HC Deb 15 March 1932 vol 263 cc235-41

1. "That 91,410 Officers, Seamen, Boys, and Royal Marines be employed for the Sea Service, together with 865 for the Royal Marine Police, borne on the books of His Majesty's Ships, at the Royal Marine Divisions, and at Royal Air Force Establishments, for the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1933."

2. "That a sum, not exceeding £12,627,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Expense of Wages, etc., of Officers and Men of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, and Civilians employed on Fleet Services, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1933."

3. "That a sum, not exceeding £2,245,700, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Expense of Works, Buildings and Repairs at Home and abroad, including the cost of Superintendence, Purchase of Sites, Grants, and other Charges connected therewith, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1933."

4. "That a sum, not exceeding £3,074,300, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Expense of Victualling and Clothing for the Navy, including the cost of Victualling Establishments at Home and abroad, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1933."

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

Vice-Admiral TAYLOR

I desire on this Vote to ask the First Lord whether he will make as full a statement as possible with regard to the progress of the works that are being carried out in connection with the all-important Naval strategic base at Singapore. Neither in the White Paper nor in the speech that the First Lord made in bringing in the Estimates was this important base mentioned at all. I do not think the importance of the construction of the base is fully realised by the House or the country. I do not think it can be stressed too often why this base is necessary. I do not think any foreign Power considers its construction as a menace. They fully realise that it is necessary for this country to be able to maintain the security of its vast interests in Far Eastern waters. Singapore is the greatest port in those Far Eastern waters. In 1926, some 25,000,000 tons of shipping used it, 11,000,000 tons of which was British shipping.

That shows the vast importance of our trade interests in the Far East. Geographically, Singapore is situated midway between India and China, and on that account it obtains a very great strategic value for the defence of our vast interests, not only from the trade point of view but from the point of view of our Dominions and possessions in that part of the world. I do not think there can be any difference of opinion amongst Members as to the immense importance it is for this country to continue the construction of that base, and have it brought to completion as soon as possible. In the mind of those who are on the spot, there is not the slightest doubt on this important point. The Federated Malay States, Hong Kong and New Zealand have up to date contributed no less than £2,022,000 towards the construction of the base. That sum was provided in order that the work might be accelerated, but I am sorry to say that has not been done.

At the Imperial Conference of 1930, it was agreed that the ultimate establishment of the base should be maintained, and that the work should be proceeded with in connection with the Jackson contract, and also with the air base. I should like the First Lord to tell us how far the work in connection with the Jackson contract has gone. I put a question yesterday as to the construction of the graving dock, and received the reply that the entrance to the graving dock was about one-half completed and the excavation for the body of the dock, had been commenced. After all these years one would imagine that the progress of the work should have been far greater than that. There is nothing being done with regard to the construction of the air base. I should like to ask when this work of the Jackson contract is likely to be completed, and when it is completed, whether it will then be possible for a fleet of heavy ships to be sent out to operate in those waters should the occasion arise. At present, it is impossible for a fleet of heavy ships to be sent out to the Far East to defend our immense interests, because they would have to rely upon Malta as a base, which is 5,000 miles away. I understand that the Jackson contract consists only of work to be carried out on the graving dock. The graving dock by itself is quite useless, unless there is also carried out the construction of the dockyard workshops to enable the fleet to be refitted and repaired as necessary. I would ask the First Lord to give some information on that very important point.

There was also at the 1930 Conference a recommendation that the expenditure for the equipment of the docks and for defence work should be postponed for five years, when the matter would again be reviewed in the light of the relevant conditions then prevailing. That means to say that, so far as the construction of the base is concerned, nothing whatever is to be carried out except the construction of the graving dock. That is a very serious condition of affairs. It means that only in 1935 the question is to be reviewed as to what is to be done with regard to the construction of dockyard workshops and of the air base and land defences of Singapore. It may mean that four, five or more years may then pass before the base can possibly be completed. The country is, therefore, in this position that for about another 10 years, if this policy is pursued, there will be no base in the Far Eastern waters where a fleet of heavy ships can be sent in order to safeguard our immense interests in that part of the world. I hope that the First Lord will be able to give some assurance to the House that this policy will be brought up for review and will be reversed, and that we shall go ahead with the construction of this most important base, in order to be in a position to send out a fleet of heavy ships to defend our interests in that part of the world.

The CIVIL LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Captain Euan Wallace)

I am very glad to take this opportunity of telling my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Paddington (Vice-Admiral Taylor) in particular, and the House of Commons in general—because I think it is a matter of great interest—something about the Singapore Base. I regret that my right hon. Friend the First Lord is unavoidably prevented through an important public engagement from being here to answer for himself. I am very glad that the hon. and gallant Member for South Paddington prefaced his remarks by saying that no foreign Power considered the Singapore Base a menace, and, indeed, there is no reason why it should. After all, it has never been suggested in any quarter of this House that our friends the citizens of the United States regard Plymouth as a menace to their security, and actually Plymouth is just as near to New York as Singapore is to certain other great Powers in the Far East.

