HC Deb 13 December 1962 vol 669 cc746-54

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

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Craigton)

I am very glad, even at this late hour, to raise a question about the recruitment of young men into the Royal Air Force which arises out of a constituency case of mine about which I have been in correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Air. I should like to deal briefly with my constituent's case, although the point that I really want to make at the end concerns the whole procedure for local recruitment of airmen into the Air Force.

This boy joined the Royal Air Force in August, 1960. He was then 17½ He joined straight from school and he joined after having listened to one of these pep talks, as I suppose one might call them, which are given by Royal Air Force officers at schools near the end of the summer term. He had not at that time taken his leaving certificate, so his joining the Air Force meant an interruption of his school career. At the time both his parents and his headmaster advised him that he would have been very much wiser to continue at school and complete his school career before joining the Services.

I emphasise that for one reason. It ought not to be suggested that the boy's parents were strongly against him joining the Air Force, because that is not so. They were certainly against him joining the Air Force at the time, but they have not carried that opposition through and did not carry it through once the boy had definitely decided that he wanted to join. I mention it because at the time the boy was joining there was a great deal of investigation. The boy himself, his parents and his headmaster were all extremely interested in the kind of training which he might expect once he had joined the Service. This was the great question at that time. The fact that there was this opposition simply adds emphasis to the fact that they made a very close examination of this aspect of the boy's joining the Royal Air Force.

He joined in August, 1960. As far as I aim aware, he is a perfectly competent airman. He became a leading aircraft-man in February, 1961, and a senior aircraftman in August, 1961. He is not in any way a disgruntled member of the Service, except on this issue of training. Prior to joining the Air Force he had the Duke of Edinburgh's Gold Award and the Queen's Badge, so one would imagine that in every way he was a perfectly admirable recruit for the Service.

The complaint put to me by his parents is that the promise made at the time at which he joined the Air Force about the prospects for him, and in particular with regard to the training he might expect to receive, had not been discharged in the event. Briefly, there had been an assurance at the local recruiting office at the time he joined up that, with the kind of educational background he had, with his undoubted intelligence and other abilities, as soon as he became a senior aircraft-man he would become eligible for advanced training, and there would be very little doubt that he would get that advanced training and would eventually become what he wanted to be, a qualified physiotherapist.

This promise with regard to training had not been fulfilled, and this was the complaint put to me. When I had the letter about six or seven months ago the position then was that the boy had been warned that he would be posted to Men. That position has been maintained right up to the present time, because for one reason or another that posting has been delayed, but he is still to be posted to Aden.

I wrote to the Under-Secretary, the present Under-Secretary's predecessor, about this and the reply I received on 7th June contained two main points. The first was that the boy himself, at the place where he was stationed, had shown no interest at all in the educational facilities, which were many and varied, available there. The second was that, in any case, since he had signed on for five years, complaints about not getting advance training were not valid because he might still—even if he were posted to Aden—get advance training on his return after his two-year term overseas; for he had signed on for five years and the training could be received during that time.

When I made further inquiries about this letter I found that that communication from the Under-Secretary's predecessor was misleading on both of those counts. It was inaccurate to say that the boy had not made inquiries about the educational facilities and had not taken advantage of the facilities available to him. He had, in fact, taken what educational courses he could, and one must consider the circumstances and the duties on which he was engaged. It was also not true to say that he would be able to get advance training in the five years, for it was a condition of the advance training that he should sign on for at least nine years.

At the time I was very cross and I wrote to the Under-Secretary saying that I had been deliberately misled. However, I was assured that I had not been so misled, and I accept that. It was, nevertheless, a rather unfortunate letter, because it gave the impression that this young man, having joined the Service, had not bothered to exert himself and had not shown proper conscientiousness. It also gave the impression that if he was not getting the advance training it was his own fault. However, subsequent details show that, whatever the circumstances, those are not the facts of this case.

Thus the question became this. What kind of promises were made to this young man when he signed on as a Regular airman? There are two considerations. Firstly, what happened at the local recruiting office? On this question I am absolutely convinced, despite what the Minister has said in correspondence, that the circumstances presented to me are accurate and that at the local recruiting centre he was told that there would be no difficulty at all, once he had joined the Service and had become a senior aircraftman, about his obtaining advance training.

