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British Overseas Airways Corporation

Volume 415: debated on Thursday 1 November 1945

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Mathers.]

9.24 p.m.

:I wish to raise the question of the British Overseas Airways Corporation about which I gave notice. The position of this Corporation has, for a considerable time worried the members of the Corporation. When I raised the question of the widespread discontent among them, I indicated that a considerable number of people in the Corporation were feeling that discontent at the way in which the Corporation was being run. In his answer my hon. Friend said that he would require not only the names of those who were discontented but letters from the persons concerned before he would feel justified in making any investigation. I wish therefore to read out a letter which was published in a reputable journal, "The Aeroplane," last year, because it does represent the feeling of those members of the Corporation who have put their case to me. If the House will bear with me for a few minutes I will read it out:

"It is with more than gratitude, perhaps with a touch of emotion, that your article 'Priority for Experience' will be read where-ever their airways stretch by those of us who struggled on, year after year, striving to maintain our loyalties and sense of humour, trying to believe in our future and to retain at least some of our earlier ambition for those things which enabled us to undertake cheerfully, hopefully and therefore efficiently our job, often difficult, frequently strenuous and usually under trying conditions. We grumbled frequently, and we said that the wages of sin is death, and the wages of Imperial Airways a damn sight worse. But the underlying team spirit was there and we were tremendously proud of our Empire air routes. Today we are bitter and bewildered; we watch with amazement and envy a steady flow into B.O.A.C. of marquises, group-captains and wing-commanders, commencing in the highest grades at salaries that we with five years hard work overseas behind us still dream about. We, who have returned after many years continuous service overseas often without leave find ourselves unwanted, often unknown to our new masters, and our wide and varied experience apparently rated as of little or no value. Many of us would gladly have joined up at the commencement of the war, but we were not allowed to do so, and overseas could do nothing about it. Today we feel that the new régime controlling B.O.A.C. would be only too glad to see the last of us go and may even have decided that we should do so. Perhaps our last hope is that someone reading 'The Aeroplane' may wish to know something of this matter. It seems we have no other channels for representing our case and frankly we fear to do."
Although that letter was written last year, representations made to me only quite recently substantiate the conditions about which it complains.

Can the hon. and gallant Member give the date of that letter?

It was in May. The whole thing can be summed up as discontent at the inefficiency of the Corporation at the present time, and there is amongst members of the staff an overwhelming feeling of frustration and insecurity. I realise that some time ago an effort was made in this House to vindicate the Corporation but I am not able to follow the argument then made. It was said that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) was satisfied that things were all right. He was only given a month's time between the date on which the item was put on the Order Paper and his giving his verdict. What is more, the Corporation was, according to my information at that time, largely a judge in its own cause. The point is that it has also been suggested more recently that B.O.A.C. in inefficient. I will commend to the House the yardstick of efficiency of airline operation which is becoming universally recognised, and that is, hours flown per day—the average hours flown per day by the aircraft operated. In 1944 B.O.A.C. operated their aircraft, on an average, two hours per day. In the Boeing flight during the summer between Baltimore and Poole it was nine hours per day. American Airlines, admittedly in the Pacific, which is a rather different area of operation, flew 11 hours per day. American Internal Airlines flew 13 hours, and the Trans-Western Airlines 14 hours per day. In the Pacific the figure for Consolidated is 14·7. I realise that we have been operating under war-time conditions, but I think the disparity between the B.O.A.C. figures and those of the American air lines is far too great.

