HC Deb 15 May 1924 vol 173 cc1700-6

The matter I desire to bring before the House to-night I make no apology for bringing forward again, as there is underlying it a very serious issue. It is not merely a local matter, but it is a matter in which the whole country should really take an interest. At the time of the War, ships were sunk in the channels leading into Scapa Flow by the Admiralty, in order to secure the safety of our Fleet. All those ships are there to-day as wrecks, with the exception of one, which has been moved. The result of these wrecks remaining there is to make certain channels unnavigable, and to make it impossible for the islanders of a certain island to carry on the industry of fishing. In the island of Burray, before the War, 30 boats were engaged in fishing, and now only seven are engaged, and they have to carry their fish elsewhere. The pier is going out of use. The people are suffering from want of employment, and many of them have emigrated. Not only that, but life has been lost by boats running on these wrecks. No compensation has been offered in any way for the damage and loss that people there have suffered.

The matter has been brought to the attention of the Admiralty over and over again. The reasons that have been given to me, as I believe they were given to my predecessor in the representation of the county, were, first, that it would cost money; secondly, that the ships could not be removed; and, thirdly, if they could be removed, matters would be worse than they are now. I hoped when the present Government came into office, we should see them get away from that official attitude. I wanted the Government to say: "We direct that the Admiralty shall remove a sufficiency of the wrecks to make these channels navigable." I have no doubt whatever it can be done. I have done my best to obtain an independent opinion, and I have urged the Admiralty to obtain an independent opinion. I have had considerable correspondence with the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty, whom I have to thank for the attention he has given to the matter. But it is not official attention alone that is needed. We want the spirit to direct that these ships shall be moved. I am not asking for all these ships to be moved. In fact it comes down to two ships, one on the north and the other on the south side of the island. Is the Admiralty to be allowed to make wrecks and then to leave them, unlighted and unbuoyed, to rot to pieces without making any effort to clear them away? If those wrecks had been in some more populous place than where they are, they would have been moved long ago.

In Scapa Flow the ex-German fleet was scuttled, but recently the Admiralty has filtered into a contract with a firm for raising those ships, whereby the Admiralty will receive a considerable sum of money. Why should not some of this money be spent in moving these two ships of which I speak? If the Admiralty can enter into a contract to remove a ship like the "Hindenburg," why should not an attempt be made to raise these other ships and thus open up these channels? I know I shall be told that one channel is open. I can only say that I have had charts sent me by master mariners who used to navigate this channel, which show that the wreck of the "Thames" is lying right in the middle of the channel. I cannot understand how the Admiralty can say that channel is navigable. The ship on the south side of the island is interfering with the fishing industry. The Admiralty has said that its removal would offer no great difficulty. In spite of everything I and the local people have been able to do, we are met with a blank refusal from the Admiralty to consider the matter any further. Not only do the people there suffer very greatly from the existence of these wrecks, but the honour of the country is at stake.

We always understood it was the duty of our Navy to clear the seas, not to block them. Here they have blocked the seas to our own people. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether the matter cannot be considered from a fresh angle. Will he not get an independent authority to examine these ships, and advise the Admiralty if they can be moved or not? I know the Admiralty is inclined to rely on its own technical advisers, but outside advisers have told me that it is not impossible to put matters right in the channel. It would not cost much money to get an outside opinion.


I want at once to assure the hon. Member and the House that it is no question of unwillingness, nor any desire to economise, that has caused the Admiralty to take up the position that they have in regard to this matter. As the hon. Member has said, I have had a lengthy correspondence with him on the subject, and have gone into the matter personally. I have had the charts before me, and the whole position has been explained and examined by experts, with the intention and desire to accede to the hon. Member's request; and were it possible to do what he requests, I assure him that no consideration of expense would stand in the way. The position with which we are faced is that up to the present moment we have spent nearly £30,000 in clearing these channels, and have removed, as the hon. Member has already said, a good deal of material. It is at present piled up at the side of the channel, and as soon as is practicable steps will be taken to clear it away completely. As to the remainder, we are advised by our own experts and by salvage experts that we should make matters very much worse. These ships were sunk, as the hon. Member has said, during the War, for the purpose of blocking certain channels, and, as everyone knows, in the early stages of the War things were done with less care, and, shall I say, less scientific accuracy than was the case later. I confess that, so far as the "Thames" was concerned, that was a case in point, and it is absolutely impossible to move the "Thames" for the simple reason that the bottom was blown out.


My information is that the manager of the East Coast Salvage Company, who moved the "Numidian," has said that the "Thames" would be an easier job.


If the gentleman to whom the hon. Member refers is willing; to stand by that, we shall be quite willing to consider any proposals that may be made on that score, but we are informed by the experts that the only means of dispersing that vessel is by blowing it up. If we do that, we run a much greater risk as to where the fragments will go, and that will cause a much greater danger to shipping. Those are the alternatives with which we are faced. There is an effective open channel, owing to the removal of the "Numidian," through these waterways, for the fisher-folk to carry on their work and for the passage of ships. It is true that to a certain extent some vessels now have to take a longer course in bad weather, owing to the blockage by the "Thames" in this particular channel, but I want to assure the hon. Member and the House, as I have assured him in writing, that there is no question of expense or economy, nor any lack of desire to help these fisher-folk or the other people who are concerned. Everything that can be done to open up an effective waterway has been done, but if we proceed in the only way possible the effect would be to spread the damage and trouble, and probably close what waterways are now open.

