HC Deb 30 July 1918 vol 109 cc285-322


Motion made, and Question proposed, 8. Sec. 1. "That a sum, not exceeding £1,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Expense of the Personnel for Shipbuilding, Repairs, Maintenance, etc., at Dockyards and Naval Yards at Home and Abroad, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1919."

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Sir Eric Geddes)

In asking the Committee to sanction the expenditure under the head of Vote 8 of the Navy Estimates, I would like, in the first place, to make a brief but general review of the War situation which preponderatingly affects our building programme. A year ago the ruthless and unrestricted submarine war upon which the enemy based such high hopes was at its height. A year ago the net loss of Allied and neutral tonnage which we were forced to contemplate was in the neighbourhood of 550,000 gross tons per month. We were not destroying then the submarine as fast as the enemy was building it, and our merchant shipyards were short of men and materials. Of this 550,000 tons net loss in merchant shipping per month, some 400,000 tons was the British deficit, and that was the situation which we had to face. Every yard that could take on naval work had by then been put on to naval shipbuilding. No one could say what the success of the measures, many of which were in an embryo state, would be in meeting the enemy's attack. Gradually during the past twelve months the position has changed in many directions. Instead of losing tonnage, the world's net result in the last quarter, namely, the quarter ending 30th June, has been a gain of roughly 100,000 tons per month on the average, and the Allied and neutral world was as well off on 30th June, 1918, as it was on the 1st January, 1918, so that for the first half of this year we and the Allies did not go gack at all on account of the enemy's depredations on mercantile shipping, and that includes ordinary marine risks. This result has, of course, been obtained in two ways—reduced sinkings and increased buildings—and the reduced sinkings have been arrived at by a greater productive effort devoted to warships and small craft of an anti-submarine character. In this result that I have given to the Committee there is nothing included for commandeered or acquired tonnage. It is a clean balance between the loss and the building.

A year ago we were faced with a situation which up to that time was considered by many almost inconceivable and insoluble. Our available mercantile marine power was being sunk at a rate which would soon have brought us to the point of inability to continue the War, and we were without tried and recognised means of combating it. We had, therefore, to provide for a building programme of antisubmarine craft, mines, and other appliances, and of merchant ships on a very increased scale. The total net increase of labour in the last twelve months in firms engaged in the shipbuilding industries, shipyards, and marine engineering works is roughly 35,000. The original demand put forward a year ago was for an additional 80,000 men, part of whom were to be skilled, but, owing to events on the Western Front last autumn and in the early part of this year, and owing also to the great demands for technical staff for the Air Force and for the Army, it has been impossible—and the Committee, I think, will readily understand the point—to obtain the proper quota of skilled men by withdrawal from the Army. The number of additional men put into the shipyards has not so much been limited by the numbers of unskilled men available as by the lack of the skilled men necessary to make them useful; and it may be taken as a general state of affairs obtaining throughout the whole country in the shipbuilding industry that unskilled men have been freely offered to the shipyards which they have been unable to absorb because of the lack of skilled men. Extensive dilution has not been possible because of the conditions under which the work is carried out, the methods in force, the lay out of the yards, the customs of the industry, and, generally speaking, the absence of pneumatic riveting for whole construction. The national shipyards and the fabricated ship employ methods adapted to give quick results with the minimum of skilled labour. The Committee, I am sure, does not need to be reminded that at the present time it is only possible to obtain additional men for any one class of work by taking them from some other work of national importance, and to-day, although shipbuilding stands first in order of priority for unskilled labour, it is the lack of skilled labour in the country, or of those who can be spared from the Army, which is the limiting factor in the number of men put into the shipyards.

5.0 P.M.

Last year, when we found that we were short of steel, steps were taken to provide it, but it was towards the end of the year before the yards had plenty of steel, and were really in a position to absorb men. Unskilled and semi-skilled men were put into the yards, and then we found that the skilled men could not be obtained in sufficient numbers to man the existing yards. Events have occurred in the War which have changed the whole basis of our plans for getting the skilled men back. Those events are well known, but the needs of our fighting forces on land were paramount. This situation of the shortage of skilled men had all along been feared by those entrusted with the building of merchant ships, and although the Shipbuilding Advisory Committee had just then adopted the standard ship, which is a ship built in the old way with the proportion of one skilled to four or six unskilled men in its construction, it was decided by the Government to go ahead at once—and I would remind the Committee that the world's tonnage was going down at the rate of 550,000 tons per month at that time—with a scheme for building a simple ship which could be erected with the minimum of skilled labour. That ship was designed and originated in the Admiralty, and it was only when the shipbuilders found that the materials which had been prepared at the Admiralty's order in the bridge yards for erection in the national shipyards was available that they decided, on account of the deficiency of skilled labour, to ask for the fabricated material which the Controller's Department had provided, in order to enable them to erect ships of this new Admiralty type with the minimum of skilled labour. It is interesting that the very same problem confronted America, and they have met it in practically the same way—the same class of yard, the same type of construction, and with excellent results. I believe that they have now ninety slips for putting up ships in exactly the way we are adopting.

It may be asked why the Admiralty did not get the shipbuilders of the country to take up that fabricated ship in the first place. The shipbuilders were against the standard ship. They wished to build their own type of ship, and they were against this type of ship. There had been a good deal of opposition to the adoption of the standard ship, and at that time we were in a position of great urgency, and we really had not time to enter into further discussions as to the type of ship to be adopted after the standard ship. The Government decided, on the advice of the then First Lord, and on the advice of myself as Controller—and I take full responsibility for the recommendation—to go ahead with the provision of national shipyards on the We and Severn. Even in the light of the past year's events, when we have passed from a net loss of 400,000 tons of British shipping per month and an increasing fleet of hostile submarines, to a loss to-day of 90,000 tons per month of British shipping, and for the present, at any rate, a decreasing enemy submarine fleet. I am still of the opinion that that decision was right.


Is the net loss 90,000 tons?


Yes, the net loss.


Can the right hon. Gentleman explain this point? He mentioned 100,000 tons a short time ago, and he now mentions 90,000 as being the net loss. Can he explain the difference?


The 100,000 tons was a net gain to the world—the average per month for the quarter ending 30th of June last. The loss of 90,000 tons is the British loss. At that time is was intended, in the circumstances which I have set out, to man the yards with enlisted labour or prisoner of war labour, and with a minimum of skilled labour only rendered possible by the type of construction adopted. Now let us see how that original plan has been modified, and why, apart from the labour situation, with which I will deal fully in a moment. A year ago we believed that the shipbuilders of the country could, given the steel and the men, turn out tonnage to their full capacity. We gave them the steel, we gave all the men we could get, and I have given the figures; but another factor became more pressing even than new construction—namely, repairs. I have upon a previous occasion explained to the House how the driving of the submarine inshore and an improvement in our salvage arrangements has enabled us to salve and repair damaged ships to an enormously increased extent. Repairs alone are absorbing to-day a number of men equivalent to 60 per cent. of the total number engaged on new production of merchant ships, and for this work we must have a larger percentage of skilled men than in the case of new construction. That was an entirely unforeseen and very serious demand upon the skilled men who were available, and as an all-round figure it may be taken that it takes six skilled men for a, ton of steel put in for repair work as against one skilled man for a ton of steel for new construction; so that the Committee will see what a serious draft on the available skilled men this great increase in repairs was. No one could have foreseen this result, which was a change brought about by an alteration in the tactics of the enemy. Now the position is again changing, or is showing signs of it. The enemy came inshore, and the vast majority of his attacks were quite close in. Now he has found it too dangerous to work inshore. The increase of the anti-submarine craft and appliances has made it rather too hot for him there, and there is a clear indication that he is going out again. The sinkings are now creeping away outside the 50-mile line, and, although we are not getting so many ships to repair, the actual results are that the attacks are fewer, he is damaging fewer, and sinking fewer, but that is having the effect of reducing the amount of men we have got on repairs.

