HC Deb 10 March 1960 vol 619 cc717-30

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a sum, not exceeding £19,264,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of works, buildings, machinery 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, 1961.

7.12 p.m.

Mr. Willis

I wish to raise in rather more detail a matter which arose when we discussed Vote A, the Admiralty's decision to keep Chatham Barracks. When I questioned the hon. Gentleman about this, he said: … 'Circumstances have changed. We have to refit some live ships at Chatham. We find that this is absolutely essential and, therefore, it is sensible and economical not to give those naval barracks to the Admiralty'"— I think that the hon. Gentleman meant the Army—

Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing indicated assent.

Mr. Willis

'and to move our Supply School to Devon-port, but to stay where we are and occupy the greater part of those barracks.'"— Surely the Admiralty knew last year, when it categorically said that it intended to close those barracks, whether ships would be refitted in Chatham Dockyard.

I am not certain what is meant by "live ships", but I presume that that means ships more or less in commission coming in for refit. The practice seems to have changed. As far as I remember, when we came in for refits, at least a great number of ratings lived aboard ship. Some might have gone to barracks, but certainly not all.

I then asked the hon. Gentleman what had happened to H.M.S. "Collingwood". The H.M.S. "Collingwood" block at Chatham is a comparatively modern block and I understand it to be capable of accommodating about 1,000 men. Surely that could have been used for this purpose. I am told, however, that "Collingwood" is now to be completely gutted to provide dockyard workshops. I received a letter this morning to that effect.

If that is so, it seems a rather strange and expensive procedure to take this comparatively modern block and gut it in order to provide workshops. I should have thought that it would have been much better to have provided modern workshops. If what I was told is not true, why cannot "Collingwood" be used to accommodate the men from ships being refitted in Chatham Dockyard?

After my intervention about "Collingwood", the hon Gentleman went on to say, We are taking that matter into consideration, but the Supply School comprises 500 people. We visualise that the absolute peak load might reach 1,000, or perhaps even 1,300, outside that from ships, fleet maintenance parties and other organisations."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th March, 1960; Vol. 619, c. 191–2.] I wonder whether that number requires accommodation. Surely a great number, if not the majority, of men live ashore. Surely they live in Chatham, Gillingham, Sheerness, or somewhere else nearby, and go ashore every night and are delighted to be on "lodge and com". Why should we have to provide barrack accommodation for them when they prefer to live at home instead of in barracks? Even if as many as 1,000 or 1,300 require to be accommodated, "Collingwood" would accommodate 1,000.

Are the barracks to be reopened? When it was decided to close them, I assume the Admiralty had sufficient knowledge to know that it could take the Supply School to Devonport, which was the original decision. Why has it become necessary for it to go to Chatham? Whatever may be said about empire building, if there are to be 1,000 men ashore at Chatham, the hon. Gentleman will find that a staff will be required—cooks, sick bay attendants, messmen and others—and then we shall have a great deal of paperwork and, before we know where we are, we shall have large office accommodation and, in a year or two, before the end of this Parliament, we shall be told that there is once again a Commander-in-Chief, Nore. That is in the nature of things.

I think that this is a mistake by the Admiralty. The Admiralty should have adhered to its original decision to close the barracks. There are no barracks at Rosyth, although ships are refitted there, because the men are boarded out. I am told that only one man is required to do the work involved. I am sure that the men would prefer to be boarded out to going into barracks and such an arrangement would save the Army spending a very large sum of money on building new barracks for the Royal Engineers, because the Army could use the Chatham Barracks.

I am not yet convinced that this is not a bad move. I cannot help thinking that, feeling reassured since the Government had won the election and the monetary situation was a little easier and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had not frowned too severely on increases in the Estimates, the Admiralty was able to think that this was an opportunity to branch out a little.

I cannot see any other reason why this should have been done. What the Admiralty want could well have been done without taking back Chatham Barracks, and I should like the hon. Gentleman to give us a much better explanation than we have yet had.

7.20 p.m.

Lieut-Commander S. L. C. Maydon (Wells)

I take the opposite view. I shall not argue the case for Chatham itself, but the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) mentioned Rosyth. Last summer I experienced what goes on in Rosyth when I made a short visit to a fishery protection vessel there.

