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British Overseas Airways (Temporary Provisions) Order, 1943

Volume 391: debated on Tuesday 13 July 1943

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I beg to move,

"That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order in Council, dated 20th May, 1943, entitled the British Overseas Airways (Temporary Provisions) Order, 1943, made under the Chartered and Other Bodies (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1939,copy of which was presented to this House on 25th May, be annulled."
May I say at the outset that my hon. Friends who are associated with me in this Prayer do not for one moment want to use this opportunity of making any attack upon the Minister? We realise, if I may say so, the great weight of responsibility which must fall on him and those associated with him at the present time. We do not desire to do or say a thing to make that great task more difficult, but we wish to take this opportunity, by this constitutional way, of asking one or two questions on a matter which we believe to be of paramount interest to the House and to the country, and which affects one of the greatest questions that the Empire as a whole is confronted with—the question of aviation generally. We consider these are matters on which the House should be fully informed.

This Order was made altering the constitution of this Corporation, and I venture to ask the Minister whether he will tell us why it was found necessary to make this sudden alteration in the constitution of this body which is charged with so paramount an undertaking. Is it because something was wrong in the policy that had been pursued that it became necessary to make this alteration? What was it that was found to be wrong? Can we be informed precisely what it is that these new officers will be charged with in the task that confronts the body as a whole? We cannot erase from our minds the recent differences of opinion between former members of this body and the Secretary of State himself. In the last few weeks the Secretary of State, at the request of this House, was good enough to publish the correspondence which preceded those resignations. Is it because of differences which those officers, gentlemen of high experience in this particular class of work, found were so great that, first of all, the new Board was appointed, and secondly, the Board itself was altered by the terms of the Order I am now discussing? I think there is nothing in the appointments that have been made in pursuance of this Order, or may I more correctly say that there is nothing in the appointments which this Order was brought in to ratify that engenders any great public enthusiasm. Many of us think that it would have been better, if it was intended to extend this Board, to have put on it some representatives of the Empire, because sooner or later this Board will have to consider the whole question of Empire communications. Far too long has this most pressing problem in the British Commonwealth, where air transport is so necessary, been delayed.

The hon. and gallant Member is getting very wide of the Order. The Order is a very limited one. It provides for nine persons, instead of six. The hon. and gallant Member must keep to that point.

I am most anxious, Sir, to comply with the spirit and the letter of any Ruling that you give. Perhaps you will give me the benefit of your guidance on this point. As the Order increases the personnel of the directorate, would I not be in Order in asking whether the earlier policy was considered wrong and in What manner it was wrong and had to be altered? Might I ask whether it is proposed that there shall be some new policy?

That is in Order. When the hon. and gallant Member went on to suggest what alterations ought to be made, that was not in Order in this Debate.

I will endeavour to confine myself to the lines of interrogation which you have laid down. The House has never been told what the policy was. It has never been told what the new Board was constituted to provide for. It has never been told what particular allocation of work these new directors will have upon their shoulders. Can my right hon. and gallant Friend tell us the quantity of work which is done by each of the directors of this Board? We know the names of the directors. They may be famous in other walks of life, but, with one exception, they did not arouse any great enthusiasm in spheres connected with commercial aviation. Will my right hon. and gallant Friend tell us whether any of the new members is specially directed to consider programmes of inter-Empire communication? Is there to be a report given to this House as to what their work has been and what their functions are to be in future; or is it all to be kept hidden, as was the case before the number of members was extended to nine? We all remember that when the 1939 Act was passed, after a good deal of debate, there was a tremendous opportunity for the Board which was then constituted. All the pioneering work which had been done by organisations, under great difficulty, was brought within the ambit of this Corporation. Are we entitled to ask what has happened to the opportunity which this board had, and how much more opportunity is going to be grasped following the bare announcement of the number of members to which the board will be extended?