The shipbuilders, commencing with the firm controlled by my Friend the Noble Lord who is now, but was not then, Controller-General of Merchant Shipbuilding, asked to be allowed to erect the material in their yards which the then Admiralty Controller had ordered and had had prepared in the bridgeyards for erection in the national shipyards. That material could to-day have been put into ships in the national shipyards, but in the circumstances, and acting solely in the interests of the nation, this material which had been prepared for erection in the national shipyards was handed over to the private shipbuilders in order to enable them to continue and develop the output of their yards. Not only was the Admiralty design adopted by the most experienced men in the industry as something superior for the present purpose to anything that they were designing themselves, but they asked the Admiralty to adopt the self-denying ordinance of handing over to them their manufactured material. The policy of the national shipyards by that very act of self-denial—and it would have been easy to have laid down keels as early as April last, slips being ready—was changed, and we decided, as time then permitted of it—circumstances had changed as I have explained—to go further with the building of the yards before starting to erect ships in them, thus getting rid of the construction of the yards before we began production, since the circumstances existing permitted this more economical course to be adopted. At that time it was arranged with the men as part of the general scheme—and it is important for the Committee to see the reason for the alteration—that as the employers were prepared to erect these fabricated ships in their yards we would undertake that such shipbuilding throughout should be done by civilian workers and not by enlisted men.

The question may be asked why that arrangement was not originally made with the trades unions concerned. I have in part given the answer. Time was of the first importance, and private shipbuilders were against the fabricated ship and did not propose to take it up. It was solely a national shipyard production. At that time also, if the Committee will cast its mind back, we were just about having the trouble of the 12½ per cent; increase, which was not a very favourable time to go to labour. We knew that a minimum of skilled labour was required for it, and barges built on the same principles had already been constructed in considerable and increasing numbers by military labour, but when it became a question of a ship which was to be built in the private yards at the request of their owners, the matter assumed for the trades unions an entirely different aspect. When it became a system of national production they claimed that the principles of their trades unions should be safeguarded, and that has been done. That accounts for the second variation in the proposals for work in the national shipyards. These yards, when fully completed, will have thirty-four berths. I am told by the experienced shipbuilders entrusted with this work for the Controller-General that, roughly, 300 men per berth may be taken as the total establishment in these shipyards, making 10,000 men altogether. There are to-day 10,000 men working at the national shipyards, almost entirely unskilled except those who have been taught pneumatic riveting on the spot. Of these 10,000, 3,000 are prisoners of war and 7,000 are enlisted men. Under the agreement with the trades unions, enlisted men will not build these ships. It is therefore possible, subject always to the question of skilled men, which I will come to later, to staff the full number of berths proposed in the national shipyards with men already on the spot. The enlisted men who are there will be given the opportunity of transferring to Reserve W and of taking up work as civilians in the national yards at civilian rates of pay—this, again, with the complete accord of the trades unions. In conversation quite recently with Mr. Payne (Director of Shipbuilding at the National Shipyards), whose services have been lent by Messrs. Harland and Wolff, he tells me that he is to-day receiving large numbers of applications from civilians who are willing to come and serve in the national yards, and that he anticipates no difficulty whatsoever in getting the men without in any way touching the normal supply to the private yards. That is unskilled labour. Should the supply be short, the trades unions fully realise that the Government reserves the right of using prisoner labour, if they see fit, to construct the ships, and although that is not contemplated at the moment, it would be quite possible to man one of the three yards entirely with prisoner-of-war labour. It will therefore be clear to the Committee that the national yards can be manned without drawing labour from the private shipyards in any way. Therefore, notwithstanding the formal change in policy as regards labour—the change from enlisted labour to civilian labour—we shall in substance practically achieve our original purpose to work these yards with labour additional to that which can be used in the private yards.


Did the right hon. Gentlemen say that the trades unions have agreed for these prisoners to be used?


No; I did not say that the trades unions had agreed, but that they realise that the Government reserves the right to use prisoner labour. The question of the employment of prisoners was reserved.


Would the right hon. Gentleman be prepared to go to sea in a ship made by German prisoners of War?


Are German prisoners of war not going back to Germany in exchange for our prisoners?


I now turn to skilled labour. In recent months, on the initiative of the Admiralty, steps have been taken, with the full accord of the trade unions, to encourage the training of men in pneumatic riveting, and it is by that means that the Controller-General assures me that he expects to overcome the difficulty as to the adequacy of skilled labour in the private yards as well as in the national yards. I would like the Committee clearly to understand that we are going on with that training all over the country. I may further add that these training arrangements are being conducted in private yards, mainly on Lord Pirrie's initiative, and largely with pneumatic plant which he has obtained for the yards, partly by surrendering plant built on our behalf for the national shipyards. Men are also being trained at the national yards, and enough for three berths are already completely trained and are being employed on the erection of the shipyard cranes, to the entire satisfaction of the director and the engineers in charge of the work. But there are two other sources from which I anticipate that we may obtain the skilled labour. The first is the probable reduction of repair work which the course of war is bringing about, as I have explained, and if we get, as we have to-day got, a reduction in the repair work, and if that continues, that will be the richest yield of skilled labour we can get. The second I will now deal with. I will ask the Committee to go back to the position as it existed twelve months ago. The number of men employed on new construction of war vessels and auxiliary vessels—that is to say, non-merchant ships used for anti-submarine or anti-mine purposes—is roughly 150,000, and on merchant ship construction 120,000. We had to decide the proportionate effort to be devoted to merchant shipbuilding and war shipbuilding, and the figures I have given show the result of that decision. The success against the enemy submarine campaign shows the final result, but we have been building ships in order to create a large anti-submarine force, and it is not necessary for me to tell the Committee that those ships take a very much larger proportion of skilled men than any type of merchant ship which we were then constructing, and far more so than in the case of the fabricated ship.

Up to now—and I am sure our Allies will not resent my saying this—this country has borne the burden, to a preponderating extent, of fighting the submarine; the new output of anti-submarine ships, mines, and appliances has been preponderating ours, and the responsibility of combating the menace has been ours-Even to-day the increased assistance brought about by new construction of our Allies is small indeed, but times are changing. The American programme, which they started when they came into the War, is now beginning to come along, and I have within the last few days had the privilege of considering it in detail with Mr. Roosevelt, the Assistant Secretary of the United States Navy Department. My conferences with him have confirmed what I have throughout relied upon, namely, that when once the flow of destroyers and anti-submarine craft fairly starts from the United States, it will become a formidable torrent. I look forward to the day when the Admiralty, in the no very distant future, will feel the relief of that torrent, and will be able to divert some portion of the country's resources from meeting the heavy demands for warships and auxiliary craft to the replacement of its mercantile marine losses. The effect upon labour for merchant tonnage new construction is obvious to the Committee. Warships take an enormous proportion as compared with merchant ships.

No one who has not access to the detailed figures can perhaps fully appreciate the enormous handicap in merchant shipbuilding which has been imposed upon this country by its responsibility for building against the submarine menace in anti-submarine craft, for repairing Allied and neutral tonnage damaged in the danger zone round these Islands, and in undertaking the increasing demands for refitting the American naval forces operating in these waters. No other country could have tackled it; they have not the facilities for doing it, and I know they will not resent my saying so. These Islands are the great danger zone, and we have also had added to us a burden in refitting the Allied and neutral tonnage which comes in here—a burden which no other country in the world has had to undertake, because the damage has always been caused round these coasts—and of course we have another burden which, in the interests of the Alliance, we must take upon ourselves, which is the repairing of the American naval craft as it comes in here. These have made serious demands upon the shipbuilding of the country—demands which I think have not been fully realised by the Committee.

