamphlet was reissued in 1953, and I should like to know whether it is still being used when the statement that a substantial number are being promoted is both misleading and indeed untrue, unless the word "substantial" has an entirely different meaning in the Air Ministry from that which it has everywhere else.

It is apparent from my inquiries that the great majority of these officers, when joining in this way, had no idea that their prospects were so bad and that promotion in the branch was in any way not normal. It is no use the Under-Secretary saying that they ought to have known and that they were over-optimistic about their prospects. I cannot accept that. If these were uneducated men I would agree that perhaps they did not understand the pamphlet and the position. But these are people of exceptional intelligence. They would not have formed the impression that they definitely formed unless it had been deliberately given to them.

I do not know whether the Education Branch was short of officers at that time. I do not know what sort of high pressure salesmanship was used to try to persuade people to take these commissions, but the fact remains that these people were misled. I say that deliberately. I hope that my hon. Friend will give some sort of hope to these officers and that he will agree that they have a real grievance and that something ought to be done about it.

I do not want to make any more criticisms. I should like to make three suggestions which I hope my hon. Friend will consider. The first is to allow optional retirement for older wing commanders before the age of 55 without prejudice to their pension rights. The second is what I believe is called overbearing of establishment, so as to permit promotion to wing commander of perhaps 60 per cent. of squadron leaders and to group captain of 50 per cent. of wing commanders, or some such figure. The third would be to allow officers to retire with full pension rights irrespective of age, provided that they have served for the necessary qualifying time.

I do not think I need assure my hon. Friend that I have not raised this matter from any desire to make mischief. I have raised it because I honestly feel that these officers have had a raw deal. They are not barrack-room lawyers or people who are trouble-makers and try to exaggerate imaginary grievances. They are first-class officers who are keenly interested in their jobs. They are doing it extremely well, and doing it none the less well because they feel that an injustice has been done to them.

My hon. Friend knows, as we all know. that an unrighted wrong can sometimes rankle. I appeal to him, for the good of the Service whose interests I know he has at heart, in his own sense of justice and fair play to have another look at this problem. I hope that he will be able to tell me that I am pushing at an already open door and that steps are being taken to put this whole question of promotion in the Education Branch on a fairer and more satisfactory basis.

12.15 a.m.

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

I should like to start by telling my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley (Mr. E. Johnson) that there is no question of pushing at an open door. On the contrary, he is pushing at a door which has never been closed. I am most grateful to him for raising this subject this evening. It is one on which he has questioned me and my right hon. Friend from time to time; but it is a detailed subject not easy to cover by question and answer, and I welcome the opportunity he has given me to deal with it at greater length. I hope that that will allow me to put the facts into proper perspective.

I know how assiduously my hon. Friend has studied the problem. He has certainly mastered his case and propounded it with great sincerity, but he will agree that a noticeable feature of his speech was that he did not quote the case of any officer whose promotion so far has been unduly blocked.

I propose to deal first with the central problem, which is the possible promotion blockage in the Education Branch in the future. I do not at all quarrel with my hon. Friend when he says that unless some action is taken there could be a blockage. Indeed, I hope we have never seemed to be guilty in any way of minimising the situation.

The questions which interest my hon. Friend are how the present age structure in the Branch has arisen, and what is being done to try to ensure that this structure does not unfairly prejudice the prospects of younger officers.

The Education Branch was formed in October, 1946, by bringing together suitable officers, a number of whom had been employed with the Royal Air Force as civilians before the war on educational duties. We are now at a stage where all the senior posts in the Branch are filled by officers who entered in that way and who are due to remain with us until they reach the age of 60. The reason for this age of 60 is either that such a retiring age has been carried over from that which they had as civilians, or that, as things now stand, they must stay for that length of time to acquire an adequate pension. These factors are peculiar to the Education Branch. Another factor not peculiar to the Education Branch, but applying to the Service as a whole, is that there are certain first-class men whom we wish to retain longer for the benefit of the Branch and of the Service.

To what does this add up? It means that, looking ahead, there seems real danger of the promotion prospects of younger officers who entered after the war deteriorating to an unacceptable extent once they reach the rank of squadron leader. There is no problem up to that point, since the Education Branch, unlike most branches of the Service, has time promotion to squadron leader. I can well understand that some officers have been thumbing through their copies of the Air Force List wondering how they will get promoted when so many of those senior to them are due to remain in the Service for so long.

