HC Deb 13 March 1958 vol 584 cc716-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum not exceeding £1,379,900, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of the reserve and auxiliary services (to a number not exceeding 215,000, all ranks, for the Royal Air Force Reserve, and 5,000, all ranks for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force), which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1959.

8.53 p.m.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

Since no one else is likely to do it, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the very substantial reductions which have been achieved in this field, as compared with last year?

8.54 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

I should like also to join in those congratulations, but I am rather interested here in Subhead G—Miscellaneous Services. I remember that I myself was once a miscellaneous service, under Subhead G, which is a very important subhead, in my view. It deals with the university air squadrons.

These university air squadrons have been a very valuable part of the service of the Royal Air Force, and my hon. Friend has pointed out the encouragement that should be given to youth to pursue a career of flying. Let me say straight away that most of us, in the days when we went into the air squadrons of the universities, certainly never intended for our whole lives necessarily to pursue a career in the Royal Air Force. The selection of candidates at that time perhaps left much to be desired.

On the occasion when I remember coming up for selection for the air squadron, I remember that the selection committee included amongst others a very notable weight-putter, Mr. George Howland. George Howland was one of the greatest weight-putters this country ever had, and my one claim to fame at the university was that at school I had won a weight-putting contest. I came up for selection for the university air squadron and went through very smartly because I had succeeded at school in putting the weight 36 feet. Admittedly, it was only a 12lb. weight, but, in those circumstances, I got into the Cambridge Air Squadron.

From my point of view, this was quite admirable. I always regarded it as most important that people should be able to learn to fly on the cheap, and I had managed to learn to fly on the cheap. Everything went extremely well until we got to the fourteen days at Abingdon, which was extremely good, but for which one had a very rude word. In fact, the party the night before was so good that I was an hour late in getting into the air and was grounded. So I was advised that, perhaps, flying was not the best career for me.

None the less, in those days at the university, Norman Yardley and many others of those who are engaged in, shall we say, the sporting pursuits of the universities, obtained a most admirable training, and every one of them always gave a very good hand to the air squadrons. What happened, of course, was this. When the war came in 1939, a great many of these men became some of our best pilots in 600, 601 and 604 Squadrons, the earliest reserve squadrons of those days.

I was, therefore, not very happy to see that in this Vote we regard that as a miscellaneous service. It is a most valuable service. Like all of us, I want to see a reduction, and I notice that the reduction in this case is from £19,000 to £9,000. That ought not to be passed without saying what one hopes for the future in the better days to come. I am sure that these university air squadrons understand our present difficulties, but I wonder whether some interested industry might not be able to give some sort of grant to assist in the training of young university men in flying.

In the old days, the R.A.F. paid for one to learn to fly and it got the best of the young men during the war in the Volunteer Reserve. If every year less is devoted to university flying because more has to be devoted to jet bombers, or more nuclear development, we will not give young men the necessary training.

The attractive part of the Royal Air Force is the tremendous importance given to character building and training begins at an early age when it is started in a university air squadron. It is the spirit of adventure. This is a chance of being able to fly, not necessarily because one intends to follow that career, and it is a very good thing that young men at university should have a chance to fly. They cannot afford to pay for it and I do not believe that these Votes in future will carry the whole burden. In fact, I think it is right that they should be reduced and yet I want these young men to have the opportunity to learn to fly while they are young.

I do not know how that is to be done, but, presumably, the large companies interested in the manufacture of aircraft for the civil side are in the closest collaboration and discussion about the matter. I suggest that the Under-Secretary has a discussion with his opposite number at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation—or that the respective Ministers should meet—to see whether industry could not make a grant to the universities so that young men could be taught not only flying and navigation, but all the necessary technical grounding while they are at university so that in that way the very valuable work done at universities could be preserved.

I say all this quite seriously. I did not intend to say it seriously when I got to my feet, but it suddenly occurred to me that it was a good idea. [Laughter.]

