HC Deb 11 March 1968 vol 760 cc1115-41

10.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. Maurice Foley)

I beg to move, That 98,000 Officers, Ratings and Royal Marines be maintained for Naval Service, for the year ending on the 31st day of March 1969. As the House will note, the Navy Estimates for 1968–69 total approximately £655,800,000. The Estimates for the current year were originally presented at £620.9 million. However, this has been increased by two Supplementary Estimates to £648.8 million. The reasons for these Supplementary Estimates have been explained to the House. This means that the cash increase on paper between the current year's expenditure and the Estimate for 1968–69 is £7 million.

In the short time available for this debate I do not want to deprive those hon. Members who wish to take part of a chance to speak. I shall, therefore, keep these first comments as brief as possible. I must, however, say something about the men and women who make up the Royal Navy. New ships, and new weapon systems, are essential for a modern Navy, and we are, as I explained to the House earlier this afternoon, making sure that the Navy is well equipped in these respects, but they are useless without the men and women to operate and maintain them.

I have been Under-Secretary of State for the Navy for just over a year, and in the last 12 months I have had a chance to visit the Royal Marines in Aden and in Singapore, and at their training establishments in this country. I have visited the Fleet in the Far East, in the Gulf, in most of the shore establishments, and in the ships nearer at home on training exercises. From my experience, therefore, I can assure the House that the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Women's Royal Naval Service, and the Queen Alexandra Royal Nursing Service are fortunate to have the loyal and devoted service of their ratings and officers. These are highly trained, highly skilled, and intensely motivated people. I regard it as much a part of my responsibility to make sure that we in the House and in the country generally appreciate their loyalty and serve them as well as they undoubtedly serve us.

One thing which has impressed me wherever I have gone is the emphasis which the Navy places on training. I sometimes wonder whether it is widely realised how specialised this training must be. Nuclear propulsion has presented a great challenge to the Navy in the training field as much as in any other. Our officers and ratings have to be trained to a very high degree of skill and efficiency to deal with this new and complex equipment. This, however, is only the most obvious point to advance. All our ships, aircraft, and weapons, are becoming more and more sophisticated, and therefore the training is becoming more specialised and more intense throughout all aspects of the Navy.

In so far as we are able, we are also endeavouring to relate naval training to civilian training outside the Service so that if and when a man leaves the Navy he goes, wherever possible, with a qualification which is recognised by the civilian authorities. Already many officers have obtained degrees. More will do so in the future. Many of the skills that we teach in the Navy enjoy recognition from the relevant trade unions.

I should say a word about recruitment and re-engagement, because this was mentioned earlier in the evening. I am sure that everyone will understand when I say that Defence Reviews and all that these involve have had their effect on recruitment and re-engagement. It would be idle to deny it. In the last few months we have been fighting an uphill battle on recruitment. I am not despondent. I do not believe that the recruiting figures are a cause for despondency, but rather for renewed effort. Last September's entry into the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth was only slightly down on the previous year, and we hope to see an improvement on this position this year. In the current year recruitment of ratings and other ranks is running in the bracket of 7,000 a year. This is lower than the target set, and we have been particularly worried by shortages in the more highly skilled categories and some branches, too. A particularly bright feature has been the success of the Royal Marine recruiting.

On re-engagement, I am happy to announce that there has recently been a slight upward trend. As hon. Members will know, this is a matter to which we have been devoting much attention lately. There is still, however, cause for concern in respect of some key categories, such as electrical artificers.

I cannot leave this subject without referring to the threat of redundancy. It will take some time to work out the detailed manpower implications of the accelerated rundown announced by the Prime Minister on 16th January. Work is proceeding as fast as possible, and we hope to have a clearer picture by July. There is, however, no fear at all of immediate redundancy in the Royal Navy. I emphasise that. A large proportion of the reductions will be achieved by what is called normal wastage.

Recruiting will also be adjusted. Only a small proportion of the reduction will have to be obtained by redundancies, and this small proportion is a tiny percentage of the existing total strength. The reduction will not be spread evenly between different ranks and ratings. Regrettably, much of it will fall on the Fleet Air Arm when the carriers phase out. There are, I repeat, no immediate redundancies, and we are taking all steps possible to alleviate the hardship which the inevitable but small numbers of redundancy will cause.

I want to turn aside from the main point and deal with a feature of the Navy which is not often appreciated. Opportunities for advancement from the lower deck—by that I mean opportunities for ratings to become officers—are greater than is appreciated outside the Service. One-third of the serving officers in the Royal Navy today were ratings when they joined the Service. Each year about 12 per cent. of the petty officers and chief petty officers become officers. I regard these figures as clear and unambiguous evidence of the modernity of approach of the Royal Navy, with its trust and faith in these men and all the training which goes to make this kind of promotion on this kind of scale possible.

I must turn to an aspect of support for the Navy which is indispensable, namely, the dockyards. It is inevitable that there will be some reduction in the tasks of the dockyards during the 1970s. It is the Government's intention to cut the size of the United Kingdom base so that as large a part as possible of our limited defence resources can be released for fighting units. The size of the dockyard organisation must be reduced as part of this general process of contraction.