If there is anything wrong with an organisation over a period of time, the main cause is invariably to be found at the top, and in this instance there seems to be no exception. Therefore, I want to refer to the basis on which the senior appointments are made. The case I make dates back to 1942, when there was a revolt among the senior staff due to their feeling that there was inefficiency on the part of those responsible for the Corporation's organisation. At that time it seems there were three main qualifications for appointments to the Board and key positions: the people had an interest in shipping lines, an interest in railways, or were previously associated with one of the two merger companies which were taken over by B.O.A.C. British Airways had largely failed in its job and had had to be purchased with public funds. Those who were, in the opinion of the staff at that time, considered to be chiefly to blame were the Chairman, who had been associated with British Airways and the Southern Railway, the Director-General, who was associated with the Runciman lines, the Deputy Director-General, who had been associated with British Airways, the Operations Director, who had a similar association, and another member of the Board who was also Chairman of the Orient Steam Navigation Company. Due largely to the staff discontent, three of these members resigned from the Board, and two still remain on the Corporation. Those two are the Operations Director of that time and the Deputy Director-General.

It has been shown by experience during the war, and more recently, that the technical and operational standards set by the Corporation are far from being what is desirable. I can speak at first hand of a case during the short time when I was transferred from the R.A.F. to serve with B.O.A.C. I know that Whitley aircraft which were being used by the Corporation were sent out on the responsibility of this Operations Director on a flight to West Africa. One of the pilots got as far as Gibraltar, and realised that he could not get any further. He was one of the most experienced pilots. One aircraft did set out and it landed with only an hour's reserve of petrol. It was a criminal thing to send an aircraft on such a mission. Overload tanks had to be flown out before the aircraft could be brought back. That sort of thing was happening some time ago, and this particular Operations Director was primarily responsible. There are two recent instances of a similar sort which I could give, except that I do not wish to mention them in public now, because I consider it not to be in the public interest to do so just at this moment; but they indicate that the same sort of thing is going on. That particular individual who was then Operations Director is now Technical Adviser to the present Chairman. It is understandable that there is a great deal of discontent amongst the flying staff when they see that sort of technical advice being given. As far as the Deputy Director-General is concerned, my experience with him is that he perpetually upsets the staff. I know of a specific instance when he was out in the Middle East and was responsible for using the information which came to him through military censorship sources, and tried to stifle information coming through by using censorship methods in order to try to hide up some of the inefficiencies at one of the Corporation's bases.

I wish now to refer to the reappointments to the Board—those who were placed on the Board after the others resigned. There seemed to be two main qualifications at that time. The responsible Minister was Sir Archibald Sinclair. The two qualifications still seemed to be either membership of the previous company, British Airways, or else that they were friends of his. That may be a strong statement to make. I saw one of the new members of the Board just after he had been appointed, and in his own words, he said he was doing it as a gesture of friendship to the Minister, that he did not know anything about the job, and as such he intended to take it on temporarily. He is still on the Board. Another instance was where a near relative of a Member of this House, a Member who was a friend of the Minister, was appointed, and again the appointment was made accordingly. It is in the Corporation's own regulations that there should not be a Member of the House on the Board, and yet it did not seem to matter to the Minister that a near relative should be.

On a point of Order. I understood the hon. and gallant Member to make the definite allegation, when one of these appointments was made, that the person appointed was a relative of a Member of this House. That is what I understood him to say. Perhaps the hon. and gallant Gentleman will confirm whether that was so or not.

:Is it in Order for an hon. Member of this House to make a definite allegation that a person is appointed to a public Corporation on the grounds that he is a relative of a Member of this House unless it is done in the proper way by putting it on the Order Paper?

An hon. Member makes a statement on his own responsibility. I have no jurisdiction in the matter.

:The point I want to make clear is this, and I repeat what I said. Under the Corporation's own Act Members of this House are ruled out from being members of the Corporation because the taking up of such an appointment would tend to affect their position in this House. Is not the same principle involved if it is a near relative? That is the point I want to make, anyhow. Another case of appointment was that of a man who was associated with an organised trade union. There was a case where there might be some justification because the appointment was of somebody who had had experience in transport, but the unfortunate thing seems to be that, in the opinion of the staff, it was made of somebody who had been retired from that job. The feeling throughout the Corporation is that it requires young men with force and vision to take on the responsibility at the present time. Another appointment was seemingly a friendship. One finds it difficult to find any other motive. I may be wrong. There was the appointment of the Director-General himself. Of Brigadier-General Critchley I will not say more, as enough has been said to disqualify him from an appointment of that sort. Lastly, there is the Chairman himself who meets with general approval but seems to be without sufficient knowledge or the necessary strength to see that the sort of defects to which I refer are eliminated.

