HC Deb 12 November 1959 vol 613 cc641-55

5.24 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Air Force Act, 1955 (Continuation) Order, 1959, a draft of which was laid before this House on 28th October, be approved. The House will by now be familiar with this procedure. We need an Order in Council at the end of each year in order to continue the life of the Air Force Act for a further year. Under Section 224 of the Act, the Order in Council has to be laid before Parliament in draft and approved by an affirmative Resolution of the House.

This is the third draft Order under the new procedure, and its purpose is, of course, to continue the Air Force Act in force throughout next year. We shall need a further Order in Council at the end of 1960, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War reminded the House earlier today, legislation will be necessary during 1961 to cater for the situation which will arise at the end of that year when the Act can no longer be renewed by Order in Council.

The Air Force Act has now been in operation for three years and we have found that, in general, it has worked very well. This is a deserved tribute to the care that was taken in its preparation by a Select Committee of the House.

The main object of this Order is, of course, to ensure the discipline of the Royal Air Force. We have now had experience of these debates for the last three years and on each occasion, and particularly last year, hon. Members have shown some interest in the statistics of courts martial in the Royal Air Force. Indeed, earlier this afternoon some figures were given for the Army by my right hon. Friend, and I felt that the House would like to hear something about the Royal Air Force also in this matter.

The figures for 1957 were 3.25 courts-martial per thousand strength of the Royal Air Force, and for 1958 3.5 per thousand. The corresponding figure for this year is 3.3 per thousand which, for the benefit of statisticians in the House, is, I am informed—I have not worked it out myself—0.33 per cent.

Of course, the majority of the disciplinary offences which occur in the Services are not dealt with by courts-martial at all. They are dealt with by the summary powers of commanding officers. The House will have heard with interest earlier this afternoon from my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War some of the modifications which he proposes to introduce into the Army for dealing with this kind of offence. These will, of course, be followed in the Royal Air Force, broadly speaking, but there are bound to remain certain minor differences which arise from different organisation, different conditions and differences in service life. However, as I say, generally speaking we are at one in trying to do away with the more niggling and petty aspects of discipline which my right hon. Friend described as being more of an irritant than a corrective.

It is customary in this debate also to mention the subject of recruiting. Although it would be wrong to be over-optimistic about this highly important subject, the news which I can give the House is, I think, on the whole satisfactory. Although during the past nine months of this year there has been a drop of nearly 3,000, compared with the same period in 1958, in the total number of airmen enlisting in the Royal Air Force on regular engagements, that drop has been due mainly to the decrease in the number entering on short-term engagements, to which entry has been deliberately restricted.

The number of airmen enlisting on the longer engagements of five years and more, on the other hand, has over the same period increased by 1,500, or just under 25 per cent. There has also been a continuous increase in extensions of service by those already serving. So far in 1959 it has been about one-sixth better than it was in 1958. The combined effect of the trends in both external and internal recruiting has been a substantial rise in the long-service content of the Force.

A most encouraging feature—and I am sure the House will agree with this—is the fact that over 50 per cent. of the airmen strength on 30th September last was serving on engagements of nine years or over. We have also raised our entry target for boy entrants from 2,400 a year to 3,300 a year, as from October, to take advantage of what is popularly known as the birth-rate bulge.

Of course, the picture, bright though it is, is not without some shadows. For example, we are still not getting quite as many men as we should like to get in some trades that call for special ability—such as radio engineering—and in some of the less popular trades. However, we are making every effort to reduce our needs for uniformed men in these trades by introducing the most modern techniques of work study, by having as much mechanisation as we can, and by having as much civilianisation as we can within limits that are well known to the House.

There is a fourth way in which we hope to fill some of the gaps in our uniformed manpower, and that is by making as much use as possible of the Women's Royal Air Force. For that reason, before I leave the subject of recruiting, I should like to say a word about airwomen. As I have often said before, the Women's Royal Air Force forms an essential element in the build up of an all-Regular force.

There has been a very welcome increase in the recruitment of airwomen, partly due to the introduction in March of this year of the special local service engagement scheme—which has already attracted more than 350 recruits—and partly to the reduction in February of this year of the minimum age from 17½ to 17 years. In the first nine months of this year, 1,476 women enlisted for general service as compared with 1,146 for the same period in 1948—an increase of nearly 29 per cent. If we add the local service airwomen, the total becomes 1,807, an increase of nearly 60 per cent.