Today, we are rightly paying our men in the Navy much higher rates of pay. Their time is more valuable. Apart from that, standards also have been quite rightly improved both in the Navy and in its ancillary services. I am referring to the standards of living, food, and so on. It is wrong that men from ships which are refitting should be expected to camp out, sometimes for fairly extended periods, in uncomfortable and insanitary conditions in a dockyard. The alternative, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East suggested, is "lodge and com", which for many reasons is undesirable.

Mr. Willis


Lieut.-Commander Maydon

There is another alternative, that of providing adequate accommodation in or near the dockyard.

What is being done at Chatham is a sensible step in that direction. It is a pity that it could not have been foreseen and that we had to change our minds over this, but it is right that the Admiralty has changed its mind and that a part of Chatham Barracks is to be put to this use.

Let me go back for a moment to Rosyth. There these valuable key ratings from ships which are refitting have to waste many hours of the day waiting for, and travelling in, boats to the naval establishment on the south side of the river, or, alternatively, waiting for and travelling in road transport which takes them seven miles to accommodation on a disused airfield nearby. That is a waste of the time of valuable men which would not be tolerated in any industry. It should not be tolerated in the Navy.

7.22 p.m.

Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)

On this issue, which is not one of a party political nature, my sympathies are with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) and against my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon). We should be told by the Government the position of the balance sheet involved in these transactions. What will be the cost of maintaining the barracks? What would have been saved from the Vote had we got rid of them? Those are not unreasonable questions. Everybody knew that this would come up when this Vote was discussed, and we should be told how much of the £19 million odd is in respect of maintaining these barracks.

What is the total capacity of the barracks? I suspect that the total capacity is considerably in excess of the figures that have been quoted as being necessary. That leads me to ask my hon. Friend whether he can give an undertaking that no more men will be accommodated in the barracks than those which he indicated during the debate on the Navy Estimates. My suspicion is that we shall find that this is only the first step in the complete restoration of Chatham as a main manning depot. I do not believe that anything can stop that happening, except possibly this House if we press the matter now.

Has the modernisation of Chatham Barracks been completed? Was it completed before it was decided to give them up? If by any chance it has not been completed, can we be assured that we will not next be faced with a big bill for modernising these buildings so that the men can live in extra comfort for a few weeks while ships are being refitted?

I do not share my hon. and gallant Friend's view that sailors are any more helpless than the rest of the community. They are perfectly capable of looking after themselves. I have had command of establishments in which year after year the men have lived on "lodge and com" and it is relevant to the consideration of this Vote to ask how the cost of maintaining an enormous monumental building such as this, with its huge and ornate officers' mess, compares with the cost of accommodating, or letting the corresponding number of men find their own accommodation, in Chatham and Rochester on the scale of allowances laid down.

7.26 p.m.

Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing

The Board of Admiralty, and my noble Friend and myself as the political heads, would not change our minds on this issue, knowing full well that we would have to justify such a change in the House of Commons, unless every member of the Board felt satisfied that there was solid justification for so doing. I am glad to have the opportunity to explain in greater detail the reasons for the change than I had at the end of the eight-hour debate earlier this week.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander May-don) made this point. As the standard of accommodation goes up throughout the Services we get less people into a given number of square feet in a barrack block. At peace-time rates the total accommodation in the naval barracks to which we are referring is for 1,600 people.

It has been suggested that it was not right to change our minds about the fitting of live ships. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East is right when he says that when we talk about live ships we mean ships in commission which are in for a short refit of three or four months when the ships' company is very often accommodated aboard the ship. There are, however, other occasions, particularly nowadays when undergoing A's and A's, and modifications are necessary to fit in new equipment, that one has either to dismember the galley or take apart the living quarters. In those conditions it is unthinkable to ask the ship's company to remain on board while the ship is being carved up and refitted. In those conditions, if we have live ships and major modifications are going on in the ship's living quarters, we must put the ship's company somewhere else.

