HC Deb 24 March 1952 vol 498 cc36-51

Resolution reported, That 153,000 Officers, Seamen and Boys and Royal Marines, who are borne on the Books of Her Majesty's Ships and at the Royal Marine Divisions, and members of the Women's Royal Naval Service and the Naval Nursing Service, be employed for the Sea Service, for the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1953.

Resolution read a Second time.

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

3.46 p.m.

Mr. W. J. Edwards (Stepney)

I would remind the House that on a similar occasion to this, last year, the Admiralty were fortunate enough to get through the Report stage without any discussion at all. But, in 1950, the Admiralty were not so fortunate. The hon. and gallant Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Commander Galbraith), felt on that occasion that the Opposition had not been given sufficient information in the debate on the Navy Estimates, and, therefore, the Report stage that year took some little time.

I do not propose to take up much of the time of the House in what I have to say this afternoon. I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that I posed a number of questions to him on the occasion of the Navy Estimates to which he was only able to give a small number of answers. I do not complain about that. Indeed, I was glad when he sat down, as he himself was, because I wanted some sleep. But there are a number of points to which I should like the Civil Lord to reply today if he can and would.

The first is a matter which I have raised before, the question of dental surgeons in the Navy. I am sure that with an increased Vote A and with the increased responsibility of dentists attending civil persons, it is absolutely essential that our dental services in the Navy should be increased rather than reduced. It is my view that to make a reduction in the dental services—which may be an economy measure rather than one which is absolutely essential—whilst at the same time increasing the number of Admirals is not quite the right thing to do or the right way of looking at economies.

Then there is the very important question which I also raised last time, the reduction of the Admiralty Constabulary. It has been the desire of both sides of the House in the last two or three years to see that our naval establishments are properly policed owing to sabotage, particularly after the two explosions which took place. But I notice that in almost every Vote there is a reduction of Admiralty Constabulary. This, again, appears to be another case of false economy.

Another point with which I wish to deal is the administration of the funds which the House voted on the Navy Estimates for running the Navy next year. It will be noted that in Votes 9 and 10 quite a large amount of additional technical staff is required, and a large sum of extra money is provided in the Estimates for next year because of that requirement. I would like to know what the Admiralty propose to do to make certain that the required number of technicians are obtained so that the Navy can carry out its planned programme and spend the money provided by the House.

In addition to the question of technicians, there is also the very important point with regard to skilled labour in the dockyards. I am sure that our planned programme for next year will fall down unless something is done about obtaining the necessary skilled labour to enable the Admiralty to carry out both its modernisation and refit programmes.

Without that, the Estimates recently submitted to the House will be of very little use at all. Can the Civil Lord say whether any action is being taken to obtain the necessary technical staff under both Vote 9 and Vote 10? Can he also say what steps are being taken with regard to increasing the size of the skilled labour force, particularly in home ports, to ensure that our planned programme will be carried out in the proper way?

I should like to say a few words on Vote 10. I must repeat that I was very annoyed when I found that what small provision had been left in the Estimates for new works next year in naval barracks, married quarters and in the dockyards had been taken out. It appears there is what almost amounts to a moratorium on the works services of the Admiralty and this takes benefits away from men on the lower deck and from those who have to carry out their work within the dockyards. I said on the last occasion that I did not blame anybody for the condition of the Royal Dockyards but I am sure the three Ministers concerned will agree that if there is anything that needs improvement in the Admiralty service it is the home dockyards.

Much good result could materialise to the Admiralty and the country if improvements were to continue to be made. I claim a little credit for having kept those improvements going when I was the Civil Lord. Members of the present Government will agree that when they were in opposition they certainly lost no chance of impressing upon myself and upon my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), the desirability of carrying out this work.

There now appears to be some kind of economy move. But if economies are to be brought about in one way or another, I object very strongly to their having to be borne by those who should not be called upon to bear them. This postponement—for it must be a postponement and not an abandonment—of new works on married quarters, on naval establishments and in dockyards is something which is hitting the man of the lower deck and the civilian working in the dockyard more than anybody else.

