Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."
Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman give us an explanation of this Clause, as it peculiarly affects his own Department?
Before my hon. and gallant Friend answers that question, may I say that two of the questions which we had to consider on the Gorell Committee were low flying and flying so as to cause unnecessary annoyance, and we had the fullest evidence, both about the action and discipline of the Air Force and about civilian flying, before us. The outstanding feature of all that evidence was that the discipline of the Air Force is so high that the number of complaints made against pilot officers or any other officers in the Air Force, either for low flying contrary to regulations or for flying so as to commit unnecessary annoyance, almost did not exist at all. I think the hon. Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague), who also sat on the Gorell Committee will agree with me there. Therefore, it would be very unfortunate if, within a few weeks of the publication of the report of that Committee, the first step might be taken to make low flying and flying so as to cause annoyance a specific court-martial offence by itself in the Air Force. The obvious deduction which some people might draw from it is that there had been so much low flying or that there had been so much flying in a manner to cause annoyance that it was necessary that this House should take drastic action in this direction.I understand that anything of that sort is wholly outside the minds of my right hon. Friend and of the Under-Secretary of State, and certainly I should like most emphatically, on behalf of the Committee, to state that no evidence that came before us would justify any necessity of that sort whatsoever. As to whether there should be any tightening-up of the methods of dealing with this, matter, the evidence that we got was that not only were pilot officers in only very exceptional cases breaking any of the regulations, but that the senior officers in command of Air Force aerodromes and depots went out of their way to try and direct the necessary practising of low flying which might cause danger or annoyance, to areas where the minimum possible danger might occur. Of course, there were exceptional cases, but I only want to testify to the generally high standard of the discipline of the force and of the consideration of officers in this matter in so far as the evidence given before the Gorell Committee showed.
Surely the hon. and learned Member is not suggesting that the Gorell Committee report in any part of it suggested that the ordinary methods of discipline in the Air Force are not sufficient?
Certainly not. All that I am suggesting is that the first matter that comes before Parliament after the publication of that report is a provision which makes low flying and flying so as to cause annoyance a new, specific, court-martial offence, which is the effect, I take it, of paragraphs (b) and (c) of this Clause, and I was only trying to prevent the public, and I hope the hon. Member agrees with me, forming any conclusion —because the public does not read the evidence that comes before Departmental Committees save in exceptional cases—that there had been so many breaches of the regulations by pilot officers of the Air Force that it necessitated something of this sort being done. I am waiting to hear why this change is being made.
I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) as to the evidence that we had before us on the Gorell Committee, which certainly gave one great satisfaction in the sense that there had been so few complaints of low flying or bad discipline from an air point of view. I think it is a good thing, when we think of the number of new pilots in the Royal Air Force and the difficulties there are in the way of getting people of young age not to do things which may sometimes be a little foolish, that there has been so little complaint in this connection.This Clause covers the case of the mechanic who signs the certificate that the petrol tank of an aircraft is full and does not verify that it is so. That is a court-martial offence, as it should be, because it affects the safety of the people in the machine, but I would ask the Under-Secretary of State whether he could not revise form 700, which has been altered several times. It is not a very simple document, and you do not want on it any initials which will not be of real importance. On form 700 you have the signatures of the fitter, the rigger, and the person who fills up with petrol. You have also the flight sergeant's initials. No doubt it is the duty of the last named to see that the tank is full, but he cannot see every machine and that it is done in every case. The pilot also has to sign his initials, which is quite right, but the initials that we must look for are those of the fitter and the rigger, and they have to know that the tank has been properly filled. As this is now to be a court-martial offence, I think it is time to simplify form 700, so that it will be clear what the man has got to do on it and that there are no unnecessary signatures on the form. On the other point, of courts-martial for low flying, I must say that I welcome this provision, because it makes it quite clear in the Air Force to-day that for low flying, which is a severe breach of discipline, you can be court-martialled, as several people have been, and turned out of the Air Force. But before this when you were turned out of the Air Force, you were turned out for
That is a very serious thing, because it means that you are turned out of the Air Force for the rest of your life, and it may have very serious results to a man, whereas this charge of low flying, although it is serious, is obviously not a thing in regard to which you could say that it was a dishonourable thing for some boy of 17 or 18, in some place where aerodromes are, where there are no amusements provided for him, who is given one of these machines and shows off, perhaps, by flying low over sonic relations' house. It has happened in the past and it will happen again in the future. You have to have this very strict power of court-martial, but I am glad that, when such a man is found guilty to-day and may have to leave the Service, everyone will know that it is not for something disgracing him for the rest of his life. I welcome that alteration. As to Sub-section (2) which amends the Air Force Act in respect of officers in charge of aircraft. I agree that the officer who is in command must be superior in those circumstances. Everyone who knows anything about flying will realise that you must have this order. You cannot have dual power or authority in such questions as the control of an aircraft when it is in the air, about to take off or about to land. The proposed alteration explains itself and it will be welcome because it gets rid of difficulties when senior officers are taken up by junior officers and when questions might be raised. I welcome these three additions and I hope that the Committee will accept them."conduct to the prejudice of good order and Air Force discipline."
