HC Deb 25 November 1960 vol 630 cc1541-55

3.25 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Julian Amery)

I beg to move, That the Air Force Act, 1955 (Continuation) Order, 1960, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st November, be approved. It is many years since any Royal Air Force business was introduced into this House by anyone except Lord Ward. I will at the time of the Estimates debate attempt to pay tribute to the great work which he did for the Royal Air Force. This afternoon I will merely say that I hope to follow the magnificent example which he set.

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

Magnificent example?

Mr. Amery

Yes, a very fine example. Not only was he a very good Minister, but he had served in the Air Force and knew the Service very well. I crave the indulgence of the House if it is some time before I can hope to equal his knowledge and experience of the Service.

The existing Air Force Act came into force on 1st January, 1957. This is the fourth occasion on which the House has been asked to approve the appropriate Draft Order in Council by affirmative Resolution. By the end of 1961 the Act will have been in force for its full term of five years. This means that in the course of the coming year Parliament will have to determine what action should be taken to prolong the existing Act or agree to a revised Act.

At the beginning of last year's debate on the Army Act, Mr. Speaker explained to the House the subjects which could be discussed within the rules of order. I will try to confine myself within the limits then laid down. In doing so, I ask the House to remember that we shall soon have an opportunity, when the Estimates are discussed early next year, to consider all aspects of the work and problems of the R.A.F. in detail.

As I understand Mr. Speaker's Ruling, the two main subjects on which it is open to hon. Members to speak in this debate are the discipline of the Air Force and, to some extent, the problems of recruiting.

Let me deal first with the problems of discipline. In previous years the House has rightly taken a close interest in the incidence of courts-martial. My predecessor made a practice of giving the House figures on this subject, and I will try to do the same. To get a proper standard of comparison, we must look back at the record over the last few years. In the year ending 30th September, 1957, there were, on average, 3.25 courts-martial for every 1,000 officers and airmen serving in the Royal Air Force. The corresponding figures for 1958 and 1959 were 3.5 per thousand and 3.3 per thousand. For the year ending 30th September, 1960, the figure is 2.7 per thousand. It therefore seems that, whatever may be the trend in "civvy street", serious breaches of Air Force law have declined over the last twelve months.

There was at one time some anxiety whether the justice administered by the courts-martial was as full and fair as that administered by the civil court. It is right that Parliament should be vigilant to see that the high standards are maintained. The course and results of appeals over the past year seem to me to provide impressive evidence of the success of the system. As the House knows, under the Courts-Martial Appeals Act a person convicted by court-martial has a right to appeal to the Court-Martial Appeal Court. The first step in the appeal procedure is to submit a petition to the Air Council against the conviction. If the petition is dismissed, the petitioner can apply to a judge of the Appeal Court for leave to appeal. If his application is granted, the appeal may be heard by the Court-Martial Appeal Court.

Last year, there were seven petitions against conviction to the Air Council. In three of those cases, when the petitions were dismissed by the Air Council, the petitioners decided to take no further steps. In the other four cases, the petitioners applied to a judge of the Appeal Count for leave to appeal. In three cases, the judge refused leave to appeal. The only appeal which was heard by the Appeal Court was dismissed. The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) is a lawyer, but I think he will agree with me as a layman that the fact that over the last year no single appeal succeeded in reversing a court-martial judgment suggests that there is solid ground for our continuing confidence in the courts-martial system.

It is right that in discussing the Order we should concern ourselves with the work of the courts-martial. It is also important to remember, however, that only a small proportion of airmen, I am glad to say, are ever likely to face a court-martial in the course of their whole career. Far more important from the viewpoint of the working of the Service than the operation of the courts-martial is the way that discipline bears from day to day on the great majority of airmen. Everything here depends upon the wisdom and commonsense of commanding officers. These are not qualities which can be inculcated by precise instructions from the Air Council. Their presence will depend on the methods by which officers are selected and trained.

Last year, my predecessor gave the House details of a new minor punishment known as restrictions. This provides that instead of the old punishment of being confined to camp, airmen who had committed minor offences have to do certain extra parades or extra work. This new system was introduced on 1st January this year. No central record is kept of the number of occasions on which restrictions have been awarded as a punishment, but the indications are that although much less irksome than the old confinement to camp, restrictions have proved an effective and, if I may use the phrase, a credible deterrent to minor offences.