Our anti-submarine fleet has brought the menace down to its present less formidable dimensions, but we have still considerable additions to make before the margin of safety which we must have will have been attained. But our enormously increased anti-submarine fleet, plus the valuable contributions which the United States will make, ought to enable us, as I have said, in the no distant future, to divert certain of our resources to the building of merchant ships. The destroyer building yards are not, in very many cases, suitable to build merchant ships. There will have to be a diversion of skilled labour to the yards which are able to build the cheapest and most efficient type of freighter. The losses of our higher-class merchant ships has been great, and some of the private yards will, we hope, in the no very distant future, be able to turn their energies to rebuilding the more elaborate of our merchant fleet to be used during the War for troop and similar purposes, and the national shipyards will have to stand the burden of quick production of ships to replace the tonnage losses which are bound to occur. I shall read shortly a communication from Lord Pirrie which justifies the contention I am here advancing.

Before leaving this point, I would like to read the figures, which are given to me on the best possible authority, as to the time and production of the fabricated ship as compared with the ordinary standard ship. The average time of production for a 7,500 dead-weight ton standard ship built on the plan adopted before the fabricated ship was commenced is eight and a half months, and I am assured that once the work has got into swing, the national yards will be able to put a 10,000 dead-weight ton ship off the slip at the rate of one every five months, and even faster as the work develops, and that three weeks longer, at most, should see the ship in service. I am a little conservative in that figure.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if the time of building the fabricated ship includes the preparation and riveting of the material at the yard?


No; the time I am giving would be the time on the slip. I am advised by these experienced shipbuilders, who are concerned in the running of the national yards, that they look to the day when only four or five really skilled men will be necessary for the plating on each ship, and it is by the relief which will be afforded by these yards that the mercantile carrying capacity so vitally necessary to this country, if it is to continue to wage the war with its full vigour, will be supplied. Some questions have been raised in previous Debates on the question of housing for the national shipyards, as, if this problem only existed at the national yards, and as if houses were standing empty in the other shipbuilding areas in the country. Those Members who come from shipbuilding districts will fully appreciate the fallacy of this point. There is not a shipbuilding district in the country to-day that can accommodate more labour without more houses being built. Single men and men who are prepared to live in hostels can be provided for, and the Admiralty has done what is necessary to provide those men with that type of accommodation; but wherever you wish to increase shipyard labour to-day, broadly speaking, you have to build houses. You have to build under conditions which make it very expensive. You have to build in cramped areas, whereas on the Wye the houses can be laid down in situations of a most desirable kind. On the We we are building houses of an admirable but most economical type. I am assured by the engineer-in-charge that the system of concrete blocks employed is actually cheaper to-day than woodwork or corrugated iron huts.


Will the right hon. Gentle man say what is the cost per house of those on the Wye?


We will give an estimate later. These houses are built very largely now, and in a month or so's time will be built entirely by prisoner of war labour, which could not be employed satisfactorily in building houses in the congested areas of our shipbuilding centres, and therefore I claim that from every point of view it is more satisfactory to build houses on the We than in the congested areas where shipbuilding has flourished for generations.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether houses are actually being built now? I was there the other day, and I did not see a single one.


What are being built are the hutments.


Not the houses?


No, hutments. Another point which I should like to clear up is this: The national shipyards are, as the Committee knows, designed to put together the fabricated portions of the ships prepared in the bridge yards all over the country. The actual maximum capacity of the berths in the national shipyards are given to me as three ships per berth per annum, and when the whole thirty-four berths have been fully completed, fully manned, and are in full working order the maximum capacity of the yards might roughly be put at 100 ships per annum. That is ultimately when the yards have got into full swing. The Controller-General has already arranged to get the equivalent of one ship per week from the bridge yards, but, as the Committee knows, these are being applied for now by the private shipbuilders. The original design of the national yards has, therefore, included a manufacturing shop which, as at present designed, will be capable of producing when in full working order and fully manned, the equivalent of half the requirements of the national shipyards, and should the bridge yards be occupied fully with other work, and with the fabrication of ships for the private yards, this manufacturing shop at the national shipyards would have to be expanded. It is not intended, however, to do anything in that direction at the present time.


Where will it be situated?


It is to-day situated at Beachley. As to the day when the national yards can begin construction, there is no difficulty about laying down keels upon a certain number of berths at the present time, but, as I have said, it was considered by the Controller-General, as the situation had developed, to be in the best national interests to give the fabricated portions of ships ordered for the national shipyards to the private yards, and to carry further the construction of the national shipyards before commencing to build ships. He tells me, however, that he intends, in about a month's time, to commence laying down the first keel, and that the other slipways will gradually come into production about one in every third week, as is considered desirable, the completion of the yards and building schemes eventually being left to the prisoner of war labour. The Sub-committee of the Select Committee on National Expenditure which investigated the Admiralty financial arrangements commented, and rightly commented, upon the fact that these yards were embarked upon without proper estimates. Enough has been said in previous Debates to explain why that course was adopted. The main delay in submitting an estimate was in the detailed surveying and calculations necessary to prepare the estimate, and I submit to the judgment of the Committee that in the conditions which existed at the time these yards were decided upon, and which I have tried to bring to the recollection of the Committee, any delay in starting the work would indeed have been unpardonable.

The digging of trenches in France or the making of a strategic railway are regarded as war measures and not as commercial undertakings. Similarly, these yards were embarked upon as a war undertaking to meet the enemy's attack, which was at that time succeeding to an extent extremely dangerous to the country's continuance in the War, and it was in that spirit, and, in the circumstances which existed, it was the correct spirit, that this work was commenced. The conception of the national shipyards to build the fabricated ship and their integral parts was sound, far-seeing, and courageous, and the Cabinet approved it. It will be, so far as one can see, of the very greatest possible war value. The type of ship is receiving daily the endorsement of leading men in the shipbuilding industry, and the national shipyards themselves as a workable proposition are endorsed by the leading and most successful shipbuilder in the world, my right hon. Friend (Lord Pirrie), and on his confirmation of the action taken I am perfectly content to rest the case, as also upon the American adoption of the same methods to meet to some extent the same difficulties. It has been remarked upon outside this House, and, I think, inside this Committee, that, from a commercial point of view, this was not a business undertaking. In order to arrive at whether the undertaking is a business one or not you have to decide what you want, namely, whether you want the article or whether you want profits.


The article.


As to the requirement of the article in this case there can be no possible doubt. The need is, perhaps, as great to-day as it was when we decided to go on with the yards, although the danger is not so imminent.


We have not the article yet!


No; not yet. The first keel will be laid in a month, and then one every three weeks after that. Therefore, I think I have shown that we can get the labour and material, and if the Committee accepts the opinion of the shipbuilders that we will get the article, on one count the proposition is justified. From the financial point of view, I suppose the test we have to apply is whether they will pay as shipyards. In order to decide whether they will pay, you have to take the basis of costs as against the value of the article produced. It was practically impossible a year ago to say what the cost of building a yard of this kind would be, and it would be impossible to-day to say what it will be twelve months ahead. Similarly, it was impossible to say a year ago what the value of the ships was going to be to-day. In 1914, after the outbreak of war, these ships were sold at £8 per dead-weight ton; today the cost is from £23 to £25 per deadweight ton, and, taking the average all over the ships which this country has to buy abroad, we pay £38 a ton. I venture to think that at something very considerably below the price we have had to pay these yards would be a very profitable undertaking.

