HC Deb 08 March 1971 vol 813 cc207-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Goodhew.]

11.56 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

I want to occupy the House for a few moments about the future of H.M.S. "Belfast" as a museum ship. First, I want to give the reasons for trying to preserve her. She is an historic ship in many ways. She took part in the sinking of the "Scharnhorst" and was the covering force for the attack on the "Tirpitz". She spearheaded the invasion of Normandy and saw much action in the Korean War, and for years she has been the flagship of the British Far East Fleet. She was the largest cruiser ever built for the Royal Navy, and is now the last remaining wartime big-gun ship. All the others have gone.

She is still in a really wonderful state of preservation, as I saw for myself when I went round her a week ago. The museums are very anxious to keep the ship, and have been for several years, and in 1967 the Belfast Committee was set up. It published a very detailed report. Its membership comprised representatives from the National Maritime Museum and the Imperial War Museum, and it was under the chairmanship of the director, Dr. Noble Frankland, of the Imperial War Museum. I quote from the report of the Committee: There is a very strong case for her preservation…There is really no question of selecting Belfast; it is rather a case of grasping the last opportunity. The Labour Government seemed all set to preserve this ship in Plymouth, and the scheme was supported by the Labour Minister of the Navy at the time. Now I have heard twice from the noble Lord the Paymaster-General that this Government refuse to preserve the ship. For the purposes of this debate I accept that decision, but I want to put a completely different proposal to the Minister.

My hon. Friend may or may not know that a H.M.S. "Belfast" Trust is being formed at the moment, with the object of trying to obtain a loan of the ship to put her on exhibition afloat in the London River. In connection with that scheme I want to make a few points. First, I hope that the Minister will understand quite clearly that the Trust wants to do its job properly or not at all. We do not want just to muck about with it.

Secondly, the Trust already has the offer of a splendid berth in the Pool of London, just opposite the Tower—perhaps the best berth in the world. The Tower of London is visited by more than 2 million tourists each year, and I hope that a large number of those visitors will be interested in taking a short tour round the "Belfast".

Thirdly, the Trust believes that the scheme could be financially viable. The Minister will know that ships are similarly shown in many other countries, including Canada, Japan, the United States, Russia and so on, and all the ships of which we have details run at a profit. The Trust is quite clear that if "Belfast" does not pay after the first few years, we should agree that it must be scrapped, because there would be nothing in the scheme.

On finances, the Trust has not yet started advertising for money to support the scheme, but a certain amount of information about our ideas has been in the Press and on the radio and I have already received very heartening financial response, including a letter offering the Trust a£50,000 bond which I received as I came into the Lobby a few minutes ago.

There is no technical difficulty about preservation of the hull afloat, a point which the "Belfast" Committee made clearly. I hope that the Minister will excuse me if I do not enlarge on that. If the Government lend the ship to the Trust, their money will be secure because the ship will remain theirs, so there is no occasion for the "Abominable No-Men" in the Treasury to feel any concern.

The Trust is already receiving a great deal of encouragement and support from the two museums particularly concerned, from the British Tourist Authority, which wishes to obtain additional tourist attractions in London, and the Port of London Authority, which is being very helpful and which sees no objection in principle to her being berthed in the Pool of London. There has already been a preliminary reconnaissance with P.L.A. representatives in the Pool.

No fewer than 80 hon. Members from all parties have signed an early day Motion, and those signing range from the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer)—a very wide spectrum indeed!The Motion has been signed, too, by previous Navy Ministers from both parties.

There have been many suggestions for adding to the attractions which the ship could offer tourists and thereby increase the income which she could earn. It has been suggested that World War Two exhibits should be placed aboard as an extension of the museums in due course. It would be an attractive idea to have a R.N. recruiting office or careers office actually on board the ship and that would probably be more effective than having one ashore. One can imagine a leering old pensioner with a rum tub—"The Queen, God bless her!"—selling rum to visitors at exorbitant prices, and even son et lumière across the water in due course.

I put it to the Minister that it would be worth while considering having the London division of the Royal Navy Division on board and thereby enable the Ministry to scrap H.M.S. "President" and H.M.S. "Chrysanthemum". I have not yet discussed this with the R.N.R. Division, and the two ships which they have now have done them very well and have honoured and hallowed names, but H.M.S. "Belfast" would probably be a better headquarters ship for the London Division in the long run.

