HC Deb 10 March 1960 vol 619 cc683-96

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a sum, not exceeding £238,000,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of aircraft and stores, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1961.

5.38 p.m.

Major Legge-Bourke

While we were discussing Vote A, I raised the question of the wording of the information, which we are afforded on page 101 of the Estimates, in connection with this Vote. With his customary courtesy, yesterday my hon. Friend sent me a note to say that if I was prepared to raise the matter again he would do his best to answer the question which at that time he found himself unable to answer, or without time to answer.

To refresh the memory of hon. Members, I will restate the question. In the third paragraph, there is a reference to payments made under the bulk settlement arrangement. We have been presented with the most tortuous piece of English which I have ever seen in an Estimate. I am encouraged to take some exception to it by the fact that when I raised the matter, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air fully agreed that it was far from being as clear as it ought to be before we passed a Vote as large as this.

I suggested that there might be some element of voting on account involved. I do not necessarily take any exception to that, because in many ways many of us would be only too glad if in dealing with Service Estimates during the year we were able to vote on account at the beginning of the year, so that later in the year we could have a review to see how things were going, thus having a double opportunity to exercise Parliamentary control over finances.

However, this paragraph takes some reading. I have read it four times and I have attempted to calculate what it means by using algebraic expressions and so forth. One finishes up with a quadratic equation to which there is no solution. If my hon. Friend can help with it, I shall be very grateful, because it appears that we shall not know what we have voted this year until next year, and we shall not know what we voted for last year until the end of this year. I think that that is more or less what it means. If that is what it means, perhaps we can have some indication of the total amounts involved.

I must congratulate my hon. Friend on the skill with which his Department prepares these various subheads, because one cannot find out the cost of one aircraft, complete with engine and necessary equipment.

There is no doubt a very good reason for putting this in such a way that no one can possibly calculate how many aircraft this expenditure produces. It may be a very good thing that nobody outside this country should know that, but I have always been a little uncertain as to whether this is right. For instance, it has always seemed to me to be the absolute absurdity that all our allies know how several of the most important weapons invented during the last year were made—and sometimes those weapons cost many millions of pounds— and that the only people who have never been told are the people who have had to pay for them, the British taxpayers.

I am afraid that some of the people who know how some of these inventions were discovered, and their full content, are no longer such reliable allies as they were at times during the last war. Therefore, we do not want too readily to deprive our own people of knowledge of a weapon of which potential enemies may know already.

I have some sense of security, but as I mentioned in last year's debates on the Estimates, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation on one occasion took a chance on a question of official secrets. I do not think that he did our defences any harm by doing so. All of us, when we occasionally come across some piece of information about aircraft or about rocket bases and the like, are always in a little difficulty as to how far we should go in using that knowledge, with whom we should or should not discuss it, and whether we should air it in the House.

In general, however, moving about the country as ordinary citizens and not deliberately afforded special privileges, if we can see something for ourselves that interests us, it should be with the greatest reluctance that we hesitate to raise the matter in the House if we think that it is something about which the country as a whole should be informed.

The country deserves a great deal more information than it has about aircraft for the Royal Air Force. This all really harks back to the Defence White Paper of 1957, when the decision was supposed to have been taken that we were not to make any more manned bombers after the V-bombers. But there was a beautiful safeguard which I do not think the Government this year have taken nearly as much advantage of as they might—a wonderful escape clause saying that research and development would continue.

That is covered by another Vote altogether. It is mentioned on page 101, where we are told that: Expenditure in connection with research and development is borne by the Vote of the Ministry of Aviation (Civil Estimates. Class VI, Vote 9) and by Army Votes. It would, therefore, be out of order for me to discuss here and now the amount involved.

Be that as it may, I think we are entitled today to ask my hon. Friend whether he is satisfied that the Royal Air Force itself can possibly plan ahead as it should be able to plan, or whether his own Department can plan ahead as it should be able to plan—and particularly its scientific section—unless the Air Ministry has certain rights in connection with the Vote of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation in connection with research and development— rights which, in the ordinary run of events, one would say should reside in the hands of the men finding the money.