We had the resignations, then the House was given the names of the gentlemen who were appointed in the places of the retiring directors. Those names, as I have said, do not as a whole inspire any enthusiasm. I think we should ask the Minister to be good enough to give some balance-sheet of the work which has been done, the decisions that are now going to be made by the reconstituted Board, and what they are going to do which could not have been done by the Board as previously constituted. It is not a question of discussing to-day whether the Air Ministry is the proper Department to control civil aviation. The Minister does control it and is responsible. Some of us rather wished that in a matter so far reaching, the House would be permitted an opportunity of discussing fully these appointments over the set-up. Something more might have been said as to why these appointments were made. We think, in any case, that the House in entitled to know that. We are surely entitled to know the type of work to be allocated to these various directors and how much time they give to it. The House should not merely be presented with the accomplished fact, without details or explanation or programme. What difference of viewpoint is going to be brought in as a consequence of these fresh appointments, why was it necessary to make these appointments at this particular juncture, and what is the policy that is to be continued? And what is the association that the Department has with each member of the Board? For these reasons we bring this Prayer to the House, so that we may know from the Minister what the position is in a manner which we and the country can understand, and the administration of the work which these new members of the Board will be called upon to undertake. As it is, the whole position seems to be meaningless, and it is in these circumstances we have come to the House to ask for an explanation.

I beg to second the Motion.

This is one of the Orders on which it is right that the House should have further information. It may be that quite a proper Order has been made, but on the face of it it is an Order which requires an explanation from the responsible Minister. In terms it is a simple Order. It is simply giving power to increase the Board of the Corporation from five to nine members, but we have to remember that the Act under which this is done is the Chartered and other Bodies (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1939. Section 2 lays down in what circumstances the Orders can be made. These are its terms:
"Subject to the provisions of this Act, His Majesty may by Order in Council make with respect to any corporation or body of persons specified in the Schedule to this Act such provision for reducing the number of persons required to constitute the corporation or body or to perform any of its functions as appears to His Majesty to be necessary or expedient for the purposes of securing economy or efficiency in the carrying on of the work of the corporation or body under war conditions."
Under the Act passed in 1939, power was given by Order to reduce the number of members on any particular board. In the same year there was passed the British Overseas Airways Act, 1939, which provided for a very large Board indeed. I think it provided for a maximum of 17 members but in the same year there was made the Order which has now been revoked which limited the Board to five—a chairman, deputy-chairman and three members. The Corporation has carried on from 1939 until May, 1943, with five members. Without any explanation at all this order increased the number from five to nine. In 1939, obviously to comply with the terms of the Chartered and Other Bodies (Temporary Provisions) Act, it was considered necessary or expedient "for the purposes of securing economy or efficiency" to reduce the number to five. We want to know why it is unnecessary and inexpedient in 1943 "for the purposes of securing economy and efficiency" that that number should not remain at that number, but that instead it should be nearly doubled. Has the work increased? The Minister may be able to explain to us that the work of the Corporation has enormously increased but that is very surprising in view of the papers published giving the correspondence with the former Board in connection with the establishment of the Royal Air Force Transport Command.

The principal dispute was that a great many of the functions of the Corporation were being transferred to the R.A.F. Transport Command. One would like to know whether the work of the Corporation has increased or decreased. If it has decreased, it seems an extraordinary state of affairs to suggest doubling the number on the Board. There may be a simple explanation of it, and if there is I think Members will agree that the House ought to have it. Has there been any change of policy? If so, we would like to know what the change is. Has the work of the Corporation increased or decreased? Has the establishment of the R.A.F. Transport Command not reduced the work, at the present moment, of the Corporation? We would like to know, if the number is increased from five to nine, what additional charge will fall on the Treasury? One hopes that the persistent bug of squandermania has not invaded the Air Ministry so that they believe that efficiency and economy are achieved simply by doubling the number on the Corporation. It may be that everything that has been done is well justified, but there has been no whisper that the amount of work which the Corporation is fulfilling has increased. In fact, suggestions are to the contrary. This Act was passed in 1939 to reduce personnel in order to achieve efficiency and economy. What has happened between then and now? Have economy and efficiency disappeared? What has happened that we should now require to double the. personnel?