Collingwood Block is being modified as the dockyard apprentices' school. It will have laboratories and workshops for the apprentices. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) knows the area, and I have been down to look at it. The old school is an old building of a temporary nature—or it was when it was first constructed, but, like so many other temporary buildings, it has continued to be used. We considered that the training of apprentices was sufficiently important to warrant them having reasonable living and workshop accommodation, and the Collingwood barracks are being adapted for that purpose.

We then considered what we should do with the main barracks. It was suggested that the supply school should go to Devonport. If we had moved the supply school to Devonport it would have cost £200,000 to modify the accommodation there, and a further £200,000 in a fairly short time to adapt the accommodation. In a few years' time we would have had to pay a bill of £400,000 for work at Devonport. That was the balance on one side. I am not able at short notice to give the cost of maintaining the existing barracks at Chatham but it is fair to say that we would also have to pay for the cost of the other barracks for the Supply School at Devonport. This differential between the maintenance cost of the barracks at Chatham and the maintenance cost of wherever the supply school went had to be considered before we reviewed the position.

Why did we make a mistake? I am sorry; this is one of the errors which sometimes occur when one is forecasting the future of a fleet which is becoming ever more complicated and more extensively modernised. We cannot plan exactly ahead for five or ten years. In this instance, in our effort to cut our tail ashore we hoped to be able to do without live ships at Chatham. We hoped that there would be only dead ships, and that we could move the Supply School and manage without the R.N. barracks.

We have now changed our minds. I do not think that it is wrong to re-assess the position in the light of experience. I am reminded of a most apt remark uttered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), when asked why he changed his mind. He said: My views are a harmonious process which keeps them in relation to the current movement of events."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th May, 1952; Vol. 500, c. 33.] The same harmonious process has been taking place in Admiralty circles. We have moved them in relation to current events. That is one reason why we have gone back to Chatham.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells, rightly drew attention to the travelling time spent by key personnel of live ships, whose companies are accommodated at H.M.S. "Cochrane" and H.M.S. "Lochinvar", which I believe is on the other side of the river. Had we taken over some barracks previously used by the Army, which were smaller and farther from the dockyard, our ships' companies and uniformed personnel would have had to travel an extra mile to and from their work. There was also the problem of getting them back to their accommodation for a midday meal. This was a contributory factor to our change of mind. This does not mean a major modification. We shall have to spend some money in modernising some of the barrack blocks, but we shall not modernise more than is necessary to accommodate the key personnel.

I will now give the broad categories of people who will be accommodated in these barracks. First, there are the crews of submarines which are refitting. That will appeal to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells. Secondly, there is the reserve fleet, and key personnel for ships undergoing extensive refits under dockyard control. Thirdly, there are the crews of operational ships, which will probably not number more than two at any one time. Fourthly, there are the personnel from build-ups and run-downs —ships which have come in and have been handed over, or ships' companies which are Being assembled when a ship is commissioned after an extensive refit. There is also the fleet maintenance unit.

Mr. Willis

In other words, as the hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) said, it is becoming a manning port again.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I am sorry. We have set our hearts and minds against its becoming a major command—as was suggested by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett)—under a commander-in-chief. That will not happen. Unless there is a tremendous change —and I cannot commit future Governments—we shall not increase the numbers above roughly those which I gave in the Estimates debate.

I have given some of the reasons which led us to change our minds, and perhaps I may again assure the Committee that we do not change our minds unless we are convinced by all the evidence. In this case we came to the conclusion that this was a sensible arrangement, and that it was much better to keep the barracks close alongside the dockyard.

Lieut.-Commander Maydon

I want to revert to Rosyth again, because in recent years this difficulty seems to have got out of hand in that port. Can my hon. Friend give us some information as to what is happening in this respect?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I investigated this matter when I was at Rosyth. I went across the river, at short notice, to look at the Upper Yard Men training establishment and at H.M.S. "Lochinvar". I am sorry that I cannot give the Committee any information upon this, although I admit that we have a problem there. The construction of the Forth Bridge and the time it will take to build must be taken into consideration. When there is road transport across the river and there is not the delay of sea transport, it may be far more economical to stay where we are, rather than to embark upon a new and extensive building programme.