That is confirmed by the interviewers' notes at Cardington when this young man signed on. One of these notes—and I am grateful that a copy of them has been sent to me—drew out clearly that the boy was under a misapprehension about the training he might expect to get. One interviewer's notes state: A young man who was at first under the impression he would be able to get physiotherapy training after one year's service. I suggest that he was not under a misapprehension. It cannot be suggested that he could have been so lacking intelligence not to have understood what he was told at the local recruiting office. If he was under a misapprehension it was because the local recruiting people in Glasgow had put him under that misapprehension.

The Minister said in correspondence that whatever the misapprehension may have been, things were put to him clearly at the Cardington office and that, in any case, no boy is recruited into the Service until he has signed the papers at the particular station at which he signs on, whether Cardington or elsewhere, and that, at any time up to that point, he is absolutely free to withdraw. That is perfectly true in theory, but I suggest that it is not really, from the practical point of view, a very sensible proposition.

Any young man who has gone to the lengths of going to Cardington with the express intention of signing on, saying goodbye to his family and friends, giving up school and giving up another career is almost absolutely committed—in practice if not in theory—to joining the Service.

I suggest that it would be only, on the one hand, an extremely irresponsible young man or, on the other hand, an extremely strong-willed young man who would then actually withdraw from signing on. The vast majority of ordinary, decent, responsible, intelligent young men would, in those circumstances, feel that they were already committed, and would sign on. The moral seems to be that far more care should be taken at local recruiting offices to see that young men who are intending to sign on are made fully and accurately aware of the circumstances in which they are signing on. That is the point that I want to make tonight.

The Minister said in one letter that it would only be fair to assume that the boy would not be under a misapprehension, because a particular recruiting leaflet would have been issued to him, but what are the regulations governing the issue of recruiting pamphlets? What are the rules and regulations, and other things, that the ordinary recruiting corporals at these places must observe in dealing with young men interested in joining the Service? This does not seem to be something that can be left to, as it were, the particular attitudes and procedures, adopted by individuals at local recruiting offices. Something should be laid down to guarantee that young men joining the Service get every possible bit of accurate information before taking the step of going on to the recruiting station proper.

In this case, the young man is now so disillusioned about the Service that he intends to purchase his discharge as soon as he possibly can, which will be some time next year, when he has completed three years' service. In this case, I hope that he will be able to get his discharge but, from the general point of view, the question of good faith is involved. It seems to me that it is very much in the interests of the Royal Air Force that cases should not occur in which good, competent, intelligent young men who would have been of great value to the Service get disillusioned because, in the first place, they were given what turned out to be extravagant promises about their training. I hope that we can have from the Minister some satisfactory explanation of the procedures adopted at the local recruiting offices.

11.42 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Julian Ridsdale)

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) has raised quite a number of points which would be difficult for me to answer in the time available. If I do not cover them all, I hope that he will be able to get in touch with me later about them.

I am glad to reply to some of the points raised, because it gives me the opportunity at once of assuring him—and, indeed, the House—that everything possible is done to see that men who join the Air Force know what they are taking on. It is in the interests of the Air Force that they should do so, as otherwise they could very easily become square pegs in round holes. The Force does not need to take on men who are likely to be discontented. Entry is highly selective, and there are many more applicants than vacancies. Competition will be keener in the future, because recruiting requirements have been reduced and, essentially, in the Royal Air Force we need quality and not quantity.

I will begin, therefore, by emphasising that one of the main objects of the Air Force recruiting organisation is to tell the potential recruit honestly and plainly what he needs to know about the Service if he is to come to a sensible decision. There is a great deal more to it than just answering the questions that a potential recruit may ask, but I shall deal with the more important question of recruiting procedure after dealing with the detailed points that have been raised tonight.

This debate arises, as the hon. Member has said, from the correspondence that I and my predecessor have had with him over the case of Senior Aircraftman Robertson. Having looked into that correspondence most carefully, I have no doubt that Robertson did know what the conditions of service were before he was attested. Although, after the passage of more than two years, the details of the preliminary interview that he had at the careers information centre in Glasgow cannot be checked with the same accuracy as if it had happened only recently, it is clear that he was not attested at Glasgow but, as was the custom then, at Cardington.