My own feeling is that if we are to make any sense at all of the Air Ministry's aircraft programme, with which this Vote is concerned, we must ensure that the Royal Air Force, and the scientific advisers to the Secretary of State for Air, have proper access to information, and proper power to decide policy. It is all very well having a Minister of Aviation, but what concerns me is the fact that the main power of launching the deterrent resides in the Royal Air Force and, presumably, the Royal Air Force, in deciding how it will launch this deterrent, can at present use only a manned aircraft or a rocket.

If we are to have the deterrent at all —and I think that we are absolutely right to have it; heaven knows what Mr. Khrushchev would be saying today if we had not had it over the years, so I do not question that decision at all —it is absolutely essential that we are satisfied, so far as Parliament can demand satisfaction, that the means of conveying it are the best available.

My own belief in 1957 was that we unduly emphasised dependence on rockets, and that we should have to come back to aircraft in the end. I take it that this Vote, in so far as it affects the deterrent, is concerned solely with V-bombers—with any other aircraft coming under this large expenditure of £238 million, which is the total Vote.

The Vote includes a great many other things besides airframes and aeroengines, but they have been the two principal elements, expenditure on armaments, aero-engines, and airframes alone being £72 million, £54 million, and very nearly £73 million, respectively. I presume that the majority of the bombers are V-bombers, and that the fighter aircraft—which, presumably, would not be directly concerned with the deterrent— are Gloster Javelins and aircraft like that.

I am quite sure that the V-bomber will soon be out of date. Many people say that it is out of date already. At the moment, they are some of the finest aircraft flying. Incidentally, after our debate on Vote A some days ago, when I spoke of having seen a Vulcan do a vertical roll, I was corrected by my young son aged 12 who assured me that it was a Victor.

All three types of V-bombers are magnificent examples of British engineering. No one complains of the hard work that has gone into designing and making them, nor of the skill with which they are flown, but when one looks at the lumbering big Vulcan one feels that there must be an awful lot of the aircraft that is not used for lifting the machine at all but is actually retarding its flight —certainly when at full altitude—and that that proportion is there only to get the machine off the ground.

We have to overcome the great problem of designing an aircraft that can get off the ground without needing a runway ten miles long, and that can fly at the speed required if it is to make sense in the grand strategy of the use of the deterrent. I do not want to go over all that I said the other day, but I am sure that we have to consider our bomber force— which, I am quite convinced, will come back in the end—as the main means of launching the deterrent.

We have to think in the traditional terms of exterior lines of communication. We have to bring the whole Commonwealth into this, and be prepared, if necessary, to have one-way trips; starting in one part of the Commonwealth and finishing in another, and being able to launch the "cookie" on the way. I am sure that that is the future for this, and that we must have aircraft able to do that. As I have said, we are voting the vast sum of £238 million in one year for aircraft, and the various equipment going into aircraft. That is a great deal. I am quite certain that there is nothing much better in the world at the moment than the aircraft which we have available, but I am equally certain that others will come along, and we must keep right in the forefront of development.

However much we rely as a country on the decisions taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation, I hope very much that the Air Ministry will put its foot down absolutely firmly and say that it must have a proper voice in the decisions which he takes. These decisions must be taken in the light of our strategy being based on the exterior lines of communication. The safety of this country, the safety of Western Europe and world peace depend upon whether or not we take the right decisions in this matter. I should hate to feel that the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Aviation were both sitting on top of the Secretary of State for Air, with the result that the professional Royal Air Force men, the really highly qualified men, did not have proper attention paid to their views.

The more I see of this problem, the more convinced I am that the man who eventually will have to be responsible for commanding other men who will be flying these aircraft is the man whose opinion must be considered very closely indeed before any big decisions are taken. I do not mean to be in any way disrespectful, but it sometimes makes me shudder to think of comparatively uninformed Ministers taking political decisions, on the advice of scientists, let us say, in certain departments only and, perhaps, ignoring the opinion of those upon whose shoulders will ultimately rest the consequences of whether those decisions prove right or wrong. The people who will use these aircraft and the equipment given to them must not be ignored. After all, they are the first people to get the blame for having mishandled the matter or something like that, when, in fact, the decision was made some years before.

This is why I am standing up for the Air Ministry. I am standing up for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, for my hon. Friend his Under-Secretary of State, for those in the Royal Air Force who are most qualified to speak on aeronautics in the future and all that will be entailed, and for the scientists in the Air Ministry. I hope that we shall not have complete domination by either the Minister of Defence or the Minister of Aviation in these matters. It must be a team operation, in which everybody will play his part. I hope that the professional man who will, in the end, have to fly these machines and use the equipment will be the one to have the biggest say of all.