:The first question to which I would refer is that of the certificates for aircraft or aircraft material, because it is closely related to safety in the air. There ought to be some recognition that any material which is used ought to pass the severest test and somebody ought to be responsible for the aircraft before it goes up. In regard to low flying, I am glad that something is being done. I have had one or two experiences in this matter. Some time ago I went to the air manœuvres to which we had been invited, and one of the things we had to witness was a display of low flying. Pilots may have tried to impress the powers that be, and began to circle around, flying very low indeed. They flew so low that I got afraid, and I said to the people alongside me: "This may be very spectacular, and I suppose the men may know their job, but the slightest mistake will mean all of us passing away." I was not just ready at that time to pass away. When I pass away I want it to be in the ordinary manner, or for something which calls upon me to give my life. I want some credit for passing away. Probably a skilful man was in charge and had the aeroplane in full control, but anyone with knowledge of aircraft would admit that the slightest mistake made at the speed at which they were going, as they would have no chance to recover, would be very serious. They swept along, and everybody cleared out.I went on another occasion and the same thing happened. 1 got so nervous about them that I decided to find a spot at least half a mile away from where the flying was taking place. I have not the courage to face that kind of thing, and as I feel that way about it myself I wonder what the feelings of other people must be when aeroplanes fly low. I welcome some attempt to retard the high spirits of some airmen, who as a whole are a fine set of young men prepared to give their lives for the country, but one has the feeling that they may be faking just a shade too much risk in this spectacular way. A warning to them will draw attention to what is being done, but I do not want mistakes of that kind to debar the young men from any progress afterwards. I would not like to think that a mistake that happened in that regard had been the means of spoiling a young man's whole life, and I should like every case to be thoroughly examined. I am pleased to see that the Clause prescribes, in addition to court-martial,
That means to say that there can be circumstances which may mitigate the full rigour of the law being applied to an offender. A warning is necessary to tell pilots that they cannot do low-flying, as they would like to do, when people are present whose lives may be placed in danger."such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned."