Since the time of Robertson's enlistment, the system has changed. I will touch upon the new system later. The recruiting records of Cardington show clearly that he was told that he could not do advanced training unless he signed on for nine years and that he entered the Service for five years on the understanding that he would extend the period when he was accepted for advanced training. The hon. Member will have seen from a copy of the records that I sent him that Robertson knew what was involved and what the regulations were. The hon. Member will see from the regulations that they cover some of the points about which he has asked me.

That Robertson knew what was involved is borne out by the fact that when he applied for advanced training in January, 1962, he also applied to extend his service from five to nine years. He had, however, been warned for overseas service on 1st January, 1962, so his application was rejected. He was told that he could apply again within six months of the end of his overseas ser- vice. Applications for training courses from airmen under orders to go overseas are turned down simply because if we accepted them this would lead to large-scale abuse by those who wished to avoid overseas service.

In May, 1962, Robertson submitted an application for discharge on compassionate grounds, mainly because of his mother's ill health and his feeling that his education was at a standstill while he remained in the Royal Air Force. His case was not considered strong enough to justify discharge on compassionate grounds and his application was refused. We can approve compassionate discharge only if there is clear evidence of acute compassionate need which demands an airman's presence. Certainly, we did all we could from the educational point of view to try to help the airman to further his educational standards.

As I have mentioned, however, the new system began in February, 1961, and the whole process is now concentrated upon a careers information centre. This change was made on grounds of economy and on the ending of National Service.

The hon. Member has suggested that nobody could withdraw from Cardington or that if people could do so, no one who had gone so far along the path would dare to withdraw. When Robertson joined the Royal Air Force, however, attestation did not take place at the careers information centre but at Cardington. He was not, therefore, irrevocably committed when he reached Cardington. It was the practice after the preliminary lectures and interviews to tell recruits that they could still change their minds and go home before they reached the stage of attestation.

I can assure the hon. Member by giving some figures. During 1960, the last year of the old system, as many as 2,600 withdrew of their own accord between the recruiting office and attestation. This was out of a total of 16,000. I do not feel, therefore, that there was anything to prevent Robertson doing the same.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Ctaigton (Mr. Millan), which is a good one, is borne out by the Minister's remarks. There must have been something wrong with the system and with the initial advice given at the information centre if such a large number of people changed their minds. I agree with my hon. Friend that when a boy has, so to speak, burned his civilian boats, although he is not technically attested, it is difficult for him to change his mind. From the figures which have been given, it seems that probably some boys were misled in the initial information.

Mr. Ridsdale

That is a matter of opinion. The figures which I have given show that we take particular care in the Royal Air Force to tell people when they come forward for attestation what the conditions of service mean.

We certainly do not want people who do not know what service in the R.A.F. means. It is for this purpose—not necessarily because of this case but because, as I haw said, of the changes made on grounds of economy and the ending of National Service—that the ordinary adult male recruit will now go first to one of the R.A.F. information centres. This, I think, will cover the point raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Muldey).

These centres are to be found in the main towns, with an officer in charge of each. They are staffed by senior noncommissioned officers with the duty to interview prospective recruits. The staff are specially trained in interviewing techniques and on conditions of service. This procedure shows that the recruiting system is such that I am certain now that no potential recruit need have any concern that he will not be made aware of the conditions of service. I share the hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton's concern that no one should be recruited under false pretences. We do not want to have a service with disgruntled personnel.

I am certain that Robertson was fully aware of the conditions of service before he was attested, and it was specifically pointed out to him that advance training depended on his extending his service to 9 years. I am sure he signed on for 5 years ready to extend the period when he felt ready for advance training. I am sure, too, that the necessary educational facilities were available to him at R.A.F. Cosford and will be available to him at Aden. I hope he will take advantage of them and return with the extra education I am sure he will find available, and I hope he wild not take the hon. Member's advice and fall out with the R.A.F., because a good career is open to him if be wishes to take it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Twelve o'clock.