HC Deb 30 July 1964 vol 699 cc1791-6

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Minister of Transport whether he will now announce his decision about the building of a British nuclear-powered merchant ship.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Ernest Marples)

With permission, I will now answer Question No. 83.

For some time the Government have been considering ways and means of cooperating with shipbuilders and ship-owners to get a nuclear-powered ship built on terms satisfactory both to the Government and to the two industries.

As the House was told by my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary on 28th April, for a long time both shipowners and shipbuilders were reluctant to spend money on building such a ship, and it appeared that if a nuclear-powered ship were to be built it would have to be a Government project. However, my hon. and gallant Friend added that there was nothing to prevent a shipowner or a consortium of shipowners buying a reactor and giving it a trial, and that if this were to happen the Government would be delighted.

I can now say that recently a shipbuilding company and a shipowning company have jointly approached my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and myself, with the object of building and operating a large merchant vessel powered by a Vulcain-type reactor. The firms concerned are Furness Shipbuilding Company and Anglo Norness Shipping Company. I may add that Imperial Chemical Industries is considering the possibility of employing the vessel if suitable terms can be negotiated.

Discussions are in progress to see whether agreement can be reached on arrangements for the financing and organisation of such a project.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

Will my right hon. Friend accept the congratulations of everyone concerned in this progressive venture and on the magnificent way in which, after some delay, this decision has been arrived at, which should bring satisfaction to all concerned? Can my right hon. Friend say what is the likely tonnage of the ship, in what part of the country it is likely to be built, and when building will start?

Mr. Marples

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I will accept the congratulations, although this is a very unusual experience for a Minister of Transport. The ship will be built on the North-East Coast by the Furness Shipbuilding Company if the agreement is satisfactorily arrived at. If we can come to a quick agreement, there is no reason why the ship should not be operational by 1968.

Mr. Willey

Is the Minister aware that his predecessor made a promise about the building of a "Queen" just about five years ago and that no progress has yet been made?

Dame Irene Ward

Oh, be nice.

Mr. Willey

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that what we were expecting today was an announcement of the decision of the Government, that we were promised it before the end of the Session, that we were, in fact, promised an opportunity for debate and that what we were to debate was the decision of the Government about proceeding with the construction of a nuclear-propelled vessel? Why do we not have that decision?

Mr. Marples

It is clear that the future of such a nuclear reactor depends upon a partnership between the Government and the industries concerned. If those industries do not show an interest in it, it is difficult for the Government to proceed alone. I would not ask the hon. Member, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward), to be nice. I ask him to be fair, that is all.

As to the Q.3, the Government played their part, got a Bill through and provided the finance. The outcome was merely that Cunard decided not to go ahead. It had nothing to do with the Government, who have already provided finance for the 0.4, which now depends upon Cunard's decision.

Mr. McMaster

In deciding where the vessel will be built, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the need to obtain competitive tenders and to use any influence he can to direct the work to Belfast, where there is need for such work and there is heavy unemployment in our shipyards?

Mr. Marples

As the approach came from a firm in the north-east of England that is what we are discussing. If, however, anybody in Belfast would like to come forward with a proposition, we would be pleased to listen to it.

Mr. Shinwell

While I am grateful that the vessel is to be built in the North-East, can the Minister be quite clear about this? He mentioned a particular company—the Anglo Norness Shipping Company, I believe. Does not this company have certain American interests? Was not the impression conveyed some time ago that this nuclear vessel would be a completely British industry project? Are we to understand that foreign interests will operate in the production of this vessel?

Mr. Marples

The company is registered in Bermuda and the ship will be registered in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Shinwell

Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is rising about. If it is a point of order, I will hear it, but not otherwise—that is to say, if it is a real point of order.

Mr. Shinwell

I asked a question in the hope of eliciting the facts. The right hon. Gentleman has entirely evaded the question. As this is a matter of accuracy, surely we are entitled to have a reasonable reply from the right hon. Gentleman. Is this a British project or not?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order.

