HC Deb 13 March 1958 vol 584 cc705-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £101,910,000, 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, 1959.

8.22 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

On Monday of this week, in the Air Estimates debate, I asked the Government to stop the practice of allowing aircraft based at Royal Air Force stations in this country to patrol with hydrogen bombs aboard. Since Monday, there has been an accident in South Carolina. Fortunately, there was no nuclear explosion and in any discussion of this incident, that must be remembered.

That accident raises serious questions as to the design of our R.A.F. hydrogen bombs. From what the—

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Charles Ian Orr-Ewing)

May I have some guidance from the Chair, Sir Norman? Will I be in order under Vote 1—Pay of Officers—to reply to this subject?

The Temporary Chairman (Sir Norman Hulbert)

The hon. Gentleman must wait and see how the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) develops his argument.

Mr. de Freitas

I was taking the cue, Sir Norman, from what has happened in the two preceding debates, which on Vote 1 have been as wide as any Second Reading debate. If I am out of order, I will raise the subject when we come to aircraft and stores at a later stage.

The Temporary Chairman

The Committee cannot have a Second Reading debate. The hon. Member must confine himself to the Vote.

Mr. de Freitas

If we are conducting a different procedure from the other two debates, Sir Norman, I accept your Ruling. I shall confine myself to two questions. The first concerns education. From the figures on education allowances, it seems that officers—and I am glad that it is so; we have pressed for it for many years—have obtained a considerable number of concessions. I should like to be assured on two points. The first is that the education concessions and allowances for airmen are equally satisfying to them as they have been to the officers. I raised the question in the Estimates debate on Monday but there was not a chance or time for a reply to be given to it.

Another point on education is that the grants are given from the age of 11. I do not understand this, because with the 11-plus examination the most important period to have some form of stability and continuity in education is the year or so—say, two years—before the 11-plus examination. I would hope that these grants could be given from the age of 9 to 18 rather than from 11 to 18. These two years are very important.

There was another question to which the Under-Secretary did not have the time to reply on Monday. I pointed out that there were 240 officers of air rank on a strength of 203,000 men in the Air Force and that there had also been 240 officers of air rank when the strength was 272,000. In other words, there has been no decline in the number of officers of air rank.

I freely acknowledge that we cannot expect a modern technical service like the Air Force to contract its top direction as it contracts its numbers. As a business or institution of any kind becomes more technical, there must be a higher number in the top direction in proportion to the numbers of unskilled labour. At the same time, it seems strange that there still remain so many air officers and I should like to know the justification for it.

I also made the subsidiary point that if there was to be this great opportunity of reaching air rank, of becoming air commodore and above, in the Air Force, young men should have a chance of knowing it and realising that there were many jobs at the top which the bright boy could get as he progressed through the Service. I hope that the Under-Secretary will answer these two points.

8.27 p.m.

Sir Arthur Vere Harvey (Macclesfield)

I support what the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) has said and I appreciate the point concerning the number of senior officers required for a technical Service. I wish, however, to press upon my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary the importance of bearing in mind that the Royal Air Force is a young man's Service and one wants to have as senior officers men in their early forties. Fortunately, there are a number of air vice-marshals who are in their early forties. This policy must, however, be emphasised more and more.

I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Lincoln about the education grant. We were very glad when it was introduced, but it is not nearly enough. The provision of £75 a year to send a child to school is not nearly enough. It is taxed, and half of it goes back to the Inland Revenue in any case. Members of the Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Corps serving abroad get not less titan £150 a year—and it is tax-free. It amounts, therefore, to almost four times as much as the grant for those in the Services. This is a matter that should be looked into. It is just as important to educate the children of R.A.F. personnel as it is to educate the children of those in the Foreign Office.

The idea of starting the meagre lodging allowance at 10s. a week only when the child is 11 years old is quite ridiculous. In view of the turmoil that a child goes through at the 11-plus examination, it should have at least two years to work up to it in the school at which the examination is to be taken.

I ask my hon. Friend for an assurance that this matter will be considered, and I hope that we will not be fobbed off by the Treasury saying that it cannot afford it. In the case of airmen and airwomen the total sum involved is £31,000, a very small sum in comparison with the amount of the Estimates. In fact, £100,000 would still be a relatively small sum. I hope that my hon. Friend will undertake to look at this again, with the Treasury, and come back to inform us that the figure will be increased. It is vital that it should be.