Does this "moratorium" on major new works next year mean that the Civil Lord will not do anything for naval air stations other than the work that was left by the Labour Government? I think it will be agreed that the only good thing we have at the naval air stations are the married quarters which were provided by the Labour Government. Almost every station has the comfort of these married quarters, but most of the personnel accommodation was rushed up in the early part of the war and today it badly needs modernising. We had a programme of modernisation in hand and if I had remained at my old post I would have fought as hard as I could for the continuation of that programme.

Another important point is the provision of married quarters in home ports, under Vote 15. The present Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty was one of those who felt that we ought to have got on with that job some time ago. As a result of the obvious wishes of the House the Labour Government set up a working party to go into that question. The party reported some time ago. I am not complaining if that report has not been completely studied and if decisions have not yet been reached; but I should like to know from the Civil Lord whether the Government have reached any decision. If they have not, will he be good enough to let interested Members know when they do arrive at a decision on the provision of married quarters in home ports under that Vote?

I am bound to say—and I shall go on saying it—that if, next year, the Civil Lord comes to the House with no provision at all for new works for the barracks, no provision for major new works for the dockyards and no provision of married quarters, the Navy Estimates will not receive that healthy reception which they usually have from this side of the House. I shall certainly watch this question very closely.

If I may offer a word of advice to the Civil Lord, I would ask him to make certain next year when the works services come up before the Finance Committee and the Board that the good work done by the Labour Government up to 1951 will not be retarded as a result of the return of a Conservative Government and the appointment of the hon. Gentleman as Civil Lord of the Admiralty.

3.55 p.m.

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Wingfield Digby)

The hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. J. Edwards) has raised a number of points and I am not quite certain whether I shall be absolutely in order in dealing with one or two of them because I do not think the relevant Votes are on the Order Paper.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

May I ask, Sir, whether we are having a general discussion on Vote A, in which case I take it it would be in order for the hon. Member to reply to the points made?

Mr. Speaker

Yes, I understood we were having a general discussion on Vote A at the moment.

Mr. Digby

Vote 4, for instance, is not on the Order Paper and some of the points raised were really related to that Vote. I should like to reassure the hon. Member for Stepney, first of all, that though it is quite true there are to be 18 fewer dental officers that is only due to difficulties of recruiting. As to Admiralty constabulary, the figures in last year's Estimate turned out to be very optimistic as regards recruiting and, in fact, they were not anything like realised. Therefore, the difference in the Estimate for the two years is again more apparent than real.

The problem of providing technicians is still difficult, as the hon. Member for Stepney will remember very well from his six years of office. But we are doing our best to overcome it and we hope very much that the position will improve and that schemes we wish to carry out will no longer be held up because of this difficulty.

The hon Member for Stepney spoke about skilled labour in the dockyards. It is true there is a shortage of craftsmen but, as I think he knows, a dilution agreement for shipwrights has been negotiated at Portsmouth, as a result of which 110 extra dilutees have been found. The union concerned is considering whether it is possible to extend this dilution agreement to other ports.

The hon. Member referred to Vote 10 and married quarters. Of course, any Civil Lord of the Admiralty would like to have as large a Vote 10 as possible. I am just as fully aware as is the hon. Member of the need for a large Vote under this head because the Navy goes back a very long way. We therefore have need for new accommodation because much of the existing accommodation dates back to the days of Nelson.

Nevertheless, in the present financial position of the country our total Vote has to be subject to the obvious limitations of the total defence expenditure of the country. We have to take account of the limitation of the total works capacity of the country, so that the work planned can actually be carried out—which has not been a significant feature of the past. We have also to take our share with the other Service Departments, having regard to the present international situation and the need to look after the teeth of the fighting Services, for instance, in such matters as airfields and the radar network.

It is significant that previous programmes have tended to fall short of the plans laid down in the Estimates. When the hon. Member draws a sharp distinction between new work and "continuation services," as they are called, he has to remember that a lot of those continuation services have been started only in name and that only the foundations may have been laid. A very large number of projects which were new works last year have hardly got under way at all, and that is why there will be very heavy expenditure on them in the coming year.