We have reached no decision yet on how and when this reduction in the size of the dockyards may be achieved. A detailed study is being carried out of the commitments that the dockyards will have to meet over the next ten years, and of the many other factors which will have to be taken into account. This is an important review, with important implications, and it will take some months to complete. The House will be informed of the conclusions that we reach, and I can give an assurance that trade unions and local authorities will be fully consulted about their implementation.

However, I do not want to talk only of cuts and contractions. Whatever the results of our review, the dockyards will have a major and vital rôle to play in the years ahead in supporting and refitting the Fleet. This task proves continually more demanding as more sophisticated ships and submarines and more complicated equipment come into service. Refits of modern vessels are exceptionally complex operations of considerable dimensions calling for ever more stringent standards of planning, management and quality control and a labour force with a high degree of skill and efficiency.

Just one example of the new challenge facing the dockyards is the refit and refuelling of H.M.S. "Dreadnought" which will begin at Rosyth Dockyard in May. This will be the Navy's first-ever nuclear refit and will make exceptional demands on the staff and work people of the dockyard engaged upon it. It is the Government's intention to complete the current refit of H.M.S. "Ark Royal" at Devonport. That is an exceptionally heavy programme which will occupy the dockyard fully for the next two years. The conversion of H.M.S. "Tiger" at Devonport and of H.M.S. "Blake" at Portsmouth will continue—

Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)

In this review of the work of the dockyards, lasting some months, is there any question of one closing completely?

Mr. Foley

This option is open to us. This is one field in which we will examine the nature of the work load and the skills and competence of the labour force in each area, plus the social implications of reducing the work load in any particular area. We still have this option. Indeed, it is of considerable importance, and I hope that everyone—particularly dockyard M.Ps.—will be aware that there is a continuing programme of modernising frigates, refitting sub marines and so on.

I regret that we have not the time, as we have had on previous occasions, for a full and lengthy discussion of all aspects of the Navy and its work, but I will try to answer any questions at the end of the debate.

10.22 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

The brave words of the Under-Secretary could not disguise the fact that he had a most disagreeable task. He referred to the story of redundancies and cuts which it was his duty to announce. I have some sympathy with him. He has done his best and has had to look after a Service which has been cut on orders from above. He has had the unpleasant duty of carrying out the cuts and appearing to break his word, when, of course, the words broken came from much higher up the scale.

I should like to call to his attention something which I picked up at Portsmouth this weekend—that, now that it is known that there are people who will be redundant, notably senior ratings, some would like to be allowed to go out and fend for themselves before taking up a last appointment, but are told that they must stay in. Might it not be a little easier for all concerned, when cuts are coming, to allow some members of the Service, whether officers or ratings, to opt out earlier, before having to fill final appointments, so that they might have a chance to get jobs?

It is very sad to me, of course, to hear that the Fleet Air Arm is to take the brunt of the cuts, but it is no surprise, since it has been clear that this would happen ever since the carriers started to be messed about with. I must quote here the hon. Gentleman's own words to me last year, which look as cock-eyed as some of his remarks more recently on the subject of dockyards—not through his own fault, perhaps. In an intervention in a speech of mine, he said that more people were coming forward to train and serve in the Fleet Air Arm then than there were two years ago when the decision was to build an aircraft carrier. He must feel sorry that he ever said that, because what has happened to those poor chaps who entered with such zeal a year ago? They have not much future now, have they?

Mr. Foley

I was making the point, as I recall, in the light of the argument used by the hon. Member that we had destroyed the Fleet Air Arm. I was indicating to him that, in fact, recruitment figures were up. What will happen to these chaps is that those in the pipeline will get their wings. That will equip them for flying, either for transfer to another Service or for a civilian licence.

Dr. Bennett

I got my wings having previously been trained in the Royal Air Force and it did not take all that long. If the last carrier is to be phased out about 1971, they will not have many years in which to wear their wings. Even if the hon. Gentleman can justify his remark of last year, the more he justifies it, the less he justifies what he is doing now. This is a very sad situation and he is best advised not to say too much about it.

The de-commissioning and de-storing of H.M.S. "Victorious", one of the carriers which is a victim of the Government, reminds me of the Prime Minister's remark that "the £ in your pocket will not be devalued." I have a quotation from his colleague, the Minister of Defence for Administration, in the debate of 27th November. Talking about H.M.S. "Victorious", he said: The fact that the ship is now to be scrapped and must be completely de-stocked and de-equipped will provide more work in Portsmouth Dockyard than was planned and will have to be fitted in. I was asked to what extent work in the dockyards would be affected. It will provide more work in the dockyards than was originally planned and it must be fitted in with the present dockyard programme."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th November, 1967; Vol. 794, c. 162–63.] I was interested to hear that, which I regarded as a peculiarly bogus form of argument, and I put down a Question to ask the: Minister: …what he estimates to be the extent of the additional work required of Portsmouth Dockyard, consequent upon the premature decommissioning and scrapping of H.M.S. 'Victorious'; how many additional man-weeks the decommissioning will require in the near future; and how many man-weeks will now not be required once H.M.S. ' Victorious' has been disposed of. In spite of that first fine reply, the following is the hon. Gentleman's Answer: The work consequent upon de-storing and de-equipping H.M.S. ' Victorious' is expected to occupy about 1,000 man-weeks in Portsmouth Dockyard between December, 1967, and June, 1968. Effort of this order would have been required whenever H.M.S. ' Victorious' was disposed of. 4,000 man-weeks were saved by the decision not to complete the refit."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th January, 1968; Vol. 756, c. 706.] Of course that is the case, Altogether, he said, 4,000 man-weeks were saved by the decision not to complete the refit. That is the real answer. The work done would have had to be done anyway, sooner or later, but 4,000 man-weeks in Portsmouth Dockyard will have been lost by that decision. The men who work in the dockyard may be interested in that information. It will not be particularly cheerful news for them.

