HC Deb 27 October 1959 vol 612 cc192-204

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)

I must apologise to my right hon. Friend for inflicting this Adjournment debate on him on the first day of the new Parliament. I offer as my excuse the reason that I believe that the problem that I want to discuss is a matter of some urgency. I hope that my right hon. Friend will forgive me for keeping him up rather later than he expected.

On 7th to 11th September a small deputation comprised of Members of both Houses visited the R.A.F. Station at Lyneham to learn something about the organisation, responsibilities, and problems of Transport Command. As in all these trips the time available was much too short, but I am certain that those of my colleagues who accompanied me on the trip would join me in paying tribute to the Royal Air Force for the excellent way in which the programme was organised, and the excellency of its hospitality. The maximum amount of both work and hospitality was crammed into the minimum of time. We were given a comprehensive review of Transport Command, and learnt a little about some of its technical problems.

It soon became clear that the real purpose of the exercise was to show us some of the difficulties that faced Transport Command, and the Royal Air Force generally, in operating outside the United Kingdom in unfavourable climatic conditions. In selecting Aden for this lesson they chose a very good classroom.

Many of my colleagues know Aden far better than I could hope to know it after spending only two days there, but it is generally known that Aden is not among the most salubrious of our stations. One remembers a good deal of what one has heard about it being one of the hottest places that one could go to. The only person who said a good word for Aden was the padre, who said that it made his own task a little easier because he found that if in the course of his sermons he referred to hell being worse than Aden it had the most sobering effect on the most difficult characters.

When we arrived we were greeted with a letter from the principal medical officer which pointed out that Aden's climate induced free sweating. That was no exaggeration. It certainly did. In the hotel bedroom which we occupied in one of the only two hotels which had air conditioning I kept looking at the air conditioning plant to see whether it was operating, because the temperature never fell below 80 degrees. In the bathroom, which had not got air conditioning, the cold water tap always ran hot.

It was too hot for the flies. We were told that there were no flies and perhaps that is one of the reasons why the climate is fundamentally healthy. The real problem is that of heat and humidity which produces heat exhaustion and fatigue, and irritability which comes from long hours spent running wet with sweat.

We were told something about the technical problems that affect the Royal Air Force in Aden. We were told that the Beverley was a complicated plane, although I think that most of us knew that. It requires a great deal of servicing. Maintenance problems were made more difficult there because of a shortage of spares.

I was cornered by a band of men who were dedicated to the use of helicopters. They pointed out that the terrain was ideal for the use of helicopters, but that they had not got enough, and that the helicopters that were there were all grounded. It was also pointed out that they were keen on the Pioneers, either single or double engined Pioneers.

But, above all, the difficulty upon which they all insisted concerned the inadequacy of both the domestic and workshop accommodation. That was the theme song that ran throughout the two days that we were there. To such an effect did they play this theme song that when we came away we were all left with the vague suspicion that perhaps all was not quite well with accommodation, and it was for that reason that I put down my name for the Adjournment debate tonight.

To meet the climatic conditions to which I referred earlier, and to enable the Service to operate under the most efficient and comfortable conditions possible, there are certain essentials. First, there must be adequate barrack accommodation of the right type, with adequate washing facilities, including a supply of really cold water, instead of constant hot water. Secondly, for families there must be comfortable married quarters with, again if possible, one room which is air-conditioned. Many children suffer badly from prickly heat, but they are cured in a matter of hours by being put into an air-conditioned room.

Thirdly, there must be good schools for those families. Fourthly, it must be remembered that for the single men in Aden there is little or no female companionship, except a very small number of W.R.A.F.s who are kept behind barbed wire. There are practically no young women with whom the men can make friends and it is, therefore, even more essential to provide first-class recreational and sporting facilities. Lastly—not in importance, but merely in order—there should be air-conditioned workshops and offices.

The matter may be summed up by saying that in a climate of this kind we want conditions for the Services which the oil companies and other large major industrial undertakings try to provide for their employees. Nobody would pretend that those conditions apply for the Services in Aden today. Workshop conditions, especially in the hot season, are so intolerable that men must frequently be relieved and very often taken off work altogether.

Khormaksar Air Station, at Aden, handles more traffic than Lyneham, in addition to its operational rôle, and has to do more maintenance of aeroplanes, which means that the position is very serious, because the conditions affect operational efficiency. The accommodation can be described as being deplorable. I give the facts, so that the House can judge for itself.