I would like to ask two questions. The two hon. Members who moved and seconded the Motion for the annulment of the Order referred to the strength of the Corporation being increased from five to nine, but as I have read it the exact words do not say a strength of nine. They say:

"Such number of other members not being greater than seven as the Secretary of State may from time to time direct."
That means that the Secretary of State is not quite certain how many he will have; he will have three for certain, as a quorum, and a maximum of nine. Presumably, he knows how many he intends to appoint. Perhaps the Under-Secretary would indicate why he wants this flexibility. It is rather a strange proceeding to concertina the Board in any way as the Secretary of State may direct. We should be glad to know what particular new duties this varying number of directors will have to perform.

Quite rightly, the Executive are arraigned by the Legislature to explain their actions. As the Minister representing the particular Executive Department, I can have no possible objection, and it is my duty to endeavour to respond to the demands of the Legislature for an explanation as to why the Air Ministry have put forward this Order. I will try to do so and at the same time answer the questions which have been asked by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Leicester (Major Lyons), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Leeds (Mr. Craik Henderson) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams). I will also endeavour to comply with the request made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Leicester that I should reply in a manner which he can understand.

There was nothing in my remarks with reference to this particular Order; I was using it with reference to Orders which I and others cannot understand.

I will do my best. Let me first say, before I give the sequence of events, that he was under a misapprehension when he said that the Order altered the constitution of the Corporation. The constitution of the British Overseas Airways Corporation is not altered—only the number of the Board.

It is part of the constitution, but it is not the complete instrument. The British Overseas Airways Corporation Act, 1939, Section 1 (2), provides for the Corporation of the Board, the chairman and deputy chairman, plus not less than nine and not more than 15, giving a total number of 11 and 17 respectively, as the Secretary of State may from time to time think fit. So the reason for the large provision was the possibility of the structure and the functions of the Corporation being suitable for invitations to Empire members. On 10th July, 1939, the then Secretary of State for Air said that he had in mind in this connection, that is, in the fixing of the numbers, the important matter of Dominion, Indian or Colonial representation and provided for an addition to the number in order to leave room for such representation, if it should be proved to be practical, later on. That is why that number was fixed.

Then the war intervened. The Corporation has never really had a reasonable peace-time life. About the last Act that this House passed in peace-time was the British Overseas Airways Act before we adjourned for that unrestful summer Recess. Therefore the Corporation, when it was formed and started to function, operated under Section 32 of the British Overseas Airways Act. It provided that in time of war the undertaking should be placed entirely at the disposal of the Secretary of State. He, as it were, takes it over. Therefore obviously in time of war the minimum of 11 and the maximum of 17 were, on the one hand, legally required but, on the other hand, could perform no useful functions in virtue of the effect of Section 32. So ah Order in Council entitled "British Overseas Airways Corporation (Temporary Provisions) Order, 1939," dated 17th November, 1939, was made under the Chartered and Other Bodies (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1939, which was expressly designed to meet this kind of war-time economy requirement. The Order in Council in question limited members of the Corporation to the chairman and deputy chairman and a maximum of three others. My hon. and gallant Friend asked whether this increase in the number from the minimum that we had come down to has anything to do with the alteration of policy or the resignations of which the House has knowledge. I should like to assure the House that at the time when those resignations took place we already had under consideration the proposal for increasing the number of members of the Board by the method which has been followed, and which we are now questioned about, and that the 'resignations had nothing to do with that at all.

Did the resigning directors know that this proposal was in contemplation?

Yes, Sir. Actually the chairman did know that it was in contemplation and, indeed, was in favour of it himself. I would like to interpose another answer to a question put by my hon. and gallant Friend. He asked whether this was done because there was something wrong. It was not done because there was anything wrong. It was done because the Corporation, with the development of air transport in aid of the war effort, was having more and more responsibility placed upon it as transport aircraft were for the first time becoming available, and both the responsibilities and the work of the directors are undoubtedly on the increase.

