HC Deb 10 March 1959 vol 601 cc1182-9

Motion made, and Question proposed. That a sum, not exceeding £16,900, 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, 1960.

8.26 p.m.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

The third paragraph of the Explanatory Notes, on page 211, says: 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. How far has the Admiralty faced the responsibility imposed upon it by this paragraph? What concern is it showing with regard to declining orders for shipbuilding, and, even more important at the moment, declining orders for ship repairing? In my constituency there is growing anxiety among those engaged in the ship-repairing industry.

On Tyneside, in general we have a higher number of unemployed in ship repairing than we have had for many years. It does not appear that future prospects are very bright and I wish to ask the hon. Gentleman whether they will become brighter as a result of what the Admiralty is called on to do under this Vote. Thousands of workers in my constituency are concerned about this matter. They wish to know whether there is a future for them in the industry and it would be helpful to have some reassurance on the matter.

In view of the competition for new orders and ship repairing, I wish to know whether the Admiralty is making representations to the Government to lift the nonsensical embargo which was placed some time ago on the provision of certain ships for foreign buyers. We know that restrictions on speed, capacity and other things were imposed for various ships because of the cold war. It was thought that some of these vessels might be converted from use for commercial purposes to naval purposes. I do not think that that argument applies in the day of the hydrogen bomb and I should like to think that the Admiralty was using its influence to ensure that any such restrictions which still apply will be removed.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will inform me about future prospects for ship repairing, particularly for Tyneside. The number of unemployed is substantial. Many men do not know of any further orders coming in and this causes great anxiety.

8.30 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander C. Maydon

I wish to ask whether the Civil Lord can give the Committee any report of the progress of the Committee on Nuclear Powered Ships, which bears his name. Can he tell us how frequently the Committee is meeting and how many meetings have already been held? We read in the newspapers that the Russian icebreaker "Lenin" which, we are told, is nuclear powered, is almost ready to go to sea. The Americans are constructing a vessel which, I understand, is to be called the "Savannah" and is also nuclear powered. As we are predominantly a maritime nation I feel that this country should be in the forefront in this business.

No one would contend that we should rush to a shipyard and lay down a vessel without giving the matter due consideration. From the very little knowledge which many of us have managed to glean on this matter we recognise that for some time ahead a vessel powered by this new form of engine is most unlikely to be an economic cargo carrier. But I do not think that is any reason to stand back and let other countries take the lead. I feel that in the near future Britain should embark on such a building project and get one of these ships afloat so that we may learn from actual experience of the difficulties and limitations which may be encountered.

Mr. Wilkins

The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) are suffering from a large amount of unemployment due to the laying up of ships in that area. This results in pressure being exerted on some hon. Members and the argument being advanced that it is time that we thought in terms of nationalising this industry. Would there be any objection by the Admiralty if we borrowed the first phrase which appears on page 211 of the Navy Estimates: On the outbreak of war in 1939 the Government brought into operation the planned control of the country's entire shipbuilding and ship-repair resources, thus securing co-ordination of design, allocation of Government shipbuilding to commercial yards and the requisite priority of labour and material."?

8.35 p.m.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I wish to ask my hon. Friend one or two questions arising from the serious issues referred to by the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough). I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend had to say on the subject yesterday and I suggest that it would clear our minds and be helpful were he to make an authoritative statement in amplification of the remarks that he made yesterday, if he is in a position to do so.

In the first place, while we all understand that the major cause of the decline in orders is the general depression of the shipbuilding industries throughout the world, to what extent is it true to say that the United Kingdom is proportionately losing more orders than other countries? If it is a fact that we are going backwards relatively compared with our competitors, to what extent is the difficulty due to our prices being too high and to what extent is it due to the dates of delivery being uncertain?

One sees assertions made in the Press, sometimes in one direction and somermes in the other. I should like to know whether the Admiralty has formed any opinion of its own on this very important matter.

8.36 p.m.

Mr. Willis

I should like to ask the Civil Lord a question which I put to him last night. It concerns Scotland, which is also faced with this problem. We understand that in Scotland this year the shipbuilding industry will suffer more than last year and that next year it will, in fact, suffer more than this year. Therefore, for two or three years the outlook is exceedingly bleak.

The only question that I want to ask the hon. Gentleman, because our time has almost run out, is: what is the Admiralty able to do and what is it doing? It would assist us very considerably in Scotland if we could be given some hopeful news about this industry. The Civil Lord may know the position himself, but it is certainly a very bleak prospect indeed for next year and I think that he ought to tell us what is being done to meet it.

8.37 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Howard

I see that on page 211 of the Estimates it is said that the Admiralty is endeavouring to assist whenever possible in the procurement of scarce materials and components. I had a case recently of a go-ahead shipyard in the South-West which was in trouble over getting a special type of steel plate for ship repairing. In the Admiralty there was considerable difficulty, although the local people said that they could supply it.

