HC Deb 19 December 1975 vol 902 cc2001-18

2.27 p.m.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

I am very glad to be able to speak about hydrography in this debate and, by a fortunate accident, to have rather more than the statutory period of time. Very many people both inside and outside the House regard this as a crucial subject.

I have a high personal regard for the Minister who is to reply and, as he knows, this is the second time within a year that I have raised the question of the future of the British Hydrographic Service in the House. That is my point and my complaint. We are still awaiting decisions from Ministers. They need not and should not have been so long delayed. In my speech on 28th January, I declared my personal interest as a user of the service in war time and peace time and, if I may say sotto voce, as admiral of the House of Commons yacht club, but more particularly as the right hon. Member for Taunton, where the hydrographic department is situated.

Those who go down to the sea in ships or who live and work in Somerset are proud of the fine work done by the department. It is admired for its professionalism and competence all over the world and is a great national asset, not in the academic sense of a monument of the past but as a highly practical living thing, which is very relevant to our national prosperity. However, this is not the time for compliments. Perhaps we can take them as read. This is the moment for decision and action. Indeed the time is overdue.

Everybody, including the Minister, agrees on this and everybody also agrees that the hydrographic task will continue to expand while the funds available—and this is the irony—are apparently to be reduced. A cut would be madness in the national interest. The whole matter is clouded by uncertainty and indecision. I know the Minister is showing much personal good will towards the service and I am glad to pay tribute to him for that. None the less, the Government must take the blame for their lack of decisiveness, for prevarication and for their failure to give leadership in this matter to all those who are now so concerned about it.

The increasing difficulty of the Hydro-grapher in meeting his commitments has been emphasised for several years past in his annual reports. In the face of mounting criticism, in July 1974 the Government wisely established the Hydrographic Study Group to consider the matter and to report. Its Report came out last March, and I thank the Minister for his personal courtesy in seeing that I received a copy of it.

Answers by the Under-Secretary in this House illustrate the grounds of my complaint. Three months ago he was obliged to say that the matter was "under consideration". Five months ago he said that it was being "examined closely". As recently as two months ago, he said that the matter was "under active review". It is absurd that examination of this matter should have taken so much time.

The situation can be put very simply. Unless alternative sources of finance can be found, the proposed defence cuts will reduce the size of the survey fleet by 30 per cent. before 30th April 1976. I emphasise the date to indicate the urgency of the matter. Such a move would be unthinkable, wholly wrong and damaging to the national interest. In support of that assertion, I can do no better than quote from the Report of the Study Group. Under the heading "Conclusions and Recommendations", paragraph 154 states The study has highlighted once again"— note those words "once again"— the great and growing dependence of the economy of the United Kingdom on the sea; on the energy sources beneath it; on the need to transport safely and economically to this country over it fuels and raw materials and to export finished goods in their place". The study refers to the importance of the ports and the fishing industry and it talks of the continuing needs of the defence of our seaborne economy. It has a word to say about the immense expansion of recreation on the sea. In paragraph 155 it says: These requirements have increased in recent years, and are still increasing with marked rapidity. They can no longer be contained within the resources which can in future be devoted to hydrography from within a shrinking Defence budget. Paragraph 156 says: the existing capacity of the Hydrographic Service is insufficient to carry out all the work which has been identified even at Home, except over a protracted period extending to the end of the century. I hope those quotations make the point even more plainly than I am able to state it.

Hon. Members may ask how much money is involved. The Hydrographic Study Group identified an optimum minimum priority programme to be completed over the next 12 years. It recommended an expansion of the survey fleet and the hydrographic office staff in my constituency to undertake it. At 1974 prices about £18 million will be required over the next seven years to retain in service two out of the four existing ocean survey vessels and one out of the five inshore craft—that is to say, surplus to the reduced defence commitment, and which are due to be paid off before 1st April 1976. The programme also requires seven new vessels to enter service from 1978 onwards.

The capital and running costs are some £30 million over the same period. The total cost of the programme is estimated—and remember this was the minimum programme—as £91 million over the next seven years, most of it from the third year onwards when, if I am not guilty of an unwise prophecy, one estimates that the moratorium on increased Government spending is likely to relax. Of this the maximum contribution which could properly be made by the defence budget is stated to be just over £41,500,000. This figure allows for about £17,500,000 of revenue from sales of charts and navigational publications out of which the appropriate costs of the Taunton office are recovered in full. Most, if not all, of this revenue comes from commercial and other users, in particular those outside defence. It is clearly inequitable that part of it is allocated to subsidise defence spending.

On the basis of the figures quoted, defence should contribute about £8,250,000 or about 47 per cent. towards the cost of the Hydrographic Office and an equal amount of the revenue should, therefore, go towards offsetting the shortfall for peaceful purposes.

The Report gives some interesting estimates about sales revenue. It suggests that increased sales revenue could be obtained at a rate of about £1.3 million per annum, which is about £9 million over the seven years. Essential surveys in support of the energy programme would require one ocean survey vessel continuously over the next three years at a cost of £3.3 million. The Report recommends that these should be provided by the Department of Energy. Can the Minister tell us whether that has been agreed? There seems to be considerable uncertainty about the matter. I will deal further with that point in a moment.

If we take all these figures into account, the shortfall still to be found is £22–7 million, or an average of £3,250,000 per annum. I suggest that this money needs to be found from other civil Departments in proportion to their needs. For example, it could come from the Department of Trade, the Department of the Environment, the Scottish Office, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of Industry and the Ministry of Overseas Development for some overseas work. That Ministry seems to be asleep to the needs of developing countries in this regard. Much of the work of the Hydrographer is not in support of defence but in support of industry, commerce, shipping, science and so on.