:Like the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) I think the Committee will be glad to pass the Amendments contained in the Clause. There is no doubt that this discussion has ventilated the question of the orders that have been given to the Royal Air Force in the last few years and which have had a very beneficial effect. The hon. and learned Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) said truly that in the last few years there have been very few cases indeed of wilful breach of the regulations in regard to low flying, but that was not the case some years ago. There were many breaches then, in the shape both of spectacular displays and of individual pilots stunting at low altitudes over villages and houses in order to get a certain amount of excitement. Those cases have now ceased, and I do not think there has been any such low flying in the last two years. Nevertheless, there can be cases of low flying, but they are mostly unintentional. In this Clause there is a line which says:
There are frequent cases of low flying where the pilot is quite unintentionally doing harm, although he can know nothing about it. Perhaps I might give one example. Auxiliary squadrons mostly fly on Sundays and then after the 10 o'clock parade. Frequently they do cross-country journeys, and someone may be cruising against the wind at quite a normal altitude between 1,000 and 2,000 feet. He may be going over high ground and, in passing over villages where church services are taking place, may cause a considerable amount of disturbance. Whenever I am flying on Sunday I make a point of going up well over 5,000 feet, and when against the wind keeping up even to 10,000 feet, between the hours of 11 and 12 in the morning. The other Sunday a worthy gentleman, a layman, was reading the first lesson in church when the whole of the Bristol Auxiliary Squadron came over the church. When he came to the second lesson after the Psalm, and had begun reading the lesson, the whole squadron came back over the church. They were unaware of what they were doing, it being their custom to fly on Sunday, but the disturbance which was caused can easily be avoided if they make a practice of flying a little higher. Another cause, equally unwitting, of the damage which can be done, is during the months of August and September in Scotland when aeroplanes fly over the grouse moors, but in this case the damage is done by flying high and not by flying low. This does not apply to counties where there are no eagles, but in Aber- deenshire, where there are, the effect is fatal. At the sight of an aircraft flying high at, say, 10,000 or 12,000 feet, every grouse in the district at once goes to the top of the hill and packs on the high ground and as soon as the beaters come the whole packs go straight off the ground. It is hardly fair on the shooting tenants who have paid a good deal of money for their shooting and this sort of damage could be quite easily avoided, as I hope it will be in the future. The most common form of low flying is when a pilot is perhaps just learning to go across country when the weather closes down upon him. He gets low cloud while he is flying over high ground. He is soon off the map and off his course, and as he does not know where he is he tries to follow the roadway, the railway or a river, and he goes down because he hopes to pick up some indication of where he is. Visibility is very limited and he is undoubtedly off his course. Unfortunately it may happen that a railway he is following is uphill and not downhill, and he flies into high ground and there is an accident. You cannot say that that is an attempt to break the regulations. It has happened because the man was lost, and, as is usual, he was trying to find his way. I have from time to time suggested to the Air Ministry that they might persuade the railway companies to paint the names of the stations on the station roofs so that lost airmen might have a chance of seeing where they are and not run the risk of flying into high ground or into trees or buildings. If that were done a number of casualties among pupils in the Royal Air Force might be avoided when the pupils are learning to fly across country in bad weather, as they must fly in bad weather if they are ever to learn to fly at all. I think those are the three main causes of low flying, and while we all agree that there must be stringent regulations and that they have had a very good effect so far in preventing wilful breaches of discipline, I am glad to see that in cases where the low flying occurs without the pilot being aware of it some lesser penalty can be inflicted."such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned."
I should like to say one word upon low flying. The Committee may not realise that every squadron has a low-flying log-book, and that it is the duty of every pilot who has had occasion to fly at a low altitude to fill in the facts about the flight in that logbook immediately he lands. It is a great safeguard to himself that he should do so. If he had a legitimate reason for flying low and he has entered it in the logbook nothing can be said about it, but if he has not made the entry then, as they say in the Service, "He is for the high jump."
How do they get to know of it?
In all probability if he has flown low and dangerously his number has been handed in and will arrive at the station in due course and he will have to appear before his commanding officer and explain why he has been flying low, and if it is a bad case he may be court-martialled.
There is this trouble about numbers, that while the numbers on civilian planes can easily be seen the numbers on Royal Air Force machines are so long and complicated and in such very small figures that the ordinary civilian finds it difficult to read them.
That is so, but it is not for me to encourage the Air Ministry to make it more easy for my colleagues to be caught. The point I should like to make is that my hon. and gallant Friend should impress upon station commanders, especially at auxiliary stations, how vitally necessary it is, in the interests of the pilots and of the public, that the low-flying log-book should always be entered up.