8.31 p.m.

Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)

I wish to raise a point that I have raised in previous years, in reference to Subhead G of Vote 1—Local Overseas Allowances. I notice that the amount is up by £¼ million. The Explanatory Notes in page 19 state: This allowance is issued to officers, airmen and airwomen serving in certain countries abroad in respect of the essential extra cost, as compared with that in the United Kingdom, of maintaining a reasonable standard of living. In other words, it is really issued because there is considered to be that need in certain overseas services.

Other things being equal, one would expect that in a year in which there has been an increase in flat-rate Service pay, there would be a decrease in overseas allowance in exactly the same way as there is a decrease in National Assistance payments when the basic rate of retirement pensions is raised. Indeed, if we raise the pay sufficiently, I presume that overseas allowance would be considered to be unnecessary.

Therefore, it is really hard to see why this figure should go up this year. If the numbers included in Subhead A went up, one could see that there would be a rise in Subhead G. But Subhead A is going down. Are we to assume that, notwithstanding a reduction in Vote A, there is to be an increase in the number of Air Force personnel serving abroad, or, alternatively, have the countries in which the personnel serve abroad suffered an even more disastrous rise in the cost of living than has occurred here? Unless one of those two explanations can be given, it will be very difficult to understand why this Subhead of the Vote has increased by no less than £¼ million.

8.34 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Williams (Exeter)

I want to follow the remarks of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey), who referred to the education allowances, appearing in page 17 of the Air Estimates. I understand that if an officer or an airman has a child at home in the United Kingdom, being educated at a boarding school, or living with someone else to complete its education at some school of the parents' own choosing, the allowance is £75 a year.

That allowance is on the low side, and should be considerably increased, but what is most unfair is that the allowance paid to the airman or the Air Force officer is taxable, whereas if he had decided to pursue a career in the Foreign Office, he would have had the same allowance, but free of tax. If there was any question of equity arising out of this. I should have thought it fairer for the Air Force officer, who is only occasionally abroad; to have the allowance free of tax, whereas the Foreign Office official, who spends the major part of his life abroad and, therefore, has to make a permanent allowance for his children, should have his allowance taxed.

My view is that in neither case should the allowance be taxable, because the State servants concerned are sent abroad, and put to this additional expense. They cannot live in a town in the United Kingdom and send their children to a day school. In many cases, they are forced to send them to boarding school, or let them board out with grandparents or other relatives while attending school. Therefore, I hope that either my right hon. or my hon. Friend will be able to say that he has some sympathy with this plea of my hon. and gallant Friend and myself, that this allowance should, in future, be paid free of tax and, further, that it should be increased.

My second point concerns page 21 of the Estimates, where are shown various figures under the heading "Miscellaneous Allowances"—outfit allowances, tropical kit allowances, and so on, for officers. I am surprised at the meagre amounts paid to officers when they first have to equip themselves with uniform.

For instance, I notice that officer cadets of the Royal Air Force College and the Royal Air Force Technical College, Hen-low, while they receive a free issue front Air Force stocks of certain items of clothing and equipment, receive a cash allowance of £40 10s. for the purchase of the remaining items with which they have to equip themselves before they go to college. The point I am making is that, when they are commissioned from those colleges, finishing their time as cadets, the amount they receive to equip themselves as officers is only £58 10s.

I think I am right in saying that I an, the only Member of the Committee who has been to Cranwell. When I went to Cranwell, the outfit allowance I received was, I think, £80, with which to convert my cadet's uniform into an officer's uniform and buy the extra bits of equipment and uniform which I required in my commissioned state. I should like my hon. Friend to say why the outfit allowance stands at only £58 10s.

On the same page, I notice that the cash allowances on first appointment to commissions are, for officers of the Royal Air Force £14 10s., whereas for officers of the Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service, they are £104 10s. I have a great affection for officers of Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service, but I do not think it comes out at that particular amount. I should like to know why there is this discrepancy between officers of the Nursing Service and officers of the Royal Air Force itself.

Officers of the Women's Royal Air Force receive an outfit allowance of £77. We really ought to have an explanation tonight why there should be these differences in allowances. In particular, I should like to know why the amount I received when I was a cadet and commissioned from Cranwell in 1928 should have been £80, while now, after the change in the value of money, the amount is only £58 10s.

