HC Deb 29 January 1969 vol 776 cc1322-5
32. Sir G. Nabarro

asked the Minister of Technology what inquiries he has made and with what results in the matter of turbine and other faults in the "Queen Elizabeth 2".

Mr. Benn

I understand that the turbines are being repaired and the origins of the trouble fully investigated to prevent any recurrence.

Sir G. Nabarro

Having regard to the fact that approximately £20 million of public money is invested in this enterprise, would it not be appropriate for a Ministerial inquiry to be established to ascertain to what extent the builders of these turbines are responsible for the faults—which cast a grave reflection on British engineering construction—or whether sabotage has occurred, or what is the cause of this national disaster?

Mr. Benn

The hon. Member is overdoing it. It is most unfortunate that these turbines should have caused trouble. They are very much more sophisticated and complicated, and carry more power, than any turbine of their kind ever placed in a British ship before. Turbine trouble is not unknown elsewhere. We have no reason to suspect sabotage, and no reason to believe that a Ministerial inquiry would help in what is basically an engineering problem that is being tackled with great care by many people, including people from my own Department involved—namely, the National Engineering Laboratory. That is the right way of doing it. It is a disappointment, but not a disaster.

Mr. Shinwell

Was not this matter almost finally disposed of in the course of the debate on shipbuilding last Thursday, when the House was practically unanimous? Is it not about time that this carping criticism about the "Queen Elizabeth 2" and the turbines, and John Browns, was put a stop to, because the effect is to discourage foreign shipowners from having ships built in this country?

Mr. Benn

I entirely share my right hon. Friend's view that making too much of what has been a technical difficulty in respect of the turbines does very great damage to an industry which we have, by collective action in the House, allowed the Government to help reorganise and so exploit world markets.

Mr. David Price

Does not the Minister agree that in the debate last Thursday it seemed to be very much the opinion of hon. Members on both sides of the House that no useful purpose would be served at present by having an inquiry and diverting those involved from the necessary and urgent job of getting the ship to sea, but that if long delays should continue, and if the technical difficulties should turn out to be greater than appear at the moment, the House would no doubt wish to reconsider the question whether there was any purpose in having such a technical inquiry?

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. Obviously, new and entirely unforeseen circumstances might arise, and it would be foolish for me to rule out in advance the possibility of an inquiry, but on the basis of present evidence, I think it right to leave it to the engineers, and I hope that they will soon find the answer to problems which are more difficult than those which confront some hon. Members.

Sir G. Nabarro

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I regard that reply as very unsatisfactory, and beg to give notice that I shall raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment.

34. Mr. Rankin

asked the Minister of Technology if he will arrange for a full and detailed inquiry into the reasons which have so far prevented Cunard from accepting the "Queen Elizabeth 2"; and what action has been taken by the Shipbuilding Industry Board in the matter.

36. Mr. John Lee

asked the Minister of Technology if he will set up an inquiry into the delays in connection with the building and completion of the "Queen Elizabeth 2".

Mr. Benn

For the reasons I explained to the House during the Second Reading of the Shipbuilding Industry Bill, I do not propose to set up an inquiry.

Mr. Rankin

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the men who helped to build this ship are feeling a certain responsibility in the matter? They feel that they are being regarded as persons who have had a major part in creating this trouble. That is what they told me a week ago, as I told the House. It is therefore important that it should be demonstrated that, although there has been pilfering, it is only a small part of the trouble. Will not my right hon. Friend reconsider the matter, in view of the fact that the S.I.B. has £7½ million, free of interest, in the venture. Can he say whether the S.I.B. has been con ducting any inquiry, and could we hear the outcome?

Mr. Benn

I understand the arguments given, but I do not believe that they override the arguments against. I dealt with this last week, and the Shipbuilding Industry Board and I have been in close contact.

Mr. John Lee

Since most of the allegations have been grossly exaggerated, would not one way of cutting them down to size be to hold an inquiry and scotch the matter now?

Mr. Benn

No, it would not. The ship will sail months and months before any inquiry could report.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Would the right hon. Gentleman resist all these demands? Surely this is not the time to allocate the blame. Will he ensure that the men on Clydeside are allowed to get on with the job? Would he not agree that this will be a wonderful advertisement for Clydeside when it is finished?

Mr. Benn

That is my motive, and I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said both inside and outside the House.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that far too much publicity has been given to this unfortunate occurrence and that if hon. Members on both sides of the House want to help British shipbuilding and British shipping, we should leave this matter to the Upper Clyde ship builders and Cunard to sort out themselves?

Mr. Benn

I agree. Self-denigration in this country has long overtaken cricket and football as our favourite national sport. It does absolutely no good and simply demoralises a country which is seeing its way through its economic difficulties.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that if an equivalent sum of £29 million were invested in either a chemical or an engineering plant it would take many months to get the teething problems right, and that the trouble is not in the building of the ship but in the management having given a promise of a delivery date and the operating company having advertised sailings before it was certain that it could achieve them?

Mr. Benn

If there were an inquiry, probably everybody involved would have some comment made about his behaviour and activities, but it would be very wrong of me to confirm criticisms made by the hon. Member, which he, no doubt, sincerely believes, for technical trouble in the turbines, which is what the trouble is about and lies behind much of the questioning for an inquiry, is very complex. I do not think that an inquiry in this respect need be held. I agree with him that these are very complicated questions which the engineers can best sort out.