HC Deb 20 March 1969 vol 780 cc843-51

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £14,335,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, to defray the expense of miscellaneous effective services, including a grant in aid, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March 1970.

8.10 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Will the of the hour and the needs of the Army, I shall deal with the Vote as quickly as I can, confining myself to one substantial subject and two or three very small ones.

The substantial point concerns subhead B, "Publicity and Recruiting Services." About £90,000 has been added to the Estimate for the coming year for these services. It is common ground on both sides of the House that recruiting is down again, and it should be emphasised that the effect of bad recruiting for one year after another is cumulative. It is not simple but compound interest.

The whole problem of recruiting worries the Opposition, and we do not want to say anything to make it worse. We believe that good careers are still available for young men who are good enough and enterprising enough to join the splendid young men already in the Services. But the Opposition are mystified by the Secretary of State's policy on the matter, because he seems to be doing absolutely nothing about it. There have been plenty of statements in the debates and the White Paper about how bad recruiting is, but there have been practically no concrete or practical suggestions by the Secretary of State on what should be done.

On page 69 of the White Paper, under the heading, "Recruitment of Ratings, Soldiers and Airmen", there is just the following statement: Efforts are being made to improve methods of selecting recruits and so reduce waste. What is the good of concentrating one's efforts on selecting recruits who are not coming forward?

The right hon. Gentleman also says by way of explanation of his difficulties that there are too few young men in the appropriate age groups. He can hardly have just recently stumbled on that very basic fact of life.

As the Department is in competition with other employers, he should put up the pay offered to the young men he is trying to take in. He would be in a position to do so if he had not handed over responsibility to the Prices and Incomes Board. This is a basic question of the law of supply and demand, which is sometimes difficult for the Socialist mentality to grasp but is a basic law for all that. One might almost feel that so few suggestions come from the Secretary of State that he does not want recruiting to improve. If that is too high—and the Minister is demurring from that—we must at least say that the right hon. Gentleman is guilty of a most astonishing lack of any sense of responsibility about it.

I now come to my small subjects. Under Subhead F there is a reduced sum for external Naval training, and we believe that it is too small. It is stated that the Estimate: Provides for miscellaneous training courses and for training allowances paid to Merchant Navy personnel being trained in the defence of merchant ships. The tiny sum of £56,000 for 1969–70 indicates that not sufficient attention is being given to this vitally important matter. The primary task of the Royal Navy throughout the ages has been the protection of overseas trade and shipping generally. The Merchant Navy makes a vast contribution to our invisible earnings, and it is time the Government understood that we cannot live in these islands just by taking in one another's washing. Giving these piffling sums for the encouragement of the protection of the Merchant Navy is all too indicative of an inward-looking frame of mind, which we saw in the Government's east of Suez defence policy.

Subhead H is concerned with married quarters. It is rather surprising that, according to the White Paper, there seem to be only 82,000 married quarters for the 250,000 men of all three Services who are stationed in the United Kingdom. Navy married quarters used to be provided to enable families to be united when the men were at home. But I believe that that is the wrong way of looking at the matter, and that they should be provided to enable a man to go back to sea and leave his family in good, settled married quarters, and have no anxiety about where the family is living while he is away.

This leads us to a concept that needs more attention, the concept of fixed homes in the United Kingdom for the Service man so that he knows where his home is, what schools his children go to and so on. Great economies might result if the Defence Department did not have to provide all those ancillary facilities for families.

This also leads us to the concept that when men go overseas for any reason they should go unaccompanied. They should be shuttled to and fro for leave as often as possible by the splendid transport that Support Command of the Royal Air Force now has. A new look at this question is required. Instead of flying women and children round the world we should leave them at home in fixed, settled positions and shuttle the men to and fro as required.

I now come to subhead I, dealing with Naval and marine museums. Here I should like to declare my interest, though it is not a financial one. What is happening about the suggestion that H.M.S. "Belfast", the last of our large pre-war cruisers, should be put into permanent dry dock as a memorial to the steam age in exactly the same way as H.M.S. "Victory" is a permanent memorial to the Navy's sail era? H.M.S. "Belfast", which has already been paid off, is the last of these old cruisers, but she is in a very good state of preservation, because a lot of money was spent on refitting her for her last commission, in which I was her captain in the Far East. That is why I started by declaring an interest in the future of this fine old ship. The suggestion has already been put to the Government. If this could be done it would be a financial success in the long term, because a charge could be made for people going round her, and would be the sort of imaginative measure required to help recruiting and a better attitude by the public towards the services.

I end on this point, in the hope that we shall get an imaginative outlook from the Minister on it. There is no doubt that imagination is what is very sadly lacking in the Government's defence policy as a whole.

8.19 p.m.

Mr. Dalyell

I strongly support the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) in asking that the "Belfast" should be retained as a kind of museum. Perhaps our nation loses something if the great monuments of industrial archaeology and recent Service history are not preserved. It is unfortunate that one of the old "ironclads"—"Ramillies", "Resolution" or some other battleship—was not preserved.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for not having heard the whole of his wind-up speech on the last Vote. I was at a memorial meeting.

I should like briefly to say something of a "thank you" to his Department in relation to Subhead C, relating to conveyance of personnel. I had the unfortunate experience of a constituent dying in the village of Linlithgow Bridge. Her son was serving with the Navy in Singapore. It happened one weekend, and, for reasons which I need not go into, the funeral had to be fairly urgent. I rang up on Saturday the night duty officer at the Ministry of Defence. Immediate action was taken and within 36 hours that man was home. There was not, I understand, any obligation on the Navy to send him home and I want to express some gratitude for the efficiency with which the Ministry, the duty officer and the people in Singapore acted. This kind of humanity makes quite a difference to the forces.

