HC Deb 16 November 1964 vol 702 cc28-31

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Secretary for Defence if he will make a statement on recent developments in the rationalisation of functions between the services.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

With permission, I will now answer Question No. 61.

My Department has just finished a comprehensive study that my predecessor initiated on the R.A.F. Airfield Construction Branch. This branch is primarily responsible for constructing and maintaining airfields in forward areas as well as works services in areas which are difficult to get at. The object of the study was to see if these responsibilities could be handed over to the Royal Engineers and the report I have received shows that such a transfer would be worth while.

The technical skills, equipment and experience of the two organisations are sufficiently alike to make the transfer a practicable proposition and it is clear that we would get valuable economies in personnel, equipment and administrative overheads. That being so, I have decided that the transfer should go ahead; it will be made over a period of years starting immediately and ending in 1969.

It is in the national interest that as many of the R.A.F. personnel as can be absorbed in the Army should volunteer to transfer and should continue in the jobs for which they have been specially trained. Airmen who will have 10 give up time promotion or longer career prospects on transfer will receive special transfer payments. Appropriate compensation payments will also be made to those airmen who cannot be offered transfer, when they can no longer be employed in the R.A.F. in their present trade and engagement, or be remustered in another R.A.F. trade.

Full details of the scheme are being sent to all concerned.

Mr. Hamilton

Can my right hon. Friend say whether this means that certain Air Force requirements will now be looked after by a branch of the Army? Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that this will lead to increased efficiency? Can he say something more about the compensation arrangements? Can he, for instance, compare them with the arrangements which were made by the B.O.A.C. recently for its employees?

Mr. Healey

The Royal Air Force will continue to exercise operational control of airfield construction squadrons placed in their support. The command and control arrangements have been designed to ensure that the Royal Engineers will be able to meet R.A.F. requirements. The Services are dependent on one another in a number of ways, and this change will not impair their efficiency.

I do not think that it is possible to compare schemes where the basic conditions of service and redundancy are so dissimilar as those between the Royal Air Force construction branch and the B.O.A.C. employees, but, if my hon. Friend wishes to see more details, I shall arrange to send copies of the relevant documents to him.

Mr. Thorneycroft

May I, first, congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and wish him well in his new office. Secondly, I thank him for the information which he has given, but he will know that the Question covers a rather wider field of rationalising functions, and I wonder whether, perhaps not now but at an early stage, he can give an undertaking to keep us informed how this rationalisation is proceeding because, as he knows, many of these things are in hand at the moment.

In particular, may I ask how the study of the concentration centrally of operational analysis is proceeding? Can he either circulate that information in the OFFICIAL REPORT or let us know at the earliest date? Can he, at the same time, give an undertaking that the number of staff in post will not be greater on 1st April next year than it was on 1st April last year?

Mr. Healey

First, may I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his good wishes, and say that I recognise that many of the problems with which I am now called on to deal began to find their solution under the policies initiated by him.

I shall certainly keep the House as closely informed as I can of the progress towards the functional rationalisation of the Services—on occasion in the form of Answers to Questions such as the one I have just answered—and I hope that I shall be able to give a clearer idea of my general view as to how the whole operation should proceed, perhaps in next year's Defence White Paper.

Mr. Shinwell

Can my right hon. Friend say whether this rationalisation scheme will lead to a curtailment of recruiting for the Royal Air Force, and whether he has any estimate of the numbers who will be absorbed into the Army as a result of the scheme?

Mr. Healey

It is broadly expected that it will be possible to perform the current tasks of the airfield construction branch of the Royal Air Force by about 200 fewer persons when those functions are transferred to the R.E.

On the general question—which I think the right hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Thorneycroft) also asked—of the size of staff in the central headquarters next April compared with last April, it is my firm intention to achieve the reductions which the right hon. Gentleman announced it was his intention of achieving.

Mr. Ridsdale

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware how much we welcome his early action on this problem? Can he say when the study began of this problem of the transfer of the Royal Air Force construction branch?

Mr. Healey

Without notice I cannot give the precise date, but I believe that it began five or six months ago. Studies are proceeding on the rationalisation of functions in a number of other fields, and, as I told the right hon. Member for Monmouth, I hope to acquaint the House with decisions on these questions as they arise.

Sir A. V. Harvey

What the Minister said is welcome, but is he aware that there is considerable scope for rationalisation in other Departments of the three Services, for instance, among clergymen and medical officers? Many of them could be regrouped. Will he pay attention to this possibility?

Mr. Healey

All these problems are already under consideration in my Department.