When we were there, the position was that approximately 50 per cent. of the entitled families on the waiting list for married quarters and hirings were still without prospects of getting such accommodation. Plans had been approved for married quarters for about one-tenth of those on the waiting list. In respect of single men—officers, warrant officers and senior N.C.Os.—the shortfall was about 33 per cent. I mention percentages only for security reasons. About one-quarter of this shortfall accommodation is to be provided, and has been approved in principle. In respect of other ranks—corporals and below—the shortfall is about 58 per cent. The greater part, but not all of this, is now being met by new construction which is either started or has been approved, in that the plans have been accepted.

The interesting feature is that when all these plans and approvals are interpreted in the actual buildings on the spot there will still be a shortfall of accommodation required to meet the existing establishment, and no provision has been made for the anticipated increase in establishment which is likely to take place in the next six months or so. If this increase takes place and we get fresh postings and additional Royal Air Force and other personnel in Aden, the accommodation situation will be even worse than it is now, despite the new and approved buildings.

I am sure that I speak for my colleagues in the delegation in saying that the N.A.A.F.I. and canteen facilities seemed to be completely and grossly inadequate for their type. At most they can cater for only about 50 per cent. of the troops who want to use them, although the N.A.A.F.I. had a large and ambitious scheme designed to cater for the numbers there and possibly for any anticipated future increase.

Here I would digress, and suggest that the Malcolm Clubs—who, I understand, have suggested that they would be prepared to set up one or two clubs in Aden—might be approached, if they have not already approached the Minister, and asked if they would set up one or two clubs. It would make a considerable contribution to the recreational facilities at Aden. We had an opportunity of looking at the cold store and deep-freeze facilities. In fact, I do not think that there was any accommodation on the domestic side that we were not shown. I think that to most of us they seem to be inadequate to meet the needs of the present or certainly the foreseeable needs of the station.

When dealing with problems of this kind, it is very important not to over-exaggerate the position. One has to remember that our forebears lived and worked for many years in Aden under conditions of much more acute discomfort than we are now asking Service men to suffer in Aden. Taking that into account, there is no doubt that the conditions today are extremely uncomfortable, to use the most modest and moderate terms about them.

I think that from the point of view of efficiency it is wrong to allow these conditions to continue. No one can work at 100 per cent. efficiency under conditions of intolerable humidity and heat during the day without being able to rest properly during the night. A number of people are still having to live under canvas. If any hon. Member has been under canvas in the kind of temperature which one gets in Aden, he will know the hell that he himself suffered during the period of his residence there.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is giving a false impression if he suggests that things there are better than they were a generation or two ago. One of the barracks that we visited was built about the time of the Boer War and had accommodation for 22 men. Today, instead of 22 men, there are about 47 men there.

Mr. Hall

I do not think that I am giving a false impression. It is true that they did not have the facilities in those days that we have now. Today, they are served with iced drinks on occasions and wear lighter clothing than our forebears. I agree that a number of the barracks built in 1890 were in some ways better than the barracks provided more recently, because they were built to cater for the climate perhaps more efficiently than some of the recent ones.

The thing that impressed us all, despite all these disadvantages and difficulties, was that the morale of officers and men was extremely high. Although they often made very pointed comments about the conditions which they had to suffer, nevertheless one got the impression that they regarded this as one of those things—a station which they had to be at during some period of their Service career and that they were prepared to put up with it and work with very good will and good humour.

There are several reasons why this situation has arisen. One is the rapid build-up which had to take place in Aden due to the redeployment of our forces. The second is the very limited local resources available to help the Services in providing additional facilities, including the shortage of skilled building labour, and the inability of the Aden electricity undertaking to meet the demands made on it for additional power, I know that it is trying to overcome that now. I hope to enlist the help of the Colonial Office in that way.

Above all, I think that probably the greatest stumbling block and the greatest difficulty is the Treasury's reluctance to approve plans for the provision of accommodation in advance of the troops actually being on the ground. I am not certain how we can overcome that difficulty without inducing the Treasury to take a completely different attitude of mind. I believe that my right hon. Friend has been doing his best to overcome these problems, but I think that it is a joint operation between him and the Treasury and the Colonial Office. I do not think that it is something that the Air Ministry can do on its own.

