HC Deb 13 March 1958 vol 584 cc645-55

Motion made, and Question proposed. That a sum, not exceeding £12,603,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of works, buildings and repairs at home and abroad including the cost of superintendence, purchase of sites, grants and other charges connected therewith, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1959.

5.13 p.m.

Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)

In the debate on the Navy Estimates, I dealt specifically with the effect of the Navy's future rôle on civilian labour and on the prospects of Service personnel. I want now to draw attention to the considerable decrease in the amount of money to be spent on dockyards and factories abroad in the ensuing year compared with the present year. The figure decreases from £391,000 to £50,000.

The expenditure of £50,000 on dockyards and factories abroad in the course of twelve months is not considerable. I presume that the drastic decrease is because of the closing of the Hong Kong dockyard and the possible reduction in the use of Malta dockyard. It is obvious that not so much money will be needed for Hong Kong dockyard from now on, because it has been announced by the Admiralty that that dockyard is to close down.

I want to make a plea for those locally entered people employed by us in the Hong Kong dockyard. We had a very full discussion about the effects of the closing of Sheerness and Portland dockyards and Chatham Barracks and certain naval air stations, but we did not deal with the problem in our Colonies. The Admiralty has as much concern with the Colonies as has the Colonial Office. The plain fact of the matter is that roughly 5,000 people employed under Vote 10 will be affected by the Admiralty policy and will eventually lose their jobs in Hong Kong as a result.

I had the great privilege of going to Hong Kong and representing the Admiralty when I was the Civil Lord. I want to say here and now that those locally entered people employed by us in Hong Kong do a very good job of work for the Admiralty and it is essential that we should not merely throw them on the scrap heap. Nothing could be worse to our colonial relations than if it got abroad that we were not giving people in the Colonies affected by the change of our defence policy that due and fair consideration to which they were entitled.

Anyone who has been to the Far East knows that it is not very easy for the Hong Kong Government or the Colonial Office to provide alternative work for these people. They do not have a very good life when they are in work, but the life must be absolutely terrible when they have no money coming in. They do not have the services which we have here if we are unfortunate enough to become unemployed. It is very important that the Admiralty should give the utmost consideration to this problem to see that our name is kept clean when we have to carry out the proposals upon which the Government have decided.

Has the Admiralty any knowledge of possible alternative work in Hong Kong for those people who will be affected by the closing of the dockyard? It may be that the Admiralty has not yet considered that aspect of the matter, but it is an aspect which should be considered by good employers. If there is no alternative employment which could be provided by the Admiralty or by the Hong Kong Government, what is to happen about the dockyards? Is it to be gradually evacuated and its contents left to deteriorate and rot so that we may save money as a result of that evacuation, or has the Admiralty any ideas about its possible use so that employment for those people who are to lose their jobs as a result of Government policy can be found?

Those are two very important points, and the third is compensation. Has an amount of compensation been suggested to the associations? It must be borne in mind that what might be called the trade unions of Honk Kong are in no way comparable to the unions of Great Britain. They are staff associations, and even when I was at the Admiralty it often took months and months for communications to pass to and from the associations.

They are not strong organisations. In view of that fact it is most important that a sympathetic line should come from the Admiralty; it should not wait to be pressed from outside. When Hong Kong dockyard is closed, I hope that the Admiralty can ensure, first, that if the workers cannot obtain alternative employment they will receive very sympathetic consideration in the matter of compensation for loss of employment, and secondly, see whether the dockyard can be used for other industrial purposes, so that some of those who would otherwise be unemployed may obtain work.

5.21 p.m.

Mr. Baldock

Although the Vote has diminished by £5 million since last year, in spite of the fact that there has been a reduction in numbers under Subhead A—Salaries and Allowances of Superintending Officers and Others—there is nevertheless an increase in salaries of £10,000. This is one of the most difficult increases to explain. It is a very large sum of money. Nearly £1¼ million is being spent upon these personnel, which are equivalent to one of the categories of scientific officers. With a diminishing quantity of work for a diminishing fleet, and with a diminishing number of establishments and dockyards, we should get a proportionately greater decrease in numbers and some saving in these salaries.

I want to make a point with regard to the recovery of money upon establishments which the Navy is closing down. I hope that the Navy will take the best professional advice as to how the largest sum of money can be realised in the disposal of these establishments, so that a counterbalancing sum can come in on the credit side of future Navy Estimates. Many of these sites are in valuable positions and contain plant, machinery and buildings which would be suitable for industrial purposes, and it is important, in the public interest, that the highest prices should be realised for them.

5.23 p.m.

Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu

I hope that the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary or the Civil Lord will not follow the point made by the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) too far in regard to holding up, possibly for a long time, the disposal of these sites. The most important thing is not the money they realise but their alternate use for the employment of displaced people.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards), I want to raise a point in connection with Vote 10, because I can find no other more suitable Vote. The point I want to make can be said to come within the terms of Subhead B (c)—Central Training and Educational Establishments. My point arises from a comment that was made during the Estimates debate by the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland). He passed on to the House criticisms that he had heard concerning the quality and methods of training in the Navy. He was not making the criticisms himself; he was passing on some that he had heard.