Mr. P. Williams

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that this decision of the shipbuilders and the shipowners is courageous and enterprising and that if this sort of enterprise is to be continued, it depends upon encouragement from the Government in certain fields? Can my right hon. Friend say whether there will be any financial contribution by the Government to the project? Can he say what is the likely size of the ship?

On a slightly diffrent matter, can my right hon. Friend say whether the Government will continue, also, to encourage the development of traditional and conventional marine engines, such as the Doxford "J" engine, which is of vital importance to our marine engine industry?

Mr. Marples

The question of diesel engines, of course, does not arise out of my answer to this Question. At the moment, while the terms for the project are under discussion, it would be wrong of me, I think, to single out any particular item to divulge to the House at this stage, pending negotiations. But I would say that it is quite clear that the Government will have to play a considerable part in the future—as they have in the past, when they spent many millions of pounds on research and development—of this project. If it had not been for that research and development, it would not have been possible to have had the nuclear ship brought to this stage. I cannot at the moment say what size the ship will be. That, again, is the subject of negotiation.

Mr. Slater

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I am very pleased that the Furness shipyard, which is in my constituency, has been given consideration in connection with this project, but would he say now whether it is definitely a British project?

Mr. Marples

The Furness Shipbuilding Company is in this country and Anglo Norness is registered in Bermuda. The point is that it would be a United Kingdom and Commonwealth project together.

Mr. Wall

In view of the amount of Government support given to the aircraft industry, is my right hon. Friend aware that it would be expected that the Government would be generous to this very important shipbuilding project? Can he say whether there is any Royal Navy participation? Are steps now being taken to train crew and to make the necessary port facilities available?

Mr. Marples

The question of port facilities and training crew will come into the negotiations. The Royal Navy has special operational requirements, and the development of a nuclear reactor for a merchant ship is another matter entirely.

Mr. Lubbock

Does the decision of commercial interests to go ahead with this work indicate that it is economically competitive with conventional methods of propulsion, and can the right hon. Gentleman say, although he is not able to give us complete details of any financial agreements with the companies, whether approaches have been made to pay them subsidies for the operation of this vessel?

Mr. Marples

I can say this would come under the terms for discussion, but I do not think we could argue it at this stage. The economics of the present generation of reactors was very fully discussed in the Padmore Report, which I accepted. The terms are not settled yet. Unless they are agreed—and it is in the national interest, of course, that they should be—the project will not go forward. As we have a shipowning company and shipbuilding company, and somebody who will use the ship, and the Government, I see no reason why we should not be successful.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Let us move on.

Mr. Bellenger

On a point of order. The Minister could have made a statement, as you have ruled, Mr. Speaker, by asking permission to do so, instead of answering a Question, which has been arranged—and I do not see in his place the hon. Member who put the Question down.

It has always been the custom for hon. Members who have Questions on the Paper to be in their places to put their Questions. It may seem an academic matter at this late stage in our proceedings, but I suggest to you, Mr. Speaker, that many of our old customs and rules are being whittled away by hon. Members treating the House with contempt.

Mr. Speaker

That does not raise a point of order.

Mr. Bence

On a point of order. In respect of this statement which has been made by the Minister of Transport, there is on the Clyde the Yarrow Admiralty Committee, which has spent a great deal of time, over many years, in developing a nuclear marine unit. Should not the Minister, in view of what happened in 1959, have informed us about the part the Yarrow Admiralty Committee played?

Mr. Speaker

I have had occasion to observe more than once—

Dr. Dickson Mabon

On a point of order.

Mr. Speaker

I have not finished with this one yet. I have more than once indicated, and I do not want to have to do it again, that to rise and cover an observation by the use of the words "On a point of order" when there is not one at all is just a form of cheating.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

Further to that point of order. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the Minister's answers to this Question, I beg to give notice that I shall raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Speaker

That gets nearer to one.