I always have the same philosophy, which is to try to find enough barrack accommodation close to the men's work. The number whom we hope to accommodate in lodgings and married quarters at Chatham would be 300 at the most. We took a survey of the number of lodgings available before coming to this decision. I shall write to my hon. and gallant Friend as soon as we have a solution and have decided what will be the future at Rosyth.

7.35 p.m.

Miss Vickers

The first point I wish to raise concerns married quarters in Devonport. These are well built and well furnished, but I wonder whether my hon. Friend would consider the possibility of having some of them unfurnished. Many people now have their own furniture, and some of them have spent several hundreds of pounds on it. If they go into a furnished house they have to pay for the storage of that furniture. It would be far cheaper if they were allowed to take their own furniture, and it would be much more pleasant for them to live among their own belongings. There would be no difficulty about getting them out of their houses, since the houses are tied to the job, so that when they went into a house or flat they would know quite well that they would have to move their own furniture when they left.

The Estimates refer to key civilians, but nobody knows what a key civilian is. On many occasions I have asked my hon. Friend for permission for certain individuals to occupy these houses after they had been empty for a considerable time, but I have never been successful. Furthermore, key dockyard workers are now returning from Malta and Singapore and, as the hon. Member knows, the Lea Mill area is about to be taken over. I should like to know where these civilians will be accommodated in the future.

Last year I asked my hon. Friend to consider building some of this accom-modation for the Navy in areas other than what I like to describe as canton- ments. It is sad to see these little naval villages forming—incidentally, often without any kind of shop or post office. It would be much better if my hon. Friend asked the local authority to build the houses and to keep a number of them for the use of naval personnel. At present, with these families living side by side, it means that neighbours are continually changing, and this causes difficulties. There are no permanent neighbours, which makes it difficult to find baby-sitters and also to make friends with others in the neighbourhood, not to mention the difficulty of obtaining knowledge of local shops and organisations such as young wives' guilds. Some of the women in these houses are extremely lonely. I should like to know how the rents of these flats and houses compare with those of local authority houses in the same area.

I now turn to the question of new works and machinery and equipment. I mentioned during the Second Reading debate that we were worried about the fact that there is a reduction in the amount of money for new machinery. I know that this comes under two separate Votes, but even then there is a considerable reduction. I presume it will be necessary to replace a lot of the machinery. Much of it is very old and obsolete. There is also the question of canteens, which arises under the next Vote, and where there is a cut this year and it does not look as if we shall have any fresh money to use for canteens. A great many of the dockyard canteens need modernising. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could let us know whether the money referred to in Vote 10, Subhead B, could be used for other things than the repairing of the ships themselves.

7.41 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Howard (St. Ives)

I have often had complaints from people in ships needing minor refits under Subhead C when they had to rely on shore-side amenities. A thing like Stephenson's rocket makes its appearance belching black smoke over the area. It uses enormous quantities of coal but barely heats the water and causes a general nuisance. Usually only half the ship's company is on duty, and they have enough trouble to keep the ship clean without this additional nuisance.

I have referred to this once or twice before. Apart from relegating it to a museum, I do not think there is any place that can be found for equipment of this kind. I wish to be assured that if this equipment has not already disappeared or been discharged to a museum, that will soon be done, and that we may have up-to-date equipment, both in respect of the heads and for washing facilities, for people doing minor repairs in the dockyard.

7.42 p.m.

Commander Kerans

I wish to refer only to one point which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) regarding married quarters. Very few young officers have any furniture of their own and welcome the provision of furnished accommodation.

7.43 p.m.

Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)

I wish to ask a question regarding repairs and maintenance under Subhead E. At first sight it strikes one as a little strange that this item has gone up by something like £250,000 at a time when, presumably, a certain number of establishments are closing down. I do not know whether my hon. Friend can give me an answer immediately, but perhaps he might give the Committee some guidance on the matter. There has been an increase in the money spent on repairs and maintenance in past years, and it is a little surprising to find the figure going up again this year.