I was rather alarmed by these criticisms, and I would like some explanation. I have a special personal interest in the methods of teaching in the Navy, because, by the most extraordinary piece of luck, I happened to be given the job of organising the very first course in the history of the Navy on instructional technique. I thought that it was a rash undertaking and expected the G.Is. to resent being told how to teach gunnery by somebody as inexperienced as myself. Not only did they accept it, however, but Whale Island and gunnery schools and depots elsewhere established courses of their own in order to improve the quality of instruction.

I should like to know whether those courses on instructional technique are still being carried on and are increasing, and whether the criticisms that the hon. and gallant Member mentioned are still justifiable.

5.26 p.m.

Miss Vickers

I want to raise some points in connection with the dockyards. The White Paper stated that there was to be an introduction of systematic planning for work in the dockyards, but I suggest that we cannot have any such systematic planning if we still have very old work-sheds in which to work. In Devonport dockyard there still exists an old rope walk, and a gallows beneath, where prisoners captured in the Napoleonic Wars were hanged. These sheds are extremely old and do not lend themselves to systematic planning for modern work.

I should like to know if the dockyards themselves will be replanned. If so, I want to make one or two suggestions. Other hon. Members have said that the Admiralty is apt to cling on to its land and buildings. Some hon. Members may have seen the television programme "Panorama" about three weeks ago, which contained an item concerning Devonport. In 1945 the Admiralty took over 182 acres, but it has been gradually handing this land back, until it now has only about 70 acres, and we are hoping to have a definite assurance that this land will also be handed back so that we can include it in our plans.

If extra space is needed in order to build new and modern workshops, I suggest that before taking land outside the dockyards at Devonport, Plymouth and Portsmouth the Admiralty should see whether further room is available inside the dockyard walls. If it is found essential to place the buildings outside the walls, however, I suggest that it might not be found necessary to build enormous walls around the buildings. These walls are extremely expensive to construct.

If these buildings are outside the walls, however, and further cuts in dockyard requirements make their use unnecessary, they are far more likely to be taken over by private firms. If they are inside the dockyard a private firm has to go through all the difficulty of obtaining passes into the yard. I have previously asked whether a private firm could be allowed into one part of Devonport dockyard in order to carry out its repairs, but this was refused on the grounds that it was within the dockyard. We shall not be able to make use of the buildings in Devonport if they are enclosed within the dockyard walls.

I cannot go into as much detail as I should like in regard to Devonport, because I have had some conferences with the Civil Lord concerning the new scheme and it would be unfair for me to discuss the matter publicly now before he has had a chance of giving his considered opinion. Nevertheless, I hope he will reconsider the possibility of enclosing these shops with an ordinary wire fence instead of a wall.

In my constituency, too, it would mean a difference of at least £90,000 and possibly even more if he would consent not to close a certain road. As there are five public houses in that road and it will be necessary to compensate them, it is likely to prove an expensive scheme. It would be quite easy to make a change in the present plan.

I support what was said by the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) about the employees in Hong Kong. I have visited Hong Kong and know the splendid work they do and the tremendous difficulty of finding other work in that small island.

I wish to refer to the question of married quarters, which appears on page 140 of the Estimates. British personnel are coming back from Hong Kong and people are continually returning from Malta and Singapore. On arrival in this country they have nowhere to go with their families. Many of them have a number of children. Recently some of the establishments which catered for dockyard personnel and their families have been closed or taken over by other authorities. I should like an assurance that families returning to this country may be allowed to occupy some of the new accommodation which it is proposed to erect.

5.31 p.m.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

The Committee will sympathise with the point made by the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards), and I wish to associate myself with his closing remarks. I feel it will be a sign of some mismanagement if the facilities at Hong Kong dockyard do not pass into civil control and immediate use as soon as the Navy has done with them. It is a well-organised place with a strong labour force behind it, and it is difficult to understand why it should not become immediately available to some civil firm.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) referred to the small reduction in numbers and the actual increase in wages of the supervising staff borne on this Vote, notwithstanding the fact that the total Vote is down by between 25 per cent. and 30 per cent. I agree with my hon. Friend, although I can understand that while the programme is running down in the first place one cannot expect an immediate reduction in the numbers of those employed in this sort of work. On the other hand, I suggest to the Minister that if he does not make sure that the number is cut down fairly soon we shall find the amount of work will go up, because there will be plenty of people to think up new projects and new ideas.