Mr. de Freitas

On a point of order. Is the hon. Member's speech in order? It is going on and on over the same point and there is nothing about contributions from industry in the Vote. I raise this point of order only because I was pulled up very sharply and asked to confine myself to the subject.

Mr. Dudley Williams

Further to that point of order. My hon. Friend was discussing page 39 of the Estimates and the explanatory note referring to miscellaneous services. There is a reference to the expense of operating university air squadrons of which, like my hon. Friend, I have had experience, although my experience was probably much longer ago than his. My hon. Friend was explaining the desirability of maintaining these university air squadrons and how he hoped to ease the financial strain on the country by obtaining contributions from industry. With great deference, I submit that he was perfectly in order in dealing with getting financial assistance from industry and I suggest that he should be allowed to develop his argument.

The Chairman (Sir Charles Mac-Andrew)

I was paying attention to the hon. Member's speech, and I thought that his remarks about the university air squadrons were in order. My only regret was that he did not tell us the word which he said he could not use here.

Mr. Rees-Davies

We never have the liberty of language here that we had in the days when we were at the universities. That is perhaps the only unforunate feature of being a Member of the House.

It may be that I began my speech in a spirit of flippancy, but the atmosphere of the House captivates anyone who speaks in it, and the result is that he finds that he really is striking a serious note. I am quite sincere about this matter.

This is an important point, and the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas), who raised the question whether I was in order, knows a great deal about the subject himself. There is a cut from £19,000 to £9,000 in respect of the so-called miscellaneous services, which cover the university air squadrons. Nobody will suggest that that sum will provide a decent service, but I am not going to suggest that the Royal Air Force can be expected to pay the required amount in modern conditions. Nevertheless, I feel that we are going through a rather difficult transition period at the and yet we do not want to get rid of all Forces, and the amount spent on them, moment. We are scaling down our the services which such a reduction entails.

If we are going to agree to Votes of this kind we want an assurance that the Government are doing their best, through outside channels, to try to preserve this service, which will not be carried on the Vote. If that can be done we shall get the best of both worlds.

As I was saying, if the great firms engaged in the industry, with which many hon. Members are associated—I do not refer to the National Coal Board—could make a specific contribution to enable the Vote to be increased it would enable us to preserve all the great traditions and prestige of these air squadrons.

I speak with all due humility, because I was a specially unfortunate member of a university air squadron, and not a good flier, but the members of these air squadrons are some of the finest fliers, and in the past they have gone into other walks of life and made the greatest success of them. My recollection is what Whitney Straight himself started in that way, in a university air squadron, before going off to his present post.

9.8 p.m.

Sir A. V. Harvey

I should like to say how sorry I am that my hon. Friend did not continue his career in the Royal Air Force. We probably missed a great deal in not having his services for a period of years.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

We are sorry that he did not continue his career of putting the weight.

Sir A. V. Harvey

That is equally unfortunate.

I find the Explanatory Notes very confusing upon the subject of university air squadrons. I cannot think that the sum of £19,000 last year, and still less £9,000 this year, can cover the training of these university graduates. I should like to see more detail in the Explanatory Notes so that we may see what we are getting for our money.

The Explanatory Notes talk about a small staff of 122 officers, 118 airmen and 62 civilians. I do not regard that as a small staff, and I imagine that the cost of it is not contained in the £9,000. I should like to know what we are getting out of the university air squadrons today. I am all for having them, but I should like to know how many graduates are being trained to fly and how many, upon leaving the universities, join the Regular Air Force—both in the general duties branch and on the technical side.

Although we have had these squadrons for many years the Air Force has never been very successful in capturing a sufficient number of university graduates who feel that they can make the Service a life career. I wonder if something more can be done about it. I know that all the Services have to compete with industry in this respect, but if the money is being well spent I am sure that it is a good investment. I want to know what the £9,000 is being spent on. It cannot be on the running of the squadrons.