May I remind hon. Members of the peroration of the Prime Minister's famous Devonport speech. He said words which have gone down to history and which have been used by other hon. Members: I believe—and I state this with all the sincerity at my command—that our reappraisal of defence policies, with our emphasis on the rôle of the Navy's regular job, will provide better security and better assurances for the future than the vacillations of Tory defence policy. I animadverted on that a year ago and I will spare hon. Members any further observations. There can be few hon. Members opposite who feel happy that they came into office with that sort of prospectus.

Following that famous speech, which gave the key to the whole tenor of the Government, subsequently I made a few inquiries from time to time about the level of dockyard employment which we had been told was assured under the new Government. My former colleague, Brigadier Clarke, on 4th March, 1966, asked what were the figures of the men employed in Portsmouth Dockyard in October, 1964, and March 1966. They had gone up by about 400 in that time.

I have since asked Questions—basically the same question—on 9th March, 1966, 13th December, 1967, and 20th December, 1967, seeking up-to-date figures compared with former figures. For some curious reason, I have on each occasion received different statistics. The number of men employed at Portsmouth Dockyard was said to be 12,248. That was the figure I was given on 9th March, 1966. When I asked the Question on 13th December, 1967, I was told that the number was 15,310, and on 20th December, 1967, I was told that the figure was 14,562. In other words, I was given three different figures in answer to basically the same Question. I hope that somebody will be prepared to give me the same figure when I ask the same Question relating to the same period, whenever I ask the Question.

Meanwhile, I asked twice, in Questions put a week apart—the Questions were slightly differently worded—for the number of men employed in the dockyard at 1st October, 1967. On 13th December last year I was told that the number was 14,461. On 20th December, a week later, I was told that the number was 13,610. I wish that the Minister would make up his mind. In any event, the first figure showed that by 1st October, 1967, after three years of Labour administration, 949 men had lost their jobs. The second figure revealed that 952 had lost their jobs. Allowing a week between the dates of asking the Question, I suppose that that is about right. However, as the substantive figures were 800 apart, a more careful method of accounting needs to be adopted.

I will not delay the House further. Other hon. Members wish to speak and I am sure that many questions will be asked, not only tonight but under the Votes which will arise tomorrow. While it will probably take some months for the Ministry to clear up these dockyard figures, I trust that eventually accurate statistics will be provided.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. William Hamlin (Woolwich, West)

Although the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) talked about reductions and cuts, it is obvious that he has not carefully examined the figures in the Vote and compared them with the figures in Vote A at the time when his party was responsible for the Royal Navy. The cuts have not been very considerable and for certain branches of the Navy there have been increases in the number of people covered by this Vote. For example, the number serving in Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service has increased from 480 to 620.

In other respects, the reductions are relatively slight. When one thinks of a reduction of 2,000 people, one supposes that, with increasing efficiency in the Royal Navy, fewer people are required to do the same jobs. Expenditure is going up this year by 2 per cent. on the pay of those covered by Vote A. It is noteworthy that defence expenditure has increased in the last five years by 20 per cent., but that by far the biggest contribution towards that increase has been increasing pay. Pay has gone up by 25 per cent. Thus, pay is absorbing a larger amount of the money spent on the Royal Navy, a point which my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) should bear in mind when he calls for further cuts. He should welcome the fact that the Government have been generous in their attitude towards pay. Over the whole range of defence cuts, the Royal Navy has done rather better than either of the other Services. I would be out of order, Mr. Speaker, if I were now to become more specific and if I referred to certain aspects, but other occasions will no doubt offer themselves.

I want to refer to my old Service—the Royal Marines. I note that this year the numbers are being increased from 9,320 to 9,370. I do not know whether this is because the Government have been inspired by the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire in which he has called for economies. Here, the increased expenditure and increased recruitment can be justified on the ground that from the point of view of cost effectiveness the Royal Marines are one of the most useful and economical branches of Her Majesty's Forces. Perhaps it is for this reason that there is to be an increase this year—

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I can assure my hon. Friend that I do not seek to reduce the pay of the Royal Marines, or that of any other section. What I want to see reduced is the heavy expenditure on the Polaris submarine programme.

Mr. Hamling

I am delighted to have my hon. Friend's support for once. So far, the Royal Marines are not being expected entirely to run the Polaris submarines. I am not sure whether there is a Royal Marine detachment on board. Perhaps my hon. Friend will enlighten me on that point—

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

Argyll Highlanders.

Mr. Hamling

My hon. Friend may be reminded that there was a Royal Marine outfit—or, perhaps, combined operation—called the Plymouth Argylls, which consisted of members of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Royal Marines but, noting Mr. Speaker's anxiety, I shall not pursue that anecdote beyond saying that it illustrates once again the all-round versatility of the Royal Marines, and the contribution they make to the Royal Navy in being able to mix so well with other people.