The reasons why they have gone rather slowly include difficulties over steel, but I very much hope that the steel allocation system which has been introduced will help to overcome those difficulties. I should remind the hon. Member that his party were, after all, in office for six years and that they never once had as large a Vote 10 as we have this year. The Vote is up by nearly £2 million gross on anything that he ever had.

Mr. W. J. Edwards

If the hon. Gentleman carries on with this policy of providing nothing for major new works, it will soon be down and we shall be in the state we were in before the war.

Mr. Digby

We shall be able to look after that. In point of fact, owing to the national position, we have had to make some reduction on the money we would like to have spent. We are, therefore, not spending quite as much as we should have liked under some headings.

In his speech in the main Estimates debate the hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions. I am afraid I cannot answer all of them now. He talked about various aspects of Vote 10 work and referred, for example, to accommodation. Here, we are spending this year—despite the changes we have had to make—£4.9 million per head on shore-based personnel, a sum which compares favourably with what was formerly spent—

Mr. Edwards

Did the hon. Gentleman say, "£4.9 million per head"?

Mr. Digby

I beg pardon. I meant £4.9 per head.

On the question of married quarters, we are doing everything we can to get over delays which have been apparent in this field. For abroad and Northern Ireland, our programme under Vote 10 is £442,000, plus £30,000 for remedial road measures to housing at Rosyth.

Mr. Edwards

Would the hon. Gentleman be good enough to tell me whether any schemes which were in projection, and were left behind at the Admiralty when the Labour Government went out, have been cancelled, such as the Singapore married quarters scheme?

Mr. Digby

The position is exactly the same. We are going on with Vote 10 schemes there. There are one or two projected schemes that it has not been possible to go on with, for example, in Malta, but with the Singapore scheme there has been no change—it remains intact.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the need for major works in the Royal Dockyards, and I certainly agree with him. When I went to Devonport and found that no major new work had been got on with since the end of the war, I felt that need very keenly. I am glad to say that three schemes there, apart from the barracks, are either in progress or are about to be progressed during the coming year.

Mr. Michael Foot (Plymouth, Devonport)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain how new works are to be started in Devonport Dockyard when, on page 152 of the Estimates, it states that nothing is to be spent on new works?

Mr. Digby

Perhaps I should explain that continuation services are those which have technically begun. As I have already explained—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here at the time—it often means that very little except the plans has been achieved. What we are interested in is the actual bricks and mortar, and not the plans for the project in question.

I must now say a word about the airfields. It has been necessary to improve naval airfields to take the heavier and faster types of aircraft which are coming along, and make them thoroughly serviceable for that purpose, and it has been necessary to spend a little more this year in that direction.

Now for a word on Vote 15, under which we provide many of the married quarters that are required in this country. Here, again, there have been delays, but in actual fact this year we are to make 750 new starts, compared with 400 provided for last year. The starts will not be able to take place, unfortunately, at such an early stage in the year, but everything possible is being done to speed up the work. To-morrow a small party will be leaving by air to go round some of the naval air stations in this country to settle the question of sites, which has been holding up the building of these married quarters. In that way we hope to avoid some of the obstacles and to make a better start.

The Report of the Committee on Married Quarters in the Home Ports is an entirely internal Admiralty report. I do not think there has been any question of its being published, nor would it be suitable to publish it. I cannot be expected, and I do not think the hon. Gentleman would expect me, to say very much about this matter, but I can assure him that it is receiving the fullest consideration and that, if it is decided to act on it, we shall get on with the job as soon as we can.

The difficulty for the time being is that our hands are rather full with the programme which we have already in hand and which is subject to certain difficulties, such as those of site and of technicians—draughtsmen and so on—to prepare the plans and to get on with the work. I assure the House that we are doing all we can in this direction.

4.9 p.m.