Before leaving the subject of discipline, I should like to say a word about flying discipline: that is to say, the observance of flying orders and safety regulations. This is a matter of great importance to the Royal Air Force and of growing interest to public opinion at large. I am glad to be able to tell the House that during last year there has not been a single breach of flying discipline warranting court-martial procedure. There were only three breaches of flying discipline warranting even summary action. One of these involved danger to the pilot concerned and to nobody else. The other two involved noise and low flying but no danger to anybody. All three took place overseas. When the House remembers the amount of flying undertaken by the Royal Air Force and the technical difficulties of modern flying, we can claim that this is a good record.

I come now to our recruiting problems. The manpower target set for the Royal Air Force is 135,000 adult males, to be reached by April, 1963. During the first nine months of this year, there was a fall in the rate of recruitment of adults as compared with the same period in 1959. This fall, however, will be to some extent offset. This year, the proportion of airmen enlisting in the longer engagements—by which I mean nine years and over and five years and over—rose from 75 per cent. to 82.5 per cent. Indeed, taking the Royal Air Force as a whole, the number of men serving on engagements of nine years or over has gone up over the last year from 55 to 63 per cent. This means that very nearly two out of every three men serving in the Air Force are serving on engagements of nine years or more.

The recruitment, moreover, of boy entrants has been most satisfactory. We have just about doubled the recruiting figures for boys compared with last year. In general, therefore, there is a good prospect that we shall succeed in recruiting up to 135,000 men overall by 1963. This is, of course, on the assumption that present recruiting trends are not upset and that all our potential recruits do not go and join the police.

However, although the prospect of recruiting up to the overall target is good we, also, have our manpower problems. Our difficulty is not to get the total number of men we need but to recruit a fully balanced force. I mean by this, to recruit the full establishment needed in every branch or trade of the Service. I will leave till the Estimates debate the difficulties which we face over the recruitment of aircrew. These are nearly all of commissioned rank, and I understand I would be out of order in discussing them today.

As regards airmen, we foresee shortages in a number of important branches of the Service such as the Air Traffic Control, ground signalling, and the accounting and secretarial trade groups and certain others. Some of the vacancies we foresee will, we hope, be filled by members of the Women's Royal Air Force, but I have to report to the House that recruiting to the W.R.A.F. has tended to fall off during the first part of this year as compared with 1959. This has been particularly marked in the new Local Service which, after a good start, has so far shown rather disappointing results. All the same, I am glad to say that in the last month or two there has been a distinctly upward trend in normal as distinct from local service recruitment.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

When the right hon. Gentleman talks about the last few months and the distinctly upward trend, do I take it that he is comparing that with what happened last year or in other parts of this year? There is a difference.

Mr. Amery

With the other parts of this year. Generally, in the last two months, the downward trend has been somewhat interrupted.

In filling the vacancies which we do foresee arising we look especially to our apprentices. The numbers applying for apprenticeships has remained fairly steady, but the quality has been falling off, so that the numbers we have been able to take on have fallen. I think that this is something we can correct at a time when there is a shortage of apprentices to meet the demand through the increasing number or "bulge" of boys leaving the schools. Apprenticeship at Halton or at our other training centres offers both a good career in the Air Force for a young man and a fine training for industry afterwards. We are doing what we can in our relations with the schools to encourage the entry of apprentices, but we should be grateful for any support hon. Members can give us in their constituencies over this.

Of course, over the next two years we shall be able to fill our vacancies with the help of the National Service men now in the Royal Air Force, but those men will all have left us by the end of 1962. This means that we have got two years to solve the problem of voluntary recruiting for those branches and trades of the Service where we foresee vacancies. Meanwhile, I cannot emphasise too strongly—I hope that hon. Members will support me in this—that over the next two years the remaining National Service men have an absolutely indispensable part to play in the Royal Air Force. They alone can give us the time to find the way of attracting men and women with the necessary qualifications to man the full range of the Royal Air Force establishments.

We are holding this debate only a few days after the last National Service call-up and I am sure that the House would wish me to pay a wholehearted tribute to the many thousands of National Service men who have played so great a part in manning the Royal Air Force during and since the war. Modern trends in weapon development and strategy will in future make a long-term Regular Air Force better-suited to our needs and indeed to our means, but this in no way reduces the debt which Britain owes and the Royal Air Force owes to its National Service men. We could not have discharged our responsibilities without them.

3.41 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

I welcome the new Secretary of State for Air in his first appearance in debate as the Minister, and I hope that he is happy in his new office. In doing so, I should like to say how sorry I am that Lord Ward is no longer here I have taken part since the war in most Air Force debates on one Front Bench or the other, and I do not know of any Secretary of State in all that time who had the interests of the Service more at heart. It may be that his colleagues in the Government running other Departments did not share his views on the importance of the Royal Air Force, and he may have felt baulked and frustrated in what he sought to do, but he will be missed by the Service and in the House by all who are interested in Air Force matters. I will say no more because it might sound like an obituary notice, but I hope that the noble Lord has many years yet in front of him.