Having worked 18 months on a Merchant Navy ship it seems to me that the kind of training envisaged in Subhead F is meaningful and worth while. This is the sort of thing I would be in favour of expanding.

If the Navy is to do all these things that I have gone on about at great length—at perhaps too much length—in the development of marine environment, there must be a separate system of financing. Perhaps my hon. Friend may care to give some reflections on whether or not the Ministry is prepared to consider this proposition seriously before next year.

8.22 p.m.

Dr. David Owen

The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) dealt with wider aspects of recruiting and questions of re-engagement which do not really fall within this Vote, but we have had a reasonable debate.

I must say, however, that I resent the personal nature of some of the attacks the hon. and gallant Gentleman makes repeatedly on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. It is fair enough to attack the Government, but I know that, on the issue of recruitment, my right hon. Friend is as concerned about it as any of the Service Ministers and has given considerable personal attention to finding ways of increasing recruitment. As no one knows better than the hon. and gallant Gentleman, there are no easy answers. This is a very difficult complex of factors.

On this Vote, we are dealing with recruiting publicity. The financial provision for 1969–70 under Vote 8b, which caters for recruiting activities carried out by the Navy itself, has risen by almost £100,000 over last year's figure. With this extra money, the Navy intends to improve the attractiveness of the displays in its own careers offices, and it will also participate to a much greater extent in exhibitions and local shows. Active service naval and marine personal will be assisting in many of the activities, and we regard their help as particularly valuable. We are also planning to replace part of the fleet of mobile display vans which tour the country with more modern exhibition caravans.

However, apart from expenditure falling on Navy Votes, the cost of large-scale Press and poster advertisements on a nation-wide basis is borne on the Central Office of Information Vote, and this forms by far the major part of expenditure on Navy recruiting publicity. Here again, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Administration stated in last week's defence debate, the provision for advertising has been substantially increased for the coming year. This will enable us to make a far greater impact on potential recruits for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.

I come now to the question of married quarters. We have at present some 1,850 officers' married quarters in the United Kingdom and some 10,200 for ratings. Overseas, we have some 200 and 500 respectively. There are also, of course, a large number of official hirings which contribute significantly to easing local shortages of married quarters. During 1968–69, we completed about 1,250 naval married quarters, and we plan to build something over 500 new married quarters during the present year. We also plan to start building another 1,080 married quarters.

The married quarter building programme has, therefore, been moving ahead at a considerable pace. Our general aim is to end up with enough married quarters to allow the Navy a roof to roof movement policy. By this, I mean that ratings and their families would move if they wished from one married quarter to another when they received a new appointment on draft.

It is difficult to prophesy when we shall reach this objective. For many reasons, the Navy lagged behind in the building of married quarters, and it is not easy to make this up overnight. Nor, indeed, is it easy to define closely the number and the siting of the married quarters we will need to achieve our object. We are, however, certainly moving with speed in the right direction.

I have already mentioned that we attach considerable importance to the Merchant Navy. There has been a tendency, because of an attack on our decisions about Far East policy, to suppose that this necessarily means a withdrawal of support and lack of interest in the Merchant Navy. This is far from the case. There is considerable interest by the Government in the Merchant Navy, and discussions are constantly going on between the Navy Department and interested parties involved with the Merchant Navy. I repeat that this is something to which we attach considerable importance, and that we will continue to do so. Perhaps that also answers one of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell).

I am somewhat limited tonight in what I can say about H.M.S. "Belfast", because this is a problem for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, since it comes within the category of museums. It is well known that a number of naval ports have shown interest in having the "Belfast" should it be made available. This matter will have to be gone into and advice taken from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. But I personally agree with the general principle that this might help recruitment and keep up interest in the Royal Navy. There is a price to be paid, however, and it cannot be paid on the Defence Votes.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian earlier referred to oceanography. I know that he had to leave the Chamber while I was replying, and I have no doubt that he will find my answer unsatisfactory. I said little more than I was able to say in the last debate. With this sort of thing, unless the research is relevant to defence, it cannot be carried on Defence Votes. As I have told him previously, the Select Committee on Procedure is looking at a suggested form of Defence Estimates, and, of course, it is for the House to say whether it wishes to have them in a different form. This is one matter we would certainly look at, but I cannot now, from this Box, state any further policy.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Is it not true that the price to be paid for H.M.S. "Belfast" is only the scrap value?

Dr. Owen

I think that that is true. This is obviously a subject for negotiation, but there would be no point in doing it unless it was viable on other grounds, and the viability of H.M.S. "Belfast" as a museum, together with the other aspects, are for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to decide.

Mr. Dalyell

This is a matter of great consequence, and those of us interested in the National Trust, tourism and other organisations, and in areas developing as tourist areas, such as the Forth basin, believe that there is quite an argument for having such ships as H.M.S. "Belfast" on display. The "Belfast" is the plum, and it may well be that the South has the prior claim—I can quite understand that—but surely there must be an overall coherent policy. This must be discussed with the Board of Trade and various interests, including the educational and regional interests involved.

Dr. Owen

I can say no more than that this is the overall responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. If my hon. Friend feels that the interests of the Board of Trade and tourism and other organisations should be brought to his attention, I am sure that he will make it known to my right hon. Friend. I myself, of course, will have a slight vested interest in the siting of H.M.S. "Belfast", being a Member for the City of Plymouth, which is also interested in the ship. That is another reason why I do not wish to be drawn on this subject any further tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £14,335,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, to defray the expense of miscellaneous effective services, including a grant in aid, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March 1970.