I respond gladly to the request of the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) that I should give some explanation of the new proposals; but before I do so I should like to thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens), the hon. Baronet the Member for Berwick (Sir H. Seely) and the hon. Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague), who is not here now for the work which they, with others, did on the Gorell Committee, the Report of which has just been published, and also for the tributes which they have paid to-day and which are in the Gorell Committee's Report as to the discipline which exists in the Royal Air Force from the point of view of dangerous and reckless flying, and flying in such a manner as to cause unnecessary nuisance to the general public. Flying discipline is essential, but if one is commanding any body of fliers one is always up against the task of balancing the need not to kill initiative and enterprise by over regulation with the need, on the other hand for such disciplinary regulations as are essential to secure maximum safety. The Amendments to-day are aimed at achieving that objective.I should like to put briefly before the Committee what is the present state of affairs. Section 39 (a) of the Air Force Act sets out specific offences, mainly connected with aircraft which, generally, involve damage or likely damage to aircraft or injury to persons; and if a man charged under Section 39 (a) is found to have acted wilfully, the maximum punishment to which he is liable is penal servitude, although there is provision for a lesser punishment. If the damage or injury has not been caused wilfully the maximum punishment is imprisonment or some lesser punishment as the court may impose. Continuing with the existing state of affairs we come to Section 40, which one might term an "omnibus Section" under which charges are brought of conduct which is prejudicial to good order and Air Force discipline. Under this section the punishment differs as between officers and airmen. For an officer the punishment is cashiering, or some lesser punishment, and for an airman it is imprisonment, or some lesser punishment. That is the state of affairs existing at present. Our proposals are these: It is proposed to set out in Section 39 certain additional specified offences. These are, wrongly-signing certificates, low-flying offences and flying in a way likely to cause annoyance. These new offences will entail, after conviction by court-martial the punishment of imprisonment or such lesser punishment as the court may determine, as compared with penal servitude or a lesser punishment provided for in the un-amended Section 39(a). I think the Committee will ask what are the reasons for this change. The reasons arc that Section 39(a), which has those limited specified offences, is too restricted if damage or likelihood of damage or injury to persons has to be proved, while the alternative to Section 39(a), that is Section 40, is in its turn too wide. For instance, in the case of low-flying likely to cause annoyance to the public, I chink it is illogical to suggest that you should charge someone with conduct which is prejudicial to good order and to military discipline. The point was admirably put by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick. If, in the interests of flying discipline, a young man is convicted of this offence and his service career is terminated, yet we do not want to spoil the whole of his future life. Because there is a blet against him to the extent that he has acted wrongly and stupidly and possibly endangered others, one would not say that he had done anything dishonourable and that it is a blot which cannot be eradicated by the passage of time This Amendment proposes to define certain further specific offences which are not common in the sense that they are increasing but which we want specific power to deal with. We wish to deal with them apart from that omnibus Section 40 by enlarging the schedule of offences under 39(a). In these days pilots may be commissioned officers or they may be airmen, and the proposed Amendment of Section.39 (a) puts the punishment for officers and airmen on the same level. Whereas under Section 40 a conviction in the case of an officer does not entail the possibility of imprisonment, as in the case of an airman, in future both will be liable to imprisonment or such lesser punishment as the court may impose. Let me take the offences one by one. First, there is the offence of signing a certificate in relation to an aircraft or aircraft material without ensuring its accuracy. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick that it is Form 700 which is thought of mainly in this connection, and I was impressed by the point which he made that too many signatures are required on that form. As he knows, directly an accident has happened and is investigated there is always a natural tendency to introduce new regulations and to complicate existing regulations in order to prevent a repetition of the accident. I think the time may well have come, now we are creating new offences, when we should overhaul the administration machinery and see whether we can simplify it. One of the advantages of these new specific offences is that a young man will now know what he is not allowed to do in a more exact way than when we had the omnibus Section 40. The need for the verification of these certificates is obvious. The more precise power and the more precise knowledge of the seriousness and the possibility of offences should act as an additional deterrent in future. In such matters carelessness may well be fatal whether it be wilful or due to some idle neglect. Therefore, we propose to make no discrimination between wilful and not wilful as it exists in Section 39 (a). I pass to the flying offences (b) and (c). The existing flying regulations in the Royal Air Force, which are contained in the Flying Regulations, King's Regulations and in class instruction, say that flying may not take place below 2,000 feet except with special permission on active service, or in Army co-operation work, or when weather conditions force pilots to fly low. I cannot meet the Noble Lord the Member for Central Bristol (Lord Apsley) very far in that direction. As far as I understand, he wants a special schedule to except Aberdeenshire so that the grouse in that county may be safeguarded.