Mr. Michael Foot (Plymouth, Devonport)

I want to say a few words on Vote 10, because the hon. Gentleman's reply on the subject does not seem to be clear. In his defence against the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. J. Edwards) the hon. Gentleman claimed that Vote 10 was larger than ever before, but if we look at some of the sums voted under various items we will see that they are probably lower than ever before. In some cases they are nonexistent, and some of us are very much concerned about the matter.

I would refer, first of all, to the question on which I interrupted the hon. Gentleman, namely, Vote 10, Item (g), on page 152. I understood him to say that some new works were to be started, presumably out of money which is now being voted for the continuance of works started in previous years, but as far as I can read these Estimates I do not think there is any doubt that the Admiralty are not providing any money this year for any new works in relation to workshops or roadways in the dockyards.

That is what I understand to be the situation and, if that is so, I think it is a very serious one and it is also a reflection on the policy of the Admiralty. At the time of the debate on the Navy Estimates some of us on this side of the House referred to what had been said in the Report of the Select Committee on Estimates. I quite understand that the normal procedure is that the answers to the general recommendations made by that Select Committee have to be made to the Select Committee; but when I spoke in the debate I quoted several remarks made in evidence which was given to the Select Committee, which did not refer directly to the recommendations put forward but gave the views of the trade unions and the Admiral Superintendent of Devonport Dockyard about this subject in Vote 10.

The evidence given by the Admiral Superintendent and the trade unions was that in their view money spent on Vote 10 was one of the most important matters to which the Admiralty should apply their minds, and they suggested that very much more money should be spent under Vote 10 on the modernisation of workshops and the bringing up to date of the roads. The effect of the evidence given by the Admiral Superintendent was that more could be done to increase productivity in the dockyards by expenditure under this head than by any other means.

When evidence is given by one of the leading authorities on the matter it is very surprising, that when we come to look at the actual money to be spent this year we find that not one penny is provided for new works, for the modernisation of workshops or for new roadways in dockyards. That is a situation on which the trade unions and the Admiral Superintendent had comments to make when the Select Committee was taking its evidence. The Admiralty should really take seriously what has been said for many years on this subject. One of the main complaints has been that not enough money has been spent. A considerable amount was spent last year, though not as much as we should have liked. But this year, when we are supposed to be considering how to increase productivity in the yards, not one penny is to be spent under this Vote.

That is a very serious matter and it is one which would be regarded as such by those who have any experience of the dockyards and have studied the matter of how we can improve the output and the general conditions in the dockyards. It is also a question that affects recruitment and the intake of apprentices. Some of the dockyards are in a shocking condition the workshops are really not fit to work in. That is not merely the evidence of the trade unions, but evidence given by the Admiral Superintendent himself. We did not have an answer during the Estimates debate. It seems to be the fashion with these debates that questions which are raised by dockyard Members are not answered, and now we are told that they will not be answered today. The Civil Lord said he could not answer the questions which were put by my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney today.

Mr. Digby

I was referring to the questions which were put in the Estimates debate. I did not say I would not answer the questions of the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. J. Edwards).

Mr. Foot

I apologise if I am wrong. It seemed to me that it was being said that these matters should not be answered on this occasion. The main point is that not one penny is being spent this year by, the Admiralty on new works in the dockyards and I say that that is a policy in defiance of all the advice which they have received through the medium of the Select Committee with regard to Vote 10.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

I should like to make a few comments on the issue which has been raised by the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. J. Edwards). We have had from the Civil Lord his explanation of what he is doing this year. What we should like to have from the First Lord is a statement on his policy in this matter. I should like to bring the issue to as sharp a focus as I can.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stepney was a perpetual nuisance on the Board of the Admiralty in his attempts to get better conditions for naval ratings both in relation to barracks and new houses, and the new Civil Lord will have to live up to that example. Sometimes we thought that the hon. Member for Stepney was boring us with his perpetual demand for more money; but that is the only way to get money out of the Board of Admiralty. As the Civil Lord has no doubt discovered, when the Admiralty gets more money it still wants to spend that money on something else.

