Orders of the Day — Air Estimates, 1948–49

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th March 1948.

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Photo of Sir Arthur Harvey Sir Arthur Harvey , Macclesfield 12:00 am, 4th March 1948

This has been quite a disappointing Debate but I welcomed the interventions of the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg). They, at least, put the Debate on a footing which gave us something to think about. After all, this is a Debate concerning expenditure of £173 million and the employment of over 300,000 of our citizens. It is not for me as a new Member to rebuke my colleagues, but looking at the attendance of hon. Members I blame the Secretary of State for the Memorandum. It contains literally nothing about the Air Force in any detail. Hon. Members, who know little enough about a technical subject like flying, have nothing on which to work to enable them to come here and make their contributions.

I welcome what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said. I think he was most sincere. He has not been in the job for long, and he has been travelling backwards and forwards to India and is probably only beginning to settle down. I can only think that he had his instructions from the Minister of Defence and the Cabinet as to what he was to tell the House about the strength and composition of the Royal Air Force. We have not been told much about the strength and effectiveness of what is our first line of defence. Before the war we had the "Air Force List" in which we could find when an officer joined the Service, when he was last promoted and the unit he was in. In fact, it almost gave his life history I am not suggesting that we should go back to that. I think that the information was given in far too much detail; not that it means much because any countries which are any good at all have an intelligence service and can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman how many bomber squadrons, fighters, etc., he can put into the air.

I do not see why this information should be hidden from hon. Members and the public who, after all, pay for the Air Force. If it is bad news, let them know exactly where they stand, and public opinion will then see that it is put right. It is far better than covering it up. I would suggest that if we cannot have a secret session we might have an all-party meeting so that the Secretary of State could give Members some information. I can well understand that there are some hon. Members who would not be welcome at such a meeting. Nevertheless, it would be worth while taking that risk.

The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire) said he thought that the next war would be a radar war. I should like to think that he was right. If he was, we could all go 400 or 500 feet underground, press buttons and get on with it. I do not share his illusions in that respect. The hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) referred to testing aircraft in cold weather. I should have thought that the Falkland Islands last week would have provided a good opportunity of putting that into practice. I do not know why aircraft were not employed. It was a good opportunity to send out some long-range aircraft and show these upstarts what we really think of them.

The hon. Member for Rugby went a great distance in getting around the point to describe who he thought was the potential enemy. Other hon. Members talked about enemy X. The hon. Member for Rugby was quite right in what he said. There can be only one potential enemy. Every one of us in this House today prays that there will not be a war. Every day we say that, but the indications are leading up to a war, and we shall be wrong if we do not think on those lines.

Eastern Europe is quite terrifying to the rest of the world, and we all know that the potential enemy is Soviet Russia. Let us face it fairly and squarely so that we know exactly where we stand in this matter. Since the election in 1945 I have spoken up and down the country at savings weeks events and other nonparty gatherings, and I have always said that we must try to make a deal with Russia, have trade agreements, and do all we can to bring about friendship and try to understand each other's point of view. I have now got to the stage when I cannot go on doing so without offending the Russians, if they listen to or count for much what I say.

I heard the Debate in another place yesterday. I was alarmed to hear the noble Lords on both sides of the Chamber, and the Government spokesmen, making their speeches on the world situation. We in this House must take note of what they have said, and face up to the situation. I looked up today the Debate on the Air Estimates in 1939. The present Prime Minister was the opening speaker for the Opposition. He said: There is one difficulty in discussing these Air Estimates. There is a very great deal of information which cannot possibly be given in public, and there are criticisms which we might like to make but which we should not like to make in public. The hon. Member for Mossley called attention to the fact that in the really big items of expenditure we know nothing whatever. We merely get a figure, and we are left very much in the dark when we try to estimate what progress has really been made towards shortening that gap between our force and the nearest potential enemy force. We really get nothing at all."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th March, 1939; Vol. 345, C. 337–8.] The right hon. Gentleman was speaking six months before the last war, and he complained that he had not got enough information. Today, two and a half years after that war, we are given about the same amount of information. It is not good enough. We must insist that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, some time before the Estimates are presented next year, should tell the House, on a Supply Day or some other occasion, what is the strategic future of the R.A.F.

I agree that an efficient striking force is the country's most effective safeguard against aggression. Of that there is no doubt, but I implore the right hon. and learned Gentleman not to forget our home defences. We must have an effective Air Force to defend this island. I fully appreciate the difficulties of demobilisation. The manpower situation in the whole of the country is difficult. We have to produce goods and so on, but what will be the use of producing them if we get into any more serious trouble? The first essential is the protection of the country.

It has been generally agreed in the Debates that have taken place since the war that the R.A.F. is our first line of defence. One hon. Member opposite went so far as to suggest that it was now our Senior Service, although I am sure the Minister of Defence will not agree. While recognising the requirements of the Army and the Navy, I do suggest that if we have to cut down expenditure on the three Services, the R.A.F. must be the last to be cut. Also, we should, of course, have priority with men.