That is, perhaps, as far as one can go without stepping beyond the bounds of order on the subject of research and development, Sir William, and I thank you very much for your tolerance and I thank the Committee for allowing me to go as far as I have.

The more I learn of these matters, the more am I convinced that there is no country in the world today with more latent talent, more amassed knowledge, more technical ability and, ultimately, higher qualifications to use the results of those qualities than this country possesses. To my mind, it would be utterly deplorable if we handed over the manufacture of aircraft in the future to the Americans or to any others of our allies. We must keep in this business. It may be expensive, but, if it means that Britain will be more influential in maintaining world peace, then I say that it is well worth every penny.

5.54 p.m.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Taking first Item L, "Meteorological equipment", I do not wish to be critical. I very much welcome the expenditure on this equipment. Many of us have in years past been highly critical of the Meteorological Department when it has sometimes been wrong in its forecasts, but, speaking for myself, I have noticed during the last year or two that the service has improved and its work has been of great value to the country as a whole, particularly to the fishing and agricultural industries. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us a little more than the Secretary of State did about long-term forecasting.

Item J, "Clothing", shows an increase of about £500,000. We heard the other day that the Army is to have improved uniforms, and I should like to know what my hon. Friend has to say about Royal Air Force uniforms. During the past forty years, the R.A.F. uniform has changed many times. These changes have been costly, but I still feel that if the Royal Air Force is to compete with the other Services for recruits it must have a comfortable uniform made of good material. I understand that barathea is to be used in the Army uniform. Is the Royal Air Force likely to follow suit?

We have been told by the Minister of Defence and the Secretary of State that there is a probability—they put it no higher—that the Royal Air Force may order some Vickers VC10 transport aircraft. I said recently that it seemed to me quite wrong that the Air Ministry had only just woken up to the fact that it may require VC10 aircraft and may now find itself in the queue some two years after B.O.A.C. had ordered them.

It has been well recognised in the House that if we are to have a worthwhile civil aviation industry it must work hand in glove with the Service Departments in ordering military aircraft in order to avoid situations like that involving the Britannias which went into commercial use and, quite understandably, had considerable teething troubles. The Royal Air Force took them afterwards. It should be the other way round. But now we are told that the Royal Air Force is contemplating ordering a civil aviation aircraft which was ordered nearly two years ago by B.O.A.C.

I want my hon. Friend to tell us what the operational requirements Department of the Air Ministry has been doing during the past two years. Some of those 240 senior officers are paid to sit at their desks and think of what the Service may want not in two years but in five or eight years, as was done in 1932 with the Spitfire and the Hurricane. Moreover, it is not just a matter of equipment for the Royal Air Force. It affects our whole economy, our export trade and the reputation of our aircraft industry. I hope that my hon. Friend will look into the matter. It is not something parochial for the Air Ministry; it goes much wider. After all, it is taxpayers' money, and the reputation of our craftsmanship in the manufacture of aircraft is at stake.

5.57 p.m.

Mr. Ross

I am glad that others have found the technical explanation of this Vote a little tough and incomprehensible. I can remember referring to this matter about three years ago, and I am more mystified than ever. The fact is that this is not estimating at all; it is crystal-gazing. This is not an estimate. It is a forecast of an estimate which is not yet made. It must be made about ten months ahead and yet, when we come down to it, we shall be told by the Under-Secretary of State that it does not really matter any way because it is just something between one Department and another.

In my view, this Vote is probably the most important Vote in the whole Estimates, and I regret very much indeed that we have to deal with it under such restrictions of time that we cannot do justice to its importance, quite apart from the fact that it totals £238 million.

Major Legge-Bourke rose

Mr. Ross

The hon. and gallant Gentleman has had his share, and we have not very much time.

Not only is it financially important. The effectiveness of the Royal Air Force, the efficiency and capability of its officers and men, its versatility in relation to its tasks, its mobility, and all the rest, are dependent entirely on this Vote and the quality of the equipment coming forward.

There is no doubt that we could ask many questions, and, doubtless, we should receive very few answers, for fairly obvious reasons.