I should like to refer to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, which is mentioned in page 26 of the Estimates. We all remember what I think was the shabby deal given to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force when it was broken up about a year ago. Probably there was a reason for it. I think there might have been a case for a steady run-down of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. I know that my right hon. Friend is not responsible for the planning of the break-up, because he was not at the Air Ministry at the time. What happened was that the Royal Air Force had so many Regular officers that it would have been embarrassed by their numbers if the Royal Auxiliary Air Force had been maintained in any number at all; so its personnel was sacked practically overnight.

I am concerned that in this year, 1958–59, we are spending £176,000, against £230,000 last year, on the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. It seems to me that we get little for our money. I know that radar stations are manned. to some extent, by auxiliary personnel, but the number of other ranks has fallen and the number of officers has gone down very little—from 2,300 to 2,000. Does that mean that only 300 officers altogether were affected by the abolition of the actual flying squadrons? I should like to know more about that.

Then there is the Royal Observer Corps. That is a part of the Royal Air Force which we never hear mentioned today. The Corps did a tremendously fine job during the war. Men who were too old for military service stood in the mountains and did their spotting, and so on. We are spending £1,000 less on these gentlemen than in the previous year. May we be told a little more about the Corps? I think that the country has a right to be informed.

There is also the Royal Air Force Reserve. I should like to know, and I think the Committee is entitled to know, what we are getting from the Reserve. I wish to know how many hours these people fly in the course of a year and what type of aircraft they are flying. Are they performing duties which are really worth while? It was thought that the Auxiliary Air Force was not playing a worth while part flying fighter aircraft, yet we continue to train pilots in the Royal Air Force Reserve.

I am a great believer in reserve and auxiliary forces, and if money is spent on that sort of thing, it is well spent. One always finds enthusiasm among men who give up their spare time to the service of their country. The Committee is entitled to know more about what these people are doing and what we are getting for the money which is being spent.

9.14 p.m.

Mr. de Freitas

In this Vote there is a reference to the reduced civil defence training of reservists and I wish to comment on it. What has happened recently has shown that there is more need for the training of reservists in civil defence. The point has been made forcibly by Questions which we have put several times to the Prime Minister and other Ministers about the need for the training of civil defence teams and fire brigades to deal with aircraft which may be carrying nuclear weapons if they should be involved in a crash or if the weapons should fall from the aircraft. In page 27 of the Estimates it states that there is a decrease under Vote 2 and one of the reasons is the …reduced civil defence training of reservists. From what we have been told we knew that, in an ordinary aircraft patrolling this country and carrying a hydrogen bomb, the primer was carried separately from the hydrogen bomb. We knew that the hydrogen bomb was not primed.

Mr. Dudley Williams

On a point of order. We are discussing the item in page 2, "Reserve and Auxiliary Services". The hon. Gentleman is flying off at a most extraordinary tangent. He intervened in the debate, when several of my hon. Friends wanted to make contributions and—

The Chairman

I can answer the point of order now. The relevant item is at the bottom of page 27: …to reduced civil defence training of reservists".

Mr. Dudley Williams

The hon. Gentleman was not discussing the training of reservists, but the manner in which the hydogen bomb was carried and in which part of the aeroplane it was carried.

The Chairman

If he is out of order I will stop him.

Mr. de Freitas

I hope the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) will read the document and study it. He will see that there is liability to call up reservists if the contingency that I was describing should occur. We knew that when the hydogen bomb was primed its safety depended upon there being no human error and no mechanical defect.

Since the matter was raised on the Air Estimates on Monday, we have learned from the aircraft accident in South Carolina that even an unprimed hydrogen bomb can cause considerable damage because it incorporates a high-explosive trigger bomb. Civil defence must be trained to deal with it. That is why I am against what is in Vote 2.

Sir A. V. Harvey

On a point of order. What has the air accident in South Carolina, and whether a bomb was carried in the aircraft, to do with training on the ground in this country.

The Chairman

The point is that the hon. Gentleman cannot ask for more money for this service.