The only thing we can do is to leave the vessels for the process of dissolution in the ordinary way. They will then break up in very much different order. As the hon. Member knows, if we resort to blowing them up, we shall have large fragments in the waterways here and there. It is not the same as where the German fleet was sunk. The problem is entirely different in these narrow waterways. That is the whole case that the Admiralty put forward. We have spent £30,000 on this work, and would willingly spend another £30,000 if we could secure the result for which the hon. Member asks; but we are assured that, if we were to spend more money, it would not only not secure that result, but would make matters very much worse. We have given very special attention to the "Lorne," in view of the representations which have been made by the hon. Member and his predecessor, and if anything can be done to remove or disperse the ship it will be done. The Admiralty are not noted for a desire to save money in any respect, and we would go to the Treasury willingly and ask for this money, if we were sure we could get a return for it. But we must trust the experts, and we are pretty certain that if we did attempt to disperse or in any way remove it, we should only make matters very much worse and block up the waterway. It is a simple case. There is no malevolent intention in the mind of the Admiralty. There is no intention to save money at the expense of these hard-working fishermen. If anyone can suggest any way whereby we can do it, I am sure he will find that the Admiralty will welcome it with open arms and do what they can.


There is one suggestion that the hon. Gentleman made which, I think, may perhaps help my hon. Friend. It appears to be a question between experts—whether the work can or cannot be done. My hon. Friend interjected that an expert connected with a salvage company had expressed the opinion that this work could be done, and the hon. Gentleman said he would be glad to consult with that expert. I understand, therefore, that he is willing to take expert opinion outside his own Department. If he does that, it might be possible to find some way to help these fishermen.


The hon. Gentleman says that he has been assured that it is impossible to clear this waterway any more effectively than has already been done, and that to attempt to remove the ships which are blocking it might lead to a further and more extensive blocking of the waterway than that which exists. Since the blocking of these waterways was considered necessary in the interests of national safety, and since he has not denied the statement of my hon. Friend and the statements made in the Press in Scotland as to the loss these fishermen are suffering, from the impossibility of carrying out their work, in the same manner and with the same effect as they could do in pie-War years, is the Government, continuing, as it is, the policy of previous Governments in this matter, prepared to indemnify the fisher people for the losses they are bound to be suffering due to the carelessness which, he has himself admitted, led to the blocking of the channel? That is a point that must be considered by the Admiralty. It is not sufficient to say that in the early days of the War the men who were sent by the Admiralty to sink the vessels and block up the channels, so that the German ships would be unable to use them, were inexpert or were not doing the work with the science that came to them in the War. It is sufficient to know that many worthy people are being prevented from earning their livelihood in the manner in which they earned it previously, through these vessels being sunk. If the Admiralty are not concerned with the amount of money that can be or may be spent in easing or clearing this waterway, are they not morally bound, and therefore will they not, owing to the morality of the case, press the Government to consider the question of in some degree indemnifying or making good to these fisher people the loss which they are suffering through the waterways being blocked.


May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty whether the Admiralty has received any specific offer from any salvage expert to do the work of clearing this channel, and if so, whether it would be possible to encourage or to accept such an offer and to stipulate the conditions under which the removal may take place. Would it be possible, for instance, to specify in the conditions that the rest of the channel must not be blocked by the operations to be carried out.


We shall be very willing to accept any suggestion or any proposal from salvage companies.


Has any specific offer been made?


No. No salvage company will do it.


Would the Admiralty be prepared to instruct an independent expert to examine and advise as to the possibility of the ship being raised?


Or call for tenders to do it?


I will consider that.


If, as the hon. Gentleman says, the fault lay with the Admiralty originally in the way the tender was sunk, and if it is the fact that fishermen have lost their boats and their gear and their lives as a result of the fault of the Admiralty, will he tell us why the Admiralty refuse compensation to the men for the loss of their boats and gear, and to the relatives of the men who lost their lives? Will he consider the matter with a view of doing justice to these people?


I would press the hon. Gentleman to give us a definite promise that he will appoint an independent investigator to go up there. This matter has been causing comment among seafaring people and other people in Scotland, and the general opinion of the average man, apart from the Admiralty experts, is that this is not a difficult salvage job. I press the hon. Gentleman to promise definitely that he will send up some independent person who has experience of the work to give a Report so that we can all be satisfied. Either the Admiralty is right or it is wrong in the matter. On the Clyde we have a huge body of men who would be delighted to have the opportunity of a few days', a few weeks', or a few months' work of this kind. Many of them are well qualified to do it. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to look at the matter from the point of view that we have urged.


All I can say is that I will convey the full sense of this discussion to my Noble Friend, and if anything can be done further than has been done to meat the very reasonable plea put forward, I promise that nothing will be left undone.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.