On Subhead C, "Armament, Ammunition and Explosives", we find that it amounts to £72 million. If we could have a better break-up of the figures in the subhead, we could get a better idea of the balance of the Royal Air Force in respect of its manned tasks and the push-button tasks that are now part and parcel of the R.A.F. Anyone who has watched this Vote over the past four or five years has seen the change in balance, and it is about time that we had a look at it from the point of view of giving us an opportunity, not of understanding the details but of understanding exactly what is happening in broad outline on this Vote for aircraft and stores.

We should all like to know exactly what guided missiles we are paying for here and what we are going to get. I can remember that in the Memorandum last year paragraphs 18 and 20 mentioned two new guided weapon systems. In paragraph 18, there was reference to a new one to replace Firestreak, and in paragraph 20 reference to one to replace Bloodhound. Is there any penny in this Vote related to the delivery of these new systems? We have to appreciate that there is no mention in this year's Memorandum of those things of which we were told last year. It may be my suspicious Scottish mind, but we tend, first of all, to hear about guided weapon systems from between the optimistic blue covers of the Service Memoranda, and the next we hear about them is from between the more complaining covers of the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General in reference to money that has been wasted.

In regard to these things, on which it is right that we can safely ask questions and hope to get answers, I was interested in the Explanatory Note to Subhead D, which mentions electronic simulators. I know what a flight simulator is, and I can make a reasonable guess what an electronic simulator is, but I would be grateful if the Undersecretary could give us in a few words some enlightenment in regard to it and tell us what is the effect of it. In regard to flight simulators, the position is quite fantastic. In these places, in which one actually flies without leaving the ground, all the conditions that might well be met in flight can be simulated. I think the efficiency of the Royal Air Force is very much dependent on these expensive pieces of equipment, and, no matter how expensive they are, they are a tremendous saving in life and aircraft.

In Subhead H (1), we have an increase of about £1½ million—an increase of about 50 per cent.—in accommodation stores, which relates to domestic equipment, hospitals, gymnasia, recreation rooms, barracks and so on. If this means any better provision of this kind in Air Force establishments, I am sure that we very much welcome it, but we cannot let an increase in the Estimates of about 50 per cent. and amounting to over £1 million go by without getting some definite explanation about it, particularly when, in the next item of the subhead we have a reduction of £20,000 for educational equipment. At a time when, I should have thought, we might quite well have been spending a little more on education in the R.A.F. we have a reduction in laboratory equipment, lecture room apparatus, equipment and general stores in respect of schools abroad, and this at a time when it appears that there are more children abroad. If there are more children abroad to be educated, why have we this reduction in the provision for education?

I should have said something about meteorological equipment, but the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) has mentioned it, and we should be grateful that it is there. If as a result we can be provided with more accurate forecasts, and these in turn provide us with better weather, we shall be all the more grateful for it.

Mr. W. J. Taylor

May I first reply to the very informative and splendid speech made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke). He raised many questions which, I must confess at the start, I cannot answer completely. I will answer one or two, and I hope that if he thinks that there is anything that I can do by letter or by conversation with him afterwards, or perhaps by a meeting with my right hon. Friend, he will take advantage of that offer so that we can pursue the matter in that way.

With regard to his confusion or self-confessed inability to understand the third paragraph on page 101, he is not by himself. I do not understand it either, and I have taken some advice as to how I might explain in a few words what it is all about. My hon. and gallant Friend said that the wording was not clear. I fear that it is not easy to describe in a few simple words what is unavoidably a complex arrangement, but if my hon. and gallant Friend looks at the Army and Navy Estimates he will find the same form of wording there. I will give him this undertaking. I will consult with all the Departments concerned to see whether we can draft a simpler and more readily understandable explanation for next year.

With regard to the bulk settlement arrangement which is mentioned in this paragraph, this does not amount to an arrangement for carrying forward unspent money from one year to another. The bulk settlement arrangement was worked out in the years after the war when Departments resumed the practice of paying the Ministry of Supply for the stores they received. These arrangements were framed to prevent a lot of detailed checking and adjustment between Departments, and the Public Accounts Committee, which went into them very carefully at the time, accepted them. In practice, the Departments agree early in January the best estimates they can make of the value of deliveries during the whole financial year and settle on that basis. When the value of the actual deliveries is known later in the following year, any necessary adjustment is made. The Treasury gives approval to the figures and there is no question of the arrangement being a device to carry forward money from one year to another. I do not know whether that brief explanation will enable my hon. and gallant Friend to get a clearer picture of this matter, but it is the best I can do in this brief reply.