The second point I wish to raise relates to Subhead O, the repayment of sums issued under the Armed Forces (Housing Loans) Acts. Here we find a reduction of £168,000. That seems strange at first sight, because presumably more married quarters are being built under Vote 15 with a greater amount of interest repayable in any one year. Either it means that it has been possible in the last year to repay a certain amount of capital, or there has been a transfer of this obligation to local authorities in cases where married quarters were no longer required.

7.44 p.m.

Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing

I will try to deal in turn with the various points which have been raised. First, the question of married quarters. About this I think there would be two views. Our general rule is that once married quarters have been furnished they must remain furnished, but we are always prepared to delay the furnishing if the first occupants so desire. We have done this because we find that the continual movement of furniture into and out of married quarters is not only bad for the furniture but also for the married quarters. If marks are left on the walls where pieces of furniture have stood— and we should bear in mind that a married quarter is occupied on average for only two-and-a-half to three years at the most—it would mean the continual moving of furniture in and out, either naval furniture or furniture belonging to the occupant, and this would lead to a considerable amount of wear and tear and the need for redecoration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) also asked what was the average rent. This varies from 28s. 6d. a week for furnished quarters for ratings, to £210 per annum for a house for an officer of commander status. These rents are normally geared or related to the rateable value of the house. It is not a figure which we just thought up, and we try to keep in step with the local authorities.

Sir Peter Agnew (Worcestershire, South)

Are these figures inclusive of rates?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

Yes, they are inclusive.

The third point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport related to key civilian dockyard personnel. They are defined as people who are wanted right on the job for fire service, or it may be a key engineer at a fire station, or for watchkeeping. I will look into the other point made by my hon. Friend regarding personnel returning from overseas.

My hon. Friend also asked about cantonments. In a perfect world it would be nice to see houses in ones and twos integrated with accommodation for the local people rather than having vast blocks of Navy property. When I was last at Lossiemouth I was impressed by the fact that there they have houses built in twos and threes. But to do this would throw an extra strain on the Navy Votes, because it is much more expensive to construct two or three houses than to build 50 or 100. There are extra costs for services and roads, drains, electricity cables and so on. That is why local authorities and private enterprise prefer to build a lot of accommodation so that the bricklayers, plasterers and other workers can be moved around.

Miss Vickers

That was not my idea. I suggested that the money should be given to the local authorities and that they be asked to build the houses. I appreciate that it would be difficult to build two or three houses instead of a block. In a previous debate I suggested that the local authorities should be provided with the money and invited to build the houses, which I am sure that they could do more cheaply.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I should like to consider that suggestion. No doubt it has been examined, and probably there is some factor of which I am not aware. But I will consider it in greater detail and write to my hon. Friend.

I am afraid that I misled the Committee by a snap answer which I gave on 7th March when I said: Dockyard machinery has been transferred to the Navy Works Vote."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th March, 1960; Vol. 619. c. 92.] I was thinking of other machinery which falls under that subhead. Dockyard machinery comes under Vote 8, Section III, Subhead B.

The reduction of £215,000 from Vote 10, Subhead D, does not relate to dockyard machinery but to machinery outside the dockyard. The reason why the dockyard machinery Vote has gone down is that we have closed dockyards at Sheerness, Portland and Hong Kong and have transferred Malta dockyard to Messrs. Bailey, so our commitments for dockyard machinery are less than two years ago. That is why the Vote for dockyard machinery in the coming year is down.

On the question of service alongside ships being refitted, I absolutely agree. I was staggered to see the most extraordinary thing alongside, I think it was, "Hartland Point" and "Chichester" at Chatham. I asked then whether caravans with modern electrical cooking could not be wheeled alongside and whether that would not be a more economical way of doing it than by using a vast amount of fuel. I was amazed to see how clever naval cooks are at making an extremely eatable meal out of something which must have been given birth a hundred years ago and from which the smoke and dirt certainly did not create a healthy organisation in the galley. I shall look at that problem and see if something more up to date cannot be provided.

Mr. Willis

I wish to thank the hon. Gentleman for his fuller explanation about Chatham Barracks, but I am still not convinced that this was necessary. I wish to remind him that we expect some new accommodation for the artificer apprentices of "Caledonia" next year.

Question put and agreed to.


That a sum, not exceeding £19,264,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of works, buildings, machinery 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, 1961.