However, I must make it clear that the problem still lies in the future. No one can complain of the promotion rate up to now. Half the substantive wing commanders now serving have been promoted in the last four years. The age and seniority of squadron leaders promoted to wing commander in the Education Branch compare well with other ground branches of the Service; for example, the average length of service as squadron leader of those promoted to wing commander during, the past three years has been eight years, which is much the same as in the Equipment and Secretarial Branches.

Even if we took no action at all, we should be able to maintain a flow comparable to this without difficulty over the next two years. Any danger of a promotion blockage arises after that. I stress this because my hon. Friend has suggested on many occasions, and he did it again tonight, that we are not bringing a sufficient sense of urgency to bear upon the problem. In point of fact it is not an immediate or pressing problem. However, I do appreciate that there may be anxiety for the future among those concerned, and I welcome this opportunity of saying that we are fully alive to the fact that if this problem is left untouched it will become a real one.

I like to think that these officers do not want to leave the Service. We certainly do not want to lose them. What then are we doing about the position? Firstly, as my hon. Friend knows, we have put in hand a comprehensive survey of the Education Branch. This is being carried out by an official committee which studies comparable problems in all branches of the Royal Air Force and reports to the Air Council. It is examining the various tasks which fall to the Education Branch now and are likely to fall to it in the future, and is assessing the capabilities and qualifications which will be needed by the officers who are to carry them out. Once this is done we shall know how many people, with what sorts of qualifications, we should be recruiting; the conditions under which they should enter and the terms of service they should have. This study of the Education Branch will, in effect, form a new charter for the Branch. Such a long-term plan is essential if we are to reach a proper decision on what is to be done about the squadron leader—wing commander promotion problem which we are now discussing.

Besides this, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air said in a letter to my hon. Friend on 7th August of this year, we are examining the question of promotion in isolation from the general study of the Branch. I cannot now discuss the various proposals which we are considering, but let me assure my hon. Friend that I have taken note of the three suggestions which he has put forward. They will certainly be examined. I should not, however, like him to go away with the idea that they had not previously been thought of. I am quite confident that we shall find a way of maintaining a reasonable rate of promotion to wing commander for these officers. By "reasonable rate of promotion" I mean something of the same order as these officers have enjoyed up to now.

Here I must enter a caveat. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not suggest that everyone and anyone who enters any large organisation be it Service or civilian, can be given an absolute pledge of a particular chance of promotion beyond a certain point. After all, we are talking about rather senior appointments. Wing commander is a high and responsible rank, and it would be quite unusual for any organisation to tell young men on joining that they would, unconditionally and beyond question, have a fixed chance of getting such a senior position.

My hon. Friend has suggested that certain officers coming into the Branch were misled about their career prospects. The statement he quoted from an official pamphlet refers to "a substantial proportion" of officers being promoted to wing commanders; and that has in fact happened up to now. These officers may also have discussed their prospects with senior officers of the Branch, and they certainly would have been told how promotion was running and the sort of chance they seemed likely to have. It would have been given quite informally as a general indication of prospects. In other words, at any such interview these officers were told the sort of thing which was likely to happen, not something which was guaranteed would happen to every officer who joined the branch.

Mr. E. Johnson

Will my hon. Friend say how he defines the word "substantial"—as one in four or one in two?

Mr. Soames

Something of the same order as has been maintained up to now. My hon. Friend has not quoted any example of a squadron leader being unfairly blocked, and he has been into this matter thoroughly. I feel that he has rather got it into his mind that this business is going terribly wrong, and he cannot be convinced otherwise. Surely, with the assiduity with which he has examined the problem, he would have found by now if there had been a great feeling within the Branch that promotion had not so far been going as it should. He has not in fact found that. When I speak of a reasonable chance of pro- motion to wing commander, I mean something like what has been happening over the past three, four or five years.

As I understand it, my hon. Friend has not suggested that these officers have any grievance about what has happened so far. All he is saying at the moment is that it looks as though, if nothing is done about it, they are not likely to get the sort of career which people told them they were likely to have. I do not underrate their natural concern about their prospects, but I do ask my hon. Friend to have some confidence in us. As I say, this problem will not arise for two years. I say to him, with all sincerity, that we will do everything we can to ensure that a reasonable rate of promotion is maintained within the branch.

I hope that what I have said will help to convince my hon. Friend that we are taking the problem really seriously, as indeed we take all problems affecting the welfare and careers of personnel in the Royal Air Force. We are fully aware of the problem and of the difficulties which may arise; and I assure my hon. Friend that we have every intention of seeing that the officers concerned continue to get a fair deal.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.