The issue in these Estimates is that the Civil Lord says he has to have regard to our financial position. That was the phrase he used. He has £78 million more in these Estimates than my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney, and the ex-First Lord and I had last year; but not a penny more is being spent on married quarters or to improve conditions in barracks. Indeed, less is being spent. Now the Civil Lord says, "Well, for my share of it I have £2 million more under Vote 10," but he is actually spending less on the provision of married quarters than was spent last year, although he has more money under his control.

That is really an unsatisfactory position. I understand the position to be that married quarters at home were started in comparatively large numbers by the late Government in or before last year's Estimates. As I understand, the Civil Lord is not proposing to start a single new house this year over and above the programme which is already going ahead and which was laid down by the last Government.

Mr. Digby

No; I explained that we are starting 750 houses instead of 400.

Mr. Callaghan

As the Civil Lord knows, I am discussing Vote 10, which is a Vote under his control.

I want to get the position exactly right. As I understand, there are no new married quarters to be started this year on any air station or any barracks in the country. According to the explanatory note, what he is doing is to continue the work on 185 married quarters which were begun but not completed before 1st April, 1952.

I should like to ask the First Lord what is his policy in this matter. He can coast along this year on the achievements of his predecessor. Let him finish those houses by all means and let us hope that we can get as many ratings as possible living in them; but if we are to have a reasonable housing programme for the Services the Admiralty should be backing the Civil Lord in getting a start on some fresh houses this year.

If we look at page 155 of the Estimate, which deals with the provision of married quarters abroad, we see that the figure shown is for 204 married quarters begun but not completed before 1st April, 1952; but I cannot see that provision is made for the commencement of a single new married quarters this year. I think there was common action on this in the last Parliament and I think there should be in this one. I believe that this has been slipped past the Civil Lord.

Mr. Digby

indicated dissent.

Mr. Callaghan

If not, he has not done his duty by the sailor, because he should have insisted on getting a programme for new houses this year, under this Vote. That is his job, and I suggest to him that we shall expect to see a much better showing than this when the Estimates come up again next year.

What is the problem with which we have been dealing in the Admiralty for so many years? It is the difficulty of persuading wives to allow men to sign on again. Is this not the problem with which we have been faced, not only in the Admiralty but also in the Air Force and other Services—that the women will not allow their husbands to sign on again because they want to be near them? The only way they can be near them is by the provision of married quarters in some of the isolated stations, some of which are set on the most windy heaths, miles from the nearest market town. The only solution is to build houses for them. Some of the air stations are no doubt in more delectable spots, like that in the hon. Gentleman's constituency at St. Ives, but apart from such as those, many of the air stations are not to be found in the most desirable places.

How can we encourage recruiting unless we take such steps, especially now that we have the money available? We have it this year; goodness knows what will happen next year or the year after or the year after that. If there is a reduced Vote next year, presumably we shall be hearing that there is no money with which to do the job; but this year, we have the money. The Minister of Local Government and Housing is going on with a remarkable new housing programme—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am delighted to hear it; but housing Service men—and let us have some more cheers here—is just as important as housing anybody else. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] They have families, and they need houses in which to live. That is why I feel the Civil Lord has not taken advantage of the fair wind this year. He should have staked a claim by starting new married quarters this year.

Take the case of Malta, for instance. In Malta there is a large number of unemployed and there is plenty of building material, as anybody who has been there knows. What is the reason for stopping that scheme? I do not know. There can be no shortage of labour or materials, if I understand the position correctly. Why cannot we have an explanation of that decision?

Look at the details of these Votes Last year, under Vote 10, £135,000 was spent on married quarters. This year £172,000 is to be spent. The progress which is being made on new schemes is to have spent on it only an additional £40,000. With great respect, that seems to me to be far too little if progress is to be made as quickly as it ought to be made.

Look at the next heading, "Accommodation for Personnel." This situation is bad—and I say this advisedly to the Civil Lord. He will have seen Plymouth Barracks and those at Devonport, Portsmouth and Chatham and such places as that, and he knows the accommodation from which some of us have suffered. If my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu) were here he would make a most pathetic speech about his experiences in Portsmouth barracks. But whereas last year a total of £587,000 was spent on this accommodation, this year, without starting any new work, they are planning to spend only £384,000 on continuing the work started under the regimé of my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney.

