HL Deb 29 November 1960 vol 226 cc1017-20

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, this Order seeks to prolong the Air Force Act for another year. It is similar to the Army Order which I have just moved. There will be opportunities later to discuss the Royal Air Force, during the debate on Air Estimates, and beg to move that the Order be approved. The draft Order to which I now seek your Lordships' approval will maintain the Air Force Act in operation for the year 1961. It provides the statutory basis for the recruitment and discipline of the Royal Air Force. This is the last time the Act will be renewed in this way. Next year it will be necessary to consider a fresh Act. It is similar to the Army Act (Continuation) Order which your Lordships have just been discussing.

Discipline remains at a very high level of which the Royal Air Force can be proud. The number of serious breaches of Air Force law—serious enough to lead to court martial—has dropped to only 2.7 in every 1,000 strength. This is really remarkably low. Of course, most disciplinary action does not achieve the prominence of a court martial. Your Lordships may recall that at the beginning of this year a new form of punishment called "Restrictions" was introduced into the Royal Air Force in place of the old confinement to camp. I am pleased to be able to assure your Lordships that this has proved to be as effective as was hoped for.

I should like now to turn to the subject of recruitment. The target figure for the Royal Air Force is 135,000 trained adult males by 1963. During the first nine months of this year there was a slight fall in the number of adults recruited compared with the same period last year. But happily this is not the whole of the story. More and more airmen are signing on for the longer terms of engagement. In fact, two airmen in every three are now serving on engagements of nine years or over. The number of entrants to boys' service during the year has doubled compared with last year. This is most satisfactory. But again there is another side to the coin. The Royal Air Force is not getting enough apprentices of the right quality. However, the "bulge" of school leavers should provide some help to this problem and there is every hope that the Royal Air Force will solve the problem during the next year or two. Meanwhile, great reliance must be placed on the last remaining National Servicemen, to whom I pay a tribute, on behalf of the Royal Air Forces in exactly the same way as I did for the Army. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Air Force Act, 1955 (Continuation) Order, 1960, be approved —(Lord Carrington.)

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, there is not very much time, with so much Business to-day, to go through the whole of the Air Force, but I think we ought not to let this occasion pass without paying a tribute to the former Secretary of State for Air, the noble Viscount, Lord Ward of Willey, who has now joined us in this House. I am glad that he has not shown the same reluctance as another former Royal Air Force pilot to come with us. As somebody who has had a fair amount of dealing over the years with the noble Viscount, I should like to say that he was very highly regarded in the Air Force; and certainly those among us who are interested in the Air Force knew his heart was in the right place, even though on occasions he went wrong on such matters as Aden and one or two other places, and especially on matters in which the noble Lord, Lord Tedder, was concerned. I would also say that I congratulate his successor who is an old colleague and friend of mine, Mr. Amery.

The only worrying thing about the position of the Air Force so far as this debate is concerned is the question of balance between the needs. I should like to urge on the Government—and this is, of course, applicable to the previous debate—that now is the time when we have to hit our recruitment targets. If we cannot hit them now, it is very unlikely that we are going to do it in another three or four years' time. It is while the "bulge" is on that a special effort must be made, particularly—as I know the Government are keen to do —in regard to recruiting, especially of apprentices, about whom there has been reference to a decline in quality.

I hope that at the same time something more will be done in this case to make conditions a little more attractive for the Women's Royal Air Force. I do not know what particular additional lures there are, but it is of great importance that recruits should be found, because we must hit the minimum target. It is clear that failure to do this will produce the most drastic and disastrous results. We know, in fact, that the order of battle in the Army is overstrained at the moment and that there is a remark-able loss of efficiency as a result: and the same thing will be true of the Air Force. I hope, therefore, that the Government will not think that we are just saying again what they know as well as we do, but that they will approach this matter with extra urgency and will see whether, even now, there is not more that can be done with regard to stimulating recruitment.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether I might make a suggestion to the First Lord. I hesitate to ask for more White Papers, because they fall rather like leaves in Vallombrosa. On the other hand, I agree with what has been said on all sides of the House, I think: that we are all very anxious about the recruiting figures in all the Services, and certainly in the Army and the Air Force. Frankly, I am still very vague as to what the position really is. It is inadequate, certainly, in both the Army and the Air Force. The noble Lord said that we are getting some more of a particular kind in the Air Force. As against that, there are not enough boys —and I very much regret it—going into Halton.

He said that we shall all have an opportunity of discussing this when we come on to the defence debate early, or reasonably early, next year. But what I think we should all like to have now (I am not asking for a firm statement of policy, as to exactly how the deficiencies are going to be met: I think it would be wrong to ask for that, certainly in a debate like this, until the facts are known) is some idea of what is required. It is no good waiting until it is too late. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, that now is the acceptable time. If we cannot get the numbers required now, I do not think we are going to get them later on—unless, indeed, we get some frightful slump, which I sincerely hope we shall not, and which we certainly do not look like getting. But could we have a simple White Paper setting out for the three Services what are the numbers that are required in different categories; then, against that, how many they have; and then, in a third column, how many must be recruited, and within what time, in order to reach what is the absolute minimum that the noble Lord has now stated? To give that information would not commit the noble Lord or the Government in any way on a matter of policy. On the other hand, it would make it a great deal easier for us—and, indeed, for other people outside who are commenting on these matters—to talk sense, and to give, so far as they can, wise advice. I hope my noble friend will consider the possibility of doing that.


My Lords, may I first of all join with the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, in welcoming the noble Viscount, Lord Ward of Witley? I had not realised that he was in the House when I moved the Order. He must find it rather curious that the First Lord of the Admiralty should be doing his erstwhile Department's business.

I very greatly welcome what the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, and the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, have said about recruiting. I think it is very helpful to the Government that they should be paying such a great deal of attention to it. I do not think we want to be too gloomy about Air Force recruitment: I do not think it is too bad. I do not think there is going to be difficulty in getting to the target, although, as my noble friend said, there may be some difficulty about the balance of trades. However, I will most certainly look into his suggestion. I will pass it on to my honourable friend and will ask him to read the remarks which my noble friend has made.


All three. I think that the Minister of Defence should be approached, too.

On Question, Motion agreed to.