HC Deb 19 March 1953 vol 513 cc313-28

REPORT [16th March]


Resolution reported,

That 151,000 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. 1954.

Resolution read a Second time.

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

8.45 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

We now come to the end of the Defence Estimates. These have indeed been depressing days for those who care for the safety of this country. During these days, we have learned what is the effect of the cuts in defence expenditure upon our Armed Forces and the removal from them of some £600 million worth of equipment. We have heard from the Army that the effect has been that the reserve divisions are non-existent and without equipment. We have heard from the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force of squadrons with obsolete aircraft and of modern models being cancelled, as well as the prospect of modern equipment within the ceiling being indefinitely postponed. From the First Lord of the Admiralty we have heard—if we are to believe it—that our Navy has sunk behind that of the Russians.

I would ask the House to consider what sort of danger this country is in. Former conquerors of Europe have left Britain to the end, and by that time Britain has again been strong. Is there any reason, or indeed any likelihood, that the present possible conquerors may leave Britain to the end? Is it not reasonably certain that they will start with us, and that they can put down air divisions here, while, as we have learned from the debate on the Air Estimates, our Air Force cannot stop them? We have learned from the Army that they have nothing with which to oppose them except what I would describe as flying columns from the cookery school.

What of the Navy? Is it not a fact that we shall start the next war, if the Russians choose the day, under total blockade? Their submarine forces and their minelaying forces will be in position at the start, and I think it is reasonable to anticipate that the mines will be of a new design which will require a certain time to combat. Is it not as certain as anything can be that, at the beginning of a war, we shall be in a condition of total blockade, and that we do not know whether it will be a matter of weeks or of months—or perhaps never—when we shall break out of that blockade and be in a position to bring reinforcements into this country?

That is the situation which faces us as a result of these Estimates. That is the result of the £600 million cut which we have experienced in our Armed Forces. Why has that cut been made? We have had no explanation throughout these debates on the Estimates. Let us remember that the £4,700 million programme was adopted by the Labour Party and was accepted at the General Election, and the Conservative Party were returned pledged to carry it out. Apparently, they have preferred pledges to transport operators—pledges bought and paid for —because the pledge to defend their own country has been abandoned.

Is it because the world is safer? These pledges were made a year ago and were affirmed to our Allies at Lisbon. What has happened since Lisbon to make the world safer? Has the Russian intervention at U.N.O. to prevent any chance of truce in Korea made the world safer? If not, what has made it safer, other than the fact that war has not actually broken out? Is it the conduct of the Opposition? Not even that shabby excuse of the Chamberlain Government is available to this Government because, as recently as last September, the Labour Party at Morecambe pledged themselves to support the £4,700 million programme. Then suddenly, without explanation either to us or to our Allies the Prime Minister last September abandoned that programme, with the terrifying results which we have been seeing in the course of these debates on the Estimates.

What is the reason? We are now told that it is an economic reason. But those who have read the "Economist" have seen an effective answer to that. This programme, to which the Government were pledged and which they have abandoned, was only one-quarter of what we achieved in 1944. It is not a question of it being beyond our economic ability. It is simply a question of business as usual being preferred. In the 1914–18 war and in the last war it became clear that we could not produce armaments on the scale required for our safety without control.

The cold war can no more be carried on by a free economy than can the hot war. But the Conservative Government had their pledges to the transport operators and to people of that sort, and so defence was abandoned. Of course we could have carried out the programme, as was pointed out by the "Economist." It is true that we should have had to do without some things, such as, perhaps, petrol, and meat from the Argentine. This is where the present Government have proved themselves true followers and successors of the Baldwin Government. They, like the Baldwin Government, knew of no better method of losing an election than to defend their country.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Commander Allan Noble)

On a point of order. I am wondering, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, in view of the very short time at our disposal, whether the speech of the hon. and learned Member is in order. With all respect, it seems to me to be a speech better suited to the defence debate, or, perhaps, to the debate on the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hopkin Morris)

I thought that the hon. and learned Member was leading up to an argument on the Navy Estimates. I hope he will come to it shortly.

Mr. Paget

This is the point where we come to the end of the Estimates. We have learned from the First Lord that our Navy has fallen behind that of the Russians. Is not the defencelessness of this country and the reason for it a matter for discussion at this time when we come to the end of this sorry story? A party which has preferred ease and party advantage to the defence of the country has abandoned every one of its defence pledges.

That is the easy choice and the easy road which this Government have taken. Maybe they will get away with it; I do not know. We all profoundly hope that they will, but the trouble is that once a nation takes an easy road, the tendency is always to go on that way and to hope that trouble will never happen. There are few instances in history where a duty recognised and refused by a nation has not ultimately led to doom.