It is wrong that the debate on the Air Force Act is tucked in at the end of a long debate on the Army Act. This custom goes back to the time when the Air Force was relatively unimportant. I feel that now we should take account of this in arranging the business of the House and that perhaps in alternative years we should have the Air Force Act taken first and then the Army Act, and vice versa. I say that not because I have missed a luncheon engagement outside the House and an early train to my constituency, but because, as I have said in previous years, we should take account of the status of the Royal Air Force.

Part I of the Act refers to enlistment and terms of service. The Secretary of State paid tribute to what National Service men had done over the years. I join in that tribute. I well remember how, immediately after the war when because the Royal Air Force was a much more technical service generally than the Army, men who had acquired a skilled trade on the ground were kept back from demobilisation when their twin brothers who happened to be in the Army were not. Men who had been in the Service for seven years who had been conscripted to serve in far away places in the Far East and had performed their duty loyally, found when the war was over and their twin brothers in the Army were demobilised that they, just because they were skilled, were kept back.

One of the consequences now of the end of National Service is that senior officers in the Royal Air Force have to realise that they are going to lose each year the services of a number of men who had education or a capacity for education greater perhaps than those of the average officer. I know one or two senior officers in the Royal Air Force who for the last 20 years have always had at their headquarters a desk officer who was a university graduate or who carried in his pocket an admission to a university. That section of the community is not coming into the Service again. We should like them to come in as Regulars and we hope to get some of them, but we must adjust training to take account of the fact that this source will no longer be there to tap.

I was sorry to hear that the recruiting figures for the Women's Royal Air Force were not good. It has been obvious to every one in recent years that the standard of clothing for the members of the Women's Royal Air Force has improved along with the policy of realising that they are women first and only secondly persons in military service. They have, indeed, had much more feminine clothes. I should like to think that the stocks of those clothes were not indented for years ahead, because women's fashions change; in other words, these women should be treated as women.

I am sorry that recruiting of women has been disappointing, particularly so in the case of local recruiting. My con- stituency is right in the heart of an area containing a large number of Royal Air Force stations and it should be a fertile field for local recruiting, the community being favourably disposed towards the Royal Air Force. Also, there is a high standard of education in the city. I should like to know what particular steps have been taken in a city such as Lincoln to encourage local recruiting, and if steps have been taken, what has been learnt. I should also like the investigation to be taken a little further in other parts of the country in relating recruiting in all its aspects—here I am dealing particularly with women—to local areas.

In the years after the war when there was a shortage of women workers in the cotton industry there was no local advertising in Lancashire for recruits to the, as it then was, W.A.A.F. It is all very well dealing with an advertising campaign generally, but that there must be certain areas in which there is more interest than in others in the Royal Air Force and where more women labour is available. It so happens that in Lincoln there are few industries employing girls. All these things should be taken into account.

I was pleased when the Secretary of State referred to apprentices, but I was sorry to hear him say that the quality had been falling off.

Mr. Amery

The quality; not the intake.

Mr. de Freitas

Yes, the right hon. Gentleman said that the quality of the applicants for apprenticeships had been falling off. As the right hon. Gentleman correctly pointed out, there is a shortage of apprenticeships now. In Lincoln—I am sorry to mention Lincoln again; this is not a constituency speech, but it so happens that Lincoln is very much involved in these matters—there is a shortage of engineering apprenticeships. I should like to know what has been done to encourage young men in Lincoln to take up apprenticeships in the Royal Air Force. We must be able to encourage these young men. They should know that there is a tremendous future for them.

Sir Frank Whittle himself was an apprentice in the Royal Air Force, and other men with famous names in the Royal Air Force began as apprentices. Indeed, in days not far off every young apprentice in the Royal Air Force could say that he had an air marshal's baton in his tool kit. We are bound to come to the time when we have an ex-apprentice as Chief of the Air Staff; we have had an ex-Cranwell man in that post and I think that having an ex-apprentice will be the next logical step.

The Secretary of State referred to the lack of balance between trades. This is a real problem. In the Estimates debate the right hon. Gentleman will obviously be able to tell us more about what is done to cure this. I would just mention one point and hope that it will be considered. It obviously has been considered, but perhaps it may be considered again. How far has the Service gone in for mechanisation in the rather uninteresting clerical branches? Is there not something more that can be done in mechanising the clerical work? I know from the figures that it is in such trades that there is a shortage.