But obviously it is not on a basis of commercial profit that you have to look at a thing like this. We must have ships, and we must have them at whatever price is necessary, if we are to keep in the War. The test to apply, therefore, is whether, in the circumstances as they existed a year ago, we were justified in what we did, and, if so, whether that justification exists to-day. I am advised that it does. I am advised that it did a year ago. There was a doubt when this was last debated in this House, at the beginning of this month, as to Lord Pirrie's attitude on the scheme when it originated, owing to something that passed in giving his evidence to the Select Committee. So I put two questions to him, and this is his reply to me: You put two questions to me, and I answer them with pleasure. The first is—Was the national shipyard scheme a wise and prudent undertaking a year ago? My reply is—that taking all the circumstances as they were, I am decidedly of the opinion, even in the light of all the helpful criticism which has been made and looking at the question in a more deliberate way than was then possible, the decision taken by the Cabinet was absolutely correct. The second question is: With the modification of circumstances since the undertaking was embarked upon, and with the modifications consequent or otherwise in the general scheme, is it a wise and prudent undertaking to-day? My reply is—The necessity for the national shipyards is even of more importance at the present day than in 1917, when it was felt something must be done with a view to furthering production. On account of the serious losses sustained, many berths in the private shipyards must be occupied for a considerable time to come by ships building for the important Transatlantic and other shipping companies, and while the existing shipyards can be utilised to a great extent for the building of such ships, the national shipyards will be able to produce purely cargo-fabricated boats, the material for which will have been largely prepared in the various bridge yards. In my opinion, the undertaking on its present basis is a wise and prudent undertaking which will be of immense benefit to the country in the continuance of the War. That is Lord Pirrie's opinion, and I [...]m content to take it. I have endeavoured to give the Committee as full information as is possible on the subject of the national shipyards on this Vote. I have said very little on the naval side, and I am sure it will be readily understood that, for obvious reasons, I am precluded from doing so. But the merchant shipbuilding side is closely interlocked with the naval side, and the whole Admiralty war-productive effort is closely interwoven with that of the War Office and Ministry of Munitions, and with other calls upon the man-power of the country. The situation is also an ever-changing one. I submit to the judgment of the Committee that, on the results which we have reached to-day in the submarine menace which appalled us a year ago, the net result of the Admiralty allocation of the available effort has been satisfactory, and, even in the light of events as they have developed—and who could foretell them—I submit that to-day it has proved itself to be the wisest possible allocation in the circumstances. The national shipyards have absorbed a considerable amount of attention, and, while it is right and proper that the Committee should closely scrutinise expenditure of this kind, I hope they will agree that the creation of the national shipyards was a wise one in the circumstances as they then existed; is a wise one to-day, and will be one of very great utility, indeed, in the immediate future, I am satisfied that the output from the yards will be very considerable; will form a welcome and necessary addition to the tonnage available for bringing supplies to this country and Allied countries, and for the continuation of the War; and that when the final judgment on the scheme comes to be passed, the action of the Government in 1917, which there is every intention to pursue, will be fully justified.


From the British point of view the shipping situation can never be satisfactory until our building programme compensates, and far more than compensates, for our losses. Now, that is not the case to-day. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman did give sufficient emphasis to that point, but, during the first six months of this year, we have lost 1,300,000 tons of shipping, and we have built about 760,000 tons. There is a net deficit on the six months of 550,000 tons. After the submarine campaign had been said to be well in hand, it is a somewhat depressing situation, but I hope with the new measures which have been taken by the Admiralty under the presidency of the right hon. Gentleman, that this margin of loss will be very largely decreased, though, if we expect the national yards very largely to decrease that margin of loss, I think we shall be very greatly mistaken. The right hon. Gentleman has made a very long explanation of his action with regard to the national yards. He has left me quite cold. I have no more faith in them now than I had before. Let me explain why I have no faith in these national yards. My right hon. Friend himself talked about the ships being built by German prisoner labour. Of course, if he is reduced to that, I am afraid that the national yards will be a very poor undertaking indeed.

The national yards really provide one of the most amazing stories in our Parliamentary history. They could never have been undertaken in any time of peace. The Treasury and the Opposition of the day would have been on it like a knife, and to have had anything like these national yards, other than through the action of an arbitrary Department endowed with arbitrary powers, could never have happened. Let me give a little history of these national yards. At the end of 1915 a private company was formed of practical shipowners. They were spending their own money at Chepstow. In July, 1917, they invited a Government official from the Admiralty to come down to see how they were getting on. That Government official came, he saw, and he promptly commandeered. He scrapped this private company, and all the experience of practical shipowners, all their skilled knowledge, all the work they had put in for a year and a half was lost, and the First Lord himself announced here that on the 1st November four yards at least were to be established. He gave then as the analogy the fact that there had been established in this country in the early part of the War national shell factories. The analogy does not hold good. So far as national shell factories were concerned, we had none, or very few of them, at the beginning of the War. But, so far as shipbuilding facilities and capacity was concerned, British shipbuilding was the pride of the world, and it turned out something like 2,000,000 tons of merchant shipping in 1913.

I maintain that the true policy of the Government would have been to have strongly supported and supplemented private enterprise. That private enterprise was flouted, and the most curious history about these yards was that the decision to found them was taken, not upon the advice of practical shipbuilders who were at the disposal of the Admiralty, but it was taken by I do not know whom. If it were the War Cabinet, then who recommended it to the War Cabinet? The First Lord has just accepted responsibility, but I think he was fortified by another general, who was a very eminent engineer in Nigeria. I cannot help thinking that it would have been far better had the general, who was Controller of merchant shipping, and my right hon. Friend, who was, I believe, also once a general—I do not know whether he is to-day—accepted the advice of those private shipbuilders who were at the disposal of the Admiralty. What is the good of having an advisory committee of practical shipbuilders at the Admiralty if you do not consult them? To my mind it is perfectly ridiculous, and it is unthinkable that any scheme should have been presented to the War Cabinet without the advice of those practical shipbuilders being taken. My right hon. Friend talks about the results that are going to be achieved. It is always "are going to be achieved." He made a statement here, I think, last year that keels were going to be laid then. On the 13th December he said: These yards are well under way, and it is anticipated that the first keel of the first vessel in the national yards will be laid in the early part of next year. That is the early part of this year. Well, no keel has yet been laid. I think we ought to have rather a "beano" when it is laid. I suggest that he takes down Members of Parliament to see his first keel laid, which was due some six months ago. But that is not all. Lord Inchcape, who was the chairman of the Standard Shipbuilding Company, which the Government took over, told us in a letter in the public Press on 25th March that his company would have had two slips ready by October, 1917, and by that date—25th March last—it would have had two ships of 10,000 tons well on the way to the water. You have not got a single keel laid down yet. Therefore I say you have absolutely crippled private enterprise in providing the necessary ships, and there is no doubt about it that Lord Inchcape would have had these ships well on the way to the water on 25th March. You have not one keel laid to-day. What was the reason for not supporting Lord Inchcape with his Standard Shipbuilding Company? It was given by the Financial Secretary. The principal reason, he said, was that the contractors could not get sufficient men for the work.


What was the date?


17th April, 1918. These are his actual words: The principal reason that influenced the Government in taking over the yard was that the contractors could not get sufficient men on the work."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th April, 1918, col. 378, Vol. 105.] Then the number of men the contractors wanted was about 200. Would it not have been far better for the Admiralty to have given every facility to the present private contractors to have got these men to proceed with their ships instead of taking over yards of their own? That is my case against these national yards. I say that the authorities have destroyed, that they have not created! In the early part of this year the Admiralty had the whole shipbuilding world thoroughly disgruntled, thoroughly by the ears. Shipbuilding had decreased. Then the Prime Minister, with a flight of genius, bethought himself of Lord Pirrie. Never was appointment more welcomed at the Admiralty than that of Lord Pirrie, for it got the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord out of a great hole. These hon. Gentlemen were like two men in a boat, with a hole in the bottom of the boat, and when they were rapidly sinking along came Lord Pirrie and they grasped him with a convulsive grip. Of course, Lord Pirrie is loyal. He has brought his own manager to look after these yards. But I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can really claim Lord Pirrie as being the true father of these sprawling futilities—the national yards. If Lord Pirrie had laid out his own yard in the manner in which the Admiralty have laid out these national yards he would not have been the great captain of industry he is to-day. My right hon. Friend stated on 10th July that these yards were decided upon for the purpose of building fabricated ships. I did not understand that statement just then. But I was down there the other day. I must admit that my hon. Friend behind me (Sir F. Lowe) and myself were taken down in a most admirable manner. We were treated quite courteously by everybody. We saw everything that we were intended to see.

Colonel W. THORNE

Was there anything kept back?


We will talk about that in a moment.


Did you see anything?