In this last of the Service Estimates debates we are dealing with the oldest and most senior of our Services. We have the same sorry story to tell—utter weakness, enlarged manpower and insufficient equipment, all resulting from a failure to perform the defence duty which the Government undertook to perform.

8.55 p.m.

Mr. John Baldock (Harborough)

Like many other hon. Members on both sides of the House, I feel a considerable degree of anxiety about the present strength and condition of the Navy. It is not many years since it was the largest in the world. It is not many years since we had a great preponderance of the world's merchant shipping. I believe that the British people still hold the Royal Navy in great esteem and have much faith in it, but it seems that with its decline in size and the decline in the size of its Vote in comparison with those of the Army and the Air Force, there has been a decline in the importance attached to it and to maritime affairs by this House and by successive Administrations.

Perhaps that statement is rather summed up by the state of affairs today, when in 5½ hours' debate only three-quarters of an hour remain for the Navy, of which some minutes have been taken up by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), whose remarks would, I should have thought, have proved most interesting to his right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan). It is possible to read whole pages of defence debates in HANSARD without finding any reference whatever to the Royal Navy. Perhaps it is that atomic weapons and jet-propelled aircraft have somewhat dazzled our vision.

But surely it is as clear as ever that this country cannot possibly be second only to the United States as the greatest arsenal of the whole free world without a considerable importation of food and raw materials, amounting to about 50 million tons a year. And it is really not possible seriously to consider at this stage in history a time when industry could operate without these very bulky imports of materials, or when those imports could come in by any other means than in the holds of ships.

It is not even possible for this country to remain as an unsinkable carrier off the coast of Europe, let alone to be an arsenal, without considerable importations of oil and food. I believe, and I think that many hon. Members feel the same, that in these circumstances there is real cause for anxiety not only as to whether the Royal Navy has a sufficient share in the Defence Estimates, but whether our Merchant Service, which is dwindling so lamentably, especially in tramp tonnage, which has decreased by one-third since 1939, will be sufficient to contend with the duties which we should have to perform if there were another outbreak of hostilities. The Government could do much to encourage tramp building in competition with other nations, who give favourable terms for the construction of that type of shipping.

It has now become almost trite to say that in both world wars we have come nearer to defeat by blockade from enemy submarines than from any other cause. Our Prime Minister supports that view. It is quite untrue to say that at the present time that danger is by any means diminished. According to the First Lord of the Admiralty, we are faced at the moment with flotillas of submarines six times greater than those with which we had to contend at the beginning of the last war.

Even if we take the most sanguine view of these matters and consider that the seamanship and morale of the crews of these submarines are doubtful, that our anti-submarine vessels at sea and in reserve are more numerous, and that antisubmarine weapons and methods of detection are better than they were in the last war, nevertheless, given the advantage of surprise which any aggressive Power could always have at the outbreak of war, these submarines would be capable of inflicting very serious damage in the early stages of hostilities.

Perhaps we are inaccurate in thinking that another war—if there were to be one —would begin with a holocaust of atomic bombs. Atomic bombs may never be used. Gas was never used in the last war. But long before hostilities commenced a potential enemy could certainly lay mines on a very considerable scale—as was suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton—by means of submarines and trawlers round these coasts, and those mines could be fitted with clocks and mechanisms to delay them.

On the outbreak of hostilities the first thing that would happen would be that our ships would be sunk in the entrances to the main ports, and harbours would become unworkable. The result would be disastrous, not only from the point of view of the ingress of raw materials and food but also because most of our South Coast power stations which feed industry are dependent on seaborne coal. All the power stations in the South of England might be brought to a standstill.

Under those circumstances, although we are building a large number of minesweepers—which is very heartening news —I wonder whether we are not being a little too orthodox in our approach to the mine peril which, I am convinced, is our most serious peril so far as blockade is concerned. The Russians have always been interested in mines and the variety of mines, and even in 1945 their mechanism was so considerable that sweeping had become very difficult.

We should be thinking of all kinds of other less orthodox means of counteracting the effects of these mines. It might be possible to use helicopters or certain harbour equipment. There are many things which might be operated without having to be on the surface of the water. These mines, especially if they could be projected into the water at a later stage of a war, could be by far the most serious aspect of any blockade.

In this connection there has been no reference to the building of landing craft. I wonder whether we have a sufficient quantity of landing craft remaining from the last war, and whether they are in good condition, or whether we ought to be building more, not only from the point of view of a possible assault on a coast but because they would be an excellent means for unloading merchant ships if our main ports became closed. They could serve a dual purpose. A merchant ship could unload by means of its derricks; the landing craft could take the cargo ashore on any beach to which a lorry could come, and unloading could take place without the necessity of harbour installations, given reasonably enclosed waters and reasonably good weather. I wonder whether sufficient importance has been attached to the building of these landing craft.