If hon. Members will turn to item 64 in this Vote in the Navy Estimates they will see that the total cost of the scheme is £7,750,000. That is what is provided for in the Estimates. If the scheme is completed as provided for in the Estimates, we shall be left with an adequately equipped base at Singapore. We should have a graving dock capable of taking the largest ships, a wharf over 2,000 feet long for berthing, a store wharf, fuelling wharf, electrical generating station, dockyard workshops, storehouses, houses and quarters, hospital for natives, and, a little distance away, an armament depot. Therefore, my hon. and gallant Friend will realise that the scheme as set out in the Estimates provides for an adequate and satisfactory naval base.

Vice-Admiral TAYLOR

Is this money going to be used for the construction of dockyard workshops as well as for the construction of a dockyard?


Perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend will wait until I have finished. As he has told the House, the Imperial Conference of 1930 considered this question and, owing, I think, to financial stringency, decided to complete only those works comprised in the Jackson contract, that is, the main contract for work at Singapore, and those departmental works and ancillary services vitally necessary to its completion. Therefore, although the figure of £7,750,000 appears in the Estimates, our actual commitments at the present moment are the estimated payments to Messrs. Jackson of £4,036,000, the departmental expenses under this Vote, dredging for the floating dock, railway, road, water supply, staff houses and that kind of thing, £1,043,516 and some contingent expenditure under Vote 8 for machinery, making a total of a little over £5,000,000. Of course, if we only proceed with the work in the Jackson contract and the services definitely ancillary to it, the House must realise that we shall not be left with a satisfactory or a workable naval base. We should not have the graving dock complete nor the generating station nor the workshops. As far as the provisions in this year's Estimates are concerned, we have a payment of £690,000 on the Estimates, £670,000 'of which is to be earned by Messrs. Jackson and £20,000 is departmental expenditure. We get £72,000 from the New Zealand Government this year which is separately accounted for under Subhead N of this Vote, and that leaves a net expenditure on Navy Votes of £618,000 for this year.

Here, again, I think that I ought to be perfectly frank with the House, and to enter a caveat. As I attempted to explain last week until I was ruled out of order by the Chairman, we have altered the form in which the Navy Estimates are presented this year. We have abolished by order of the Treasury in consultation with the Public Accounts Committee what is known as a shadow cut to allow for possible under-spending and there is no shadow cut this year. We have been obliged, therefore, to estimate as best we can the possible amount of under-spending on each of the Navy Votes, and we have allowed on this purticular item the sum of £90,000. Messrs. Jackson may earn as much as £760,000. They are working very well up to schedule at the present moment, and if they do so they will of course have to be paid. If this results in an excess upon Navy Votes, it will be necessary for us to come to the House of Commons for a Supplementary Estimate.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked me exactly how far the contract had progressed. I will try to tell him without going into too much detail. As far as the graving dock is concerned, the concrete work across the dock entrance and for the foundations of the underground pumping station has been constructed up to till level. The excavation for the barrel of the dock has begun. We have completed the excavation of what is called the new cut—diverting Sembawang River to give space for wireless telegraph station—and we have constructed about half of the dockyard wharf, about one-third of the stores wharf, and the site of the armament depot has been almost reclaimed. A great deal of excavation and reclamation of the future dockyard area has been carried out. I would like the House to realise that the actual construction of the work on this site is not by any means the only thing that has to be done. When we took over tht Singapore Base, half was scrub and half rubber plantation, and an immense amount of reclamation work, as my hon. Friend opposite will know, has had to be done. The hon. and gallant Member for South Paddington can rest assured that Messrs. Jackson are making good progress. There is up to the present no reason whatever to suppose that their contract work will not be finished when due, in 1935.

Vice-Admiral TAYLOR

I have still to ask for an answer to the question with regard to the construction of the dockyard workshops which are necessary in order that the Fleet may be repaired and equipped at that base, and without which a fleet cannot operate in those waters. I ask whether this is being carried out now, and, if not, when will it be carried out?


I had hoped that I had made it perfectly clear to the hon. and gallant Member that although a complete dockyard with workshops is allowed for in the sum of £7,750,000 which appears in the Estimates, the Jackson contract and the ancillary services upon which we are engaged at present as a result of the decision of the Imperial Conference of 1930 does not provide for workshops. The hon. and gallant Gentleman went on to ask about the Air base and the land defences. I do not think that I should be in order in discussing either of these matters at present, but no doubt he will have seen the answer given to him yesterday by my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office in regard to the land defences. My right hon. Friend the First Lord realises, of course, as everybody in the House must realise, that the financial stringency which embarassed the Imperial Conference in 1930 has placed us in the position at the present moment that we have not plans in hand—and I think it right to be perfectly frank with the House—for the construction of a full and completely up-to-date base at Singapore. I wish to say to my hon. and gallant Friend that the situation is fully realised by the Board of Admiralty, and that it is at the present moment engaging the earnest attention of my right hon. Friend the First Lord. I hope, therefore, that the hon. and gallant Member for South Paddington and the House in general will realise that I have been absolutely frank with them upon the subject of Singapore, and will accept my assurance that the position, the anomalies of which must be apparent to anyone who has studied it, is really receiving our close and earnest consideration.