This, generally, is a very gratifying picture. Not only does it give us hopes of being able to fill gaps by using this element of the Force which we are unable to fill with Regular Service men, but it means that we are having some quite considerable success in convincing girls of the opportunities and interest that a career in the W.R.A.F. has to offer.

The conclusion that I would ask the House to draw is that we are proceeding smoothly, so far, towards the creation of a balanced all-Regular Force. There are, of course, problems ahead, particularly in recruiting for the more specialised and skilled trades, and these problems must be overcome. Meanwhile, the trend of recruiting is satisfactorily, and in all other directions we are doing our best to provide the conditions necessary to attract men to a full career in the Royal Air Force.

5.34 p.m.

Mr. John Strachey (Dundee, West)

On this occasion I am acting simply as a substitute for my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas), who is at a N.A.T.O. conference; but, as it gives me an opportunity to enter into a debate on the conditions of my own old Service, I am pleased to take his place. I do not pretend to have as intimate and up-to-date knowledge as has my hon. Friend, so I shall not attempt to say very much on this procedure, which corresponds to that which we have just debated in relation to the Army.

I was not quite clear in my under standing of what the Secretary of State said on one point. Is the Royal Air Force instituting reforms analogous to or comparable with those two reforms that have been instituted in the Army? The Army is substituting for admonitions something roughly analogous to the civilian probation system and is also abolishing the old confined-to-barracks penalty and introducing a new and less restricted one. If, as I gathered, such a change, not exactly the same as that in the Army but corresponding to it, is being made in the Air Force—

Mr. Ward

indicated assent.

Mr. Strachey

The right hon. Gentleman indicates assent. That change is welcome.

I listened as carefully as I could to the recruitment figures. I agree with the Secretary of State. I see no reason why the targets should not be reached if present trends continue. There is a drop in the figures this year, but I think that there was bound to be that drop, and in regard to the long-service content—the long-term matter on which everything turns—things seem to be going fairly well.

I am glad that the recruitment figures for the Women's Royal Air Force are improving. I have always believed that this branch of the Service was the key to some of the difficulties in finding the personnel for many of the grades less popular with men. I find no necessity to detain the House further.

5.37 p.m.

Mr. Richard Collard (Norfolk, Central)

On this, the first occasion on which I have the honour to address the House, I must ask for the indulgence usually shown to hon. Members speaking for the first time. I do not have the ordeal of addressing a full House, but I do have the ordeal of keeping within the extremely narrow terms that have been set for this debate. If I venture to make some preliminary remarks, which are usually acceptable in a maiden speech but which will tonight undoubtedly go a little outside the rules that have been laid down, then, again, I crave indulgence.

When I first came here I was given a good deal of advice about a maiden speech. I was told, first, that one should not make it too soon; second, that one should not leave it too late and, third, that it was desirable—though not essential—to know something of what one was speaking about. As to the last, I served for twenty-one years in the Royal Air Force and, as a result, I do not regard the annual renewal of the Air Force Act as a matter only of routine.

I have the honour to represent Norfolk, Central, and that constituency—and East Anglia in general—both topographically and geographically, has quite properly been a cradle for Service aviation. Early in the war, when I was serving with a bomber squadron at Feltwell, we flew on our missions to Europe over the lovely fields and country, part of which I now have the honour to represent here. East Anglia is acquainted not only with aviation, but with defence. Going right back to the times of the Vikings and the Danelaw, it has always been a salient towards the enemy. The people of East Anglia also have recent experience of defence matters, as is evidenced by the great network of war-time airfields in East Anglia, which for the most part are now, happily, under agricultural cultivation.

If I may stretch your patience a little further on this subject, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, after which I will go to the point at issue, I wish to refer to the fact that the Norwich Aero Club is one of the oldest flying clubs in the country. It has been homeless and on hard days for some time. It has now found a home, but I hope that on another and more appropriate occasion it will be possible to put it to my right hon. Friend that he might consider whether the Norwich Aero Club may not find a home eventually at the airfield of Horsham St. Faith, which is now not as operational as it was.

We are discussing, among other things, the discipline of the Royal Air Force. The flying discipline of the Royal Air Force is dealt with briefly in the Air Force Act. Only three provisions deal with flying discipline as such. Section 46-states that Any person subject to air-force-law who … (b) by negligence loses or damages any of Her Majesty's aircraft … (c) is guilty of any act or neglect likely to cause damage to or the loss of any of Her Majesty's aircraft or aircraft material … shall, on conviction by court-martial … suffer a penalty not exceeding two years' imprisonment. Section 49 applies a similar penalty to those who by neglect in the use of Her Majesty's aircraft or aircraft material cause risk of loss of life or injury to other persons.