We could not help seeing. After all, there were 10,000 men there at work, and we must have been rather blind not to have seen men. That is the position about the fabricated ships. What does it mean? There was a great building-shed, to which the right hon. Gentleman has alluded, fixed on the top of a hill. I believe some one has called it "The Folly." That shed is for planing the material and getting plates ready for the ships. That building-shed was intended to do the ordinary work of the ship-building yards. The whole basis of these yards has, I understand, been changed. We are to have civilian labour employed while military labour is to be abolished. The Admiralty twelve months ago were warned by the practical shipbuilders, who were their Advisory Committee, that military labour plus the prisoner-of-war labour would not do. Events have proved the truth of that warning.

I rather expected this afternoon that we should have had some estimate of the housing. We have not had that. If you are going to employ anything like 10,000 you must have a very large scheme of housing. There was one Admiralty experiment. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham did not see the Admiralty buildings. I got wind of them. They have put up a couple of blocks of houses down there. They comprise, as I am told, solid 9-in. walls on the outside. That is not very sanitary. There is a third bedroom in these cottages, and that third bedroom is 6 ft. 7½ by 6 ft. 1½—not very large. Such a room would not, I think, satisfy my hon. Friend below the Gangway (Colonel W. Thorne). I do not think he would have very much room in which to stretch himself. There is something more than that. The Admiralty have provided a larder which, even in these days of food control is necessary. A local gentleman writing to me says The only window in the small larder opens into a passage 3 ft. wide, exactly opposite the earth closet. Have the Government no Health Department at the Admiralty? These yards when in full working, will, as I have stated, employ 10,000 men. In the North of England it has been shown that it takes about fifty houses to accommodate 100 men who are working; that means that you will have to build something like 5,000 houses to accommodate these 10,000 men. Put it at £400 per house; that gives a total of £2,000,000. That is a moderate estimate. You have got to add that £2,000,000 to the original estimate of £3,887,000. This will mean a township of 30,000 or 40,000 people. You really do not mean to tell me that you are going to get all these houses put up with the necessary shops, etc., for 30,000 people within any reasonable distance of time. Where are you going to get your material? Where are you going to get your timber, slates, and the hundred and one things required for building houses? You cannot expect the men who are to be engaged in these shipbuilding yards to continue to live in huts as they are doing to-day. That is quite obvious. I maintain that the proper course for the Admiralty would have been to have strengthened the private yards. These latter are being blamed. But these private yards have had their energies diverted to the building of warships and all sorts of apparatus to destroy the submarine; all sorts of anti-submarine apparatus. On 17th April of last year the private yards put a proposal to the Government, and showed the Government how they could approach a 3,000,000-ton building programme in one year. To do that they would require a large amount of material and 100,000 men. So far as my information goes, the private yards have since only been supplied with 20,000 men. Therefore, for the building of a 3,000,000-ton programme there is something like 80,000 men short. I say, therefore, that you ought to have given the private yards all the labour possible before you ventured on crippling Lord Inchcape in his enterprise. At the present time, according to the First Lord's statement on 10th July, eighty-seven new slips have been sanctioned for private yards. Of these, fourteen have been completed, while the other seventy-three, as I understand it, and as I am informed, will be completed this year. This will just bring the number of slips up to the production of 3,000,000 tons per annum.

These, however, require labour. Where are these private yards to get the labour to build the ships upon the slips which will be completed by the end of this year? Labour is the crux of the whole business. Some time ago the Government promised to release 20,000 men. Owing to the exigencies at the front they have not done so. Still, the demand for the labour is there, actually to man the yards in which all this large number of slips have been sanctioned. It must be remembered that you must have fit men for the shipyards. You cannot have all sorts of people there, because the men have to go up high scaffolding to do some of their work; therefore if a man is not in a fit state of health he cannot do this work. That, I think, will answer my hon. Friend below the Gangway. You cannot have increased labour in the national yards without increasing the personnel of the managers. In the new national yards you will have to have yard managers, foremen, checkers, piece-work accountants, timekeepers, wages clerks, and so on. All these are in the private yards to-day. You need not increase them, although the main body of labour is increased. One thing more. The right hon. Gentleman said the other day that the ratio of the skilled men in the national yards need only be one to forty of unskilled men. Is that really true? I do not understand that statement. I think my right hon. Friend attributed it to Lord Pirrie. Do we really understand that you propose, or that you can, put together these fabricated ships in these national yards with skilled labour in the proportion of one skilled man to forty others? I cannot believe that for a moment. In the first place, if you go into the yard that is putting together the fabricated ship, you will find that it requires the labour of riveters, plumbers, carpenters, joiners, engine-fitters. Are not these skilled workers? Of course they belong to the skilled trades. The idea of your going either to build or to assemble ships, as you call it, in these national yards with unskilled labour is a dream. If we have to wait for the ships that are so built to bring food to this country, we shall have to wait a very long time. There is something more. We talk of these fabricated ships as if they mean an enor-more saving of labour in the shipyards. As a matter of fact they do not. All you save in the national shipyards, as I am very credibly informed, is about 15 per cent. of labour. Supposing the shipyard does build a ship or does assemble a fabricated ship, it would simply mean a saving of that 15 per cent.

I am going to close by asking the right hon. Gentleman one or two questions. There were no estimates presented, because the Admiralty, at the time I earlier referred to, had not made up their mind. When you have to present an estimate to the Treasury you have to clarify your mind, and the minds of the right hon. Gentlemen opposite were not clarified in July. In September, 1917, I asked the right hon. Gentleman if he would be good enough to tell us—and he did not tell us in his speech—what tonnage—as he intends to pursue this policy, though, for my part, if the House will go to a Division I shall certainly vote against it—what tonnage he proposes and what tonnage he expects to turn out in these national yards within the next two years, which are vital years? There is something more I desire to know. What is to happen to these yards after the War? Are they to be carried on as national enterprises or are they to be turned over to the private shipbuilders? I should like to know, because I say—and here I differ from my hon. Friend below the Gangway—I do not want to see any extension of national yard enterprise. Such enterprise has been disastrous.




A great disaster!


A great disaster; that is my opinion. I want the Government to make up their minds what they are going to do with these national yards. In conclusion, I wish to put three questions to the Financial Secretary: (1) What is the estimate for housing; (2) what is the tonnage which it is proposed to turn out in the next two years; and (3) what are you going to do with the national yards after the war?

6.0 P.M.


I congratulate the First Lord of the Admiralty on the under-current which ran through his address, and which must have impressed everybody with the enormous amount of work which is being done, not only for the British Navy, but for the Allies. At the same time there was a main current running through that address, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken that that main current was exceedingly disappointing; is is running in the wrong direction. The whole policy of the national yards must be completely reversed. They have now at their head a shipbuilder of great experience, and these yards are not now the yards that were intended. In the first place, it was intended to use prisoners of war. Can you conceive of any honest trade unionist who would be willing to work alongside of those men who have done the deeds that they have done? Can you conceive it right that these men should be asked to educate these Germans in a trade which will be of vital importance to Germany after the War? Common sense ought to have told the promoters of those yards that that was an impossible proposition. The shipbuilders of the country and the trade unionists told them that a fortnight before the announcement was made in this House that these yards were being commenced; that advice was unheeded. Following upon that we were told that those yards were to be utilised for fabricated ships, and that the material for them was to come mostly from the rolling mills of South Wales. What has happened? We are not to have prisoners of war in those yards, or if we have, trade unionists and skilled men will not work with them. We are not to have military labour there; the military men are to be turned into civilians. They have had much fabricated material from Wales, but material has been brought as far away as Scotland and the North-East Coast on our congested railways, and, when it was decided that the ships were not to be commenced, the material had all to go back on those congested railways to the great shipbuilding districts of the country. Now we are told—and this is the finishing touch—that shops are being built so that the material that comes there need not be fabricated. Therefore, these yards to-day are in the exact comparison with every other shipbuilding yard in the country.