From the point of view of its cost effectiveness, I should like to be told that the future of the corps has been assured. For more years than I care to remember its place in the Royal Navy has been challenged and questioned. When I first joined the rôle of the Royal Marines was being challenged, and questions were being asked whether they had a contribution to make. During the Second World War they manned the guns, provided mobile naval base defence organisations, formed the Royal Marine Division, and provided light assault troops—which eventually became the commandos—and manned a great many of the assault craft used in successive invasions.

What is the Government's view of their future rôle? I understand that there are already detachments on some ships, and it is good that there should be a number of well-trained versatile troops on Her Majesty's vessels, accustomed to working with the Navy, able to work on board ship and capable of being landed to take immediate action as infantry troops.

Not all naval officers have been accustomed to having Royal Marines aboard. I can remember a certain Royal Marine officer in khaki battledress being ordered off the captain's so-and-so bridge because the captain would have no so-and-so soldier on his bridge, until it was pointed out to him that the Royal Marines were not soldiers and that the officer in question was the officer of the day. I was again illustrating, Mr. Speaker, the versatility of the corps and its place in Vote A. The corps fulfils an admirable rôle as commandos on assault ships and commando carriers.

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend can tell us about recruitment and re-engagement of Royal Marines. I think there is a good story to be told here. They perform an admirable function, they can be mobilised quickly and are well trained. They are versatile and can land from ships or helicopters, they can act as paratroops, they are well armed, can operate in any terrain and are well disciplined. They have highly developed esprit de corps, to which I am sure the House is now well accustomed, having on these benches and on those opposite several who often mount a combined operation against both Front Benches.

I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that in the future of the Royal Navy the Royal Marines will play their accustomed rôle, and a continuing rôle, because they form a corps with an honourable tradition and are capable of serving the country well in any theatre of operations. I ask him to tell the House that their future is assured.

10.42 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Ham-ling) because, as he knows, there is a large contingent of Royal Marines in Plymouth. We were pleased to have them there when there was a possibility of their being moved a few years ago.

I also pay tribute to the women's services. There are extra numbers in the nursing service because they are now nursing civilians. There are civilians in the Royal Naval Hospital, which is a great asset. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what is being charged civilian patients in the Royal Naval Hospital. We are disappointed that accommodation for W.R.N.S. has been set back and does not appear to be forthcoming as planned. The accommodation is particularly poor in the old prison. It is time that they were moved from there.

It was a blow when we heard that there may be a closing of Devonport Dockyard.

Mr. Foley

I did not quite catch what the hon. Lady said. If she said that I announced that we were going to close the dockyard, she is entirely mistaken.

Dame Joan Vickers

I did not say that. I said there might be a closing of the dockyard and that the hon. Gentleman was still examining the position. I would have been far more forceful had the hon. Gentleman announced the closing of the dockyard. Can he stop these interminable leaks and rumours which get about and which are most disturbing? The question about the "Ark Royal" was leaked to the newspapers and it greatly disturbed the 2,600 men working on it. I was so worried that, as I could not get an answer, I sent the Minister a telegram on 29th December. Knowing how badly off the Government were, I paid for a reply. I asked whether a decision had been come to concerning the "Ark Royal" refit. I asked him to let me have a reply by 2 o'clock, and I notice that he was kind enough to hand it in at 1.59. The reply was: No decision concerning Ark Royal refit taken. But as already announced no cows are sacred. I was not particularly pleased to receive that telegram, especially as we had had an altercation in the House previously. There was a question about the difference between Portsmouth and Plymouth, and I had a letter from the right hon. Gentleman on 29th November in which he made certain statements, sending a copy of the letter to the Editor of the OFFICIAL REPORT. He said: The latest cuts do mean that there will be not quite so much work for Devonport Dockyard between now and 1972. This is not excepted to result in any redundancy, although there may be some slight reduction in overtime". Then, on 4th December, he said: I have been looking again at the letter I sent you on 29th November about the latest cuts and their effect on the Devonport Dockyard. The second paragraph of my letter is, unfortunately, open to misconstruction, and I should like to make clear to you that the work load planned over the next five years for Devonport Dockyard has not been altered. There is still a full order book for the next five years". I hope that the Minister will confirm that there is still a full order book for the next five years. He must recall that Devonport Dockyard, unlike other dockyards, is the major industry in the town concerned. The next largest factory employs only 3,000 people. We are far more dependent on the dockyard than other dockyard towns are.

There is also the question of the future of apprentices. At the moment, there is a notice up saying that a new apprentice block is to be constructed. I am very pleased to know that, but is it any good people going into the dockyard if there is to be no work for them in the future? What is to be the position of the admiral superintendent? I understand that his job is to be merged with that of the commander-in-chief, the flag officer, but I should like to know what sort of jurisdiction the new flag officer will have over the dockyard in the future? Will he be—as I hope he will—an engineer admiral? This has proved very advantageous in the past.

I gather that quite a lot of work is contract work sent outside the dockyard. A considerable portion of the Vote is taken up by this work. Would it be possible for the hon. Gentleman to arrange for a good deal of the contract now done outside to be undertaken within the dockyard?

We understand that the dockyard is to turn over to functional management. I hope that the question of the wages of the men concerned will be examined.

Now, a question about H.M.S. "Tiger" and "Lion". Is "Lion" to be undertaken in the dockyard, and what will be the cost of making these cruisers ready for helicopters? I understand that, when they are finished, they will take only four helicopters each.