After what happened during the war, much is expected of the R.A.F. by everybody. I am not belittling what was done by the other Services, but the Air Force did undoubtedly save the situation in the summer of 1940. We are now concerned about how it will fulfil its duties in the future. First of all, we must get a sufficient number of long-service men into the R.A.F., and we shall never do that unless conditions of service are made more attractive. With the exception of one increase, officers and men are now being paid at very much the same rates as in 1930, when I was serving in the Regular Air Force. Rates of pay have not been stepped up to enable personnel to cope with the increased cost of living. The present rates of pay are deplorable.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) referred to the Women's Royal Air Force and pointed out that many of these women, who in many cases undertake the same duties as men, get less than two-thirds of the men's rates of pay. This is not the time to debate equal pay for women but it is, nevertheless, important that women in a fighting Service should be paid nearer to the rate for men who do the same job. We were told in the Estimates that the extended service bounties had been reduced from £450,000 to £40,000. That is a very big reduction, which indicates that the scheme has not been a success. I wonder whether the Under-Secretary of State, in his reply, will give us some further information about this?

On the question of the Reserves and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn (Mr. Max Aitken)—whom I am very pleased to welcome back after his extended illness—has made a very fine speech. In the Memorandum there are only two sentences dealing with the Reserves and the Auxiliaries. Surely, the right hon. and learned Gentleman could have given the House considerably more information on these two very important branches of the Service. One of the most disappointing items in the Estimates is the lack of information about the Auxiliaries, because these men are going to play an increasingly important part with the Regular Air Force. We must not confuse them—I am not belittling the Territorials—with the Territorials, because the Auxiliaries get exactly the same equipment as the Regulars. When the last war came they fought in the front line with the Regulars from the very first day and played their part in the defence of this island. Let us give them full credit for what they have to undertake. One can recognise that at the end of a war there will be a falling off of interest in the Services; vast numbers of men have been involved in a war, and the younger men have to look forward to National Service. Very much more could be done to make that branch of the service more attractive.

The Secretary of State said that they paid the Auxiliary airmen the rate of the Regular airmen over a 48-hour period. I would suggest that he pays them the same rate all the time. They would still be a very cheap proposition, for they are not pensionable, they require little kit, and they can usually improvise as far as buildings are concerned, although they ought to have better buildings. At the earliest moment they should have the same aeroplanes as the Regulars are flying. I see the difficulties about Hendon and other similar aerodromes, which are not suitable for jet aircraft. They ought to have new airfields. That must be an immediate consideration. We ought to give the London squadrons good airfields and jet aircraft. The same applies to the A.T.C. These men give a good deal of their leisure time to the service. They give up two or three evenings every week and 48 out of the 52 weekends, besides the time for the annual camp. It is quite unbelievable how much time they give to the service, and so to their country.

I want to say a few words about the Air Ministry itself. No one seems to like it. I was fortunate enough not to have to serve there myself. A reduction of only £33,000 on last year's Estimates is really not enough. I have always found that in Service establishment committees, that when it comes to making economies, they start with the last and lowest unit and then work upwards. Really it ought to be the other way round: they ought to start pruning at the Air Ministry and work down to the squadrons. Of course, if they did, a good many people would have to take stripes off their arms, and that would not suit them. I see that the Department of the Member for Air Personnel, one of the few good ones at the Ministry, is costing more than it did. But I see that there has to be an assistant editor, a journalist, a reporter and a layout artist. I would observe that we have enough papers and we do not want more coming out of the Ministry.

Now I come to the most serious part of my speech, to consider the effective striking force—bombers. I see no point in trying to be careful in what one says at this stage, because the facts are generally known. Bomber Command can put into operation only two or three squadrons of bombers. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn referred to 100 bombers. I am, however, quite prepared to believe that there are reserve aircraft tucked away in maintenance units which could be manned in a short space of time. We should like an assurance on the point. We should like to know what really is the strength of Bomber Command. It is absolutely necessary to have a Bomber Command until we have long-distance, accurate, guided missiles. Do not let us have any illusions about pressing buttons, and so on. We have got to keep an Air Force which is as good as—indeed, better than—that of any other country in the world. I am sure we can.

When I read the word "research" over and over again, I am always very suspicious, because although nobody believes in research more than I do, I fear that research is not enough. Research alone does not at all meet the case today. We must have intensive research; but research looks far ahead, and we want real aircraft now which can be got into the air at a moment's notice. There is no doubt that, so far as research is concerned, atomic development must be given first priority. That is generally agreed. Then we want development of a high performance jet bomber, capable of delivering an atomic bomb at long range. That is the ideal—if we can attain it. Nobody wants it more than the Secretary of State himself, I am sure. The Lincoln is a fine aircraft, but it is really out of date. We must face that. It is a good, solid aeroplane, but its altitude is restricted with a full load, and its range is restricted.

I have heard that there is to be an intermediate bomber. I do not know how right that is. It is very difficult to obtain information about one's old Service. One hesitates to ask one's friends in the Service, and the Government give us so little information. All we can do is to read and listen as much as we can, and draw conclusions. What we really want is a long-range jet bomber which will carry an atomic bomb. My estimate is that we shall not get bombers like that for eight or 10 years, unless something is done in the immediate future to give its development and production very high priority. That is a very alarming thought, that we may have to wait so long, and I have grave misgivings about the situation in Bomber Command. I really have. I hear, on the other hand, that Soviet Russia is making something as good as, or even better than, Super-Fortresses, in large numbers. I do not think that is gossip; I have been told that they are making something equivalent to B.29s. If that is the case, then we must get busy, because the Lincoln is not good enough.

I believe the National Service men to be practically useless. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they are almost a hindrance to the Royal Air Force. The R.A.F. stands or falls on whether or not it has sufficient long-term volunteers. Need the R.A.F. have National Service men at all? In the Debate last year, when the Minister of Defence had difficulty in making up his mind about the period of service, I had intended voting against conscription; and had he kept to his original figure of 18 months, I would have voted against conscription, because I do not believe in it.