Major Legge-Bourke

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, and will take advantage of the very kind offer which he made at the beginning of his speech. On this matter, what I should be interested to know is what happens if it is discovered in the subsequent year that there was a considerable balance left unspent. Does that balance become available to be employed on other things during the year in which it appears as a balance, or has it to be paid back to the Treasury?

Mr. Taylor

I am not a financial expert, but I will hazard a guess that such a balance may be placed to the credit of appropriations in aid. No, I should not think that it could be spent for any other purpose than that for which it was originally voted.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) raised the question of meteorology. I cannot add anything to what was said by my right hon. Friend and myself in the debate last Thursday. I refer him to my remarks in col. 1564 of HANSARD of that day. I am sorry that I have nothing else to give him today about that.

He also raised the question of uniforms for the Royal Air Force and asked me if I could say anything about them. He asked whether it was intended to introduce what, in effect, would be a programme of dress improvements. For the last two or three years we have been introducing better clothing for the R.A.F. and the W.R.A.F., notably worsted material uniforms. In 1960–61, we shall be introducing these improvements at a cost of about £300,000. We are at present considering a new range of dress improvements for officers and airmen, which includes better tropical service and working dress. Trials are beginning next year.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) referred to Subhead C of Vote 7, "Armament, ammunition and explosives", and asked me whether I could give any information on it. My right hon. Friend noted in his speech introducing these Estimates that the largest increase on Vote 7 compared with last year was under this subhead. He explained that the increase fell particularly on guided weapons. This, perhaps, is not surprising because hon. Members will know that some important guided weapons, notably Firestreak and Bloodhound, have been successfully developed and are now in full production for the Royal Air Force. They have to be paid for by these Votes.

As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock reminded us, it is true that the ratio of expenditure under this subhead has increased in recent years compared with expenditure under the subheads dealing with airframes and engines. This is a logical development, with the increasing importance of the guided weapons field generally, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the Committee that this does not mean that there is any weakening of our plans in the aircraft sphere for increasing mobility.

The hon. Member also referred to the question of accommodation stores. The increase here is largely due to the need for more furniture for married quarters and hirings. As my right hon. Friend said in his speech last Thursday, we are greatly expanding our married quarters building programme; and all these quarters have to be furnished. Perhaps I may say in passing that when I was in Aden one of the most consistent complaints made to me was that there was not enough R.A.F. furniture available. I undertook to look into the matter as one of urgency when I returned. I am glad that the Estimates bear out what I felt should be done. In addition, we have included £500,000 for further improvements in certain scales of furnishing. New and better scales have recently been approved for airmen's sitting rooms, air-crew meal centres and boy entrants' study rooms.

The hon. Member also made the point that there is less expenditure under Item 2 of Subhead H, "Educational equipment and materials". It is true that we are expecting a reduction in expenditure on educational equipment and materials under Item 2 of Subhead H, but this does not mean that we are neglecting our responsibility for educating our apprentices and boy entrants, or, indeed, our schemes for general education throughout the Service or for our Service children. We take these matters very seriously. It so happens, however, that the provision during the last two years has been particularly high for new equipment and apparatus for the R.A.F. Technical College at Henlow. We are not having to provide so much on this account in the coming year.

Hon. Members will see from Appendix V on page 183 that we are also providing £45,000 for furniture and general stores for education. This amount has increased over the past two years by nearly £13,000.

Mr. Stanley McMaster (Belfast, East)

Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, I wonder whether he will answer the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) regarding the ordering of the Vickers VC10. Very great difficulty is often experienced by companies which are developing and planning new planes through delay in changes and modifications in design. If my hon. Friend could give an assurance that contracts will be expedited and that regard will be paid to the difficulties of the manufacturing companies, I should be most grateful.

Mr. Taylor

I should very much have liked to be in a position to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster), but this is a matter on which I do not feel I can make any comment without notice, much though I regret it.

Question put and agreed to.


That a sum, not exceeding £238,000,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of aircraft and stores, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1961.