Finally, the question of wages. In 1964, the Prime Minister came to Devon-port and said: We believe in fair wages, fair conditions. Under Tory pay pause (which they would like you to forget) it was public servants, Government employees, who got the rough end of the policy. It fell to me as Labour Party spokesman to lead the attack on the Government's pay pause policy and to censure their wanton breach of national agreements, agreements to which their word and honour were pledged, in respect of a whole range of Admiralty employees. There has been a certain reconstruction in Admiralty pay, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows—he has been down to Devonport—it is not entirely satisfactory. I hope that he will look into this matter and do what his right hon. Friend said—give these men a fair deal in the future.

I hope that, when any future policy is announced, we shall have plenty of time, and that consideration will be given to allowing the dockyards, perhaps, to turn some portion or section over to civilian work. I do not mean that they should do civilian work in the dockyards, but portions, particularly of Devonport Dockyard, could be hived off and given to civilian work, instead of running down the whole naval establishment at one go.

I hope, therefore, that the Under-Secretary will realise how important it is to the lives of so many people in the West Country. The West Country has been hit hard by many of the Government's measures, particularly by the proposals of the Transport Bill and the Selective Employment Tax. This is another blow to our economy. Therefore, in the future, instead of simply rumours and leaks, can we be certain that nothing will be said outside that is not told first to the House of Commons? This would make the Minister's job much easier and the people concerned much happier.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

I have two points to make and I will make them as briefly as I can. The first concerns naval construction. At an earlier stage of today's debate, my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Administration made an important statement about the construction programme for anti-styx type missiles. I understood him to say that reliance would be placed either on missile-carrying surface-to-surface ship-borne helicopters or on shore-based missile-carrying aircraft.

If I understood correctly what my hon. Friend said, it was in advance of what was said in answer to Questions some weeks ago by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Equipment. As recently as early last week, when he gave the construction programme for the Navy in some detail, I gathered that my right hon. Friend said that if it was metal and mobile he would phantomise it, and if it was steel and stationary, he would marinise it. He gave no detailed answer, however, about what, he thought, would be the answer for the Royal Navy to styx-type missiles. In accepting Vote A, we might want to look carefully at what my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Administration said in his rat-a-tat this evening and reserve judgment.

On recruitment and redundancy, I should like to pay tribute from constituency experience to the work that the Navy does about resettlement and redundancy and placing ex-Service men back in civilian life.

On recruitment and retention of our Service men and women, may I gather about me the rags of such a radical reputation as I had when I first came to this House, now sadly depleted, and ask that the Minister should consider the relationship between officers and men, or officers and Service women. I accept what he has said about the increasing ability of ratings to progress from the rank and file through to officer status, but it seems that particularly in the Navy, status is more important than it should be.

It seems that living facilities are more different than they should be as between one class of Service personnel and another and that when we are asking to recruit, and are recruiting, highly intelligent, highly educated, highly qualified technically and academically men and women, there is an artificial barrier, which could well be reduced or which we should look at, between officers and men. The forces are the only place in which that artificial barrier is created. All that I am asking my hon. Friend to do is to ask the Minister to consider whether something could not be done to reduce the artificial nature of the barrier.

10.54 p.m.

Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)

During the last month, the Government have put forward profound defence policy changes. They have announced that we are retiring to Europe and Britain. I want to know what effect, if any, this has in the manning proportions of the different categories of men in the Royal Navy, because I should think that it probably will have effect.

During the last 15 years, one of the major duties, if not the major duty, of the naval forces—and they have been organised accordingly—has been to put out insipient wars, known as the brush-fire policy. As far as I can recollect, all these have taken place east of Suez. But we are now withdrawing from there. In any case, the carriers are being phased out and there will be no shore-based air cover. So it seems to me that we could not operate there in that rôle anyhow. Do the Government visualise the brush-fire type war policy continuing in the Mediterranean? That seems rather unlikely.

The Speaker

Order. This is no longer a defence debate. The hon. and gallant Gentleman must now come to Vote A.

Captain Elliot

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but I had to put in that earlier bit. I will come to the point now.

What I want to know is the effect that this will have on the Royal Marines. I have the highest admiration for them and their versatility and everything that they do. One or two since leaving the Corps have taken the wrong turning and gone to the left instead of the right, but that only emphasises how good their training is in the Corps. The number of Royal Marines is a very large proportion of the total in Vote A—over 10 per cent. That is far higher than before the war, and it has been very necessary in the light of the brush-fire war policy. But before the war and after the Royal Marines were an integral part of the ship's company, and, therefore, they were of much more value in direct naval work. Now many thousands of them are virtually soldiers afloat and completely lost to the ordinary naval work on board. I want to ask the Minister, as the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) did, what their future is. As he pointed out, they go up by 50 this year. Is that to be continued. Will the Corps be affected by the retirement to Europe?

Mr. Hamling

Would not the hon. and gallant Gentleman agree that the Corps is doing today what the Army used to do because conditions of war have changed? These days war is much more amphibious than it used to be, and this is now being recognised.

Captain Elliot

That is true. In the past the Navy Estimates have borne the expenses for the Royal Marines, for example when they were fighting so brilliantly in the hills of Radfan or in the depths of the Borneo jungle. These seem far-fetched expenses for Navy Estimates. Be that as it may, these profound policy changes are changing that. I do not visualise the Corps carrying out this rôle in the Mediterranean.