What is a fabricated ship? Why did America support the idea of the fabricated ship? America had no shipbuilding yards, no machine tools for preparing the material for building ships, but she had immense bridge-building yards. There is no difference in the constituent parts for building a ship of steel or a bridge of steel. The material comes from the rolling mill in the form in which it is to be put together. It requires holes to be punched or drilled, plates to be put on and joined together by rivets. That is the same for the building of a ship as for a bridge. Therefore, America said, "We will use those punching machines and those drilling and riveting machines, and we will put together in the bridge building works as large a part of the ship as it is possible to convey and place them down in a blank space of ground, where we will have a few riveters to put the parts together." That was a good policy, but to talk about the Admiralty design for a fabricated ship is, with all due respect to the right hon. Gentleman, a misnomer. Certain details in design had to be made to make a fabricated ship into an ordinary ship; but this any experienced draughtsman could have done.

Then, again, we have heard to-night a great compliment paid by the First Lord of the Admiralty to the shipbuilding industry of this country. I would like to know why the right hon. Gentleman did not go in the first place to these shipbuilders and say, "Will you build these fabricated ships?" The whole question of the national shipyards resolves itself into the efficient utilisation of our manpower. That is the crucial point we have to address ourselves to—that is the standpoint, and that alone. The right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down pointed out that the extension of a berth in shipbuilding yards did not necessarily involve any increase in the staff, in the number of foremen, or in the ordinary machinery for utilising unskilled labour. If, therefore, you add one berth to every shipbuilding yard in the country you are able to utilise that unskilled labour at a much less expenditure of skilled man-power than if you create a new yard. But there is a graver question. We have had it stated that the cost of a berth in those yards is £120,000. It is difficult, I admit, to get an estimate of what an ordinary berth would cost in a private yard at the present time, but I should be very much surprised if such a berth could not be put down for less than £30,000. Consequently you are expending four times the money.

I am not putting it on the point of expenditure at all, but say that you are spending four times the money for ship berths, and the whole of it goes to the payment of man-power. It is not the direct employment of man-power, but it is the indirect employment. You have your material to pay for, and that has got to be produced. Consequently you are spending four times the man-power necessary to create each berth for the production of ships. It is ships we want. It does not matter where they are built or how, but you have got to utilise your man-power to the fullest conceivable advantage in order to get the maximum number of ships. I, therefore, say that it was the duty of the Admiralty first of all to consult their advisers. They had their Advisory Committee and they did consult them and they got advice that they did not like. They got advice contrary to their preconceived determination. They refused the advice they got and they went on, and, now that they have got good technical advisers, what happens? An entirely different state of thing is created, but still we are not going to get the ships out of those yards that we ought to get. You cannot get men to go there to work even if they have to live in barracks unless you have the barracks. Therefore, until you have the accommodation for the men, you cannot get them for shipbuilding work.

The First Lord of the Admiralty looked forward with great pride to the fact that these yards would after the War be turned on immediately to building tramp steamers. If they are only confined to fabricated ships, where are you going to get the fabricated material, because your bridge builders and the builders of your great factories will be as busy building bridges and factories as the shipbuilder will be building ships I Consequently you have to look forward, as Lord Pirrie has wisely done, to the equipping of those yards in exact comparison with existing yards. These yards are not war emergency yards; they are intended to be national yards for all time. That is a fact we have to remember. I agree with what was said by the right hon. Member opposite, that we do not want nationalisation, and this is the thin end of the wedge. I think we ought to ask, if you are going to build ships, who are we going to build them for? Are we going to enter into competition with foreign nations for the building of British ships These are questions which we must decide. We are paying excessively for these yards and they will never pay for themselves. They may be a success from a technical point of view, but they will not be a financial success. A prudent business man, when he finds he has gone into a bad speculation, or, shall I say, a risky investment, carefully considers whether and when he should balance his account, and whether he should cut his loss, and I do say, in view of the enormous advance in shipbuilding in America and the enormous demand of our private shipbuilders for men as well as material at the present time, the Admiralty should seriously consider the situation, and consider whether it would not be better for them to adopt the prudent commercial man's method.


In listening to the observations which have just been made by the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Richardson) one could not fail to be struck with his obvious sincerity, and his criticisms will constitute a valuable contribution to this Debate. I feel, however, that he has rather prejudiced this question by proceeding upon the two assumptions which he has very much taken to heart, but which, if they turn out to be ill-founded, will destroy his argument. A much more potent argument than the question of price which the hon. Member has put forward is the fact that we want ships, whatever the price. The second assumption which the hon. Member made was that these are not emergency yards, and he said that this is a sinister and insidious attempt to introduce the system of the nationalisation of property, which he resents. I share his opinion with regard to the nationalisation of property, but I do not share his apprehensions as regards the purpose of those yards. He feels very strongly that nationalisation has been destructive of shipping enterprise, and that it has been costly in operation, but in spite of that I should still, at this crisis, be ready to sink my personal feelings if I thought one more ship could be got to sea by taking these measures. I do not know upon what basis the hon. Member founds his argument that this is not an emergency measure, for in that contention he is completely and absolutely denying the conclusion of the Select Committee on the subject, because they found that it was a war measure—


The difference between the Select Committee's Report and my contention that it is not an emergency measure is the fact which is first announced to-night that larger sheds are being put down to make them independent.

Commander CRAIG

That does not appear to me to affect the vital question of the application of particular means to particular needs at a particular moment. I do not think it goes to the real point at issue. While differing from the hon. Member on the two questions, and thinking he assumed too much, yet I welcome the sincerity of his arguments. In listening to the observations of the right hon. Member for South Molton, I could not help wondering whether his criticism was really meant to be helpful. He began by emphasising the imperative need of tonnage, even under the better conditions to-day, and he pointed out the shortage which had gone on increasing during the past six months. If that is so, and if that is pressing him, why should he discourage to-day the well-meant effort initiated a year ago, and which holds out the promise, within a month, of seeing ships laid down? I do not understand the attitude of mind which talks of the continuing loss of shipping and in the same breath complains of honest and well-meant effort. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out in one sentence that it would take years to complete the houses for 30,000 people, but he complained in the next sentence that in the middle of the War the men had been housed in huts. How can such criticism be helpful? During war-time you have to live under conditions which do not commend themselves to anybody, but the War has to be gone on with, and the conditions accepted. The right hon. Gentleman complained in one breath that private shipbuilders were not allowed to undertake this work, and in the next breath he complained that the first keel is not yet laid down, though it had been hoped that it would have been laid months ago. He does not, however, contradict the First Lord, who stated that the reason that the first keel has not been laid yet is that the material destined for the national yards has been diverted to private yards.


The hon. and gallant Member will excuse my interrupting to point out that Lord Inchcape clearly and distinctly stated, on the 25th March, that two ships of 10,000 tons were well on their way to the water.

Commander CRAIG

That does not appear to me to affect the argument. I submit with all sincerity that if this Committee is going to be fair in regard to this matter it must throw back its memory to June, 1917. That is not indulging any ex post facto a meticulous spirit. Remember how we stood in June, 1917, and, thank God, that some action was taken. You have only to compare the curve of construction and the curve of destruction in 1917 to know, if you know anything about maritime matters, what the position was. The position then was as grave as grave could be. The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord talks about it as if it was a question whether we could continue in the War. That is right. It is true that the question had come to be whether we could continue. Unless we got one curve to go up and the other curve to go down we could not continue in the War. That is why you must go Lack to June, 1917, if you want to consider this question fairly. The right hon. Member for South Molton would appear to speak as if this proposal in June, 1917, was in some sort of way accidental. I can hardly believe it is true, but he professed to be so ill equipped to criticise it that he said it was propounded by "I don't know who." Reference, at any rate, to the Report of the Select Committeee shows, it is fair to say, that a comprehensive survey of the position, so far as the mercantile marine was concerned, was placed before the War Cabinet. That was prepared by the First Lord, who was at that time Controller, and was presented by the then First Lord of the Admiralty. It was considered not merely by the War Cabinet, but as the Report states, also by the Controller of Shipping, and the War Cabinet appointed a Sub-committee to deal with the subject. To listen to the right hon. Member for South Molton one would think that this was a competitive plan put up against the plan to keep fully occupied the private yards. The Report of the Select Committee states that three plans were urged by the Admiralty, after this comprehensive survey had been considered. The first was to make full use of the existing resources of private shipbuilding yards. That was according to the finding of the Committee. The second plan was to extend the private shipbuilding yards as far as possible. The third was to obtain tonnage from other countries.

