HC Deb 18 February 1958 vol 582 cc1043-9
The Civil Lord to the Admiralty (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the future of the Royal dockyards, naval air establishments, and the structure of the Home Commands

Her Majesty's Government have decided, with great regret, that the Nore Command should be abolished; and that Sheerness and Portland Dockyards, the Aircraft Repair Yard, Donibristle, and five other air establishments in the United Kingdom, should be closed.

The decline in naval repair work resulting from the planned reductions in the Fleet will not require the closure of any other dockyard in the United Kingdom. Singapore and Gibraltar Dockyards will be retained. The future of Malta Dockyard is still under consideration.

The Nore Command will be abolished by April, 1961, and its remaining functions transferred to other authorities. At Sheerness, the dockyard will run down gradually, closing in April, 1960. At Chatham, the dockyard will be retained; but the barracks and other naval establishments will be closed—also by April, 1961.

At Portland, the dockyard will be reduced by July, 1959. The naval base will be retained. My noble Friend has considered with particular care the final stage of the concentration at Portland of underwater research and development and has decided that the Torpedo Experimental Establishment must be transferred there from Greenock in order to achieve the closest co-ordination in the development of underwater weapons. This move will take place towards the end of 1959.

The tasks of the Home Air Command will be concentrated in larger groups at fewer bases. The Aircraft Repair Yard at Donibristle will be closed by the end of 1959. The Royal Naval Air Stations at Ford, Bramcote and Eglinton will also be closed in about a year's time. The Air Station at Brawdy, which will be kept in reserve and the Air Electrical School at Worthy Down will close later.

I am well aware of what these decisions will mean for Chatham men of the Royal Navy and many Fleet Air Arm ratings, and for the civilian employees of the establishments to be closed. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and National Service will arrange as necessary to open special employment offices inside these establishments before discharges begin. My noble Friend will also be in touch with the Northern Ireland Minister of Labour and National Insurance. With the assistance of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, everything possible will be done to bring the facilities which will be available to the notice of suitable industrial interests. We shall enter into consultation immediately with the staff associations and trade unions.

Details of these plans and of their effects are included in my noble Friend's Explanatory Statement on the Navy Estimates, which will be available in the Vote Office later this afternoon.

The result of the reorganisation will be a total reduction of about 2,700 naval posts ashore and of over 7,000 civilian posts. Thus, more men will be available to serve at sea, and an annual saving of about £7 million will be achieved. The Government are confident that, although some hardship will be unavoidable, all those in the Naval Service will appreciate the necessity for these drastic measures for the purpose of maintaining the strength of the sea-going Fleet.

Mr. Steele

I am sure the House will appreciate that this is a statement of grave importance to the livelihood of the many men concerned. We are rather suspicious that on many of these matters the Ministry of Defence is much more concerned with cuts in numbers than the efficiency of the Services.

I have been looking at the Navy Estimates for last year and I found that practically no new naval construction was taking place in naval dockyards. It seems to me that at a time—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech".]—I want to put this point to the Civil Lord. It seems to me that at the time when private yards have full order books, and are finding difficulty in meeting their commitments and getting new orders because of late delivery dates, very little new construction is taking place in the naval dockyards. Could the hon. Gentleman say what is the actual percentage of new construction of ships in naval dockyards?

May I also ask what consultation with the President of the Board of Trade and the Minister of Labour really means? With the numbers affected, particularly in Sheerness, where no alternative employment is available, this is a major operation. Surely some organisation should be set up to ensure that something is done? I want to know what plan of action the Admiralty has in this matter.

Finally, may I ask this? This question of the transfer of the Greenock establishment is difficult to understand, and will require a much more satisfactory explanation than the mere bald statement we have had today. Is the Civil Lord aware—

Sir R. Jennings

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member to make a speech from the Opposition Front Bench on this matter?

Mr. Speaker

It is usual to put these things in an interrogatory form. I thought that it might have been done with a little ingenuity by the hon. Member. If Ministers make statements they must expect a certain amount of questioning on them.

Mr. Steele

I am trying to be as brief as possible, because I am sure that the House wants to welcome the new Member for Rochdale.

In view of the fact that the Admiralty first said that the trouble in Greenock was the provision of houses, and when local authorities indicated that they were prepared to supply houses the Admiralty then said it was a question of economy, has not the whole thing been suspicious from the very start? Can the Civil Lord give us a full explanation of what is happening?