Are the Government abandoning the brush fire war policy? I presume they are east of Suez. Do they expect it in the Mediterranean? If they do not—and I doubt whether they do—surely the Corps must be affected as well as the other branches. I should like to know whether any planning is going on on these lines in regard to manning to suit the profoundly different policy that the Navy will now have to follow.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I beg to move, That the said number be reduced by 1,000 men. I move this Amendment not because I wish to prolong the debate but in order to exercise the traditional Parliamentary right of challenging this Vote and the policy of the Government towards the Navy. We are asked to vote 98,000 men and the expenditure amounts to £655 million. This country cannot afford such a very large sum at a time when we are faced with a severe economic crisis.

The arguments deployed on both sides of the House do not convince me that this sum is not excessive and that, if the House goes on spending at this rate, we shall ever get out of the financial crisis. My hon. Friend has told us of the warships which are to come into existence in the next decade or so, and this leads me to think that we are not going to get any real, substantial reduction in expenditure on the Navy—and if we do not get such a reduction we shall have a perpetual financial crisis.

Hon. Members have argued that this sum should be exceeded. I want it reduced. A strength of 98,000 men in the Navy is a drain on the nation's manpower. I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling), who speaks for the Royal Marines, and with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers), who speaks for dockyard workers. I do not want to reduce the standard of living of the people who are necessary in the Armed Forces, but 98,000 is a very large number and the old, threadbare arguments of 50 years ago thrown about the Chamber tonight are quite irrelevant to the present situation.

I would welcome an independent inquiry by some unprejudiced businessmen and economists into the use of this manpower. I represent here an industry which has been inquired into often. The word "redundancy" has been used in the debate. I want to apply to the Navy the same argument being applied to the mining industry—that the time has come when we have so many men in the industry that it should be reduced to meet changed circumstances. I argue that the same applies to the Navy and that the number of men in it should be reduced.

I do not want to see these men made redundant in the sense of their being unemployed. I want their energies and abilities to be used in other directions. I would welcome some independent inquiry into how this manpower is used, and whether the sum of £655 million is excessive and whether the number of men involved is necessary. I want to apply this particularly to the Polaris submarine programme. There has been a marked tendency by the Government completely to ignore the arguments about the programme. As I have pointed out before, it amounts to £350 million a year. Mysteriously, it has gone down this year from £370 million to £350 million, and we have not had an adequate explanation of how the £20 million difference has come about.

This programme is strongly criticised in Scotland because, during the last three years, we have had there a very expensive Polaris base, costing £45 million and taking up the labour of construction and building workers and engineers at a time when they were needed on the home front for hospitals, schools and advance factories to deal with changes in industry.

Are we to have a repetition of the tests during the last fortnight by the submarine "Resolution"? The trials of two missiles which have been exploded have cost £1,500,000. Is that to be the end, or are we to have perpetual trials costing this large sum of money? Is it not time that there was some economy in Gareloch, in Faslane? We have a school there which has cost more than £11 million, at a time when we have no money for secondary schools or science education.

A big missile depôt has been carved out of the hill at Coalport for the storage of atomic weapons. When the Polaris submarine issue originally arose, there was strong criticisms from the Labour benches because missiles were to be stored near a large industrial centre like Glasgow. If there is no danger of an explosion at this storage depot, why should so much have been spent cutting a hole in a mountain, and why should there have been this enormous expenditure on concrete and so on?

We are told that, when complete, these submarines will operate in the South Atlantic, but much more powerful American submarines are already in the South At antic. How will these four submarines—the Labour Government cut one of the original five—increase the power of the deterrent when the Americans already have 41?

The time has come for a special inquiry into the expenditure on this base, an inquiry as thorough as that into the Hawker-Siddeley deal. This expenditure alarms me, for it seems to serve no useful purpose. The Admiralty is a powerful institution, but I hope that we can have some attempt at a rational explanation of how this expenditure on the Polaris submarines can be justified.

Mr. Foley

My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) and the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) asked about the pay and the future of the Royal Marines. The last increase in pay was in 1966, when there was an 18 per cent. increase. At present, the pay of the Armed Forces is being considered by the National Board for Prices and Incomes. There is no provision made in the present Estimates, as is normal practice, but clearly we are anxious to get an early answer on it, as my right hon. Friend announced in the defence debate.

As for the future of the Royal Marines, it may be that my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Administration went at a great pace when he wound up earlier, but he made a specific reference to the fact that we are looking at the future rôle of the Marines, particularly the use of the amphibious force on the N.A.T.O. flanks. This will form part of the review which is taking place, and I hope that it will be reflected in decisions which will be announced before very long.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that, in relation to the "teeth to tail" point, the Royal Marines are better than the other Services? I believe that the figures are 2.6 to 1.

Mr. Foley

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Marines and other units of the Army—

Mr. Wall

The Commandos.

Mr. Foley

Indeed, yes. These figures have been argued, and I would not want to contest them. From my own visits, my impression of the Marines is of an outstanding spirit in a first-rate kind of man among all ranks. That is so valuable that it would be foolish to ignore it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) raised a number of questions about the Styx type missile. Again, my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Administration spoke at a great rate, but I do not think that he added anything to what has been said previously. However, I suggest that my hon. Friend reads what he said in HANSARD tomorrow and, if there are specific details which have not been answered adequately, I shall be happy to take them up with him.

