HC Deb 15 March 1955 vol 538 cc1168-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £21,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of the Directorate of Merchant Shipbuilding and Repairs and of certain miscellaneous expenses, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1956.

Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire East)

I make no apology for raising the question of shipbuilding and repairs on this Vote. I am surprised to see only an item of £21,000 in the Vote, but the explanatory notes reveal that some items appear in Votes 10, 11 and 13, so I assume that this £21,000 is a minimum figure, and there is apparently a larger sum devoted to this purpose.

The explanatory notes tell why the Vote is now so small. It is the result of dispensing with the functions of the Admiralty in the production of merchant ships. That was taken over in 1939 and continued during the war, but now the production of merchant ships has been handed over the the shipbuilding companies and the industry is dependent upon the companies in obtaining orders for the shipbuilding yards. The explanatory notes say: As a result, the Vote is now small, but it has been retained in order to bring out the Admiralty's continued responsibility as the production authority for the merchant shipbuilding, ship repairing and marine engineering industries and for maintaining contact with these industries on all matters of common concern. It has been retained as a symbol that the Admiralty is still responsible for merchant shipbuilding and shipbuilding repairs.

We are told that the Russians have built over 1,000 submarines, so I should have thought that merchant shipbuilding, the maintenance of the facilities for extension, and research into new techniques would be on the list of top priorities in the Admiralty programme.

There is in my constituency the best firm of shipbuilders in the world. I will not say "one of the best"; I say "the best," John Brown and Company. The other evening I heard one of my hon. Friends say that he came from the finest city in the world. He comes from Glasgow, and I say that the finest shipbuilding firm in the world is in my constituency.

The position of John Brown's is not difficult at the moment, but on the Clyde there is difficulty in shipbuilding. Is the Admiralty responsible for shipbuilding and marine engineering, in view of the Russian submarine threat? The Prime Minister has told us that we have only three or four years, and I should have thought that the Admiralty would have told us what it is doing to help the shipbuilding industry in research and in many other directions. One of the difficulties we are faced with in the shipbuilding industry—and the policy of the present Government is making it worse—is the assistance which Governments everywhere are giving to their shipbuilding industries in the form of easier credit facilities. I do not know whether the Admiralty has any influence with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it is responsible for the shipbuilding industry and I hope it will use its influence with the Chancellor to see that proper credit facilities are provided for shipbuilding.

If we were again to be faced with war, then, once again, the Government would have to take over control of shipbuilding. The Merchant Navy and the Navy will have to be integrated. They were looked upon in wartime as almost a single unit, because one is complementary to the other. In wartime we have always had grave difficulty in getting food supplies and raw materials to this country.

We all know how the figures of British shipbuilding and the British Mercantile Marine are being reduced in terms of world figures, and the United States Government with their "fifty-fifty" rule are acting against the interests of British shipbuilding. If we have any faith in our Mercantile Marine and in our Navy something should be done quickly to preserve our shipbuilding industry. It is true that there are enough orders on the books to last for two years, and that there are ship-repairing facilities on the Clyde and at other places, but we have no graving dock suitable for taking some of the tankers of 20,000 to 30,000 tons that are being launched.

In view of the present world situation the position is serious, so I ask the Civil Lord, when preparing this Vote for next year, to examine the problem of British shipbuilding, not in the light of the superior techniques of our competitors, not because of their better workmanship or because of their better productive capacity, but in the light of the deliberate action of other Governments which is acting adversely against British shipbuilding.

We on the Clyde are confident that our shipwrights and platers, our carpenters and joiners, and our companies can compete with any yards in the world, given a fair financial credit basis. But the Government must be behind us, as the Government of Germany and the Government of Japan and the Government of the United States are behind their shipbuilders. British shipbuilding industry cannot fight a lone battle.

After all, this industry produces splendid profits for the shipbuilders and, through freights, it produces splendid profits for the owners of the merchant fleets. Here is an opportunity for the Government to compensate for some of the great expenses incurred by the Navy in protecting that shipping. The Government could take over shipbuilding and then what we lost on the roundabouts we could make up on the swings. That seems to me a fair proposition and I believe that it would not be a sufficient argument to say that, if our merchant shipbuilding were State controlled, it would be inefficient. I have never been able to agree with some of my hon. Friends who say that the Admiralty and the Navy are inefficient. I think that the British Navy is efficient and I do not think that Britain would have reached her position in the world today if that had not been the case.