Considerable disappointment has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House on the subject of Naval Aviation. I was very pleased to hear the First Lord say that we are to have the use of some American carrier-borne aircraft. This is a matter where we could with great advantage adopt the standardisation which is part of the policy of the N.A.T.O. Powers. The overheads represented by a first-class designing team to produce the plans, work out the prototypes and bring the aircraft to a condition where they are efficient and able to be flown, seem to be immense for the comparatively few aircraft we should ever require while the number of our carriers is as few as it is at present.

I wonder whether that would not be a very good sphere in which to operate a certain degree of standardisation. I wonder whether, without any loss of prestige, because there is much that we can teach the Americans in anti-submarine warfare and in other ways, we should not fly American aircraft from carriers. Probably we should be operating with them frequently in one task force, and it would be a great advantage if we could have the same type of aircraft throughout the whole of a task force.

It would mean that the navy with the largest requirement of carrier-borne aircraft would produce them in reasonably large numbers. Perhaps on our side we might concentrate on the production of a really fine helicopter for use in naval warfare. I think the possibilities in that direction are so tremendous that they would repay all the research we could possibly do into them. Perhaps we could establish ourselves in a pre-eminent position by having a maritime type of helicopter, and I think that that would be a very fair exchange for the production of carrier-borne aircraft.

Even if we had helicopters we might not have a sufficiently balanced force of flying machines in the Navy to provide a really good career for naval airmen. As in anti-submarine operations co-ordination between ships and aircraft becomes ever closer, is it not evident that the aircrew who fly these aircraft should be given a naval training, and that Coastal Command aircraft should have in them men who are equally at home in a ship at sea or in an aircraft over the sea? That would provide a really comprehensive career. It would overcome to a great extent the difficulties of promotion and of providing opportunities for continued flying for naval air crews.

9.7 p.m.

Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)

There is not much time left, and I have a number of questions to ask. I shall, therefore, be as brief as I can and shall limit the points which I want to make to a very few. I shall not therefore go over the ground that has been covered by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), who has covered a wide area affecting the whole of the Navy—indeed, of the Armed Forces.

My first questions are about married quarters. I was not at all clear at the end of the speech of the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary what the decision was with regard to married quarters. So far as I understand it, a very small sum is to be spent on new married quarters this next year. There will be some £22,000 for new married quarters at home and £93,000 for new married quarters abroad. That compares with £445,000 which is being spent on—what? On the continuation of programmes initiated by the last Government. I think it is very important that that should be understood, because the Government claim that they are engaged in a large programme of building married quarters. They are indeed continuing some of our programme, but they do not appear to be initiating new schemes themselves. I should like the Civil Lord to say something about that.

I should like also to ask him what exactly is meant by the statement that there may be future legislation with regard to the Armed Forces (Housing Loans) Act. When may we expect this legislation, and if it is not to be soon what is to be done in the meantime? I want to put those questions to the Civil Lord, because I understand he wishes to reply to those particular questions. Then, by leave of the House, I shall speak again to raise some other questions that I wish to ask the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary.

9.10 p.m.

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

I am glad of the chance to clear up these points. The first thing to remember is that under Vote 10 we are only providing married quarters for certain places at home where there is difficulty in building sufficiently near existing towns to come under Vote 15. In practice that means Northern Ireland, and our programme for Northern Ireland is getting very near completion. That is why the sum of £22,000 appears. Abroad, £93,000 will be spent, plus £445,000 for continuation services.

Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)

Might I correct the Civil Lord? The Admiralty are not going to spend £93,000. That is the total estimate of what the Admiralty will spend abroad from now onwards. They are spending £445,000 this year as a result of schemes prepared by the Labour Government. Out of the £93,000 which they will spend in future, £56,000 is to be spent this year. The £93,000 is a total estimate. What are they going to do? Are they finishing altogether providing married quarters in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malta and Gibraltar? Ninety-three thousand pounds will certainly not get them very far.

Mr. Digby

The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that there is a very long time-lag between the time these married quarters are planned and the time when the work is carried out. For instance, there is one very big item which he will remember, of a block of 50 married quarters for officers in Hong Kong. When I was there in September last they were only just beginning the work on the site. It does not mean that we are discontinuing providing these married quarters abroad. As he rightly says, the amount is £445,000 over the whole year. There are various other projects coming along, but there is a limit to the amount of money which we can spend in any one year. We are keeping up with the work, and he will find that our figures are comparable with what was done by the last Government.

