HC Deb 10 March 1960 vol 619 cc677-83

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a sum, not exceeding £1,069,900, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of the reserve and auxiliary services (to a number not exceeding 161,100, all ranks, for the Royal Air Force Reserve, and 3,400 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. 1961.

5.18 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I wish to refer to Vote 2F, which deals with the pay of members of the Royal Observer Corps. In the course of our debate on Vote A, I deployed a number of arguments in connection with the Royal Observer Corps. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary did not have time to reply to my points at that time. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey), I do not complain. The Under-Secretary made a long speech on that occasion. Saturation point is sometimes reached with hon. Members listening to Minister's speeches.

The Royal Observer Corps is, after all, the one branch of the Service which deals with the future. Its duty is to check radioactive fall-out and to identify aircraft or missiles. If one single branch of the Air Force is looking towards the future and should have the greatest attention from the R.A.F. itself, it is the Royal Observer Corps. I do not propose to detain the Committee today in deploying these arguments again, but I hope that my hon. Friend will have them in his mind once I have sat down and will be able to answer them.

5.20 p.m.

Mr. Ross

I wish to stress the point made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) about the question of our reserve and auxiliary forces. I think that some short statement is due to us about just what exactly the Government's intentions are in relation to these services and to their training. I was astounded, for instance, to see under Subhead A Pay, allowances and National Insurance during training the amount being spent, because this is a matter which is vital indeed to any reserve forces of the Royal Air Force. That Reserve includes a very considerable number of people, and when we appreciate that only £16,000 is to be spent in respect of the training of all these people we can see that pretty small training is anticipated this year. This is quite an important matter, and if the Ministry have anything in mind for the future in relation to this Reserve we should be told of it right away.

The other point is the important one about cadet forces. There is no doubt that as we move into a full-time all-Regular Air Force the Cadet Force is going to become more important. I know the enthusiasms with which people attach themselves to these forces and the work which they do. I do not think that there is any better unit in Scotland than the one in Kilmarnock, although the men concerned occasionally have some grouses.

Can the Minister indicate what the future policy will be in relation to this matter? We see that there is to be an increase of £35,000 in the coming year, but if the Minister could expound a little about what the Government's ideas are we should be very glad.

About the Royal Observer Corps, the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) said that this Corps was the only part of the Royal Air Force that was looking to the future. I am not quite so happy about it as is the hon. Gentleman in that respect. I think that the Corps has a past rather than a future, and I doubt whether the duties laid upon it now bear any great relevance to the major tasks of the Royal Air Force.

We have this build-up. There are 82 or 83 full-time officers. They are pretty well paid officers and cost about £96,000 a year, but the major part of their work of administration and lecturing is done by enthusiastic people on spare-time duties. What do they do? They identify and spot planes. We actually find that stated on page 37 of the Air Estimates. They are trained in the identification and reporting of aircraft. I thought that we had got a little beyond that.

Mr. Page

Will the hon. Gentleman read on a little?

Mr. Ross

I am coming to that. I continue the quotation: and in the measuring and reporting of radioactive 'fall-out'. With due respect, I do not think that this is the task of the Royal Air Force but rather of some branch of the Home Office. It is really Civil Defence, and to that extent I question the relevance of this to the Air Ministry and to this Vote.

5.25 p.m.

Major Legge-Bourke

When we were discussing Vote A, I made some mention of the impact which the siting of rocket bases might have on Civil Defence. I realise that there might be difficulty over this. I am in touch with the Home Office on the whole question of Civil Defence policy, which seems to me to be getting out of gear. One thing that occurs to me is that there really must be a special rôle for members of the Royal Observer Corps in relation to Civil Defence in areas where rocket bases are sited and which might not be the same rôle in areas where rocket bases are not sited.

When we were discussing Vote A, I asked my hon. Friend if he would give us some assurances that in areas where rocket bases are sited, special consideration would be given to the Royal Air Force personnel co-operating, where required, with the Civil Defence authorities. It may well be that the Royal Observer Corps personnel are the people who would do the most co-operating. If the Minister would bear that in mind, even if he cannot answer the question this afternoon, because I realise that it is a confidential matter, I should be much obliged.

5.27 p.m.

Mr. W. J. Taylor

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) for not pressing me for an answer to his last question this afternoon. I will convey what he has said to my right hon. Friend and we will see if we can give him any information by letter or otherwise.

Now may I return to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) with regard to the reserves, that is, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, and University Air Squadrons and so on. I am glad that my hon. Friend has given me an opportunity to mention the volunteer effort in our various reserve forces. Nowadays, our requirements for reserves are small in comparison with earlier years, but the tasks for which we need them are still vital.

The Royal Auxiliary Air Force continues to back our main radar stations with its Fighter Control Units, which are in a high state of manning and efficiency. The Royal Auxiliary Air Force now has the additional task of supporting the Royal Air Force element of the joint Maritime Headquarters in the United Kingdom, which would control the sea-air battle. Three Maritime Headquarters Units have been formed in the past year and recruiting is now going ahead well.

The Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve provides us with three important classes of reservists. First, there are the volunteers for specific war tasks in support of the Regular Air Force, who are, in the main, members of reserve flights at particular stations. Secondly, there are the seventeen university air squadrons through which pass many of our university entrants to regular permanent commissions and which provide a valuable link between the Services and the universities. Thirdly, there is the Training Branch of the Volunteer Reserve which provides the officers of the Air Training Corps. I will say a little more about that Corps in a moment.

In these classes there are numbers of men and women who devote their time, skill and experience in the evenings and at weekends and, in addition, part of their summer holidays to voluntary service in these essential branches of the Service, and I should like to express our deep gratitude for their efforts.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) was surprised that so little provision was made in the Estimates for pay and allowances during training. I would say in reply that our policy is to call up reserves for training only when it is essential to do so. Our requirements for reservists nowadays are comparatively small, and we rely as much as we can on men who have recently left full-time service and who do not need to be called up for training.

On this subject, the hon. Member may have noted the reduction under subhead A of Vote 2. This sub-head provides for the pay and allowances of various members of the Royal Air Force Reserve other than the Volunteer Reserve and its training branch and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force which are dealt with under other sub-heads.

The decrease in the provision from £400,000 in 1959–60 to £254,000 in 1960–61 is almost wholly accounted for under item 3, which refers to the reserve pay of airmen. The maximum number of airmen to be maintained, as set out on page 28 of the Estimates, is 145,000 as against 171,000 in 1959–60. But those who are paid reserve pay are much fewer and are limited to those ex-regular airmen on our mobilisation lists. Thus the reduction of this subhead reflects the reduction in our war manpower requirements. National Service reservists who would be required on mobilsation are paid not reserve pay but ordinary pay and allowances if called up for training.

I have to say a few words about the Air Training Corps and particularly about personnel expenses, to which we have been giving some attention recently. I said in the debate last week what I feel about the tremendous value of the work of the Air Training Corps. I think that hon. Members will know that I have had a very long and very deep interest in the progress of the Air Training Corps, and I am glad to say that it is doing extremely well. It produces regular entrants to the Royal Air Force, and I mentioned the figures in the debate the other day. I can assure hon. Members that the detailed story of the progress of the Air Training Corps reflects the greatest credit upon all concerned, including, of course, the officers of Flying Training Command who look after it.

On the point about expenses for officers who are in the Training Branch of the Volunteer Reserve; I assure hon. Members that we are anxious to ensure that no one is out of pocket because of his service to the A.T.C. A detailed review of this question is now nearly finished, and I will shortly be considering it with care. Quite apart from this question of expenses, however, which I trust will be satisfactorily settled, I repeat that the work which these volunteer officers do in this Corps is of tremendous value to the Service. In fact, the Royal Air Force would find itself in very grave difficulties if this source of pre-entry training were suddenly to be denied us.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) for not being able to reply to him last Thursday on the subject of the Royal Observer Corps. I am now glad to have an opportunity to underline the importance which I and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary attach to the Royal Observer Corps. I would not like him to think that the R.O.C. is in any sense the Cinderella of the Royal Air Force.

The Corps has two rôles to perform— fall-out reporting and its traditional rôle of aircraft reporting. Those rôles are both important, though the importance of aircraft reporting varies considerably with particular areas. My hon. Friend suggested that, owing to shortages of equipment, the exercises carried out by posts of the Royal Observer Corps might be a little unrealistic today. That may not have been what he has just said, but I have taken the point from one of his recent letters to me on the subject.

The posts themselves have a considerable amount of material in the way of silhouettes and recognition manuals for purposes of aircraft identification, and flash trainers and films are held by Groups in the Corps, but are used for the training of observers at posts. Similarly, for the fall-out reporting task, the Groups hold such items as radioactive sources, radiac calculators and radiac slide rules. These are made available by the Groups for training observers at posts. I agree that at present the posts have to carry out fallout exercises by using a series of pictures showing the dial of the radiac instrument, but we are putting into production a Fixed Survey Meter Trainer a mechanical instrument which simulates radiation intensities. It is planned to equip every Royal Observer Corps post with this instrument as it becomes available.

My hon. Friend also suggested that the construction of posts was not going as well as it should be. There are more than 1,500 posts to be dealt with, partly by adapting existing posts and partly by providing new posts. That means quite a considerable problem, not only in acquiring sites—because the whole disposition of the sites has to be considered in relation to modern strategic requirements—but also in construction.

So far, more than one-third of the posts have been completed and handed over to the Corps. In the Group of which Merseyside forms part, 27 out of 45 posts have been completed and handed over. On Merseyside itself, two out of four posts have been completed and handed over and land has been acquired for a third, so that construction can now take place, and negotiations are still going on over the acquisition of land for the fourth post.

Finally, I am glad to be able to say that there has been a net increase in the strength of the Royal Observer Corps in the past year and I have every hope that that increase will be maintained and even intensified. This is a public service of major importance and I am sure that the Corps recognises, as do both the Royal Air Force and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, the high value of the work which it is trained to do in both its rôles.

Question put and agreed to.


That a sum, not exceeding £1,069,900, be granted to Her Majesy, to defray the expense of the reserve and auxiliary services (to a number not exceeding 161,100, all ranks, for the Royal Air Force Reserve, and 3,400 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, 1961.