I wish briefly to draw the attention of the House to the conditions under which the aircrew of the Royal Air Force have to observe, and be governed by, those three provisions which I have quoted. I want to draw attention to the extreme complexity of modern aircraft, because it is in those aircraft that the aircrew have to discharge their duties and keep within the law which this House this afternoon proposes to continue.

This complexity applies to all types of Service aircraft, whether training, transport or operational, but it is, of course, the operational types which are most complex. It applies to bombers with a crew of five or six just as to fighters with a crew of one or two, because although the bombers are much more complex, the fighters have fewer men, hands, heads and eyes to operate them.

A modern aircraft in which the aircrew have to discharge these duties and observe these laws is virtually a flying power-house. Whereas originally, in the days when, perhaps, my right hon. Friend and I learnt to fly, an aircraft had in it simply an engine and a method of control of the airframe, it is now a mass of complex systems affecting the flying controls, the electrical systems, the pressurisation, the fuel, and so on. The management of the great powerful engines is an undertaking in itself. The armaments system and the systems for priming and dropping the bombs, and for aiming the bombs, guns and rockets are in themselves highly complex systems. In that respect, the duties of aircrew of the Royal Air Force are that much more demanding than the duties of civil airline crews.

There is a great complexity of instruments and intricate drill which must be followed, placing a great responsibility and a great task upon the captains and the crew, who, if they transgress under these conditions, will still be subject to the laws and penalties which we are to continue this afternoon. They have to perform these duties in clothing which is constricted, complicated and cumbersome—inevitably so; clothing which must keep them warm and which must also keep them cool; clothing which must protect them in extremes of temperature or when descending into the sea and which must protect them in cockpit conditions of pressurisation and temperature which have continually to be watched and which, in the event of a quite small failure, will immediately precipitate a crisis.

Furthermore, they have to carry out these duties when subject to the force of gravity and when travelling at speeds equivalent to, or greater than, that of sound. These things will, of course, be more so in the future so long as manned aircraft continue. While these things are true in peacetime, there is in the background the potential responsibility that Air Force crews, and particularly bomber crews, would have to undertake in war, when they would have under their hand, on our behalf, immense power.

How are these duties being discharged? I cannot get figures of accidents, which would, of course, be subject to prosecution under the provisions of the Act which I have mentioned. Probably rightly, they are a matter of security. Possibly, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, if he replies to this discussion, will be able to say something about them. From my own observation, however, based in recent years on activities in the aircraft industry and particularly of Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force, it seems to me that an extraordinarily high standard of flying discipline has been achieved and is being maintained, a degree of flying discipline which, it would be fair to say, would have been quite unheard of at the beginning of the 'thirties when I learnt to fly.

I believe that this satisfactory state of affairs is due in the first place to the high calibre of the crews—and how right it is that a very high standard of recruitment should be imposed. It also stems from the very high standard of leadership of all ranks, particularly the commanders and the higher commanders. After all, one of their principal duties is to impose discipline, including flying discipline. It is noticeable that the higher commanders of the Royal Air Force are of the first calibre and are closely acquainted with, and expert themselves in, the whole business of flying, which makes them particularly suitable for the administration of flying discipline.

That satisfactory state of affairs springs from a general devotion to duty which the Royal Air Force has always had. It springs especially from the remarkably high standard of training which obtains in the Air Force today, which certainly did not obtain in the years before the war simply because, in the state of knowledge of the art at that time, it was not possible to bring an air force to such a high standard of training. Admittedly, the Service may be a little more sober-minded than it was. The days are long past when it was said that for the Army an order was an order, but for the Air Force it was an excuse for an argument. Those days are long past, and I do not think that we should regret them.

I have ventured to make these points because it is very easy for the disciplinary side of the Royal Air Force to get adverse publicity. It used to be so over low flying. Now it may be a case of an Air Force aircraft inadvertently going rather close to an airliner containing some hon. Members. However, there are many hon. Members who understand these things, no one better than my right hon. Friend, who is himself an aviator and who has great experience at the Air Ministry.

I hope that he will agree that it is right, even on this somewhat limited occasion, to say something about which we hear all too seldom, namely, the extraordinary high standard of flying discipline which obtains in the Royal Air Force. I think that I speak for all hon. Members, whatever their opinions on defence, when I say that we regard that aspect of the Royal Air Force's activities with pride and admiration.

