HC Deb 09 December 1963 vol 686 cc117-24

7.51 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

I beg to move, That the Air Force Act 1955 (Continuation) Order 1963, a draft of which was laid before this House on 12th November, be approved. I think that the House is now fully familiar with what we are about. It has been explained by various hon. Members. I will remind the House that the main object of the Order is to ensure the discipline of the Royal Air Force, this being the main subject of the Act. Secondly, the Act is concerned with the recruitment of airmen and airwomen. These two topics are thus the main subject of our debate. Other opportunities will arise on the Estimates for more detailed discussion, especially as to officers and flying manpower.

I am glad to say that there is very little to report on the subject of discipline in the Royal Air Force during the past year. In this case, the House will agree that no news is good news. On the more serious aspects of discipline, there has been a slight drop in the number of courts martial from 2.7 per 1,000 officers and airmen to 2.3. It is clear that in the less important crimes—that is, offences dealt with by summary conviction—there has also been a falling off. This is satisfactory at a time when, nationally, serious crime is, alas, on the increase. I hope and believe that the Royal Air Force will continue to set the community a good example in this matter.

One point in which hon. Members will be interested is that since the beginning of 1962we have had a new punishment, introduced to bring us more into line with civilian courts—that is, the imposing of a fine under the Army and Air Force Act, known as "forfeiture of a sum from pay". I think that this has worked quite well and has been well administered. I would like to pay a tribute to the officers who have been in charge of administering this new form of discipline, which seems to have been satisfactory. About 7 per cent. of the cases dealt with by summary conviction were dealt with in this fashion.

The main topic in which most of those who remain are interested is the question of recruitment. I am happy to say that on the whole the Royal Air Force has had a fairly successful year. I would just like to point out one or two of the problems which face us. The dominating fact has been that this year, a process which will continue into 1964, the actual numbers of men we need for the Air Force has diminished. This has, therefore, been a period when we have not had to recruit a great many. As we said in the Statement on Defence, economies and other changes have reduced requirements. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that this does not mean that we are unable to get the men we need, as I think I can show we have. The total number we have required in this year has been considerably lower than last year. As the House will recall, this flows, first, from the rundown of Thor and, secondly, form changes which we have been able to effect inside the Air Force which have led to the more efficient use of manpower. Therefore, the intake has been reduced.

The intake of youth entrants has been reduced by less than the intake of adult males. Nevertheless, I thought it right to keep the machinery of recruiting in being, and I have found that we have been able to recruit people of a very good and successful standard. This applies especially to the new scheme which we are introducing in January, 1964. We will then start recruiting boys in the new categories of technician apprentice, craft apprentice and administrative apprentice. Technician apprentices will provide a higher standard of youth entrant than we have had before in the Royal Air Force. We are asking for recruits with four O levels and are offering pass-out from training in the rank of corporal to all who can attain this standard. Craft apprentices will provide the bulk of technical tradesmen, though they will be trained to a lower level than technician apprentices. Administrative apprentices will be trained for such trades as clerk and supplier.

Recent entries have been particularly well-subscribed, and I hope that the new forms of training will continue to attract entrants of this high calibre or higher than so far we have succeeded in drawing to us. We are doing our best to ensure that headmasters are fully informed of the new opportunities in the Service. Further, any help hon. Members can give in their constituencies to this admirable project would be most appreciated.

The Women's Royal Air Force continues to make an important contribution to the manning of the ground trades.

To sum up, ground trades recruitment has been this year at a subdued but satisfactory level. There have been no real problems in filling the vacancies available. Within the force there is some continuing lack of balance between trades, but this is inevitable in a time of changing needs. As the House will appreciate, change in the Air Force is necessarily a continuing process. Thus, there are marginal shortages in some trades, mainly on the administrative side—for example, nursing attendant and supplier, as well as in the unskilled assistant grades. There is a shortage of airwomen N.C.O.s, but this is due to the marriage rate and also to the pulchritude of those we have been fortunate enough to recruit. Fortunately, these difficulties of recruitment have no serious effect on operational efficiency, and overall both the current manning position and the future outlook of the Force are good.

If hon. Members have any points to raise, I shall do my best to answer them in the course of what I hope will be a not too prolonged debate.

7.58 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I am sure that the House will have learned with pleasure that the Royal Air Force has no serious manpower problems. It is well known that the Army has a much more difficult task in recruiting the necessary manpower than the Royal Air Force. The problems of the Air Force fall in a different category, possibly in the category of aircraft and weapons, which it would be out of order to debate on this Order.

Having regard to the small scope of the debate and the lateness of the hour, I do not propose to detain the House for very long. Although the right hon. Gentleman gave us a good general picture, I think that he might fill out one or two details. Before leaving the point about discipline, it would be our wish to congratulate those concerned in the Service on the very satisfactory reduction both in the figure of serious crimes dealt with by courts-martial and in the figure of offences falling within the scope of summary jurisdiction.

A matter of great concern to both the Secretary of State and senior officers in the Service a year or two ago was the enormous number of motor car accidents which were occurring, particularly among airmen serving in Germany. I appreciate that this is outside the scope of ordinary military discipline, but, apart from fatal accidents, I understand that a large number of the other accidents were due, first, to the character of the German roads, and, secondly, probably to the enthusiasm of some airmen who, for the first time, were in possession of their own cars—I dare say often not always the most roadworthy vehicles in the world. As I say, concern was felt about the number of accidents and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will comment on this aspect.