I have two questions to put to the Minister tonight. First, will he halt the dismantling and removal of fittings and equipment from the ship and delay any action about selling her until 30th June, to give the Trust a chance to show what it can make of its ideas? Secondly, will he in the meantime hold discussions with the trustees to see whether the ship can be lent to the Trust for, say, five years on mutually acceptable terms? It is never easy to divert the Whitehall machine from its decision, but this is not an attempt to change the Minister's mind, but merely to suggest a way in which an imaginative Government could have the best of both worlds.

I am not putting this forward for any emotional reasons or just because I once commanded the ship. I fully understand that the scheme must be entirely realistic and business-like, otherwise we cannot go ahead with it.

I would remind the House that Britain owes her greatness, all through her history, to the sea. She has twice this century been within a few weeks of starvation because of blockades of our sea routes. We owe it to our children that they should never be allowed to forget these two vital facts.

12.5 a.m.

Mr. David James (Dorset, North)

I must declare a continued interest because I was a trustee of the National Maritime Museum for 11 years. When we remember the achievement of the Swedes in salvaging the "Vasa", one of the most fascinating episodes over the years, and when we think of the opportunities we have lost, it really is disgraceful. In 1948 we could easily have preserved the last four-masted barque ever built in Britain, the "Archibald Russell". In 1949 the last three-masted coastal schooner, "Mary Miller", went out of commission and in 1950 the last colliery barquentine, "Lady of Avenal", also went on to the scrap-heap. We have let an incomparable maritime heritage go by default. We are left with the "Foudroyant", one of the most historic warships in the world, which is rotting at anchor through lack of care and funds.

We are left with Captain Scott's "Discovery"—that very historic ship which is ruined by virtue of not having her yards crossed to turn her into a barque. She is technically a bastard schooner, which is not an unparliamentary term because it is naval term. I had an Adjournment debate on the subject 11 years ago. We are left with the "Great Britain" which has been brought home at immense sacrifice, through great imagination but whose future is very uncertain, even though she is certainly one of the most important maritime relics left in the world.

The only two ships that this great maritime country has ever taken any trouble over have been the "Victory" at Portsmouth and the "Cutty Sark". The sheer economics of the "Cutty Sark" make it quite clear that it was worth while saving her. Thank God she was saved. It was by a series of coincidences that she survived every vicissitude. If only the Government would give a certain latitude to allow ships such as these to be properly capitalised we would be able to retain these vessels. They are of vital importance. I would say that they are as important as historic houses. I know I will take my hon. Friend out of his purely Departmental brief when I appeal for a far more imaginative approach to the entire question of preserving historic ships, not only to remind us of our maritime past but also to be jolly good tourist business for the future.

12.8 a.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

I am happy to say that this is one subject at least in which there is a wide measure of agreement on both sides of the House—and there are few enough such occasions at present. I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Win- chester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) on using his good fortune in the Adjournment debate to raise this subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) is unable to be here but he joined me in sponsoring the Early Day Motion. I can tell the Minister that, had we tried, we could have got much more support than the 80-odd signatures to that Motion.

I would underline what has been said by hon. and hon. and gallant Gentlemen opposite about the need to keep the "Belfast" but not as a dusty, old museum—that is the last word that should be used in this context, although museums can be exciting places. It should be kept as a relic of our imperial glory, or even as a dead remembrance of the times when she sailed the high seas in defence of this country and by her service helped to make it possible for us to sit here in peace. She is part of the living history of this maritime nation.

I may, and no doubt will in future, criticise the Government for their cost-effective programme for this, that or the other, but I do not want to do that tonight. I hope that there is a way by which the Government can preserve this ship as part of our maritime history and as an encouragement to our sailors in the years to come.

12.10 a.m.

Mr. Gordon A. T. Bagier (Sunderland, South)

I join the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) in the request he has made. I did not command H.M.S. "Belfast", but, as a gunner in the Royal Marines who served in her, I remember being on board when she was on the Russian convoys, when she helped to sink the "Scharnhorst" and fired one of the first shots at Normandy when we returned there. I hopes that the Minister will look on the request made with some favour. The only value of the ship from the point of view of cashing in on her is as scrap.

I ask the Minister to give some thought to maintaining her and giving her a chance, perhaps as a museum so that member of the public may view the ship, which is representative of a class of cruisers which are disappearing from our maritime history. If the public do not want H.M.S. "Belfast" to remain in existence, the Government can realise on the vessel in three or four years as an asset. I hope that the Minister will give some thought to that matter.