A maiden speech is one in which, I suppose, one should say something which comes near to one's heart. I therefore make no apology for having dealt with this matter and for having paid a tribute to the aircrews of the Royal Air Force, upon whose readiness, steadiness and devotion to duty and upon whose courage and skill the future safety of these islands must now chiefly depend.

5.52 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

The hon. Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Collard) told us that he bad been advised to speak on a subject about which he knew something, and I am bound to tell him that the House has been fascinated by the way in which he has been able to give to the least technically-minded of us an understanding of the way in which this modern profession to which he belongs has achieved so high a standard of efficiency and so splendid a discipline in handling things which, to some of us, are mere mysteries to which we commit ourselves in the sure and certain hope that the man who is flying the aircraft knows a great deal more about it than we shall ever expect to be able to know. When we look at the array of instruments and knobs in front of him, we wonder how on that amazing organ a pilot will get any tune at all that will see us to the other side of the Atlantic.

After hearing the hon. Member, I am sure that we all feel that he is a worthy representative of a great modern calling which we honour. We wish him every success in his period of service in the House. Let me assure him that if he can ever fascinate us again as he did today, he will not have to complain of the smallness of the audience to which he then has to address himself. I can assure him that in speaking to our colleagues in the House all of us present will express our admiration of the speech which we have just heard.

I have noticed that in their maiden speeches in this Parliament new Members have generally paid a tribute to their predecessor. I hope that I shall not get into trouble with the Government Whips if I say that I hope that on matters which he understands so well the hon. Member will be able to show the same spirit of independence which distinguished his predecessor.

I shall not attempt to follow the hon. Member into the technicalities with which he dealt so illuminatingly. I want to say a few words about the Women's Royal Air Force. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will keep in touch with the grammar schools, the secondary modern schools and, particularly, with the technical colleges where women students are becoming increasingly interested in the complications of the mechanism with which the right hon. Gentleman dealt. In that way he will have a steady supply of capable recruits who will be able to help in building up this great Service.

We know from our experience of two world wars of the way in which the woman who takes an interest in this sort of thing can become exceedingly competent and discharge the duties assigned to her with a conscientiousness worthy of the eulogies which the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central paid to the men in the Service. I hope that we shall be able to make many highly intelligent girls feel that in this Service they can find a life's work which will give them satisfaction and will assist in the organisation of one of our great Armed Forces.

5.57 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. W. J. Taylor)

I want first to join in the congratulations so admirably offered by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) to my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Collard). As we have heard, my hon. Friend has a great record of service in the Royal Air Force. One always listens with special attention and great respect to one who has long and distinguished service of the kind my hon. Friend has. I join with the right hon. Gentleman in expressing the hope that we shall hear my hon. Friend on many occasions, and we look forward to doing so.

There is one voice which we have missed in these debates today, that of the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), who is usually very active in these matters. I hope—and I am sure that all hon. Members will join with me—that his recovery will be speedy and his return to the House not long delayed.

Mr. Ede

I heard that the hon. Member had his operation yesterday, that it has been very satisfactory and that he is looking forward to being back with us rather sooner than some hon. Members might hope.

Mr. Taylor

I am delighted to hear of his excellent progress.

Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)

I saw the hon. Member this afternoon, just for a couple of minutes. He is in very good form, but suffering a little pain, and suffering pain unduly because he is sorry that he cannot be with us.

Mr. Taylor

I am sure that the first thing that the hon. Member will do in the morning will be to read the OFFICIAL REPORT of today's debates. If these messages of good will reach him as soon as that, I am sure that that is all we desire.

The right hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Strachey) asked whether the Royal Air Force intended to march in step with the Army in the changes in disciplinary code which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War mentioned earlier. Our intention is to abolish confinement to camp and to institute a new punishment termed "Restrictions". This will mean that a man on Restrictions will be required to perform two hours of fatigues in addition to the his normal work, or extra duties if there are no fatigues to be done. On non-working days such defaulters would be required to work during normal working hours. This scheme is designed to restrict the defaulter's freedom during the day, but I ought to make it clear that it would not prevent a married man sleeping at home.

In addition, the defaulter will be required to answer his name at two parades a day, one in the morning and one at night. The large amount of shift work in the Royal Air Force makes it impracticable to fix particular times, and this would be left to the discretion of commanding officers. The Royal Air Force has no system of booking in and out of camp, so it would be impracticable to confine a man to camp once he had performed the necessary fatigues and answered his name on parade.