At home the amount we shall build will be very considerable. Here again there is a time-lag. It is true that the progress on married quarters during the last year was a little disappointing, but I should explain to the House that that was due primarily to an over-estimate of the work that we hoped to start as long ago as the winter of 1951–52. There were also certain other factors which were not so important, such as the amount of re-designing necessary and hold-ups on such matters as sites, but the main factor was due to events in 1951–52.

For the coming year we have a very good programme, as large a programme as we expect to be able to fulfil. During the last year we have been very much more successful in carrying out our works' programme than for many years past, and we have overspent on our works' services instead of underspending.

Mr. Edwards

As a result of previous planning.

Mr. Digby

No. I think as a result of the measures which we have been able to take to improve the total of completions.

There is one other point on the new housing loan. As I have said, we have been building our married quarters in this country under the Armed Forces (Housing Loans) Act—in other words, under Vote 15—and are continuing to do so. We have still quite a large unexpended sum. The question of the new Bill was referred to by my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. It was also referred to in the Defence White Paper. I cannot say when the new Bill will be introduced, but, as we learned from the White Paper, it will be introduced in due course, and we shall hope to have the support of the House in bringing it for- ward, because we believe it to be of great importance to the married quarters programme.

Mr. Edwards

The hon. Gentleman says there is a large unexpended surplus under the Armed Forces (Housing Loans) Act. As I read the Estimates, that will be exhausted this year, as the Parliamentary Secretary agreed on Tuesday morning. Where is the large unexpended surplus, and what is it?

Mr. Digby

There is a certain amount allocated to each of the Services, and the Admiralty portion of the amount allocated under the old Housing Loan leaves us sufficient for future spending up to the time of expiration.

Mr. Edwards

How much?

Mr. Digby

I could not give a figure offhand.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Dugdale

If I may, by leave of the House, I should like to speak again, because I have to make two little speeches to get two separate answers. I may say I am not by any means satisfied with the Civil Lord's reply. I am still firmly convinced, as I was before, and I think the general public will be convinced that the greater amount of expenditure at present is on works started and planned by the old Government, and there is very little provision for new works started by this Government. I am afraid that what the Civil Lord has said will not convince me otherwise. It may be that the OFFICIAL REPORT, when read, will convince others: it does not convince me.

Mr. Digby

I must explain again that there is a time-lag between the time when there is planning and when the work begins. Since my attention has again been drawn to it, I must say that the amount to be spent on works' service by this Government in the coming year is £3 million more than ever spent before in peace-time.

Mr. Dugdale

On married quarters entirely?

Mr. Digby

On works' services.

Mr. Dugdale

Works' service is a big thing, and it was married quarters I was concerned with. I do not think that £3 million is to be spent on married quarters.

I wanted to ask something about the small sum that is being devoted to educational and vocational training. The sum is small, and it shows a 10 per cent. drop. I hope that this does not mean that the present Government do not attach sufficient importance to this very important item. When we were in power we started a system of lectures and courses on current affairs, which were given to ratings in a large number of units. It is true there were courses before, but we made them compulsory in a number of cases, and there was a great increase in them.

I hope the Government are not going to dispense with these courses, because we thought it of importance that the rating should have an opportunity of getting some information not only on technical subjects connected with naval affairs, but on general subjects so that he may be better instructed as a citizen, and be, therefore, to that extent a better sailor.

The second question I want to ask concerns the provision of officers. I referred to that in my speech during previous proceedings, and I should like to ask two specific questions now. The first is, will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us the number of boys from public schools and from secondary schools who are going to Dartmouth today? We should like to know how those figures compare with the numbers from both kinds of school three years ago or at any convenient period before the change of Government. We can then get some idea whether there has been a change in trend or not.

The next question is whether the hon. and gallant Gentleman will give us figures showing the number of upper yard men who have been promoted during this Government's period of office, again comparing it with figures prior to this Government coming into power. If he gives us this information it will reassure us, I hope, that there has been no change in policy, and that this Government are as determined as the previous Government that our recruits should be drawn from every possible quarter, and that there is no attempt to limit the choice of officers to one particular class or group of people. We attach the greatest possible importance to the scheme of entry to Dartmouth at 16 so that we may be quite certain we have the very best officers, drawn from every walk of life. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will reply to these three questions and that his answers will be satisfactory.