The relationship between officers and men is a matter which crops up from time to time, and it is a source of concern to Service Ministers. One starts by recognising that one is considering a discipline Service and that there are different ranks in it. It would be foolish to abolish them. Equally, there is a considerable element of teamwork, responsibility, and so on. My experience is that, in a small ship, there is a closer and more intimate relationship between officers, chief petty officers and ratings than is possible in a larger ship. In the Navy, we have the divisional system, and it may be that this could and should be improved. It is a matter which is being re-examined constantly. It reflects on the kind of training that officers should receive, on their probationary periods, and on a variety of other circumstances. Clearly in terms of any modern ship, given the kind of weaponry that it has, a first-rate relationship between officers and men, particularly between officers and petty officers, is indispensable. Each has a clear and decisive responsibility, and it is essential that they work together to fill their respective rôles.

Questions have been raised about mantling problems by the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton and the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett). In the first instance, I should repeat something which I said earlier. In the next few years, we do not anticipate any redundancy in the Royal Navy. This gives us the breathing space in which to analyse, specialisation by specialisation, the kind of manpower requirements and training and retraining requirements to make sure that we have sufficient numbers in each of the specialisations. That, in turn, will assist us in target planning.

I pointed out earlier that we are running something short of our target in the recruitment of ratings. I said, too, that there was a slight increase in re-engagement rates, but that this all leaves a problem for the future.

We expect to meet the future staff requirements in the short run by natural wastage, and by some adjustment of our recruiting targets. Through into the 'seventies there will be a problem of some redundancies, and in relation to this, in the first instance, having identified the spheres in which there is over-manning, we will call for volunteers. On this basis we will give people a year in which to do a resettlement or retraining job before leaving the Service. This is how we will deal with the problem of determining our manning needs, and then we will deal with the question of redundancies.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

In his opening statement my hon. Friend referred to the ways in which the Navy would settle any personnel—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Member speak up?

Mr. Dalyell

In his opening statement my hon. Friend referred to the ways in which the Navy was going to settle personnel into existing civilian authorities. Can he say something of the mechanism by which he will do this?

Mr. Foley

I am sorry if I did not make the position clear. I said that I attached great weight to the kind of training which is provided in the Navy, and I added that we were looking at it to make sure that the training would equip people for civilian life, that the skills which they acquire in the Service are skills and competencies which will be recognised in civvy street.

Perhaps I might give an example of what I mean. At the moment we have organised and geared the training of our communicators to equip them to deal with the equipment in the Navy. A slight adjustment of that training programme would virtually give each man who qualified for the Navy an automatic City and Guilds in civvy street. It is this kind of training that we are considering. We want to provide a man with the kind of training which will equip him for use by the Navy, and also equip him for civvy street.

Dame Joan Vickers

It is one thing to get them trained. Very often the trade unions will not accept them. What is the hon. Gentleman doing to overcome this problem?

Mr. Foley

I mentioned this earlier, too. In the first place, there is the question, particularly for officers, of recognition by the various professional associations. There is no difficulty with the trade unions about the artificer class. There is difficulty with the mechanician class, and discussions are going on with the trade unions to get recognition of this as a trade.

With regard to the conversion of the Tiger Class cruisers, as the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) is aware, H.M.S. "Tiger" is undergoing conversion at Devonport. We plan to convert H.M.S. "Lion"—this is referred to on page 28 of the Statement. I think the hon. Lady will recall that earlier in the year there was a meeting for dockyard Members when we considered how we could establish a dockyard load. One could see from the graphs which were presented that virtually from month to month there was a variation in the placing of ships because of operational requirements, because of ships not coming in on time, because of ships being required earlier, and so on. We therefore cannot be absolutely firm about where this or that ship will go. In time it will be Devon-port, but at this moment I cannot give a cast-iron guarantee.

The cost of each of these conversions is about £5½ million. I think that it may well be some time in mid-1969 before a decision is made on whether H.M.S. "Lion" goes to Devonport. It is about then that we will take her in for conversion, but it is difficult at this moment to give a precise assurance in terms of time, or indeed of place.

The hon. Lady referred to accommodation for the W.R.N.S. I know the conditions in which they live. I was not aware of any slippage in the programme for new accommodation, but I shall look in to this and write to the hon. Lady.

As for the history of the "Ark Royal", as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, despite what others may say, it could not have leaked to the newspaper because a decision had not been taken. It is not a difficult thing for any journalist to guess either "Yes" or "No". If the journalist says "Yes", and the decision is "Yes, it will continue", the journalist is right. If the decision is "No", presumably the journalist will be right next time. But there was no leak. The Admiral Superintendent was informed by his superior officers at the appropriate time.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

How did the journalist in question also know that the decision was to be announced by the Secretary of State in opening the defence debate last Monday?

Dame Joan Vickers

It was not only that leak that I was referring to but the earlier one, in December. We have had to wait all this time with this indefinite cloud hanging over our heads on the question whether it was to be refitted.

Mr. Foley

One talks about the first and second leak, but the essence of the thing is that the same problem is involved. The question was: do we continue or do we not? Many considerations had to be taken into account. First, there were the strategic considerations taken into account by the Chiefs of Staff, about what they would require militarily, and the effect of the withdrawal from the Far East and the Gulf, and the time scale we had established. They said clearly what they required to do the job.