I wish to ask a question but find myself in some difficulty in knowing how to do so and at the same time keeping in order. Vote 10—Works, Buildings and Repairs at Home and Abroad—does not represent anything like the total sum spent on works. In that respect, the Admiralty system of accounting is unique and makes it extremely difficult to exercise any form of Parliamentary control. If I may be allowed to invite the Minister's attention to page 116 of the Estimates, he will there find under Subhead B in section III of Vote 8 an additional sum of £5,236,000 which has to be added to the Vote 10 figure before we can arrive at something approaching the true cost of works and buildings for the coming year. Whereas the Vote 10 component of these works and buildings has fallen by nearly 30 per cent., the curious thing is that the other component has actiually increased. That is by no means easy to understand, and perhaps my hon. Friend will tell us how much Vote 10 covers. Does it include lighting, heating and buildings and so forth? I suggest that this point needs examining, because one would expect the Subhead under Vote 8, which is buried away rather inconspicuously, to move more or less in accord with Vote 10.

5.35 p.m.

Mr. Steele

To enable the Civil Lord and the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to collect their notes, I will give them an assurance that I shall not put any fresh questions. I wish to support the plea for the employees in Hong Kong which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards). I understand that the Admiralty is not being as generous in this matter as other employers in Hong Kong who are in a similar position, and the trade unions ask that at least this matter be considered by the Admiralty and something done. I should be grateful if the Civil Lord would tell us what are the terms under which the employment of these men is being discontinued and what scheme, if any, the Admiralty has in mind. Will there be something similar to what is done in this country about giving a week's pay for so many years of work or what is happening?

5.36 p.m.

Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith

The hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) asked questions about our people in Hong Kong who will lose their jobs as a result of the closure of the dockyard there. His hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) suggested that we were not carrying out "good employer" practices. My information is that we are doing so. Our compensation terms are two weeks' pay for every year of service, and an employee can qualify for that after one year's service. The Colonial Government is associating with the Admiralty, and a local committee has been set up to try to find jobs for these people. So far that is going well, but of course it is always easier at the beginning.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) mentioned the possibility of making use of the dockyard as a whole unit. That is not possible for two reasons; first, there is still to be a small naval base there, and secondly, for reasons of town planning the Colonial Government wish to use that area for non-industrial purposes. As the hon. Member for Stepney will know, there are two good shipbuilding firms there and it may be possible to use some of these highly skilled men in those firms.

Mr. W. Edwards

There are a number of skilled men employed in the dockyard but a very much greater number of unskilled men who would not be able to find work in the shipyards. Is anything to be done for them to ensure that they are employed?

Mr. Galbraith

I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman thinks I am being lighthearted about this. I have been to Hong Kong and seen these people, and I know how long some of them have been in the service of the Admiralty. But the hon. Member knows as well as I that the Admiralty is not an Employment Exchange: it is a defence Department and has to conduct its affairs in the most economical way. That does not mean that the Admiralty has no responsibility or that it is walking out without doing anything. We are giving gratuities in accordance with what we understand to be "good employer" practice. In an endeavour to find jobs for these people we are allowing anyone who wishes to leave to go early, even though it may be awkward from the point of view of conducting the business of the dockyard; and we have set up a Committee in the yard to try to find new jobs. But we cannot make jobs for these people.

Mr. W. Edwards

Could we be assured that the gratuity which is being offered to these displaced workers at Hong Kong dockyard is equal to any gratuity paid by private enterprise when it has to close down in Honk Kong?

Mr. Galbraith

My information is that our terms are on a level with "good employer" practice in Hong Kong. If the hon. Gentleman has any particular point in mind, I will be very grateful if he can bring it to my notice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) wondered about the size of the supervisory staff. His point was really answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett). It is obvious that, as we are running down, the works department will be the last department able to leave any particular place. The point about making sure of getting the largest possible sum was answered by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu). Of course, we want to get as good a price as we can when we move out of a place, but it would be wrong to sterilise in any area a large amount of property which might be put to some industrial use and give work to the people who are left.

As for training, the point raised by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East, I understand that methods of training are to be investigated at Dartmouth. My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) spoke about the condition of shops in the yard. I know, as she does, that some of them are old, but equally some are new. We hope that the proportion of new to old will improve. With regard to the size of the dockyard area, the hon. Lady knows that the matter is under discussion between my officials and those of the town council at Plymouth. At the moment, I would rather not say any more on the subject.

The hon. Lady raised a point about families returning from abroad. It might be met, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary suggested earlier this afternoon, by the pool of married quarters which we may have in the Chatham area as a result of the closure of the Chatham Command. It might be a cushion to help these people when they come back from abroad. It is no more than a possibility.

Miss Vickers

It will not help them if they are employed in Devonport.

Mr. Galbraith

No, but a house anywhere may be better than no house at all. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East, had a point on Vote 8 which he skilfully managed to bring up on Vote 10. One reason why the Vote 10 element looked so small is that we have been making considerable economies. That is one reason why these Votes have got out of balance. As to electrical work allied to Vote 10, we have a committee sitting on the subject. In due course this work will be amalgamated into Vote 10, so that we shall be able to see the total cost of any building work.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £12,603,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of works, buildings and repairs at home and abroad, including the cost of superintendence, purchase of sites, grants and other charges connected therewith, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1959.