I did not want any alteration in the Bill. It could be done easily by an instruction to units and to civil aircraft in the vicinity to ask them during the months of August, September and October to avoid if possible high flying, or to fly round the area which is only a small one.
I appreciate what my Noble Friend wants. He wants not legislation but administrative action. I am sure that the appeal he has made to pilots to-day will have its effect both on the pilots so that they will not fly high over Aberdeenshire, and on the grouse who will perhaps accustom themselves to other altitudes.
How long has the regulation about not flying lower than 2,000 feet been in operation?
I cannot say; it is a. standing regulation of the Air Force that cross-county flying is not to take place-below 2,000 feet except in special circumstances.
Then I must have experienced the special circumstances.
There may be special circumstances which people on the ground cannot always determine and assess. The final responsibility for his own life and that of his passengers must always rest on the pilot, who must take into consideration whether he thinks special circumstances should rule his conduct in flying low or not. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for St. Pancras (Flight-Lieutenant Grant-Ferris) said, no one will blame a man for having flown low if he says afterwards that had to fly low because he considered it necessary. I am sure that even those who reported it will realise that it was done deliberately and in the interests of safety. The low flying offences are dealt with under Section 39 (a) which provides for any act or neglect likely to cause damage to aircraft material or defect in flying or use of any aircraft material which is likely to cause loss of life. That does not cover many low flying offences, and we propose the addition of (b) and (c) in order to close the gap now existing between flying in such a way as to deserve punishment and the difficulty of obtaining convictions under the present Act.Unskilled witnesses may be called to prove dangerous flying under Section 40 as it now exists, and because they cannot prove height a conviction may not be obtained. Flying which is likely to cause unnecessary annoyance is easier to prove by lay witnesses. Flying in certain circumstances which are specially authorised, but not so as to cause annoyance on the ground, would justify a pilot flying low on Army co-operation work, or on a cross-country flight, but it would not authorise him to fly round and round his best girl's house. This new Amendment will enable us to charge under court-martial someone who has flown low without being authorised so to do in a manner likely to cause annoyance.
Would it not be possible to reconsider the height of 2,000 feet, because in my experience it is rather an unreasonable height?
I do not think we could reconsider it. It is in fine weather a reasonable height and there are many modern aircraft which demand a much greater height. I have in mind the case of my Noble Friend the Member for Central Bristol, where a parson was about to read the first lesson in church when an aeroplane flew past, and he got to the second lesson when the aeroplane flew back again. We must not reduce the height, provided we retain the right for pilots to fly below that height should it be necessary. The action we contemplate will, we hope, do no more than obtain convictions for offences in accordance with the spirit of the Gorell Committee's recommendation that amenities should be considered as well as safety. I hope I have given the Committee a review to their satisfaction of the 1 resent situation and its disadvantages, and what we propose to do and the reason why we are doing it.
Would it be possible to indicate when the corresponding alterations to the regulations will be made for civil flying?
What my hon. and learned Friend is asking me is whether the Secretary of State will publish his decisions on various recommendations of the Committee with regard to civil flying and whether they are likely to be implemented. I would refer him to the answer given by the Prime Minister yesterday.
I would like to ask a question with regard to the provision for imprisonment. I understand that as punishment for certain flying offences now both an officer and an airman may be sentenced to imprisonment. After the officer or airman has completed his sentence does he return to the Air Force, or does imprisonment carry with it discharge from the service? The second question I should like to ask is whether, in the case of an officer, he loses the seniority corresponding to the term of imprisonment which is inflicted upon him. For instance, if an officer is sentenced to a year's imprisonment for one of these flying offences, does that also involve the loss of a year's seniority for that officer? I should also like to ask what happens in regard to pay in the case of an officer or airman while he is serving such a sentence of imprisonment, and what will be the effect on his pension of the term of imprisonment that he suffers. Will an officer, for instance, while undergoing a term of one year's imprisonment for one of these offences, be qualifying for pension while he is serving that term?