Mr. de Freitas

I am not asking for more money, Sir Charles. I am showing the wickedness of reducing civil defence training of reservists. I am not asking for more. I am sure that is correct. The hon. Member who raised the point of order should address himself to the point that the bomb which fell was unprimed yet, such was its design—

Mr. Dudley Williams

On a point of order. Are we not discussing reservists in the Royal Air Force?

The Chairman

I am in charge of the Committee, and we have very little time.

Mr. de Freitas

The bomb was unprimed, yet such was its design that there was a T.N.T. explosion big enough to blow a crater of the size made by the conventional 1,000 lb. bomb. It seems that these hydrogen bombs contain conventional bombs which explode on impact with the ground. We have been told by the Government—I am sure they did not mean to mislead us—that aircraft were patrolling with hydrogen bombs that were not primed. What we were not told was that inside each hydrogen bomb there was the equivalent of a 1,000 lb. high explosive trigger bomb which could detonate on impact. That is what happened. Those are matters with which reservists should be trained to deal, because they are likely to face this danger. It is wrong that they should not have received adequate training.

Apart from the direct damage done by such a H.E. explosion, there must be a considerably increased risk of damage to the casing of a hydrogen bomb if there is a substantial high-explosive explosion. If an aircraft crashed or a bomb fell we know there would be a possibility of radioactive material being released, because of a break in the casing. Since Monday we have learned that there is substantially more chance of the casing being cracked because there is danger through explosion as well as danger through impact, Secondly, in addition to the possibility of the release of radioactive material we have the probability or it may even be the certainty, of a conventional explosion equivalent to that of a 1,000 lb. bomb.

That is most important when considering civil defence training. We have continually pressed the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State to train civil defence forces to deal with this danger. I ask the Under-Secretary to note that our demand for the stopping of these patrols is not only the considered policy of our party, but has wide support from many millions outside. We ask the Government to do three things: first, to stop these hydrogen bomb patrols, second, to look at the design of our hydrogen bomb to see if it is defective—

The Chairman

I have done my best for the hon. Gentleman but I cannot allow that point to be developed.

Mr. de Freitas

I have one more sentence, Sir Charles, and it is in order. The third point is to train the civil defence teams and the fire services, in and out of the Armed Forces, to deal with accidents involving hydrogen bombs either stored or in transit. It is most important that should be done.

9.23 p.m.

Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing

I will deal with the points raised on this Vote in the order in which they were raised. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) on the way in which he got the university air squadrons into the discussion. It would, of course have been unfair to suggest that he was throwing his weight about—a weight, I can say without in any way insulting his figure, which is certainly not a 12 lb. one.

The university air squadrons are doing a very worthwhile job. It is difficult to measure their value entirely in terms of recruits, but we do get some very valuable recruits. Until recently there was even one member of the Air Council who came into the Royal Air Force through a university air squadron. Obviously when we are examining our Votes, as we have to do most carefully, we must consider every facet of the question. The Inspector-General went round all the university air squadrons and discussed with the university authorities the merits of having the squadrons continuing. Every university said that they got a great deal of value out of these squadrons. They were a conspicuous feature of university life. After all, the object is to put before young people every possible opportunity; and these squadrons put before them the opportunities which exist in the Royal Air Force, and encouraged an interest in flying.

The question was asked, why had the Vote gone down? It has gone down for two reasons. First, this Vote does not include the cost of the aircraft and the servicing and the petrol, oil and lubricants, for example. It is a small residual Vote, and not the basic Vote or cost of the university air squadrons. It has also gone down because we have pruned the subsidiary parts of the university air squadrons. We have retained all 17 of the squadrons, but we have pruned the navigation training establishment which existed at Cambridge and we have pruned the C and R element at London, which was costing a great deal of money for a relatively small return. We have pruned these establishments because it was felt that we were perhaps over-generous in giving so much flying to those who were not really interested in joining the R.A.F. We have at the same time turned over to cheaper aircraft, we have gone to the Chipmunk, a lighter aircraft than the Harvard which previously was used by a number of the university air squadrons.