It was only because it was found that these three measures would be insufficient to meet the menace, as it then presented itself, that this question of national shipbuilding yards was taken up, and it is due to the action then taken that we have the results we see to-day. These are the facts as the Select Committee found them. It was not a question of placing national shipyards in competition with private shipyards. The Admiralty itself exploited to the full all private means, and extended those private means by borrowing from neutrals and others. Then, and only then, because those measures were not sufficient, they undertook the making of these national shipyards as a supplemental measure of safety. I would ask the Committee to remember, in looking at the whole question involved in these proposals, that the sum which they involve is only one day's cost of the War. I think the Committee should bear that in mind. Is it fair to consider this question merely as a question of cost, whether it is extravagant, or whether it is commercial, seeing that the whole sum involved is only that which is spent on one day of the War? What was at stake in 1914? It was our national security which was at stake. What would have been the position of the Admiralty and the Government if it had been possible for the right hon. Member for South Molton to charge them with not having taken any action in June, 1917? That would have been a serious charge—a charge of criminal neglect of the interests of the State. To look at it as to whether it was the best plan or not seems to me as rather trivial and small, compared with the question of taking action or not taking action. There has been too much drift in this War already. There was plenty of inaction when the Government of this country was in other hands. I would rather have a bad decision than no decision at all; I would rather have action that was not the best than inaction. At all events, those who were consulted, and they were the right people to consult, supported the line of action which was taken, and the alternative of inaction would have been very terrible. The submarine menace was launched to produce victory, "swift victory" for our enemy. The words "swift victory" were used by Bethmann Hollweg when the submarine campaign was launched. In regard to the labour question with this subject it has only relatively altered and the changes made in regard to labour will enable the matter to be solved practically to the whole extent. If prison labour, engineering labour, and military labour had been possible, a labour difficulty would not have arisen. To a large extent it will not now arise owing to the modifications which have been effected. Difficulties which have arisen since will, I hope, be largely met by the manner in which trade unions have co-operated with the Government in endeavouring to find a solution which, while it protects their own view of the position of organised labour, will not throw into inaction those yards which are in course of preparation. In approaching this question it is above all necessary that the Committee should remember the conditions as they existed in 1917, and think, if there had been no action, what would have been the consequences. We should be thankful that action was taken—action which, in the opinion of those best able to judge, has resulted in a very-helpful contribution towards tonnage being, within a relatively short time, made available for the needs of the country.


I trust the House will give a very hearty welcome to the admirable acquisition which has been made in the hon. Member for Gravesend, with his engineering knowledge and his powers of debate. I desire to say, however, as regards one of his statements, that it surprised me that he, with his engineering knowledge, should have fallen into the mistake of suggesting that the 3,000 German prisoners who were ultimately set to work in Chepstow yard should be acquiring knowledge of shipbuilding to carry over to the Germans. Surely my hon. Friend is aware that some of the very finest ships that are now engaged in carrying American troops across the Atlantic are ships that were built in Germany, which have been captured in New York and other ports, and which are doing their work in the very best possible manner. The prisoners selected for the purpose, provisionally, of doing shipbuilding work are men who in their own country have been shipbuilders before they were drafted into their own army, and I, for one, see no reason why the German peasant should be sent to work on British farms and the German shipbuilder should not be utilised, so long as he is in this country, in the particular trade to which he belongs, always provided that the honourable bargain made between the Government and the trade societies shall be fulfilled, and that nothing against that bargain should be incurred in the employment of these men.

I turn to the speech of the right hon. Member for South Molton (Mr. G. Lambert), whom I am sorry to say is not in the House at the moment. He appears to have consorted with private shipbuilders to such an extent, and those Gentleman, believing as they naturally do, that ships can only be built in the very best way by private shipbuilders, that he has come to agree with their opinions, and has, in some degree, lost the customary logical and even balance of his own method of thought. There are some private shipbuilders who do not take that view. Sir George Hunter is the chairman of one of the largest shipbuilding concerns in the country, and, addressing his shareholders in general meeting the other day, he stated: Our shipbuilding output was below the necessities, below our losses, and, indeed, it was barely half enough to make good the losses in British ships alone. That is true. The figures which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Molton quoted show that during the first six months of this year of grace 1918 we lost nearly twice as much tonnage as we built and produced. In these circumstances, what would the critics, both inside and outside this House, say if the Admiralty, upon whom the responsibility rests, did not take every step, probable and improbable, to make good the deficiency in tonnage which was at one time the most dangerous threat—certainly as the Germans regarded it the submarine was a threat—to our very existence and continuation of the War! The United States have set a magnificent example. Within the fifteen months in which they have been in this War they have multiplied their power of ship construction by eight times, not only in the number of slips but in the number of men occupied in shipbuilding. They are completing ships in weeks, whereas they used to complete them in months. It shall never be said, I hope, as long as we have a British Admiralty that the British Admiralty, with an example of that kind and with a friendly competition of that kind in front of them, will cease to lead the way. The Admiralty have added eighty-seven berths, or are in process of adding eighty-seven berths to our private yards, and they have filled those private yards more or less with standardised ships. I am not here to say that the Admiralty have acted with perfect good judgment throughout. They have not. One of the faults they made was referred to by the hon. and gallant Member for Sunderland (Sir H. Greenwood) in a former speech, namely, putting four and even five different classes of standardised ships to be built in one yard, a mistake which I know is now rectified, so that as far as possible only one type of standardised ship is allocated to each yard, so that the work may go on by repetition, and so go on to the very best possible advantage.

The First Lord has referred to repairs. I happen to have had a good deal of experience in that matter since the War broke out, and I recognise the magnificent services that Lord Pirrie, Mr. Grayson, and Mr. Edwardes, the Directors of Ship Repairing, have done to the country. They have standardised the use of dry docks and the use of ship-repairing labour in every port of the country. Formerly, on the authority of Lord Pirrie, there used to be an average of thirty-five ships each day idly losing their time in waiting their turn to get into dry dock. But under this system, by which every dry dock, its occupation, its powers and its facilities are tabulated in Great George Street, no ship is sent to any port until it is considered when her turn would arise for entering dry dock. So, from an average of thirty-five ships a day waiting idle, the number has been reduced to about five ships per day who lose their time waiting for their opportunity to get into dry dock. That is a magnificent result. Day by day it has splendid and far-reaching effects upon the movements of our tonnage and upon the services which the ships render. We are glad to hear from the right hon. Gentleman that there is now no shortage of steel. The shortage, as we all know, is one of labour. Twelve thousand men from the Army have been returned to the shipbuilding yards, and I understand they are all skilled men, and as such the number of 12,000 means many more thousands of unskilled labour diluted by them and turning upon them as pivot men. As the facilities for getting men from the Army returned to shipyards are increased by the advent of our Allies from the States, I hope that my right hon. Friend will use his utmost influence to obtain from the War Office such further releases as may be possible having regard to the military necessities, because it is only by having a proper proportion of skilled men that we can hope to overtake the terrible arrears which have accumulated, and which are still going on accumulating. One good point in the administration that was initiated when Lord Pirrie took office was the separation of work into yards for fighting ships and yards for mercantile ships. I am sorry to say that, although the intention is good, the realisation of it is not complete. I can point at this moment to quite a number of yards and a number of repairing docks in which fighting shipwork and mercantile shipwork are going on concurrently. The sooner that change is made complete the better it will be for the currency of labour, the more repetition of ships there will be secured, and the greater output from all the yards arising from these improvements. Lord Jellicoe said, in a public speech not very long ago, that the submarine menace would disappear in August. Well, we are on August, and there is no sign of it disappearing. It seems to me to have been a foolish and, as the result has proved, an entirely unjustified prophecy. The necessity for the continued activities of the Admiralty in ship construction remains as great as ever, perhaps greater than ever, having regard to our arrears of tonnage and to the large submarines which it is understood the Germans are building in very considerable numbers.