I understood my right hon. and gallant Friend to say that the work of the directors is increasing. How many of these gentlemen give their whole time to this work?

If my hon. and gallant Friend will have patience, I will endeavour to answer all the points he has put. I said that the responsibilities and the work of the Board had increased—not only the work, but the responsibilities. The greater the number of wise men you can share responsibility with, the better. The result of the decision to increase the Board was that an Order in Council called the British Overseas Airways (Temporary Provisions) Order, 1943, dated 10th May, was made, again under the Chartered and Other Bodies Act. This Order, which is the subject of the Prayer, revoked the previous Order and provided that the Corporation members can be the chairman, the deputy chairman and a maximum additional number of members up to seven. The Secretary of State —and here I reply to the question raised by the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) — has decided that for the present the number of members other than the chairman and vice-chairman shall be five. If the House will allow us to have this Order, there is thus a reserve of two places which my right hon. Friend can fill as and when he thinks desirable. If he had merely revoked the initial limiting Order, the permissive numbers would have reverted to the original 1939 total of not less than II and not more than 17.

The House will realise that so long as war continues, so long must the Corporation continue to function under Section 32 of the Act, and the undertaking must be at the disposal of the Secretary of State for war purposes. Obviously we cannot give the Corporation liberty in policy and action such as they could have in peace-time while the war is on and all their operations are in aid of the war effort. Thus we have revoked the first limiting Order by not quite "such a limiting Order, and our purpose really is to have sufficient members but not too many. My hon. and gallant Friend who moved the Prayer asked whether I could tell him the quantity of work done by each member of the Board and how many are whole-time members. The whole-time members are the Chairman, who is just returning from an appointment he has filled with great distinction abroad, and the Chief Executive, the Director-General. The other members perform the same functions of giving counsel, giving of their experience and of their knowledge, and undertaking special tasks in the same way as do the directors of other concerns. The hon. Member also asked" What about the lost opportunities of the 1939 Board? He thought they never had a chance. It is true that the 1939 Board never functioned except under Section 32, and my right hon. Friend and myself must accept responsibility for the policy which has motivated the operations of British Airways Corporation, which, I can assure the hon. Member, had only one purpose, which was to use such available resources as we had to win the war. Then he asked whether I could give a balance-sheet of the functions of the Corporation. I cannot give a balance sheet.

Will the light hon. and gallant Gentleman make clear one point? Perhaps he did make it clear, and perhaps this is due to my stupidity. He was specifically asked how he could reconcile his statement with the state of affairs referred to by my hon. and gallant Friend opposite, namely, that the old Board complained that they had not enough to do. I understood he takes responsibility for that state of affairs, but says that it has now come to an end and the new Board will have a lot to do.

I cannot take responsibility for a statement with which I do not entirely agree. It is what I call an ex parte statement.

I do not really quite agree with all that was expressed by the old Board in the correspondence, and I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend would not expect me to.

That was not the point. I understood the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to say that it was no doubt the fault of the Secretary of State, or rather that the Secretary of State took the responsibility for the fact, that the work of the old Board had been very much curtailed, but that it was now going to be increased. I ask whether that did not in fact give the answer of my hon. Friend that the old Board had a much more limited opportunity than the new Board.

I do not want to have any confusion with my right hon. Friend. What I said was that the Secretary of State and I take the responsibility, that the Secretary of State must take the responsibility, for deciding the policy of the Corporation which they were allowed to follow under Section 32 when they were operating at the disposal of the Secretary of State. Undoubtedly the new Board will have more work than the old Board, because there are going to be more aircraft, more lines flown, greater activity. That is the sole reason why there is going to be more work, but the Corporation will still continue to function under Section 32 and therefore the new Board will have no more ultimate responsibility for policy—which is the point— than the old Board had. I hope I have made the position clear.

My right hon. and gallant Friend suggests that the functions were limited and therefore the old Board did not have very much to do, despite the fact that they were very experienced persons. Now he is saying that there is more to do and that therefore they will get rid of the experienced people. Will he tell us what prior experience the new Board has which accounts for this preferential treatment over the old Board?