We hope also that the university air squadrons will perform a valuable function in helping the amount of flying of the Air Training Corps. At the 17 university towns, we have the Chipmunks and the instructors available and we have the whole organisation for maintaining them. The natural thing to do is to link them with the local squadrons of the Air Training Corps and to give the corps the opportunity, particularly during vacations, of going to the airfields used by the university air squadrons and making use of the Chipmunks and all the facilities.

I confess that in terms of actual numbers the recruiting output of these squadrons is small; but in terms of the prestige that the Air Force gets as a result of these squadrons, the reward is very great. I was at Cambridge last Friday—I apologise to the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) for being at his university—when the University Air Squadron dinner was held. It was attended by 300 people, Lord Tedder was the guest of honour and it was quite clear that the squadron had tremendous support at the university. The previous week, I was at Oxford. The people there are a robust lot too, and they are good not only at putting the weight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) asked about fighter control and radar reporting units, and he was quite right; we have had to prune them. Those which remain are, however, still doing a very worthwhile job.

I am glad that my hon. Friend raised the question of the Royal Observer Corps, to which insufficient publicity is given. In the past, the Corps has been responsible mainly for tracking low-flying aircraft. Now, it is responsible also for tracking the fall-out from nuclear explosions. This is an important job, and one which we could not possibly do without.

My hon. Friend asked what was being done about the R.A.F. Reserve. It is not, perhaps, such a ready reserve as it was in my hon. Friend's day. Its members are not getting any flying experience to keep them up to date. Nevertheless, they are very valuable and in an emergency we could call upon them as we have done in the past.

The university air squadrons are, in our opinion, tremendously valuable. They served us extremely well at the time of the Battle of Britain. I tried to join when I was up there, but having had a mastoid I was ruled out. There were many gallant and "gutful" people who came from them into the Auxiliary squadrons—Nos. 600 and 601 squadrons in London, for example—and who did a first-class job. In fact, the first German aircraft to be shot down was brought down by an Auxiliary pilot.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lincoln on managing to get on to the subject of H-bombs and A-bombs in discussing this Vote. Apparently, the hon. Member thought that B.47 aircraft came under our Royal Air Force Vote. I do not think that the Committee stage of the Air Estimates is the best opportunity to make a statement of such a nature. I have been looking through the Order Paper and I find that a host of Questions—at least eight already—have been put down for next Tuesday, and there is still opportunity of putting down more, to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Mr. de Freitas rose

Mr. Orr-Ewing

May I finish? I believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has it in mind to make a considered statement on this matter on Tuesday. I should have thought that it was the feeling of the House that a state- ment coming from that source would be much more valuable and appropriate—and, of course, there will be more time to consider the statement—than anything that an Under-Secretary might say during the Committee stage.

Mr. de Freitas

Can the hon. Gentleman guarantee that on Tuesday the Prime Minister will not say that he considers it the sort of matter which should not be dealt with by question and answer?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will take into account everything that the hon. Member has said, including his points about the 1,000 lb. charge and the bursting of the casing—

It being half-past Nine o'clock, The CHAIRMAN proceeded, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16 (Business of Supply), to put the Question necessary to dispose of the Vote under consideration.

Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

On a point of order, Sir Charles—

The Chairman

The hon. and gallant Member cannot put a point of order now, I am afraid. I am bound by the Standing Order to carry on.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £1.379,900, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of the reserve and auxiliary services (to a number not exceeding 215,000, all ranks, for the Royal Air Force Reserve, and 5,000, all ranks, for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force), which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March. 1959

The CHAIRMAN then proceeded forthwith to put severally the Questions, That the total amounts outstanding in such Estimates for the Air Services for the coming financial year as have been put down on at least one previous day for consideration on an allotted day, and the total amounts of all outstanding Estimates supplementary to those of the current financial year as have been presented seven clear days, and of all outstanding Excess Votes, be granted for the Services defined in those Estimates, Supplementary Estimates and Statements of Excess: