HC Deb 10 March 1960 vol 619 cc662-77

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a sum, not exceeding £113,110,000, 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, 1961.

4.35 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

It will give us all a sense of proportion to realise that this Vote, one of six, and not the highest, is for £113 million. After the sums that we have heard talked about in other connections this afternoon, it is right that we should pull ourselves up to realise that. It is not the highest Vote. It is the second highest, it is true, and it is for £113 million. Most of the probing from the Front Bench on this side will be done this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross). However, I have two questions to put on this Vote.

As the Minister knows, I am most unhappy about the continued rise in the proportion and cost of very senior officers in the Royal Air Force. I am not satisfied that the Government have tackled this problem. In 1939 there were 114,000 personnel in Royal Air Force uniform, and 84 air commodores and above. Twenty years later, although the numbers had risen by only a half, to 180,000, the number of air commodores and above had trebled. This year we are asked to vote pay for a smaller Air Force—174,000 personnel —but the number of air commodores and above has not declined. There are still 240 of them. There are fewer officers, fewer men, but still 240 air commodores and above. There are fewer Commands and fewer Groups than there were twenty years ago, when there were only 84 air commodores and above.

The Government have made no attempt to answer this criticism. The present position is bad for the Service because it reduces the status of the very high ranks. It is also bad for the taxpayer because it inflates the bill for the pay of those officers. I have heard it argued that we need all these officers because of inter-Service and international Commands and organisations. That must have some effect, but I cannot get over the fact that the Service is becoming increasingly top heavy. I am particularly exercised that we are asked to vote money for the staff of the Air Member for Personnel's Department. Of all places, the Air Member for Personnel's Department this year shows an increase in the number of air ranks. What an example for the Personnel Department to set. What assurance can the Minister give us, before we allow the Vote, that the Government are attempting to tackle this problem?

My other point is how much of this pay goes to officers and men serving on the staff of CENTO, that mysterious treaty organisation which we discussed in the defence debate. How much goes on that, and what do they do to earn it?

4.39 p.m.

Sir Arthur Vere Harvey (Macclesfield)

I should like to reinforce what the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) said, because, as I see it, the Service has reduced all the way round. There are now 100 fewer group captains, wing commanders and squadron leaders and 330 fewer flight lieutenants, flying officers and pilot officers, but the number of air officers of the rank of air commodore and above is exactly the same—240. One recognises that there are air attachés and so on who have been upgraded, but I cannot believe that that is necessary or a good thing for the Service.

Unfortunately, we have the same thing in the Navy, as was said two or three days ago. I do not know about the Army, but I deprecate the position in the Royal Air Force. If it was not necessary 20 years ago, it is not necessary today that the figure should be as high as it is. I welcome the Under-Secretary's present appointment. He is doing a tremendous amount of good work in dealing with personnel problems, but he should try to reduce the number of senior officers.

I should like now to deal with the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. I referred to a number of these points the other night, and I wrote to my hon. Friend saying that, having studied these matters, I was disappointed that not a single point that I raised in the debate last week was answered by him. He took a lot of trouble answering points raised by the Opposition, but in an Estimates debate it makes no difference whether questions are raised by hon. Members on one side of the Committee or on the other. My hon. Friend was not restricted by time; the debate could have gone on all night. He did not even say that he would write me a letter, which is what Ministers usually say when they do not want to answer questions.

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

I did say that if I could not answer all the points raised by hon. Members I would write to them. I am in the process of doing so, and if my hon. Friend has not yet received his letter I can assure him that he will be hearing from me in due course.

Sir A. V. Harvey

I have not received a letter. I was so "brassed off" towards the end of the debate that I walked out five minutes before my hon. Friend finished speaking. It may be that that was when he said he would write letters.

The other point I wish to raise concerns the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Neither my hon. Friend nor the Secretary of State referred to the volunteer effort in the Royal Air Force during the Estimates debate. I appreciate the fact that the part played by the Reserves today is nothing compared with what it was a few years ago—and here I include the Royal Observer Corps—but those men and women who give up their time to this side of the Service should receive some encouragement from Ministers when they speak in our annual debates. I see that the Vote in respect of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force has increased slightly. I welcome that, and I hope that my hon. Friend will refer to it.

Cadets were referred to in the Estimates debate, in that the ratio of the number coming into the Royal Air Force was given, but my hon. Friend ought to enlighten the public and the Committee on the part they are playing and the job they are doing. The Estimate has risen from £202,000 to £237,000. Is that enough, in view of the vast sum that is being spent on the Service as a whole? We must remember that the future of the Royal Air Force depends upon the personnel entering it in the future. Is a sum less than £250,000 enough to devote to what could be the future commissioned and non-commissioned ranks? I would like an assurance that more will be done to encourage the entry of young people who could be the backbone of the Service in future.

The Air Ministry Vote has risen by £180,000—

The Chairman

The hon. Member has already trespassed into Vote 2; he is now going on to Vote 3.

Sir A. V. Harvey

I appreciate that I have gone a little too far, Sir Gordon, but I think I am in order in referring to the Air Ministry Vote.

The Chairman

The hon. Member is not in order in referring to the Air Ministry Vote.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Then I will leave that point.

I now want to turn to the question of Transport Command, which must be in order, since it comes under the heading of equipment.

The Chairman

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but that is not in order on this Vote. We are discussing Vote I.

Sir A. V. Harvey

I think I shall be in order in dealing with armaments.

The Chairman

No. We are dealing with Vote I.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Then I will delay my remarks until I am in order.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

I can well appreciate the difficulties of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey). I was going to congratulate him on getting into Vote I a subject appropriate to Vote 2 in the same way that some hon. Members managed to get a speech on defence or foreign affairs into our debate on the Air Ministry's Memorandum.

This is a very important Vote. It involves an Estimate of £113 million, and, within that figure, there is an increase of nearly £4 million. This year we are keeping the Estimate down to £113 million by virtue of a saving of nearly £1 million in bounties, which will not be repeated next year. This Vote covers the pay and allowances of the Royal Air Force, and the approaching end of National Service has brought home to us the necessity of making pay and conditions in the Services appropriate to pay and conditions existing outside. If we wish to attract sufficient men of the right quality, we must accept the burden of increased pay and allowances.

I want to go through the subheads of Vote I. There is Subhead A— "Pay of Officers" and Subhead B— "Pay of Airmen and Airwomen" and then, on page 13, we see: The rates of pay for the various branches and ranks of officers, which are normally shown in Appendix I, were under review at the time of going to print. We have been given an Estimate of expenditure and, at the same time, a subsequently published White Paper showing considerable increases in rates of pay. Are we to understand that the Estimates with which we are dealing are under-estimates of what is to be spent? Does it mean that owing to the inevitable increases in Service pay and pensions, which have been welcomed by the House, this is not the end of the story and that there is to be a further increase? We should know the exact position. We are working towards a regular, full-time Air Force.

Mr. W. J. Taylor

The new pay scales have been taken into account in the Estimates which are now before us.

Mr. Ross

That means that we have had some intelligent anticipation. We welcome that.

We have had some discussion about the ending of National Service, and remarks have been made about National Service and National Service men in past debates. As a result of the increases in pay and their aggregate cost it has now become strikingly clear that the men who did National Service did so at considerable financial loss to themselves and their families. They gave pretty good service. Although some of the remarks made about National Service have not been well phrased, all the derogatory remarks have been directed at the system rather than at the quality of National Service men, and we should appreciate that fact as we discuss this increase.

The question of the ability of the 240 air officers to retain their little empires despite the rundown in the Service has been sufficiently stressed, and I will leave that matter. I want to raise a point relating to Subhead D.2—"National Service Grants". There has been a remarkable jump this year, although there are fewer National Service men. We are being asked to vote an increase of £70,000 in respect of these grants, which are available only to National Service men in respect of commitments to their dependants in civil life, which they have had to leave upon being called up. The increase seems to be a striking one, in view of the fact that there are fewer National Service men in the Air Force at present, and I should like to know the reason for it.

It may be that we are now dealing with men whose call-up was deferred. It may be that more married men are being called up, with greater commitments in civil life—in the "never had it so good" world.

If we go on to overseas allowances, I think we can deduce from the figures —the number of fascinating statistics and implications one can draw from them is endless, but I wonder whether they are always justified—that according to the overseas family allowances, which are the same as family allowances paid by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in this country, there are more children of R.A.F. families overseas in respect of both officers and airmen. We have an increase in the one case of £5,000 and the other of £15,000. That is £20,000 more. It is something which is reflected in all the Estimates with respect to education allowances and so on. There would appear to be more of the Royal Air Force with their families serving overseas than in the past. The implications of that in respect of the housing and welfare of these men is a matter of importance.

Subhead E relates to education allowances. This is an old topic for me, and I am not very satisfied about it. We find that there is an increase in the allowances for officers and a reduction in the case of airmen. It is a reduction of £5,000 and an increase of £20,000. I do not think that all the airmen who would like to have their children educated at home are able to do so because of what is available to them after taking their pay into account. We cannot judge this matter properly unless we have a breakdown of the figures to show how many of these allowances are for boarding school and how many for children who live with a guardian during the time when they are attending a school in this country.