There is no doubt that what we require is a speed-up in the present building programme, not only to cope with existing requirements but to cater for future requirements. The Colonial Office must do as much as it can, and more than it has done already, to help the Aden Government in providing additional power facilities required by the Aden electricity undertaking without which the Services cannot provide many of the facilities which make these additional power resources necessary.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

I lived for six years in Aden. May I ask my hon. Friend whether his point is that the power station is not big enough and that the Colony has not the financial resources to build, and that it should get help from this country because of the difficulties confronting Service people?

Mr. Hall

I understood that one of the things they require is a certain amount of capital assistance so that they can establish additional generating capacity.

The third point I wish to make, and one which tends to be overlooked, is that there are a certain number of stage posts along the Gulf of Aden which, if we ever have to stage an operation, will be used very fully. The present accommodation and facilities available there do not seem to be adequate to deal with any moderate operation which may take place within the Arabian Peninsula. There again, we must get the Treasury to depart from the principle of allowing expenditure only when the troops are on the ground to use the facilities.

If the Government are not prepared to accelerate the programme of improving conditions and providing more buildings and better workshop facilities, and so on, or are unable to do so for some reason or other, I do not think that they ought to allow families to join the station. Alternatively, if we do not propose to allow families to join the station, it should be a 12-month station. If that be not possible—and I see many difficulties about that in certain respects—the officers and men should be given frequent home leave, certainly every six months. It is not enough for them to be able to go to Kenya: that does not meet the case at all. They must have home leave if the facilities are not to be good enough to allow their families to join them.

Even more necessary is this for the single men who are kept there for the whole period of their service, with no recreational facilities outside Aden except a short period in a rest camp in Kenya. I hope that my right hon. Friend, in conjunction with the Colonial Office and the Treasury, will give this matter the most careful consideration. I know that he will approach it with energy and with sympathy for the human problems involved, as I do not think that we can go on for too long trespassing on the good will, good nature, good humour and readiness to accept adverse conditions which has always been typical of the British serving man. It is incumbent upon us to provide the best facilities possible in the climatic conditions in which he has to serve.

I know that my right hon. Friend will assure the House that everything humanly possible is being done to speed up the provision of the necessary facilities and to improve the lot of the Service man in Aden.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

Time is not on my side and therefore it is not my intention to speak for as long as I should like. I have previously raised the question of conditions of service in Aden with the Minister.

Let me first say to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) that to say that we had a vague impression when we left that all was not well is a masterly understatement. To say that morale is high among officers and men is contrary to my point of view—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—because I did not find one airman who was not absolutely sick and fed up with the station and counting the time until he could go home again. Lads who had been there only from five to seven months were counting the days to the end of their two-year period of service when they could escape back home. Such was the state of morale among the men.

When we visited Riyan, which is a twelve-month station, morale was higher because those who were there knew that after a period of twelve months they would be back again in the United Kingdom, but conditions were such in Aden that no man could possibly enjoy his service.

Mr. John Hall

The hon. Gentleman has made a statement which is completely contrary to something that I said. The fact that men wanted to go home has nothing to do with their high morale. The high morale existed under those conditions despite their desire to go home.

Mr. Mason

I disagree and now, if I may be permitted, I shall have to take a little longer than I anticipated in order to try to prove my point. As a member of this British legislative assembly I say that the Air Ministry was not obliged to show us these conditions in Aden and that makes me think it is not to blame entirely but maybe the Treasury is. The Air Ministry wanted us to see the station and to raise this matter, but I was obsolutely disgusted and ashamed as a British Member of Parliament to see the conditions under which our lads have to serve—absolutely ashamed.

No extra sporting facilities were given for the men after Suez. Not even a piece of the beach was fenced off against sharks so that the men could enjoy a swim. The shark net had been smashed.

Sir Arthur Vere Harvey (Macclesfield)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This matter was raised at great length in the Press before the election and very important issues have been raised, but unless the hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) gives an opportunity my right hon. Friend will not have time to reply.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order, but I hope the hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) will bear that factor in mind.

Mr. Mason

I have not been given an opportunity to express my point of view. I agree that the morale of the men was high at Riyan which is a twelve-months' station and I implore the right hon. Gentleman to take particular note of the fact that a twelve-months' station is desirable. If he carries out the plan for building and providing the extra facilities he has mentioned in correspondence with me, that will not solve the problem and it will take three or four years and the turbulence in the R.A.F. will be aggravated, because when wives of the men go out there they are shocked by what they see. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give that question serious consideration. I have received many letters about what goes on out there, particularly from parents. Every one of them is disgusted with the conditions. They want to complain but are afraid to do so. One letter I received from parents said that they wrote to the Air Ministry: Without tangible benefit to us because I was apprehensive as our son was still serving there. Another asked that names should not be quoted. All of them are afraid of bringing these things to the notice of hon. Members because of their picture of the frightful ogre of the Ministry while their sons are in the Service.