9.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Commander Allan Noble)

I think it will be convenient if I first reply to the three questions which have been put to me by the right hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale). The first was on further education and vocational training. I am glad to be able to tell him that the cut which he sees in the Estimates need cause him no alarm. It is a cut of about £6,100 out of about £60,000, and it relates to three items. The first is civilian lecturers, in respect of which there is a slight reduction of about £1,300. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, this item has been going down steadily since 1948, when Vote A was very much higher. Last year there were 32 civilian lecturers and this year there will be 29. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate also that with the ending of retentions and recalls Vote A will go down considerably.

Another reduction under this subhead is on stores and equipment—mainly in respect of £3,000 on films which have been transferred to Vote 8 stores. The right hon. Gentleman need have no alarm over that. He will find that it leaves very little which can be spread over the subhead. We attach the greatest importance to further education in all its various fields—lectures, visits, private studies—to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, and they are still going on in the same form. I think the House would agree that one must have a sense of proportion in a time of financial difficulty, when the first priority is to make the men into efficient sailors, although we fully appreciate that a lively mind and a wide knowledge and outlook may be of the greatest benefit.

The next point is in regard to Dartmouth. Perhaps it would be convenient if I gave the acceptance figures for the May, 1950 entry. From the independent schools 71 per cent. were accepted, from direct-grant schools 36 per cent., and from grammar schools 33 per cent. These are percentages of those who passed the written examination. The hon. Member is no doubt interested in the figure of 33 per cent. for the grammar schools. There was rather a bad period in about September, 1950, when that figure went down to 18 per cent., but he will be glad to hear that the figure went up considerably in the entry which will join in May, 1953, when 71 per cent. were accepted from the independent schools, 42 per cent. from the direct-grant and 35 per cent. from the grammar schools. It worked out as the highest figure there has been for four years. I will give the right hon. Member those figures in writing because they are rather complicated. Except for the rather bad period they have remained very much the same.

With regard to the upper yardmen, the figures are rather complicated. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there are two boards. They have to pass the Fleet selection board and the Admiralty interview board. I can give him the figures for 1949. It is of interest to give the number of failures, because it meets the point that the right hon. Member made that perhaps more people had failed than during the period of his own Government. In 1949 the failure rate was 36.3 per cent. In 1950 it was 40.6 per cent. Again it seems to have been a rather bad period in both this and the Dartmouth entry, but I am glad to say that in 1951 the percentage was 34 per cent. and last year 31.7 per cent.

Mr. Dugdale

If 31.7 per cent. failed, does it mean that 70 per cent. got in last year?

Commander Noble

Yes, of those who went to the final board. However, perhaps we could discuss this matter together because these figures are not easy to deal with by question and answer.

I think that the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) will find an adequate answer to his speech by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. I do not think the hon. and learned Gentleman would expect me to answer it in full on the Report stage of the Navy Estimates.

I was interested in the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock), some of which I answered in the main Navy Estimates debate. For instance, I answered fairly fully then the question on our Merchant Navy, which does not really come within the scope of the Navy Estimates debate. As I said then, the Admiralty are fully aware of the position and take a great interest in this matter within the entire defence field. Primarily it is a question for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and, as I said then, he has this matter much in mind.

As my hon. Friend said, it is quite true that there is now a swing towards tanker tonnages, and what one might call the dry cargo ships have decreased in numbers, but that may only be a momentary swing of the pendulum. He raised an interesting point with regard to aircraft and suggested that we might buy all our aircraft from America. I am not sure that would be possible or practicable. There are several difficulties, for instance the dollar difficulty, which is always with us. Also there might be difficulties over the types of aircraft which each country required for their own navy.

However, I am certain that the question of types of aircraft is the kind of problem being discussed by the committee set up recently by the Chiefs of Staff, which is studying all maritime air matters. It is too early to say what conclusions or recommendations that committee will produce, but it was not set up because either Service was actively considering a revision of the present agreement. As my hon. Friend knows, there is an agreement between the Services on Coastal Command, and the integration of the two Services and the aircraft problem are the kind of things that the committee will be considering.

Mr. W. Edwards

The hon. and gallant Gentleman stated in reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) that because of the non-retention of serving men, and the fact that we are not calling up Reservists, there is not the necessity to spend so much money on education services. I asked a question in the main debate on the Navy Estimates in regard to the mean figure under Vote A for this year—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hopkin Morris)

Order, order.

It being Half-past Nine o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16 (Business of Supply) to put forthwith the Question necessary to dispose of the Resolution under consideration.

Question, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution," put, and agreed to.

Bill to provide, during 12 months, for the discipline and regulation of the Army and Air Force; ordered to be brought in by Mr. Antony Head, Mr. J. P. L. Thomas, Mr. George Ward and Mr. J. R. H. Hutchison.