My hon. Friend puts up an Aunt Sally, as it were, and knocks it down himself, because I did not say that the old Board had too little to do and that we therefore got rid of them and are now going to place greater responsibilities upon a new Board. I do not think it would be in order for me to go in detail into the reasons that brought about the resignation of the old Board. Sufficient to say, as has been said on more than one occasion, that it was purely on account of a difference between the Air Ministry and that Board as to whether all the main trunk lines were to be exclusively the right of the Board or not. That in a nutshell was the ground of difference.

The new Board will undoubtedly have more work, and indeed has been doing a great deal of work in the last few weeks, because with the institution of the Royal Air Force Transport Command, the close relation which the Corporation have with that Command, and the increased resources that we are now obtaining in transport aircraft, their daily activities, their daily mileage and their personnel are all on the increase, facts which I am sure the House will be glad to hear. As to the particular function that each individual director carries out, that is essentially a matter for the Board themselves to decide. I did ask the acting deputy chairman the other day about the work of the members of the Board. I had no right to ask it, and it was only of his own goodness that he gave me the information. He told me how one member had been making a complete review of the personnel of the Corporation at home and abroad, how another member had been reviewing the enormous stores organisation. I give those two samples of the type of work which these men of great experience, these business men, are doing, as well as their current work, such as is done by directors of any big company.

Undoubtedly, or there should be, but it is not our place to ask for it. Parliament has set the limits of our representation on the management of this Corporation, and I could not ask the Corporation about matters which are in their own control. If we started to do so, we should be infringing the principle of independence of management, which is a feature of the British Overseas Airways Corporation, with which, as with the London Passenger Transport Board, we are perhaps forging the main lines of this type of development after the war. We must preserve independence of management, so long as the main policy of the Corporation, or whatever body it is, is shaped in accordance with the general national interest. I hope I have done my best— —

At the beginning of his explanation the right hon. and gallant Gentleman remarked upon the possibility of a representative of the Dominions being put on the Board. Is that one of the developments that he has in mind?

No, Sir. So long as we are operating under Section 32, that cannot come about, or it would be impolitic at the moment to bring it about, because it is essential to operate alongside other air services and Transport Commands in connection with our current day-to-day war operations. When the Corporation can be, as it were, let off the leash of Section 32, when the war is ended, that may be a matter for the future. I sincerely hope that the words used by the right hon. Gentleman in July, 1939, will be borne in mind when that time comes.

Of course, that does not mean that Canadians will be debarred from the Board immediately?

I should like to ask the Minister a question as to the technique of post-war organisation in the public utility services. Do I understand that he believes that post-war technique should be such that there is no popular control whatever over the people who run the public utilities?

I think my hon. Friend is trying to draw me into a controversy on post-war organisation.

Yes, independence of management. I shall be happy at some time in the future to debate the matter with my hon. Friend. My task has been to assure the House that the Executive are not trying to take advantage of the Legislature and that the rather complicated legal language, which I deplore as much as any other Member, in which these Orders are phrased, really does not cloak some hidden hand but is a simple expression of a reasonable proposal of which I hope the House will now approve.

Will the Minister make every possible effort to obtain Canadian opinion before taking any decision?

Before the Minister sits down, may I ask whether he is telling us that he always wants to deny to the House the right to inquire into the functions of the directors of these public utility companies and that we should have no say in those matters at all?

The relationship of Parliament to this Corporation has been laid down in the 1939 Act. Of course, Parliament is supreme. Parliament can amend that Act. Parliament can do anything it likes. That is one of the glories of our condition today. Certainly Parliament can tell the Executive that they no longer wish to have the Executive or the Board. Parliament is supreme. No one would challenge that. But while the present relationship has been sanctioned by Parliament, then my hon. and gallant Friend is precluded from asking for intimate commercial details of the day-today working of the Corporation.

In view of the explanation made by my right hon. and gallant Friend, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

It being after the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.