We cannot refer today to aircrew, and we shall have to debate that subject in the New Year.

There is a point that I should like to take up on the question of discipline. I welcomed the figures which the right hon. Gentleman gave about courts-martial which showed the decline in numbers, which is remarkable, and I also welcomed the evidence which he gave about appeals.

Secondly, it was most interesting to hear the Minister make a report on the first few months of the working of restrictions and to hear the arguments that he advanced showing that the system really was a deterrent. I am not asking for records for the sake of records, bat would it not be possible, by the time we come to the Service Estimates debate, to have something more than just opinions, even if only sample figures?

I was interested in what the Minister said about flying discipline, and of course I accept what he said—that the only cases last year happened to be overseas. But I hope that on the matter of flying discipline, he remembers what is in the public mind—the crowded air space in this country for civil and military aircraft. I hope that in the interests of the Royal Air Force the Minister will be able to say more about that in the new year.

The fact is that at the moment it appears to many people who travel by civil airlines in this country that the sky is very full of Service aircraft which appear to them—I am not saying that this is so—to be crashing through the skies.

Many times, and especially during the last few weeks, I have prodded the Government to get on with their schemes here and in Western Europe generally for co-ordinating air traffic control and other aspects of the matter. I have been surprised at the number of letters I have received from people each of whom thinks that the aircraft in which he was travelling from or to, say, Glasgow was only a few inches away from some Royal Air Force plane. I am not saying that this is so. I am looking at it from the public relations point of view. The Secretary of State and his Department should make it clear what the Royal Air Force is doing in conjunction with the Ministry of Aviation to deal with this very real problem.

I have referred on more than one occasion to the letter which the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators wrote to the Ministry of Aviation in 1959 referring to The constantly increasing risk of collision which, it says, is such that the toad drastic measures to remove it are called for, and its complaint that so little has been done.

In the debate on the Army Act which we have just concluded there was a good deal of discussion about the practice of Service men writing to Members of Parliament. I intervened when the Under-Secretary was speaking merely to put the matter in perspective. When in 1946 I first became a junior Minister in the Air Ministry we were then receiving from Members of Parliament 10,000 letters a month which had been sent to them from constituents in the Service. The figure for the Army was no doubt larger. Those days have completely gone. In those days the Royal Air Force and the Army were armed forces of millions all over the world——

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

Thank heavens.

Mr. de Freitas

Thank heavens, says the Under-Secretary of State. I understand that.

The point is that we do not want to swing the other way and to have these all-Regular Forces in a position where people begin to be frightened of writing to their Members of Parliament. Of course, we do not want to set up large signs saying, "If you do not like this order, write to your Member of Parliament." That would be a caricature of the position. But Service people should feel that they can write to their Members of Parliament, that Parliament is a friendly place, that their Members are their friends and are ready to protect them and their colleagues in the Service against the Government of the day or what they may regard as stupid senior officers, or whatever it may be.

Within the last twelve months I can think of two improvements which have happened in the Royal Air Force that were direct results of letters written to Members of Parliament and of pressure brought to bear in the House. One was the end of the colour bar in leave centres.

Mr. Amery indicated assent.

Mr. de Freitas

Secondly, it can clearly be said that pressure in this House, as a result of communications from the Service, helped in persuading the Government to press on with the provision of better accommodation in a part of the world where it was of a poor standard. Above all, when National Service ends in two years' time we cannot afford to have the all-Regular Service beginning to regard itself as separate from the ordinary life of the community. In a democratic country it is part of community life.

The Air Force system and its methods of discipline have hitherto always taken into account the fact that the average member of the Service was more educated or skilled than the average soldier. But that is past, and I do not want to discuss the past. I wish to talk about the future. As the standard of education in the country generally improves, and as more egalitarian ideas spread throughout the community, the Service must take account of them, not only in its methods of discipline but in its methods of work. For example, a foreman in an ordinary engineering works who thought that he could get better work out of a man on a bench by shouting at him would have to think again. Senior N.C.O.s in the Royal Air Force must become more and more like foremen, and less and less like drill instructors of the past.

Once a year we discuss this Act, and we have to consider the Service as something rather inanimate. Nevertheless, we should not forget the fact that the Service is made up of ordinary men and women, and that we are discussing the code under which they live. My constituency is surrounded by airfields, and I frequently have Royal Air Force hitch-hikers in my car. As I seldom use the House of Commons Motor Club badge they do not know that I am a Member of Parliament and they talk to me freely. My impression is that the men and women of the Royal Air Force who serve in Lincolnshire—and I expect this holds good throughout the country—are not bowed down by a sense of horror that they are serving under a rigorous code of discipline. I feel that they are enjoying their work, and I know they are proud of their Service.