I have received letters pointing out that when articles appeared in the Press about conditions at E1 Adem the articles were not read in copies obtained locally, but from newspapers which were sent out from home. I am sorry if I have gone on for too long, but that has been through provocation from hon. Members opposite. In any case, I applied for the Adjournment and gave notice long ago that I wanted to speak in it.

I make this final appeal to the right hon. Gentleman. I do not think he is personally to blame. The situation got out of hand because we have to recognise the importance of the station and the Treasury was holding back the cash. The small improvements being made will not meet the situation, but making it a twelve months' station would help for a few years. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider that for the benefit of the lads serving there.

10.24 p.m.

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

I am afraid that I cannot possibly hope to reply to all the points raised in the few minutes I have left available to me. I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) for the very gracious tributes he paid to the Royal Air Force.

We were very glad indeed that hon. Members were able to make this trip and to see for themselves the difficulties which we are up against. I do not dispute any of the facts which my hon. Friend has put before us. He has been to Aden more recently than I have. I certainly do not pretend that conditions in Aden are anything like as good as they should be or as we should like them to be.

What I will try to do in a few minutes is to show the causes of this state of affairs and what action we are taking at present to put them right. Perhaps I may first dispose of an important point. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I disagree with the hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) about the question of morale. It is remarkable how high morale is in Aden considering the difficulties under which people have to work, and it is a very great tribute to them that they are able to keep up their morale so well.

As we know, the main difficulties at Aden have been caused by the existence of what has become known as the "air barrier". This means that whereas formerly we could rapidly reinforce Aden from the Mediterranean, it is now necessary to keep large numbers of both R.A.F. and Army people, as well as a few Naval people, permanently in Aden. As the House knows, there has also been considerable unrest in the Middle East recently, which has made it necessary for us to pay increased attention to our vital interests in the Persian Gulf. This, too, has meant a further increase in the Aden population.

The population of Aden has increased four-fold in the last three years. Accommodation has simply been unable to keep pace with the increase. The House will appreciate that permanent building programmes must be based on long-term plans, but these long-term plans have been constantly changing. At Khormaksar alone the long-term plans have doubled in the last two years.

Apart from the rapid increase in the population of Aden, as my hon. Friend has quite fairly pointed out, there are limited building resources in the Colony and a lot of these resources have been used to carry out urgent operational work at Khormaksar Airfield, for example, improving the runway, building taxi-tracks and hard-standings and providing covered storage and technical buildings to enable the R.A.F. to carry out its operational task. That is the first consideration and it has inevitably meant that, with the limited building resources available, the domestic building programme has not gone ahead as quickly as we should have liked. Hon. Members must not blame the Treasury for everything and they must not blame us. We are doing our best, but the resources available are limited.

I will explain what we are doing. Taking Steamer Point first, which is the most pressing problem, four new barrack blocks, which will house 600 men, are in the process of being built, and they will be completed by the middle of next year. I am talking about single accommodation. These will be air-conditioned and they will have an airmen's mess and N.A.A.F.I. canteen facilities alongside them. At Khormaksar Airfield we have already built a few air-conditioned barrack blocks for about 250 men and we are starting on a further five air-conditioned blocks for another 750 men. These blocks will also have their own messes and their own canteen facilities. These new blocks, together with those at Steamer Point, will take care of our needs for single accommodation in both the short- and the long-term.

We have now about 400 married quarters, which have been built since the war, at Khormaksar. We are not able to use all these, for we have to share them with the Army and with civilians, but we have about 220 of them for the R.A.F. We plan to build next year about another 250 married quarters at Khormaksar, some of which will be available for the R.A.F., some for the Army and some for civilians. We have to house everybody and we cannot do it all at once. In addition, there are at present about 500 official hirings available, and about 280 of these are occupied by the R.A.F. There is a building programme of private enterprise flats which will gradually become available and will give us even more accommodation.

We are fully conscious of the need to improve conditions in Aden as quickly as possible. Morale is high. I believe that the boys realise that we are doing our best. They realise what has caused the difficulties and they know that we are making every possible effort to solve the problem.

Mr. Mason

On a point of order—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.