I therefore plead for the Clyde shipbuilding industry. I was surprised to learn from the answer to a recent Question that none of the shipbuilders on the Clyde has applied for licences for building ships for the Soviet Union, presumably because they have had no inquiries. The Admiralty is responsible for shipbuilding in this country, and, therefore, responsible for maintaining shipbuilding facilities. It is important, therefore, that the facilities should be kept working because, if machinery is allowed to become rusty, it is a job to get it going again. I suggest that the Civil Lord might get in touch with the President of the Board of Trade with a view to taking the building of ships for the Soviet Union out of the strategic list. I understand that they must be ships of under—

The Temporary Chairman (Sir Arthur Colegate)

Order. I do not like to interrupt the hon. Member but he is going a little wide of this Vote.

Mr. Bence

I began to develop a conscience, Sir Arthur, that perhaps I was out of order, but I have always found it difficult to keep in order. [An HON. MEMBER: "The hon. Gentleman was out of order ten minutes ago."] Then that only shows how generous you have been to me, Sir Arthur.

Mr. Callaghan

I hope you will allow me to pursue this point for the sake of future discussion, Sir Arthur. Last year we had a very wide debate on the future of British shipbuilding because the Admiralty is in charge of it. That debate included considerable reference to the policy of licensing for building for other countries. While we all understand your Ruling, I hope that you were not intending it to mean that the Chair was narrowing our discussion so that we could not in future raise the question of licensing, which is the responsibility of the Admiralty.

5.45 p.m.

The Temporary Chairman

No, that is the position only on this Vote. There are other opportunities for discussing the whole of that policy.

Mr. Bence

I bow to your Ruling, Sir Arthur, and I leave that point. I do not know whether my last point will be in order. It is about conversions.

I do not know whether conversions come under merchant shipping and repairs, but I will take a chance on it. I have said already that we have on the Clyde ship-repairing facilities idle; in fact, the repairing situation on the Clyde is serious. Some of our men have been employed in the construction of naval work for many years, as have their fathers. This area is safer than Portsmouth and Chatham and it seems right that as much conversion as possible should be carried out there to keep those facilities in being.

It is futile, in these days, to believe that if our platers and shipwrights on the Clyde become idle they will simply wait until orders come along. They will not; they will be gone. One of the problems of a great basic industry like this one is that, if it is allowed to become idle, the labour is dispersed and it is difficult to get back. The housing situation has almost destroyed the mobility of labour.

It is imperative for the safety of Britain, for the continuance of our Mercantile Marine, for keeping together our highly skilled teams of workers on the Clyde, who are the best in the world, that the Admiralty should pay special attention, when issuing orders for conversions, when considering plans, to see that the Clyde is fully employed on the repairing and building side. I hope, therefore, that we shall get a graving dock in the near future.

Mr. G. R. Howard

On this Vote I would like to deal with two points referred to by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence). First, I hope that their Lordships of the Admiralty are bearing in mind the necessity for research in the speeds of modern ships because, in view of the higher underwater speeds of submarines today, the speed of a convoy or of ships proceeding independently is a vital factor.

I also want to touch on the important matter of flag discrimination. The Navy Estimates tell us, in page 213, that the Vote … has been retained in order to bring out the Admiralty's continued responsibility as the production authority for the merchant shipbuilding, ship-repairing and marine engineering industries and for maintaining contact with these industries on all matters of common concern. I call a matter of common concern the present attitude of the American Government on flag discrimination. It is not right to call it a "fifty-fifty" rule. It is not. It is 50 per cent. to them and 50 per cent. to the rest, including America. It was all right when they were sending us gifts, but it should not be allowed now that it is merchandise. I hope, therefore, that their Lordships will bring pressure to bear upon the appropriate Governments and other Departments to make our views on this practice clear to the Americans.

Mr. Kenneth Thompson (Liverpool, Walton)

I want to follow some of the observations made by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence), with many of which I agree. However, I am sure that he, like other hon. Members, will not expect me to agree with his observations about the Clyde. There is on the Clyde a great shipbuilding and ship-repairing industry, and no one would wish to belittle the importance of either the area or the yard which he mentioned, but the Committee will not pass so lightly over the affront to the River Mersey and the great works of Cammell Laird which the hon. Gentleman offered. The fact that we can disagree on the relative importance of these two parts of a great industry is itself evidence of the significance of the industry to the nation as a whole.