I do not expect to be given those figures today, but if we could have that information it would give us a chance to study this matter to see what more might be done. My feeling is that the allowance of £50 for a child in the care of a guardian is inadequate. It may well be that that is why we find a fall where we should have expected an increase, particularly in view of the increases in rates of pay. On the whole, we support the Vote, but we should be glad to have that information if the Parliamentary Secretary can provide it.

4.55 p.m.

Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I wish to ask my hon. Friend about the medical services. In Appendix IV on page 180 of the Estimates it states that £4,442,000 is to be spent on pay for the medical, dental and nursing personnel of the Royal Air Force (including personnel at the Air Ministry) and of other air force personnel employed at hospitals and other medical units. At Ely there is a Royal Air Force hospital which is very well known, much admired and, I think, extremely comfortable. The civilians in the area greatly appreciate the help they receive from that hospital, and all the local doctors are grateful for the facilities afforded there for civilian patients as well as Service men.

I wish to know whether there is any drawback from other Government Departments contained in this total to take account of the treatment of civilians in R.A.F. hospitals. My hon. Friend may rest assured that we are not in any way trying to undermine the excellent relationship which exists between the Royal Air Force medical services and the local doctors, in fact we wish to encourage it. But to me it seems unfair that the Royal Air Force should be landed with a tremendous wage bill, bearing in mind the work which it does on behalf of civilian patients, without there being a drawback from other Departments, particularly the Ministry of Health. Perhaps that is taken account of in appropriations in aid, and if so, I shall be quite satisfied.

Is my hon. Friend entirely satisfied with the pay and conditions of the men who serve on the rocket bases in East Anglia? As I mentioned during the Second Reading debate, there is one of these bases in my constituency. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) referred to the number of people in the senior branches of the Service, but I do not suppose that any installation has a higher proportion of N.C.O.s and a lower proportion of other ranks, airmen and so on, than these establishments. There are a great number of first-class warrant officers and N.C.O.s but practically no airmen. When I visited the base in my division, I found only one airman and I felt sorry for him. He was surrounded by so many stripes that he might have imagined himself on a zebra crossing in London.

When a man is promoted it is always desirable that, so far as possible, he be given something to command or to be in charge of. When there are a great many men of the same rank together, only one can be in command or have any authority to exercise. At these bases the men have a great technical responsibility and it is necessary that they should possess high technical qualifications. But this arrangement raises problems regarding man-management and it is important that we do not discourage men from wanting to take promotion and receive higher pay.

There may be some danger of that happening if these highly qualified technician N.C.O.s, and warrant officers are left too long in the same place. I believe that the policy is to try to transfer them as much as possible and I should like to know whether my hon. Friend is satisfied that we are getting the value for the money which we ought to be getting. I think that we are, because I was impressed by the morale and bearing of the men I saw when I visited the base in my constituency, and I was extremely grateful for the time and trouble taken by the officers there.

Reverting to the question of medical personnel, may I ask whether my hon. Friend is satisfied that we can continue to maintain the high standard which exists among specialists and other senior officers in the Royal Air Force medical services on the present rates of pay, bearing in mind what could be earned outside the Service? The Harley Street "magnet" has always been an attraction and I hope that we may be assured that the present high standard in the Service can be maintained.

5.0 p.m.

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

I wish first to say to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) that I referred to the Air Training Corps during the recent debate, but I think that he must have been out of the Chamber when I did so. I will attempt to deal with the points which were raised by my hon. and gallant Friend, but I should like to know, Sir William, whether I should be in order in replying to him on the subject of auxiliaries now or whether I should defer my reply until we come to consider Vote 2.

The Deputy-Chairman (Major Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

The answer is that it would be more appropriate to do so when the Committee discusses Vote 2.

Mr. Taylor

Thank you, Sir William.

The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) referred to the air marshal post in CENTO, and I will deal with that first. This is a post in the Central Treaty Organisation, on the Permanent Military Deputies Group, on which an air marshal, appointed at the beginning of this year, represents the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff. Other officers of similar rank represent the other member countries. The establishment there is one air marshal and one air commodore. I am advised that the financial aspect of these posts is dealt with under Ministry of Defence Votes. Therefore, it does not fall directly within our discussion this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Lincoln and my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield raised the question of the number of air rank officers in the Royal Air Force generally and suggested that too much money was being spent on the "hierarchy". This is a subject which frequently crops up in these debates. Last year my predecessor gave a very full and detailed explanation. I regret that I cannot at short notice give the precise details of the figures, but I should like to go over some of the points for the benefit of the Committee.