The Parliamentary Secretary has dealt with the offences and the penalties, but he did not go as far as many hon. Members have already gone in this Debate, in assuring the Committee that low flying is practically abolished. We were told that the Committee who considered this matter were satisfied that very little low flying took place—
The hon. Member misunderstood me. I said that there was very little low flying by officers in the Air Force as compared with low flying by civilians.
I want to know whether steps are being taken to avoid low flying, and my reason for asking is as follows. Just as I was falling asleep this morning, an aeroplane went over the hotel in central London where I stay, and awakened me, and I lay awake wondering whether it was going to hit the hotel or not. I wonder whether that comes in in the offence described in paragraph (c):
I take it that I am one of those persons, because that aeroplane, flying over my hotel this morning, was certainly an annoyance to me. Would that be an offence? Looking at this matter as a man in the street, one wonders how the public feel when aeroplanes are flying so low and one of them hits a house and kills some of its occupants. I gather that some steps have been taken to try to prevent such accidents in the future, and, while it may not always be possible to avoid accidents, the man in the street would like to be assured that, as far as the Air Force is concerned, as far as the Department is concerned, every possible step is being taken to avoid accidents. As regards low flying at night, some few years ago a regulation was issued prohibiting motor cars from sounding their horns during the night lest they might annoy people during the time when they wanted to sleep. One can well understand that pilots need to have practice in flying at night, but, while, that may be necessary, is it really necessary for them to fly over crowded areas? Could they not have their night practice somewhere else than over central London and other crowded areas? It seems to me that these matters might be given a little more attention, so that the Department might be able to say, "All right; if it takes place, it takes place, but we are trying to avoid it if we possibly can.""being the pilot of one of His Majesty's aircraft, flies it so as to cause, or to be likely to cause, unnecessary annoyance to any person."
In reply to the hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher) imprisonment, in the case of officers, would carry with it cashiering, and, therefore, the majority of the hon. and gallant Member's questions do not arise. There is an exception, however, with regard to pension, where the effect depends upon the circumstances. There have been times when the pension, or part of the pension, of an officer who has been imprisoned and cashiered has been granted to him ex gratia. As regards airmen, there have been cases in which an airman has not been discharged, but has been taken back to the Service after imprisonment; but during imprisonment his pay ceases.I sympathise with the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) as regards the dislocation of normal life that aeroplanes flying over cities can cause; but I would assure him of two things—first, that, as regards civil aircraft, the matter is now under consideration, the Department having had the benefit of the report of the Gorell Committee; and, secondly, that, as regards Service aircraft, the discipline is good, and we hope to bring home to those who are guilty the foolishness and wrongfulness of acts of annoyance of reckless low flying to a greater degree in the future than has been the case in the past by the very Amendment which we are now proposing. I would only add that on one Sunday morning last summer, when I was in my flat in London, an aeroplane persistently flew up and down over London until it exasperated me—I was trying to do some work; so I rang up the official on duty at the Air Ministry and told him it must be stopped. He replied, "Sir, your call is one of 48 that I have received during the last hour from residents all over London." Having some knowledge of these matters, I happened to know the type of the aircraft in ques- tion though I could not see its registration number, and I knew that such aircraft only came from one or two civil airports round London. I told the official on duty at the Department where to ring up, and we traced the aircraft and sent a wireless message to the pilot. His reply was: "I am sorry if I am causing annoyance, but I am having to do certain Army Co-operation exercises with Territorials, who work during the week-ends. The clouds are at a certain height, and I must keep below them, and I must also keep on a particular course. But I will go home as soon as a can, I will waste no time, and I apologise for what I am doing." That is a typical Instance in which I myself and the general public had assumed that there was unnecessary low flying, but on investigation it was found not to be so. I only give the Committee that instance for the purpose of asking that they, like myself and all civilians outside this House, will be sympathetic when aeroplanes are apparently a nuisance, knowing that the Royal Air Force Regulations are stringent and are strictly administered, while the regulations regarding civil aviation are now in process of being overhauled.
In view of the wide and sweeping nature of these new provisions, may I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to see that they are brought specially to the notice of pilots and everyone else in the Air Force, and are not merely treated as an amendment of which many people do not know?
I will certainly take note of that suggestion, which I think is a very reasonable one in view of these new offences.
Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.
Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.