There were also economic and financial considerations—about the money already spent and how far long-load items had been ordered, and whether we had reached the stage of irreversibility. There were social considerations, particularly in regard to the siting and location of the dockyard, and all that that meant to the whole of the West Country. A variety of factors was involved.

The question how the journalist could announce—as presumably someone did—in December and again in January and again in February, that the decision would be "Yes" is not difficult to understand. It is not a difficult matter for someone to say "Yes" or "No".

As for the right hon. Gentleman's question—if one could check the source of leaks over a variety of subjects, and particularly defence matters, over a number of years, we would all be in a happier position, but the right hon. Gentleman is as well aware as I am that on this issue one has, from time to time, not something characteristic of this Government but something going back for many years—information picked up by journalists and reported, sometimes rightly and sometimes incorrectly.

I am sorry if hon. Members opposite feel dissatisfied with this. I would have thought they would welcome the decision to go ahead with the "Ark". I presume that they are disappointed because the decision was not made earlier. Nevertheless, it has been made. The world knows. I am delighted that the decision has been made.

As for the dockyard and its load, I referred earlier to the problem of determining the load and the factors that can alter the work load. A small amount of contract work which is put out from time to time from the yards. This has caused some measure of concern. Sometimes it has been done without consultation with the unions; sometimes workmen have felt they could do it better. We have to do something to improve labour relations and the dialogue at local level. I am absolutely convinced of this.

On the question of the civilian worker. I want to put this into its proper perspective. I am not talking particularly about Devonport. If one wants lessons on running down the dockyards and closing them one can learn from the party opposite. It is not many years since it closed some Royal Dockyards. We have not done that. There is the question how one can reassure people. I do not know whether it is true, but it is said that dockyard people talk themselves into crises much more easily than others. There is to be a review of the workload of the next ten years and it is important that we cut down the home base so that what is left is "teeth". This is difficult to define, because the dockyards are as essential as ships and men, because the equipment must work. It is therefore too early to give an assurance that any given dockyard will be immune. The review will take some time, but the House, local authorities and the unions will be in formed as soon as it is completed. I thought that the last meeting which dockyard M.P.s had with my officials was very useful and I see no difficulty in arranging another, if desired, for June this year.

The hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham made great play about the numbers working in Portsmouth Dockyard, and wondered which of the variety of answers he had been given was correct. I can only guess that the differences, for which I am sorry, were in definition and coverage, since dockyard figures tend to be complicated. However, I shall be glad to write to him explaining the figures and giving a consistent answer.

Dame Joan Vickers

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, would he say something about the new arrangements about the rank of flag officer?

Mr. Foley

There were proposals to change the command structure, especially in the flag officer rank. It has been decided to amalgamate the responsibilities in the dockyard under the Dockyard Commander-in-Chief. In Chatham, this is in effect. In Scotland, it will be, and there will be no Admiral Superintendent at Rosyth. Devonport will be under the command of the Commander-in-Chief, as will Plymouth. There is no guarantee that the Commander-in-Chief at Plymouth will be an engineering specialist.

For a number of years, definition and relationship have been confused. It was explained at our last briefing on the subject of the relationships between the Admiral Superintendent and the General Manager that a dockyard consisted of more than just the ships under repair. There was a supply organisation and ratings working aboard ship, which is why there was an Admiral Superintendent. There is no intention to withdraw naval staff from dockyard work where they are needed, both the ultimate responsibility will be with the Commander-in-Chief. He will determine the delegation of responsibility to ensure that work is done to Navy specifications and that existing work, other than repair and refitting, is done adequately.

Mr. Frank Judd (Portsmouth, West)

Will not my hon. Friend agree that this will leave the General Manager in an invidious position and that many of the problems of morale arise because there is a lack of accountability, and that until the General Manager is in full control of the yard, we cannot overcome these difficulties.

Mr. Foley

I do not want to delve too much in detail into this point. There is a combination of reasons. Partly, it may well be the lack of defined responsibility. Partly, it may well be that there is a remoteness about the control of the yard and an absence of delegated responsibility. Partly, it may well be that we need a cross-fertilisation with civilian life, with personnel serving a period elsewhere and with people from outside coming into the yard. These are some of the reasons. It would be difficult to point at any one of them as the main reason. I wish that we could.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Does not my hon. Friend think that the Polaris submarine deserves some mention? Will he not make some attempt to justify the cost of it? Why should he ignore it completely?

Mr. Foley

I am quite willing to deal with the point. The position—and I hope that this is some reassurance to my hon. Friend—is that most of the money is already committed. Most of the money on the Polaris programme has already been spent. The buildings are almost completed and the base will quite soon be operational. As for the Polaris submarine itself, whatever the arguments may be about it, having spent the money to build the Polaris, having got it through all the training and having got a highly sophisticated weapons system, it would be wrong not to try it. That is why the two crews from the Polaris submarines will have an experience of testing the missile system.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

What is the cost of it?

Mr. Foley

My hon. Friend has put down Questions on the subject and he has had the answers.

Question put and negatived.

Original Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That 98,000 Officers, Ratings and Royal Marines be maintained for Naval Service, for the year ending on the 31st day of March 1969.

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