3.57 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) made one or two main points, and I hope that the House will forgive me if my reply is rather brief. I shall try to cover the main points which he raised. I wish to deal with the shortage of apprentices first. As my right hon. Friend said, our apprentice intakes have been very disappointing. We need many more apprentices of the right calibre than we are getting at the moment. I agree with the hon. Member that there is a shortage of apprenticeships in industry, and that we should take advantage of that fact to get as many more boys in the Air Force as we can.

He said that we ought to make it more clear by advertising that there are great opportunities for boys in the Royal Air Force. He used the illustration that there is an air marshal's baton in every tool kit. He may be interested to know that the chief designer of Rolls Royce Ltd. started his career as an apprentice at Halton, in the Royal Air Force. That is a great thing, because that great company is world famous for turning out what in my view are the best aircraft engines in the world. We shall therefore do what we can to encourage boys to come forward into an excellent form of training for future life.

Boys are well paid during their training, and they have no expenses in respect of food or keep. On passing out as a junior technician a young man of 18 will earn nearly £10 a week, with no expense for himself for board and lodging. Ex-apprentices have always been the mainstay of the technical strength of the Royal Air Force, and many have been commissioned and reached high rank. There are a number of Air officers today whose first years in the Royal Air Force were spent as apprentices, and that bears out the hopes of the hon. Member for Lincoln.

Apprentice-trained airmen have high status in the Royal Air Force and the opportunities to advance which are made available to them certainly cannot be improved upon or bettered in civil life. We are doing everything we can to make those opportunities known to young men and I direct the hon. Member's attention to our latest publication which is called, "Highway for Youth", which is a very well produced pamphlet giving a full description of all the opportunities open to boys at Halton, Cranwell and the Boy Entrants School and other like establishments in the Services.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker, may I very respectfully draw your attention to the fact that the hour of four o'clock has passed?

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton). This is exempted business.

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Member for Lincoln mentioned the Women's Royal Air Force, with particular reference to Lincoln and surrounding areas where there are many airfields. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expressed some anxiety about the rate of recruitment to the Women's Royal Air Force and I repeat that we are taking this matter very seriously. Certain changes are being made in the recruiting of local-service airwomen so as to recruit them in more areas and to make more use of their services when we have them. We shall take note of the hon. Member's suggestion about Lincoln.

He asked me for some figures and I regret that I cannot give precise figures. However, it is a regrettable fact that the turnover of locally recruited Women's Royal Air Force personnel is proving rather high. We are not getting as long an average service out of local service women as we should like, but, on the other hand, we must admit that the cost of paying and training them is low. We shall keep an eye on this aspect of recruiting, and I can assure the hon. Member that we shall use every effort to get bigger figures in this coming year.

The hon. Member raised the question of flying discipline and referred to the serious question of congestion of air space over this country. I do not have the figure by me, but I recall it being given to me recently, that 80 per cent. of the flying done over this country is done by the Royal Air Force, and that takes account of civil airlines, British and foreign. That is a not generally known and astounding fact. It is, therefore, all the more necessary that our arrangements should be as good as it is possible to devise and our flying discipline should be of the highest order.

My right hon. Friend referred to that matter, and I think that the record of the Royal Air Force stands as high as, and probably higher than, that of any other air force. I myself am responsible, as President of what is known as the Military Board of Control, which governs air space, for looking after this aspect of our affairs. I am in constant touch with the situation, and I can assure the hon. Member that no stone is left unturned to see that we have the very best organisation.

Mr. de Freitas

Without going into the question of which stones are turned or unturned, I am concerned about the degree of co-operation with the Ministry of Aviation, so that together they can work out a scheme and also agree it with foreign Governments.

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is a long way from the Air Force Act.

Mr. Taylor

The Ministry of Aviation is represented on the Board to which I referred.

I can assure the hon. Member, as the Under-Secretary who has to make these replies, that the right of a member of the Air Force to write to his Member of Parliament is freely exercised. I am glad that it is not exercised quite as freely as when the hon. Member was in my chair, but in the Air Ministry—I have the testimony of hon. Members in all parts of the House for saying this—we have a high reputation for the care which we take in replying to Members correspondence and in dealing with complaints from their constituents. I hope that we shall always have that reputation. When I first arrived in the Department I was told that I should seek to continue to give Members the fullest possible information and the fullest satisfaction in this matters.

I think that there are no other major points for me to answer.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Air Force Act, 1955 (Continuation) Order, 1960, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st November, be approved.