Again, look at the position abroad. I will not worry the House with details, but the problem of providing married quarters abroad is one which we face time after time—and, goodness knows, it is an important issue. It is an essential feature of our programme if we are to have satisfactory recruiting. Yet here the Government propose to spend 50 per cent. less on the provision of married quarters this year than was spent last year—and that is quite apart from not starting any new schemes. They are to spend 50 per cent. less on existing schemes than was spent last year.

We all like the Civil Lord and we all wish him well in his job, and I am sorry to have to utter these criticisms at the outset, but these are the Estimates for the coming year and we must examine them. There is still time to put the matter right and certainly there is time for the hon. Gentleman's reputation to be redeemed. So far as I can see, what is being done is to include everything under Vote 15, where 750 new married quarters are being started this year. But that Vote was an addition to Vote 10, and one is not a substitute for the other. Vote 15 was something which was conceded by the Government of the day under considerable pressure—and there is no need to give away any secrets—to give something more.

I hope the First Lord will not say, "We are putting it all into Vote 15, so it does not matter about Vote 10." That would be a false juxtaposition; for Vote 15 is intended to be an addition to what is done under Vote 10. I am delighted that the Government are starting 750 new married quarters under Vote 15, but that does not make the case for starting a large number under Vote 10 one bit weaker. The hon. Gentleman should have used the additional money which is included in Vote 10 to build additional married quarters and to improve the standard of some of these barracks, which, as we know, have been in existence almost since the days of Napoleon.

We should seek to go ahead so that we can say to men coming into the Service, "Here you have decent conditions under which to live while you are ashore and we will see that you have the opportunity, if you sign on, of making certain that your wife lives in more reasonable conditions near to you."

This is not a party matter: it is a vital matter to the future recruitment of the Navy, and that is why I pressed the First Lord to tell us what is his policy in this matter. Can we look for a substantial increase in these two items in the Estimates next year, and will the First Lord pay particular attention to ensuring that married quarters and conditions for Service men on the lower deck are brought up to the required standard, not by putting the work into Vote 15, which is temporary, but by putting it into Vote 10, which is his continuing authority and which he will always have under his control?

4.25 p.m.

Air Commodore A. V. Harvey (Macclesfield)

I hope that hon. Members will not think I am intruding into this short debate if I ask one or two questions, but last week some of us opposed the suggestion that Coastal Command should go back to the Royal Navy—and I am glad that that has been settled, I hope once and for all—and we are interested in what the Civil Lord has to say about airfields for the Navy's air arm. Many of us who are interested in these matters feel that the future of the Royal Navy to some extent lies in the strength of its Air Arm, and we should like to hear a little more about the expansion and renovation of airfields.

Is it proposed to build new airfields? I should like to make this point: if we are to do that, it means the use of more good agricultural land. We should bear in mind that there are many existing airfields in the country with runways already laid down. I do not suggest that the buildings are satisfactory; if they were satellite airfields in the war the buildings will be far from satisfactory, but by working on the buildings and by renovating the runways much public money could be saved. I hope that the Civil Lord will give us more information on this point because many of us realised only quite recently that the Navy's air arm is at a low strength and that insufficient attention has been paid to it, not only by the Admiralty, but by the previous Government.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) complained about the lack of action over married quarters, but his Government had six years in which to get busy.

Mr. Callaghan

What we are complaining about is that the programme which had been started is not being continued to the same degree, nor are new programmes being started.

Air Commodore Harvey

I shall wait to hear what my hon. Friend has to say about that. It may be that it is better to go ahead with the programme which has been started before starting new schemes. I agree that we should all like to see more married quarters built. I should be most grateful if the Civil Lord would tell us something more about the expansion of airfields for the air arm. This is important not only to the Navy; it is important to the country that we should know that we have a modern, well-equipped naval air arm.