12.13 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Peter Kirk)

No one like myself who has served in the Royal Navy and who now tries to serve the Royal Navy could possibly be unmoved by the please made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) and others for H.M.S. "Belfast"—even one like me who is slightly on the fringe of the Royal Navy, having been in the Fleet Air Arm and having had no great interest in cruisers. I recognise the very great depth of feeling on both sides of the House about preserving this historic ship, particularly that of my hon. and gallant Friend, who was her commander, who knows the ship intimately and saw her not in her declining years—I would hate to say that—but in her present state only last week.

H.M.S. "Belfast" is one of the most historic ships which the Navy has had in the last 20 years. She was commissioned in 1939, at the beginning of the last war. She served in the Arctic convoy operations and played an important rôle in the last of the Navy's capital ship gunnery actions—the sinking of the "Scharnhorst" in 1943. Subsequently she took part in naval operations in support of the Normandy landings and after that was the flagship of the British squadron in the United Nations operations in Korea. More recently, in 1960, she was the flagship of the then Second in Command Far East Fleet, the late First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, that most loved man, Admiral Sir Michael Le Fanu, whose recent death we all deplored.

Since 1967, H.M.S. "Belfast" has performed the slightly less glamorous, but essential, role of H.Q. ship of the Reserve Ships Organisation at Portsmouth. As a result of the transfer of the Reserve Ships Organisation to shore accommodation at Chatham last month, this requirement has ceased and she would in the ordinary way he put on the disposal list next month as being surplus to naval requirements.

Following normal practice, she has been emptied of all portable stores and equipment, and no further maintenance is being done on her. I must, therefore, say to my hon. and gallant Friend that I cannot halt the de-equipping process. This has now virtually been completed and it would make very little sense to do anything about that. I understand that her present condition is that her hull appears to be sound but that there is considerable corrosion of her decks and upperworks; and that her adaptation as an accommodation ship involved the de-equipping of a large area of her forward superstructure to provide additional living accommodation.

My hon. and gallant Friend has referred to the earlier proposal by the National Martime and Imperial War Museums for the preservation of H.M.S. "Belfast" as a floating museum when she became surplus to requirements. The Navy Department interest was of course confined to the question of making the ship available, but we were closely associated with the proposal in this respect from its earliest days and, had the proposal been implemented, would have agreed that the ship should be provided for this purpose. In the event my noble Friend the Paymaster-General has not been able to agree to the proposal to preserve the ship for use as a museum—in view of the very substantial annual running costs likely to be incurred in this project and the number of people who might have been expected to visit the ship.

While we in the Navy Department are not in a position ourselves to undertake the preservation of ships, we are always anxious to assist if we can. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that the time required before the ship is finally disposed of will give adequate opportunity for the Trust to make firm proposals for her preservation which we shall of course consider fully and sympathetically.

I understand that he has in mind an arrangement whereby the ship would remain in Admiralty ownership but on loan to the Trust for a number of years. The problem is, however, that if there is no further purely naval requirement for the ship we would normally seek to dispose of her in such a way as to terminate once and for all our responsibility for her since there are obvious objections to retaining, as a possible liability on Defence Votes, a ship which has no defence purpose. In the ordinary way disposal would be by sale as scrap through competitive tendering by United Kingdom shipbreakers. The scrap value would be considerable.

I cannot be more precise than that, although I know that a number of questions have been asked. For the commercial reasons I have already given to the House, it would not be right for me to give any figure. I do, however, acknowledge the arguments of my hon. and gallant Friend and the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. David James) and the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) for the preservation of H.M.S. "Belfast", and I am ready to hold up the disposal of the ship for a short time while the Trust formulates definite proposals. I understand from him that this will be before the end of June.

There are a number of problems which have still to be worked out, for example, the implications of disposing of the ship in a way that did not realise her full value will have to be carefully examined, and I cannot be expected to give a decision now on this.

The answer to my hon. and gallant Friend's first question is that, although the de-equipment and de-storing of the ship have now gone too far to halt, I will certainly hold up until the end of June any question of the disposal of the hull. In answer to his second question, I am prepared to discuss with the trustees, in the light of that, the best disposal of the ship. Perhaps we can leave it this way tonight, that H.M.S. "Belfast", admittedly gutted but nevertheless the same ship, will remain afloat until the end of June, my hon. and gallant Friend will proceed with his proposals and we can have a talk at the earliest possible moment on the best way of making use of the ship.

Mr. Ogden

That is the best answer we have had from that Box for some time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.