8.38 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

At this time, when there is a considerable reduction in the number of National Service men in the Air Force, we notice that the amount provided for National Service grants is being increased from £224,900 to £299,900. At first glance, that is rather surprising. We have fewer National Service men, yet we anticipate that we are to spend more on the National Service grant.

It may be that more publicity has been given to this admirable service than hitherto, or it may be that the criteria on which the National Assistance Board works have been changed. It may even be that the Government expect very much harder times and wish, therefore, to make further provision in respect of financial hardship which will be caused to National Service men.

I should be grateful if we could have an explanation. It is rather intriguing that, although we are increasing the amount to be available, we are to give less to the National Assistance Board for administration. I know that it is a matter of enlightenment in respect of the Estimates, but we are allowing the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance £9,400 as against £9,600 last year. So they are to do more work, although the R.A.F. or the Air Ministry will pay them less for doing it. I think that we should have that matter sorted out.

I wanted to say a further word or two about education, but I think that that point has been covered adequately. I agree with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) that the figures for these allowances in respect of education are fantastic. Even admitting that there will be a reduction in personnel during the coming year, and an increase as compared with last year, it is still ridiculous. A meagre allowance of £31,000 to cover 170,000 airmen is incredibly low.

The point has been taken about secondary education. The time when it is most dangerous to move children is the time before an important examination, like the 11-plus. That is the time when sufficient attention must be paid to the need for education allowances.

There is another point of interest which is worth noting. We shall have many fewer people in the Royal Air Force during the coming year. Yet we are making provision under Subhead J in this Vote alone for paying £390,000 more for National Insurance contributions, although we have 37,500 fewer personnel. This is the direct result of Government policy and how we cut down Government expenditure; but this is a piece of Government policy that actually increases Government expenditure.

If we go through all the Votes, I calculated the other day that there is a figure of over £660,000 more in respect of National Insurance contributions. Has account been taken in this Vote of the latest increase in the National Health stamp, which is going up by yet another 6d.? Has the Air Ministry decided—because it makes special arrangements in relation to the division of responsibility for the payment of the stamp—how this extra 6d. is to be paid? Will it be wholly paid by the men, or will the Air Ministry take over responsibility in addition to its existing responsibility? If so, how much will the Air Ministry pay? If this is the case, will we not have another Supplementary Estimate soon?

I should be grateful if we could have an answer to these points, along with the others that have been raised.

8.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Charles Ian Orr-Ewing)

I think that the most generally agreed point on Vote 1 has been that on educational allowances. I find myself in an embarrassing position, because I remember making an impassioned speech on this same issue. It is embarrassing to find oneself poacher turned gamekeeper.

I have looked at the comparative figures, and it is not true that the educational allowances for Foreign Office servants or civil servants and of serving officers are on exactly the same basis. For instance, Foreign Office officials are given higher educational allowances partly to avoid the danger that they would spend their representational allowances on education. After all, they are expected to entertain and to move around to do their job overseas. Service personnel, unlike those in the Foreign Office, have an element included in their basic pay for the purpose of educating their children. But my right hon. Friend and I have noted hon. Members' views on this matter. I know exactly how they feel.

Perhaps the House will agree that it is a step in the right direction that from next month there will be an increase in these allowances; they will become £75 per annum for the first child, £100 for the second child and £125 for the third child. I can assure the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) that there is no difference at all between airmen and officers in the qualification. They all qualify on exactly the same basis.

The next question raised was that of air rank officers. When I first looked through the Estimates I too was alarmed to see that apparently there were the same number of air rank officers–240 last year and 240 this year. In fact, that is a rounded average figure. We are running down the force in all ranks, but this is an average throughout the year. In practice we expect to have at least 11 fewer officers of air rank comparing 1st April, 1957, when the number was 246, and 1st April, 1959, when we expect that the total will have fallen to 235. The figure given at 240 is a mean figure rather than the actual number on any date.

It should be remembered that as the Service gets more technical and more expert we shall need more expert representation among our air rank officers. In addition, we have a call on officers of these ranks for many other jobs. They are not required only by the Royal Air Force and the Air Ministry; in addition there is a certain allocation of officers to the Commonwealth Air Forces. The Commonwealth has valued the expert advice which it has had from air rank officers of the Royal Air Force and we are continuing to detach some officers to these Air Forces. We also have air attachés in foreign missions, and the House will agree that we do not wish to see Great Britain under-represented in foreign capitals. The officers who represent us there should have a status worthy of the job.