I said a few words about consulting the Civil Lord and then I found that the steel plate was procured very quickly indeed. I hope that these words will be noted in the right place, that the next time those locally concerned will be able to produce it easily and quickly and that the obstructive elements in Queen Anne's Mansions may be a little less obstructive on future occasions.

I should like to support fully what my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut. Commander Maydon) has said. This is a most important matter. We have stressed it so often that we should be told as much as possible about how this work on nuclear powered ships is going on. We have seen pictures of the "Lenin" afloat and I think that anything we can be told will be most useful, as this is a sphere of marine engineering in which I feel that we are not pressing quite so far ahead as we might do.

8.39 p.m.

Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith

I suppose that tonight I ought to be able to make a better speech than I did last night, because last night was really a rehearsal of arguments on some points that have been put forward this evening. It is, however, very difficult for me to answer in any way other than I answered last night.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) talked about declining orders for shipbuilding and the difficulties over repair work. When he asked what the Admiralty intended to do about it, I do not know whether he was hoping that the Admiralty might be able to send some of their naval vessels for repair in civilian yards. if that is what he was hoping, I am sorry to have to say to him that there is an almost minimal chance of that happening because our own Royal Dockyards, as he probably knows, have been reduced in number and the ones kept have been kept at the right number to deal with a Fleet of the existing size.

The outlook for ship-repairing depends upon an increase in world trade and improvements in the freight rate. That is the short answer, and it happens to be the true one. Whether it is palatable or not is another matter.

Mr. Fernyhough

Would the Civil Lord like to say something on the point I raised concerning the embargo list? There is a rumour that orders have been given, and we want to do something about that in the future.

Mr. Galbraith

It is true that immediately after the war there were various restrictions but, as result of negotiations recently between the various countries represented on the Consultative Committee, restrictions on building and repair in ships for the Eastern bloc have been reduced. I am satisfied that they are now so few that they do not affect any ordinary merchant ship. Warships. of course, are in another category.

Mr. Fernyhough

When the hon. Gentleman says that restrictions are few, may I recall that we lost one order solely because we wanted a restricted speed? It was ridiculous. The people for whom that ship was intended said, "It will mean making two trips instead of three, because of the distance they have to go within any given period, because the speed is restricted." Therefore, they went somewhere else with their order. I do not want to lose such orders.

Mr. Galbraith

Of course, and I quite understand the point made by the hon. Gentleman; but that was three years ago. There have been improvements and liberalisations since then. The most important thing is that we must go along with our Allies in this matter. We cannot go ahead of the times. There has been very considerable liberalising and I imagine that if a country wanted a ship of the nature which the hon. Gentleman described there would be no obstacle to having it built in this country.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut. Commander Maydon) asked me various questions about nuclear propulsion for ships. Again, I really do not know that I can add a great deal to what I said last night. I do not know whether he was in the Chamber when I wound up the debate, and, of course, he has not had an opportunity of reading my statement in HANSARD, because it was not published today. It will appear tomorrow. I do not want to take up the time of the Committee repeating what I said last night.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked me how many times my committee had met. The answer, and I speak from memory, is seven or eight times. I quite understand how impatient hon. Members are but this is a very difficult and complicated thing. The two foreign ships that have been talked about employ a system of propulsion which is not anything like economic. The first ships that we produce probably will not be economic, but we want them to be within sight of being economic. Otherwise, the money will very largely have been wasted.

The hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) had an answer for these difficulties, as so many hon. Members of the Opposition have. It was, "Just wave a wand, nationalise the industry, and everything is apparently going to be all right." That will not do. A great international industry like shipbuilding and ship-repairing depends upon international trade. Only when international trade is booming will we get an increase in ship-repairing and particularly in shipbuilding. I am afraid, therefore, that the hon. Member's suggestions would not produce the improvement that he seeks.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) asked me about what he called "proportionately going backwards"—that is, the tonnage that we were building in this country compared with other countries. It is true that other countries have gone ahead and built more tonnage than we have done, but we have maintained a steady production for a long number of years and our order books are carefully balanced. It is not a question merely of tonnage, but it concerns also the ancillary industries.

Foreign countries, Japan in particular, are building large tankers which do not have a great deal of ancillary equipment to be put in them. It is much better to have a balanced industry such as we have, with not only tankers and large ore carriers, but passenger ships also.

Mr. Fernyhough

When tonnage figures are published, could the Minister arrange also to publish the respective values? If the values were published, we would not appear so low down in the list. Everybody knows that a 20,000-ton liner is worth 100,000 tons of tankers.

Mr. Galbraith

That is a very good point. It is one which has often occurred to me and I shall certainly look into it. It is a question not only of tonnage, but of value. We in this country build not only the larger ships: we build small ships which are of great value. There is in addition, of course, the naval building programme.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) asked what the Admiralty was doing. He seemed to think that it had no function to perform. The experience quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) shows, however, that a few whispered words of the Admiralty's interest sometimes produce what one wants. The Admiralty is the sponsor Department of the industry. It might be called, not the fairy godmother, but the kind, avuncular relative who looks at the ills of the industry and tries to help it to health.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £16,900, 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. 1960.