No one, of course, would reasonably expect the top rank structure to be necessarily proportionate to the total Service strength. There are a number of posts at the top which are necessary independently of total numbers, and in many instances tasks still have to be performed although the responsibility for performing them has been transferred from Service to civilian personnel, or have been let out to civilian contract. Over the last five years the proportion of civilians to Service personnel has risen from about one in four to one in three.

Another point made last year which I emphasise again now is that there are a substantial number of air rank posts which are not paid for out of Air Force funds or which arise out of career considerations and are not dealt with on the basis of normal establishment criteria. There are thirty posts not paid for out of Air Votes. These are mainly in connection with the international treaty commitments to which the hon. Member referred, such as N.A.T.O. or CENTO and, in addition, in respect of research and development posts under the Ministry of Aviation. There are also a number of air rank posts asked for and paid for by Commonwealth Governments, such as those of Pakistan, Malaya and Ceylon.

The career posts to which I referred are those in the specialist medical, dental and education branches, in which it has been decided to allow a limited number of air rank posts in order to provide an appropriate career. This refers to the point raised by my hon. and gallant friend the Member for Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) about the opportunities provided for professional medical men in the Royal Air Force. It has a direct bearing upon the question he asked. For the medical and dental branches the numbers have been worked out in conformity with the recommendations of the Waverley Committee.

The upshot is that in these branches the number of air rank posts, which is already over twenty, will tend to rise slightly further over the next few years. Our strength of air rank officers also has to allow for a number of students at the Imperial Defence College, and for those who at any given time are non-effective between posts or on account of prolonged sickness or during terminal leave. All these factors go to make up the average figure of 240 given in the Air Estimates, which we do not think is at all unreasonable for carrying out the important world-wide national and international commitments of the Royal Air Force.

We are fully conscious of the need to keep the total number down to the absolute minimum. I agree with what was said about the necessity of that, but it must be consistent with efficiency. Over the past three years there has been a decrease of twenty in the number of air rank posts, other than those in the specialist branches, paid for from Air Votes. This is a net decrease and allows for the additional essential commitments which arise from time to time, such as those for a new group headquarters in Transport Command and the Commander of the British Forces in Aden.

The hon. Member for Lincoln asked specifically why it was necessary to add an air commodore in the Department of the Air Member for Personnel. This is not an additional post, but reflects the transfer to the Air Ministry of the post of Deputy Director of Dental Services, which happened to be located at Home Command at the time of its disbandment a year ago.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) raised the question of National Service grants. The Air Ministry values very highly the service of the men who are entitled to these grants. They certainly will not have earned as much in the Service as they might have earned in civil life, but it is important to note that in cases of hardship Service pay could be supplemented up to £7 a week by the National Service grants to which the hon. Member referred.

The increased provision in the Estimates for National Service grants reflects an interesting and understandable trend in the type of man coming forward to do his National Service. It also reflects certain social trends. The fact is that, although the number of National Servicemen serving in the Royal Air Force next year is expected to be a few thousand less than in the present year, the average age of National Servicemen will be somewhat higher. That is because more of these men now being called up have been deferred for one reason or another. Understandably, the older men will usually come into the Service with bigger domestic responsibilities. We are finding that increasing numbers of National Servicemen were drawing very good wages before they were called up. Many are married and have substantial domestic responsibilities.

I do not wish to make any party points, but it is nevertheless right to point out that those pre-Service responsibilities are larger than they were in the past because the housing shortage has eased and young couples are consequently about to set up homes and incur liabilities in the way of mortgages and hire purchase agreements, which they were discouraged from doing earlier because the accommodation was not available.

Mr. Ross

In other words, "We have never-never had it so good".

Mr. Taylor

That is so—they have never-never had it so good, to use the hon. Member's phrase. These National Service grants are intended to cushion the impact on the man who has domestic responsibilities, either to his parents, his wife or other dependants. In the circumstances, I am sure it will be appreciated that the average amount of National Service grant is going up. It is even higher than it was last year and it will be still higher in the coming year. As against the average cost that was assumed for the 1959–60 Estimates of just under £120 for each National Service grant, in the coming year it is likely to be £130. The second component in the sum is the number of cases which qualify for grant. Despite the fall in the total number of National Service men, we expect an increase of at least 10 per cent. in the number of these cases.