The Secretary of State, dealing with the general problem of recruiting, said that the Service was in the satisfactory position of being a diminishing one and that, therefore, there was no difficulty in maintaining the general target, particularly if such a target was declining. He was careful not to tell us what the target was and I hope that he will give an indication of the new target. I understood that the existing figure is 145,000, but, considering the reorganisation consequent on the abandonment of the Thor missile and the other internal arrangements he mentioned, it would be interesting to know what is the new target for the R.A.F. as a whole.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned title difficulty of obtaining nursing attendants. Can he say whether there are any other shortages in other special trades? At one time concern was expressed about the lack of R.A.F. police. I think that, in common with the other Services, there was difficulty in obtaining suitably qualified medical officers for hospitals and other medical appointments in the R.A.F.

It is probably in the technical grades that there exist the most serious deficiencies in the R.A.F. In view of the increasing complexity of the missiles and aircraft at the disposal of the Service—and one hopes that the R.A.F. will have the most up-to-date equipment in the future—it would be interesting to know the position in the various ground, electronic and similar trades. Has the right hon. Gentleman any anxieties in this connection?

The whole House welcomes the new scheme about which we were told earlier in the year and which will begin on 1st January. We wish that it will be a great success. I am sure that it is along the right lines towards giving young men the opportunity to further their technical education while serving in the R.A.F. There are excellent opportunities now for boys to acquire these skills in the Service. It may happen that after a relatively short career in the R.A.F. they will leave and join civilian life; but that is one of the risks one must take. It is now a matter of vital importance to keep up the technical skill of the Service because the future of the Air Force will depend as much on the ground back-up as on the skill and courage of the air crews.

I hope that in the general picture which the right hon. Gentleman painted he can also assure us that there are no difficulties in getting the necessary recruits for pilots and air crew generally. Controversy has raged about the future of the Air Force, with the cancellation of the missile and the fact that the Government have failed to provide the R.A.F. with Sky bolt, and so on. Have these events had any adverse effect on the recruitment of pilots? If the right hon. Gentleman can give us this further information I am sure that my hon. Friends and I will be happy to give our blessing to the Motion.

8.5 p.m.

Mr. H. Fraser

I will try to answer briefly and quickly some of the points raised by the hon. Member since my hon. Friend does not propose to make a speech and since the hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) and I appear to be holding a two-man debate. I thank him for the way he has approached the problem and also for asking some interesting questions.

I believe that it would be out of order to discuss at length the question of pilot recruiting, but to refer to the matter briefly, I can assure him that the morale of the pilots is extremely high and that recruiting is good, particularly at Cranwell. We are getting a considerable number of people from the universities, which is particularly satisfactory.

The hon. Member mentioned the R.A.F. police. I hope that by April of next year there will be no deficiencies in this connection. I appreciate that not long ago a great deficiency existed and that we did not have more than 95 per cent. of the vacancies filled. However, it is hoped that by April alone 95 per cent. of the vacancies will be manned. This shows that the problem of police deficiency which existed about a year ago is diminishing.

Although there is no lack in ground crew and technical personnel, there are certain gaps, among officers in the 20 to 30 age group. We are hoping to fill these gaps in the next year or two. I explained the position of technicians and advanced technology personnel. We are raising the standard of technical entry through the Air Force schools. This applies to apprentices, and I am happy to say that we are quite well manned in this direction. It is worth recalling that although we ran down certain staff when the Thor decision was taken, an enormous amount of the technical skill which was required for that process is finding its place in dealing with some of the new weapons that are coming forward.

We are quite well placed in the provision of medical officers, both on the dental and medical side, but it must be remembered that this matter affects the three Services and that the availability of medical personnel depends on the arrangements won by the British Medical Association from the Government of the day. The R.A.F. can claim credit for the excellence of its medical corps and the efficiency with which it attracts medical officers, apart from any question of mere monetary remuneration.

I am not in a position to give the hon. Member a full reply to his questions about motoring accidents in Germany. I am told that the situation is much the same as before, but I will write to him at greater length on the subject. However, I was informed by one insurance company the other day that it found R.A.F. personnel some of the best risks in the Services.

The hon. Member questioned me about the size of the R.A.F. It is impossible for me to give him a definite and clear picture, but certainly in the next few years we will be running down Bomber Command. I hope that we will be able to carry out some of the measures of reorganisation within the Force which will lead to a saving in manpower. In this connection, I would not say that it is a Service which is running down. I would rather describe it as a force which will be using some of the most skilled manpower in the country; and I am happy to say that we are able to get this manpower.

Mr. Mulley

I would like to make it clear that in using the term "running down" I was not referring to the Service as such but was speaking in terms of numbers, because it is obvious that with the increasing technical efficiency it is possible for fewer men to achieve the objectives of the R.A.F.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say if there are any trades or categories in the R.A.F. where it is not possible for a man to purchase his discharge?

Mr. H. Fraser

The hon. Member has raised a new point. A Written Answer has been given on this topic. I believe that there are 13 trades in which we are allowing people to achieve their discharge without payment. At the moment someone who has served for 16 years in the R.A.F. is able to obtain discharge without payment. We have in the last few weeks introduced an Order by which in 13 specialist trades, because we have a surplus of manpower, people may be released without payment. This applies to a limited number of people, although it has been suggested in some newspapers that a large number are affected. In some trades a man is unable to purchase his discharge if a shortage of personnel exists. However, he may do so on compassionate grounds or for other reasons, if I first agree.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Air Force Act 1955 (Continuation) Order 1963, a draft of which was laid before this House on 12th November, be approved.