I am very much interested in the amount of research and thought that the Admiralty is giving at present to the design of merchant ships, for there is no other single problem connected with the Merchant Navy which is so important. We must remember that the whole pattern of the inland transport system of the country has changed radically since the days when the old type of merchant ship was designed, built and launched. Improvements have been made and continue to be made in the ships which are built, but there is enormous room for improvement.

In the old days most of the merchandise going into or coming from the docks was conveyed by rail, and a small parcel at a time was handled from the container to the quay and from the quay to the ship's hold. All that has changed. The great bulk of the merchandise is now conveyed by road, and that simple fact has altered the whole pattern by which ships are loaded and unloaded at the quayside. The basic design of the vessel itself and the approaches to the holds of vessels have to be considered anew. Many new and adventurous ideas in cargo handling have been brought into operation at our quaysides and new designs of holds and hatches require to be brought into operation in our merchant ships.

I hope that the Admiralty will use some part of the comparatively small sum which it is asking the Committee to approve in order to keep its hands on the development of the design of merchant ships in these changed conditions.

Captain Robert Ryder (Merton and Morden)

I strongly support the plea which has been made from both sides of the Committee that it is about time the Admiralty took an interest in the question of flag discrimination in the merchant fleet.

I wish, also, to refer to the question of the large graving docks which are needed for the new tankers. In recent years the size of tankers has increased enormously, and we are now producing very large vessels indeed. I should like to know whether the Admiralty has made a survey of our docking facilities to ascertain whether we can dry-dock these vessels within our own resources, and if so, what the result of the survey has been. Is it not time the Admiralty gave some support and encouragement to various projects round the country for improving facilities which are, in effect, a very important strategic requirement?

Mr. Digby

I am very glad to have an opportunity to say a word on the very important subject of the merchant shipbuilding industry, of which the Admiralty is the sponsor. The sum of £21,000 may seem a very small one, but I can assure the Committee that the Admiralty's interest in the subject is very much greater than that. We take the greatest interest in the industry and keep in the closest touch with it, particularly on such questions as future orders.

I am glad to be able to tell the Committee that orders for our merchant shipbuilding industry are coming in rather better this year. There has been a distinct improvement. There had been some anxiety about the slackening off in orders, but orders are definitely coming in considerably better than they were, although we are still facing some fierce foreign competition and there has been a tendency overseas for cheap credit to be allowed to our competitors and even for subsidies of one kind or another to be granted. Nevertheless, we are convinced that the British shipbuilding industry, with its traditional skill, is still capable of holding its own in the world, given a fair chance. I should be the very last to start a dispute as to who was the best shipbuilder in the British Isles. I am glad to say that we have a very large number of very good shipbuilders.

The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) referred to orders for the Soviet Union and asked whether there had been any inquiries in the Clyde area. I believe there were some inquiries, but they did not get to the stage of being orders, and, therefore, the question of licences did not arise.

Several hon. Members have spoken about repairs to naval vessels. I am rather doubtful whether I am in order here, but I should like to take the opportunity of saying that, when considering the refitting of naval vessels, we are giving the most careful thought to whether the work should go to the Clyde or the Mersey or wherever else it might be. We consult other Government Departments, including the Ministry of Labour, to ensure that the work goes where it is most required. We do this because we are most anxious to keep the repair facilities, as well as the building facilities, of the country in a good state.

Two hon. Members have referred to the question of flag discrimination. I must reply that is not really within the responsibility of the Admiralty, and, therefore, that I cannot deal with it.

Reference has also been made to the speed and design of merchant ships. This is a matter which can only be influenced by the Admiralty. Obviously, it is primarily a matter for the owners who order the ships and pay for them. However, here again, we endeavour to keep intouch with the latest thought in the industry and to use our influence in the direction which we believe to be in the interests of the industry as a whole and in the interests of the country from all points of view, including defence.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Merton and Morden (Captain Ryder) raised an extremely important point about large graving docks and pointed out, rightly, that, owing to the larger sizes of tankers which are now being constructed in the country, very much larger dry docks are necessary. The Admiralty has been into the question very carefully through the medium of a committee and has made an assessment of the position. It is most anxious to encourage ship repairers who do this kind of business to build more large dry docks. I am glad to say that a number have been constructed and more are projected. We are not, however, in a position, under this Vote or any other Vote, to give financial assistance; we are able to give encouragement of only a non-financial nature.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £21,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of the Directorate of Merchant Shipbuilding and Repairs and of certain miscellaneous expenses, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March. 1956.