Mr. Galbraith

The present amount of new construction work in the dockyards is about 5 per cent. of the total and amounts approximately to £.6 million. Over the next few years we intend to increase that to about £1.75 million, but I must point out that the prime purpose of the dockyards is not to build ships but to repair them.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

Is my hon. Friend aware that his announcement about Eglinton, however necessary, will cause dismay in Northern Ireland, where there is very severe unemployment? Can he say how many men will be thrown out of work there? Can he give an absolute assurance that everything possible will be done to find them alternative work?

Mr. Woodburn

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. Would it not be advisable to allow the Minister to answer the questions put by us?

Mr. Speaker

I thought he had answered them, but if I was too quick I am sorry.

Mr. Galbraith

We are particularly sorry to have to close Eglinton, because of unemployment difficulties in the area. We anticipate that about 300 men will be discharged by wastage and in other ways. Unfortunately, because of the nature of Eglinton Airfield and reductions in the Fleet Air Arm, it was impossible to avoid closing that station.

Mr. Woodburn

What about Greenock?

Mr. Donnelly

On a point of order. I understood the Civil Lord to be answering a question before the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) rose. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) had asked a number of questions, particularly about consultations with the Board of Trade. I understood that the Civil Lord was in process of answering those questions when you called the hon. Member for Londonderry.

Mr. Galbraith

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour is setting up offices in all these establishments to help to find jobs for the men who are discharged. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is also doing everything he can to bring to the notice of suitable industrial and commercial concerns facilities which will now be available.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that while we shall always applaud any effort on the part of Her Majesty's Government to reduce expenditure—which, by the way, is consistent with the policy of the Labour Party—we do not believe the Government have gone far enough and we shall welcome further steps in this desirable direction? Will he say whether, in promoting this new scheme of reduction in personnel and the like, the Government have taken appropriate measures to ensure that the men being displaced in various parts of the United Kingdom will be absorbed in other occupations?

Mr. Galbraith

As I stated in reply to the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele), we are doing everything we possibly can to ensure that these men find jobs.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

Is my hon. Friend aware that the announcement of these measures will be received with great satisfaction—

Mr. Ross

Not in Greenock.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

—and that there is evidence of the shift of expenditure from the tail to the teeth of the Royal Navy? Is he aware that all those who have the best interests of the Navy at heart will welcome that?

Mr. Bottomley

May I assume that the naval personnel based on Chatham will find employment elsewhere? If that is so, will the vacated buildings be available for local authorities, or for industrial purposes? I have in mind the Royal Marine Barracks, which have been lying empty and derelict for six years. How many civilian personnel will be dismissed from Chatham?

Mr. Galbraith

We anticipate that about 500 non-established personnel in establishments in the Chatham area will be discharged. Any buildings that we do not require we shall, of course, dispose of.

Mr. Burden

Is my hon. Friend aware that the decision to close the Nore establishment will be very much regretted because of the long, traditional connections it has with the Medway towns, but that the decision to continue to keep the Chatham Dockyard open will be received with great relief in the Medway towns, in view of the fact that for a long time it has been stated that it was the Government's intention to close it?

I should like to join with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) in asking my hon. Friend to ensure that everything possible will be done, in view of this action, to extend industrial activities in the Medway towns.

Mr. P. Wells

Is the Civil Lord aware that this decision will be received with dismay in Sheerness, and with a feeling of callous betrayal? Will he say what action the Government will take to prevent the Isle of Sheppey becoming a distressed area?

Mr. Galbraith

I really cannot accept that it has been a betrayal at all. We have spent a great deal of time in trying to adjust the shore side of the Navy, and the dockyards in particular, to the reduced size of the Fleet.

I said earlier that my two right hon. Friends will do everything they possibly can to maintain employment in that area.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

Will the Civil Lord confirm that the decision to transfer the Torpedo Experimental Establishment from Greenock is based not on grounds of economy, but on highly contentious technical arguments in naval circles themselves? Is he aware that as there are about 2,500 unemployed already in Greenock many of the Admiralty employees who are to be sacked as a result of this transfer will have a very hard task in finding work, and that representations will be made to the Government to bring industry to my town now?

Mr. Galbraith

As I have said, my noble Friend and myself, as we both come from the West Coast of Scotland, were very sorry to have to come to this decision. The overriding reason, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, was not one of finance, but of the necessity to achieve greater technical and scientific efficiency by concentrating all underwater development in one part of the country.

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