:I will be very brief. The point I make is that favouritism and friendship seem to be the sort of things which cause appointments on the Board to be made, and is it any wonder that it spreads discontent through the Corporation? That is inclined to be the case because there have been a considerable number of the friends of the Director-General brought into the Corporation over the heads of people who are experienced in the job. That causes the utmost dissatisfaction. It was said in this House that only 25 friends of the Director-General were brought in as against 1,800 brought in by the R.A.F., but the fact is that these people were brought in to fill key positions. There is still further apprehension among the staff, who see a number of retired Air-Marshals being brought into the Corporation. In America only recently, in a magazine of the Douglas Corporation, there was represented a pyramid standing on its point indicating the top-heavy nature of the Corporation, with the letters "B.O.A.C." That is the sort of international reputation we get.

:I will give the Minister a chance to reply. The point I want to make finally is that I do not blame the present Minister one little bit, but if we allow this sort of condition to continue we shall, by implication, give approval to these appointments. On some future occasion when time is available, I want to make a point of how procedure for making appointments should be followed so that we may in future avoid suspicions among the staff such as there are at the present time.

9.40 p.m.

:In view of the statement of policy which has been made to-day, involving a complete reorganisation of British air services, I do not think any long reply is called for from me tonight. This Debate has arisen through allegations of discontent in B.O.A.C. I should like to say that, when the matter was originally raised in a supplementary question, I said that I should require, not only the statement of my hon. and gallant Friend, but letters from the persons concerned. It is always difficult to use the right words on such occasions, but what I wanted to know was that these people had authorised the hon. and gallant Member to speak on their behalf. I have had enough experience, as have other hon. Members, of third persons asking us to intervene on behalf of someone to know that that was a wise precaution. The House should be aware that, in B.O.A.C., there is the fullest machinery for the redress of any grievances that members of the staff may feel.

:All grievances. Every member of the staff has direct access, through the proper channels, of course, to the Chairman of the Corporation. [Interruption.] No, no; on several occasions, notices have been issued by the Corporation calling the attention of the staff to this procedure, which has only been used, so far, on two or three occasions.

:Every member of the staff has had his attention drawn to it, as well as to the fact that the Chairman of the Corporation is very accessible for this purpose. In addition, every member of the staff is able to raise any grievances through the trade union to which he belongs, and I hope that every member of the staff does belong to some trade union or other. The fullest attention, I am assured, will be paid to any representations made by an authorised trade union.

In view of these courses open to any member of the staff with a grievance, I do not think I need go into any details. Let me say only these few things. B.O.A.C. has put up a very fine record in this war. It has operated entirely under wartime conditions, and its success or failure must be judged by wartime standards. I have come armed with figures, which it is not necessary for me to give, but, broadly speaking, the Corporation's activities have had a quintuple increase since the year of its inception, ending March, 1941. The capacity ton-miles, which is the most representative figure, has increased by 538 per cent. since 31st March, 1941, and that compares most favourably with, shall we say, the American increase, which is, roughly, an increase of 200 per cent. since that date. I do not think that B.O.A.C. would have achieved this result if there had been the widespread discontent that has been alleged.

Let me finally add this. If a complaint is made and substantiated by prima facie evidence, and the aggrieved person fails to get satisfaction by the regular procedure, I think my hon. Friend would feel it his duty to draw the attention of the Chairman of the Corporation to this fact, but the allegations would need to be specific and he would expect the regular procedure to be used in the first instance, and he would not depart, except for the weightiest reasons, from the principle that the day-to-day management of the Corporation should be left to the Board.

:Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, is he not going to say something about the very grave charges which were raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman? Perhaps he will consider this?

It being a Quarter to Ten o'Clock, Mr. Deputy-Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.