The hon. Member also raised the question of educational allowances, which I think he raised last year. That is a subject which I know is very near his heart. It comes under subhead E of Vote 1. I wish to make two things clear from the start. First, the allowances are the same for all ranks. This is a rather important point. The hon. Gentleman asked whether there was any difference in the rates paid to officers and men. The rates are the same for all ranks.

Secondly, the changes from last year's provision in the Vote have no policy significance. The explanation is simply that we are seeking, in the light of the experience we now have of the new rates and allowances, to achieve closer estimating. Expenditure on educational allowances of both officers and airmen is tending to increase. In 1958–59 the actual expenditure was £205,000 for officers and £36,000 for airmen. As from 1st April, 1959, the amounts of the allowances were very substantially increased, which accounts for the provision in the Air Estimates for 1959–60 of £500,000 for officers and £90,000 for airmen.

It was, however, rather difficult to estimate just what the effect of the improved allowances would be in the year which is now drawing to a close. It has become clear that we slightly under-estimated the amount which would be claimed for officers' allowances and slightly over-estimated the allowances for airmen. The amount provided for officers in the next year is the same as is likely to be spent in the present year, and that for airmen is rather more than is likely to be spent in the present year.

There is no doubt whatever that the more generous rates of education allowances have been widely welcomed by all ranks in the Service. They are of real value to Service parents in helping them to ensure that their children do not suffer in their education from the disturbance from postings which inevitably arises in a Service career. It is to be expected that expenditure in this field will tend to rise, the more so as the long-Service regular elements of the Force increase in size.

That brings me to the numbers of children, about which the hon. Member for Lincoln asked. The latest returns show that day school allowances are paid for forty officers' children and about 200 airmen's children. Boarding school allowances are paid for 3,400 officers' children, including six children of one officer, and nearly 650 airmen's children. I recognise that some hon. Members may not be wholly content with these figures. Some may think that too many children go to boarding schools; perhaps some will think that too few go to boarding schools. They may think that there is too great a difference between the numbers of officers and airmen taking advantage of the scheme.

I should be the last person to claim that the present arrangements are by any means perfect, but they have been operative for only 12 months at the new and very much improved scale of allowances. These are still early days to make changes. We must see how we get along.

Moreover, I would ask hon. Gentlemen not to forget that education allowances are not the only means by which we try to ensure that the children of Service parents get a square deal. There is also the Service Children's Educational Scheme, through which education is provided at schools run by the Services overseas. Many Service parents, particularly airmen, prefer to take advantage of this scheme which enables them to have their children with them when serving overseas. If hon. Gentlemen would like to look at another vote—I do not want to get out of order—they will see that nearly £700,000 is in the Estimates for this kind of expenditure next year.

Mr. de Freitas

Which one?

Mr. Taylor

Vote 9C, but I do not want to get out of order. I certainly believe that the two schemes, together with the educational scheme we have in the United Kingdom, go a very long way to ensure that no one need be deterred from taking up a Service career because the education of his children may suffer thereby.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely asked me several questions about the hospital service. One question in particular related to the financial aspect. He asked whether there was any drawback to Air Ministry Funds from revenues derived from treating civilians in our hospitals. The answer is that there is no drawback. If there had been a drawback, on a point of order I should have been bound to say that I was not allowed to refer to it, being appropriation in aid. We take the view that the service which we give to the civilian and the general experience that it gives our own medical officers of life and conditions other than those immediately associated with the Service, are more than worthwhile. The sum involved is not a tremendous one and I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will agree with me that the general help which we give to the public through our medical service will benefit both the public and us.

I was very interested to hear what my hon. and gallant Friend said about the rocket bases, particularly about the rocket base in his own constituency, which I visited last Tuesday. If all the rocket bases are as cold as the one I saw last Tuesday and if all constituencies are as cold as the Isle of Ely, we have reason to be sorry for the chaps who have to sit there day and night looking after these installations.

My hon. and gallant Friend was right when he said that morale was extremely high. He was also right in saying that he felt that the proportion of N.C.O.s to other ranks was very high indeed. I visited the sergeants' mess, and I have never seen as many sergeants in one place in the whole course of my life. There is a reason for this. Hon. Gentlemen will remember that the policy with regard to Thor bases was decided upon very quickly and within a matter of two years we have constructed the bases. That was no mean task for the Air Ministry Works Directorate. We have installed the weapon. We have had to go round the Service and collect the expert men with the skills necessary for this important work. It will take a little time for us to get the balance restored and train other men to do the job. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will bear with us in that rather important task, to which we are now giving attention.

Those are all the points raised on Vote 1. I will reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield on the next Vote.

Question put and agreed to.


That a sum, not exceeding £113,110,000, 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, 1961.