The gravamen of the charge against the Admiralty in the Press recently, and partly in the speeches made to-day, has been the use and the initiation of the Chepstow yard. For myself, I cannot see what else the Admiralty could have done than to have made preparations for utilising the bridge building works, which were lying comparatively idle because there is no bridge building possible in the present circumstances—and which are inland, and, by making fabricated parts of ships there, providing the means of putting them together and launching them as finished ships into the sea. My hon. Friend the Member for the Edgbaston Division (Sir F. Lowe) has been to Chepstow and some others of us have been too. I myself have known Chepstow for perhaps thirty years. A firm of the name of Finch have been for that length of time building ships at Chepstow—small ships, it is true, but successfully building ships there. Lord Inchcape, whose name has been referred to, enlarged the ideas of the yard and began to lay out a very much increased establishment as compared with what Messrs. Finch had been using for so long. The statement of Lord Inchcape that he expected to have keels laid down in March, is no doubt correct, but the explanation of my right hon. Friend has convinced me, at all events, that the change in policy has been a perfectly wise one, because it is upon the basis of finishing the establishment first and getting it completely ready, by the labour which is available, for the work to be done, and then, when it is ready, starting the work of building ships and getting on with it as fast as possible. Chepstow is an excellent position for a national shipyard. It is quite close to the coal mines of Wales. It is close to the Ebbw Vale Steel Works, to Dowlais, and to Landore, while there is a considerable amount of labour available both in the Bristol Channel ports and from the country close round about. The attack on Chepstow yard by my right hon. Friend seemed to be based upon the idea that, for the first time in history, there would be a national shipyard. No one has referred in the Debate to the fact that His Majesty's dockyards are national shipyards which have been in existence for many generations, and the finest standard of workmanship has been reached in the dockyards at Pembroke, Chatham, Devon-port, Portsmouth, and elsewhere.


Have merchant ships ever been built there?


Merchant ships have never been produced in the dockyards, but what has that to do with the policy of having national shipyards? You have national shipyards, the money voted by this House, and the men in Government employment, and you build ships which are of the highest standard. Why, therefore, do you not build ships of the mercantile standard also? The agitation against these yards is, in my judgment, a very shallow agitation, and one which I do not think can continue, and I hope the Committee will not be put to the trouble of a Division. Certainly, the provision of tonnage rests upon the responsibility of the Admiralty, and the duty of this Committee, as it seems to me, is to support the Executive in its responsibility, and to give it helpful and not destructive criticism, and when it assumes the responsibility and takes a course of decisive action, which did not exist very much in the Government of which he was a member, let the House support it, and leave the responsibility to it, with full confidence in a successful result.


The discussion to-day has of necessity covered some ground with which the House is already familiar, but it has been remarkable not only for the statement of the First Lord, but for the well-instructed speech of the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Richardson), whom I warmly congratulate. When I was a younger man I attempted to woo the constituency which he got not even for the asking. I believe it was offered to him. I congratulate him on his constituency, and I am sure the whole Committee hopes that from our technical discussions he will not be absent in the future. The question of importance before the Committee this afternoon is not as to whether private enterprise or national enterprise is the better. It is not whether the First Lord of the Admiralty was well advised in taking these steps on his own initiative, or whether Lord Pirrie has now come to his rescue. The only matter of importance with which the Committee has to deal is by which method the largest number of ships have been and can be put into the water in order to relieve the situation, both now and in future. My hon. and gallant Friend (Lieutenant-Commander Craig) made a good many references to the alteration in the curve of losses and the curve of construction, which have not yet crossed in this country but which we hope will soon meet. He pointed out the great improvement which has taken place in the last twelve months, but he overlooked the fact that that improvement is entirely due to the enterprise and the energy of the private yards, and that not one single speck of assistance has been given by the national yards so far to that great improvement in the curves. That is the record up to the present. Is it likely to improve in the future? The Committee must judge from the discussion which is now taking place. But in reviewing the statement of the First Lord I think he was a little unjust to private shipbuilders who were members of his Advisory Committee and with whom he had every opportunity of being in constant consultation. In the first place I know, for it is common talk in the industry, that the Advisory Committee never advised against the standard ships. They offered criticism of the standard ships, as of course all technical men would offer criticism. The hon. Gentleman (Sir F. Flannery), I have no doubt, is quite capable of criticising the standard ships. They did no more than he would do. They criticised in a helpful spirit.

I think he also gave the Committee the impression that the private shipbuilders were known to be against the fabricated ship. It all depends what sort of question you put to the private shipbuilder or the naval architect. If it is on grounds of beauty I am sure no one will commend the fabricated ship. If it is on grounds of commercial use no one would commend it. If it is on the ground of rapidity of construction there is no doubt a great deal to be said for it, as has been discovered in America. But it is quite unfair to the private shipbuilders to say they were so opposed to fabricated ships that they would not have co-operated in their construction. If that was the impression the First Lord intended to give to the Committee it was an unfair impression. The truth is that the only fabricated ships which have been constructed so far have actually come from the private shipyards. The question of whether the private shipyards or the national shipyards can produce the larger number of vessels turns on a complete survey of our shipbuilding capacity. At the very time when the First Lord embarked on the policy of national shipyards the possibility of expansion in the private yards had not been fully tested. At present there are over seventy berths which have not yet been fully completed in the private yards. They are short of contract labour. If they were short of contract labour they could have been supplied with Royal Engineer labour, which has been used at Chepstow and Beachley and, to a smaller extent, Porthness, and they could have done a great deal towards the completion of those seventy berths, and I believe, if we may judge from the experience of the Tees, many of those private berths would already be yielding tonnage, so that the very object which the Committee has in view of increasing the number of available vessels could have been better gained in the private yards than in the national yards. The number of men who are employed now in the Chepstow area, I believe, is something like 6,000 Royal Engineers and 3,000 prisoners. The prisoners, I understand, are not engaged on shipyard work. They are making, mainly, concrete blocks for houses and other buildings. If there was any attempt to use those prisoners in the shipyards the First Lord knows it would be doomed to failure. I notice that he did not answer a somewhat pertinent question, put to him in the course of his speech, whether he would be prepared to go to sea in a vessel constructed by prisoner labour. We have all had enough experience of German methods not even to trust a German when he is a prisoner, and it is quite possible that German prisoner labour, so far from proving effective, would have been to a large extent, although well drilled, nothing like as productive as British labour. It would have given rise to labour troubles, and it is perfectly obvious, from what the First Lord now knows, that not a single one of the unions would have been prepared to work alongside of them.

Then the idea of using men in uniform in the shipyards has also been abandoned, and indeed it need never have been embarked on. If the right hon. Gentleman had consulted the unions, if he had consulted the Shipbuilders' Advisory Committee, they would both have told him he was heading straight for labour trouble if he attempted to use one or the other. It is the absence of that consultation which the Committee is entitled to criticise. I do it not with the object of showing that the First Lord cannot conduct national shipyards on a competent basis. I hope if they are going on with them he can. But we are entitled to point out the mistake which has been made in the past, with the object of impressing upon him the necessity of getting into close touch with the unions and the shipbuilders in the future. The whole of his labour schemes appear to be worked out on the calculation that in the yards where fabricated vessels are to be constructed there will be a very small number of skilled men necessary. We were told by the First Lord that about five or six men per berth would be all the skilled labour required in the construction of fabricated ships—that is, five to six men out of some 300. What does he mean by skilled men? We have heard a great deal about skilled and unskilled men, but I doubt whether ten members in the Committee know the distinction between them in the shipyards, as it was used by the First Lord. Are caulkers and riveters to be counted as skilled men? With fabricated ships he will save platers and drillers to a large extent. It is possible he will save them altogether. But does he imagine that he is going to build any of his vessels with only five to six caulkers and riveters engaged upon them? The thing is preposterous, and practical men know it.

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