There is also a demand for air rank officers in N.A.T.O.—a demand which has been increasing. In 1955 there were 14, and the estimated requirement for the coming year is 17. The Ministry of Supply, too, has found that air rank officers fill a most important rôle, and its demand has risen from 9 in 1955 to 13 in the coming year.

Those comments may do something to set hon. Member's minds at rest, but I emphasise that my right hon. Friend and I are not oblivious to the need to reduce these numbers; indeed, in his speech on the Air Estimates my right hon. Friend said that he was giving close attention to cutting down the number of air rank officers and not having a surplus.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) asked about the local overseas allowance. I am glad to have an opportunity to deal with this, because too many people think that the local overseas allowance is given to all those who go overseas. I have had a number of representations in the Air Ministry on this subject, for example, from hon. Members who represent serving personnel in Christmas Island because these personnel felt that they ought to have a substantial overseas allowance. Local overseas allowance is not geared to the hardship of the case; it is geared to the cost of living in the place where a man is serving. In the early days of service in Christmas Island, when there was practically nothing except crabs and tents and virtually no N.A.A.F.I., it was very difficult to argue that the cost of living there was higher than in the United Kingdom or Germany. That position has changed, because special leave facilities are now given to personnel on Christmas Island to go to Honolulu, where the cost of living is immensely high. Therefore, a local overseas allowance has been brought in from last August to make up the difference.

I am afraid I cannot give an exact explanation of why this total vote for local overseas allowance should have increased. I can only say the rates are reviewed every six months, when we have an opportunity of adjusting them and considering whether we have allowed enough or too much. It is a difficult exercise, because we take into account the cost of living not only in our own country but in all overseas countries as well. We cannot precisely forecast that, or the exact number of personnel in each theatre at any one time.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

Can we assume that the local overseas allowance will not all be spent in Honolulu?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I imagine a very small percentage will be spent in Honolulu, and I only hope it goes on righteous purposes if it is spent there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) asked why he got better treatment over outfit allowance when at Cranwell than do present day cadets. The answer is that nowadays a considerable portion of the kit is given in kind; that is to say, we give him as much as we can of items like shirts and socks, and he is only called on to pay for those items which have to be properly tailored especially to his needs. That explains to some extent why Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Association has a bigger allocation than the officers of the R.A.F. Hon. Members will appreciate that few of the standard items of clothing in the Air Force vocabulary are suitable for the nursing service, whose uniform incidentally is extremely smart.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) asked me a number of questions, and I must confess that I cannot answer them all as I am not a walking encyclopedia on all the details. He made some valuable points, one of which was that some £13 per person extra was allowed for National Service grants. On a diminishing Force there is a greater expenditure. Having done my arithmetic, I hope, correctly, in dividing one into the other, I think this means that a greater contribution is required. However, I would like to look into that point because I think the Committee would not wish me to give a snap answer. I will also look into the question of the health stamp, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Ross

May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he also answers my point about Vote A which I put the other day and to which I did not receive an answer?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I made the point that my right hon. Friend has already started to work assiduously through the report of that debate, marking the points raised, and I believe he has started to prepare the letters, as he has done in previous years, replying to points he could not answer.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Would my hon. Friend assure the Committee that he will try to do something about the education allowance? He said he noted the point. We have heard that often. Things are noted and nothing happens. It is the same over letters. That reply is not convincing and I want an assurance from my hon. Friend that he will do something about it. It is not good enough to give these people 10s. a week for a leave allowance. I hope my hon. Friend will inform the Committee that he and his right hon. Friend will take up the matter with the Treasury and see that fair play is given to the R.A.F. personnel and their children.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

The Committee should bear in mind, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that in the last interim instalment, as I hope it will be, allowances and pay increases for all three Services cost an extra £30 million. The Grigg Committee is examining what measures are necessary to recruit the number of people we want for the three armed Services. That Committee no doubt will consider the points which have been put forward in this Committee this evening on the question of educational allowances, and will consider whether, if they were increased, it would be an incentive for many people serving in the ranks and as officers in the Royal Air Force to sign on for an extra period and have their minds put at rest that their children were getting a fair and decent education.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £101,910,000, 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. 1959.