In fact, we have no permanent pass system. In our view, once a man has finished his duty he should be free to come and go as he pleases until he is next required for duty. Nor do we intend to prohibit the wearing of civilian clothing out of working hours. We have no means of ensuring that only a defaulter walks out of camp in uniform, and I would regard this more as an irritant than a punitive measure.

All these matters are designed to remove the petty restrictions and irritants in the Service to which my right hon. Friend referred, and year by year we are making such improvements as appear proper and timely.

In a brilliant maiden speech which we all very much enjoyed my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, Central raised the important subject of flying discipline. As he will know from his own experience, this is a matter which the Service takes very seriously indeed. The high standard to which my hon. Friend referred has been raised even higher than before and this is one of the most important factors in the decline in the accident rate. This decline was mentioned in the last Air Estimates Memorandum. The improvement has been fully maintained in recent months. For reasons of security and morale it is not our practice to give precise statistics of accident rates and their causes. I can, however, say that the proportion of major accidents attributable to breaches of flying discipline is very low indeed. Only one court martial has been necessary in the last twelve months for a breach of flying discipline.

My hon. Friend referred to the high standard of air crews. Anyone who has seen the men employed on these onerous duties will be filled, as all of us who have had a little experience of it are, with tremendous admiration for the men in the Royal Air Force today.

My hon. Friend also referred to low flying. During the year the Royal Air Force received a number of complaints from members of the public about low flying. All these complaints have received the most careful investigation. Often the information was too scanty to enable us to identify the aircraft, or investigation showed that the aircraft did not belong to the Royal Air Force. When a Royal Air Force aircraft can be identified the matter is taken up with the station concerned. It is usually found that there was a valid reason for the low flying. Either it was an authorised flight in a low flying area or a practice flight for a special occasion, or was necessary because of weather conditions. As might be expected, we have had most complaints when major exercises have been taking place.

This year the Daily Mail air race gave rise to a number of complaints, but in the circumstances I feel that low flying was perhaps justified. In the year which ended on 30th September there was only one conviction by court-martial for flying offences. In my view, this indicates the high standard of flying discipline in the Royal Air Force.

There is one other aspect of flying discipline which it might be appropriate to mention, and that is sonic booms. Supersonic flying by the Royal Air Force is normally prohibited over land in the United Kingdom. Some people attribute sonic booms to flying indiscipline. Although about 120 cases of damage or disturbance caused by aircraft breaking the sound barrier were reported during the year, only three cases were attributable to Royal Air Force aircraft. All three were accidental incidents, two being caused by a Hunter and one by a Javelin aircraft. Most of the others were caused by a Ministry of Aviation aircraft under development in a properly controlled and authorised manner.

As the House knows, it is our general practice to pay compensation whenever there is any reasonable evidence of damage genuinely caused by sonic booms. Nor do we seek to shelter behind the difficulties of aircraft identification when these claims are made. That point is worth making because of the remarks of my hon. Friend about uninformed, and in some cases disparaging, publicity which the Royal Air Force often gets as a result of incidents of this kind.

My right hon. Friend referred to general recruitment. The fact is that the total number of regular recruits has dropped compared with last year. This was due to a decrease in the number entering on short-time engagements. It has been our policy to restrict short-term engagements. The number of airmen enlisting on long-term engagements, that is to say for five years or more, has increased over the same period by 25 per cent. There has also been a continuous rise in the number of those already serving to extend their engagements.

The overall effect has been a significant increase in the long-term content of the Force. Over 50 per cent. of the total strength of the Air Force on 30th September last were serving on engagements of nine years or more. We are also aiming to recruit more boy entrants. From October we have raised our entry target from 2,400 to 3,300 a year to take advantage of what is popularly known and referred to as the birth-rate bulge.

In some trades we are not getting as many men of the quality that we would like. Some of these trades, such as radio engineering, require special ability. Other trades which require less skill are not so popular among recruits. We are making every effort to reduce our manpower requirement by seeking greater efficiency in these trades through work study and mechanisation.

The right hon. Member for South Shields mentioned the Women's Royal Air Force, and suggested that the Air Ministry should keep in close touch with schools, colleges and women's educational establishments. I assure him that his suggestion will be followed up and that we will certainly do whatever we can to put it into practical effect. I am quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman is thinking along the right lines and that great benefit may accrue from a proper application of that idea.

There were no other points of major importance made in this debate and I hope that the House will feel that it can give approval to this Order. If any right hon. or hon. Member who has a point about which he would like further information will write to me, I will do my best to furnish him with an adequate reply.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Air Force Act, 1955 (Continuation) Order, 1959, a draft of which was laid before this House on 28th October, be approved.