Certain work might also be paid for directly by foreign Governments. For example, Iran or the Arab States could pay for surveys in the Persian-Arab Gulf and the Indian Ocean. It would be interesting if the Minister could give some details of the diplomatic discussions that may have taken place on this subject.

Some commercial work might be undertaken by the Hydrographer, bearing in mind that recent experience shows that he can quote realistically competitive prices which still cover all his costs without subsidisation from defence. Yachting charts are a good example, and many of us would like to see activity in this area. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that point.

However we interpret the figures, the shortfall at late 1974 levels is between £3 million and £5 million per annum, which in my view are puny amounts by comparison with the country's investment in and income from marine activities.

I turn to examine the positive side of the national balance sheet, the plus side. What formidable strength that side shows. In 1974 shipping earned £1,516 million gross, just under £800 million net, towards our invisible export total of £2,679 million. That was a remarkable achievement. Marine insurance contributed £47 million and shipbroking £52 million, both of them earnings from world shipping. British owners took delivery of about £600 million-worth of new ships. Shipbuilding in the United Kingdom earned £55 million in exports, which the estimates show is likely to increase by about 60 per cent. this year. That is one aspect of the positive side of the balance sheet.

I turn to another aspect. The investment in North Sea oil and gas by 1985 is likely to total some £18,000 million at today's prices. Production should be worth about £10,000 million a year. Without wearying you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or the House with any more figures, I would point out that large additional sums go into fisheries, aggregate dredging and a wide variety of supporting services, most of which contribute to invisible earnings, or reduce or replace imports. All these huge investments and substantial earnings are placed at risk in varying degrees if charts and navigational data or unreliable. These risks must increase as the data gets further out of date.

I am endeavouring to make the point that the amounts needed to provide a proper Hydrographic Service—"proper" is not my definition but that of the Government after most careful examination—are modest by comparison with this country's investment in shipping, marine exploration and the like which, to venture on a second prophecy in this House, I believe still to be very much in its infancy. We have not yet adequately realised the vast wealth that is to be derived from the sea.

Not only is it a matter of modesty in absolute terms, but other points should be made. The expenditure is constructive. It is a foundation for future prosperity and commercial activity. I regard the Hydrographic Service as vital and we cannot afford not to afford a proper service in the United Kingdom.

As if all this evidence of the relevance of an effective Hydrographic Service in Great Britain is not enough, other points need to be made. I shall mention six. There is no likely alternative available to our own Hydrographic Service. Second, this Report, admirable and comprehensive though it is, omits to stress—and this was a serious omission—the important potential which exists as hydrography develops for the development of new technology. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), who is my party's spokesman on defence, was anxious to be here today to speak on this point but has unfortunately been prevented by other engagements. I know that the Minister will accept his apology. He will also be familiar with the examples that we can give on this matter. The list is long. Third, it is important to remember that the Hydrographic Service is the principal source of trained and experienced hydrographers for civil needs. There are important side benefits, then, from a thriving Hydrographic Service.

Fourth, delays of the kind to which I have referred mean that such bodies as the National Environment Research Council and the Institute of Geological Sciences cannot do their forward planning. University programmes are now being held up, and so on.

Fifth, it will be within the knowledge of the House that it is likely that the Law of the Sea Conference will give us responsibility for a 200-mile exclusive economic zone—and only about 2 per cent. of that is properly charted. Indeed. it may amaze hon. Members to know that no less than 74 per cent. of the Continental Shelf, which we regard as so important to our future prosperity, is uncharted. We need this knowledge in order to safeguard our own vital interests.

Sixth, these delays must surely now be affecting morale among those involved. They are too loyal to say so, but I am sure that that is so. To give a practical example of delay, I said that I would return to the matter of energy funds. I am concerned about funds from the Department of Energy because the need for those funds is a high priority since two important surveys of tow-out routes must be done by 1st April 1976—a mere trivial three months away. This must be so if the tow-out route of the first Sea-tank/MacAlpine concrete structure is to be authorised for 1st May 1976 by the Departments of Trade and Energy. This requires depths of 65 metres—213 ft—and the two later units will be of still deeper draught.

The tow will not be authorised until the Departments are satisfied that it is safe. Nor should it be, but if the approval is delayed—it now seems that it may be—the development of another North Sea field could well be delayed still further. On account of the weather window, this might mean as much as a year's delay.

Seventh, what risks are we running if our charts and navigational publications are not up to date? It is a remarkable reflection that a mere two large tanker losses now would cost the British balance of payments more than the whole of the programme about which I am speaking. As a noble Lord asked in another place the other day, what if a natural gas carrier were to be wrecked on the shores of Great Britain? What would people say then? We know that more than one large tanker has touched bottom recently. When one reflects—my hon. Friends will be more familiar with the technical aspects than I—upon the Fox Pinnacle recently discovered a few feet below the surface at Holyhead, one can see the essential need for proper charting.

To put it in a sentence, hydrography is essential to safeguard the environment. The case for action is overwhelming. In the last debate that I initiated, I asked when the Report would be laid. Now we have it, and as I have said, it is a good piece of work—detailed and careful. As one would expect, it endorses the conclusion of the Select Committee on Science and Technology which argued for an expansion of hydrographic capacity to meet civil needs.

The recommendations here are absolutely plain. They are widely shared. I must not misrepresent the Minister, but I dare say that he shares them too. So far as I know, everyone is unanimous about the need. There are no surprises in this Report. Indeed, in the speech to which I have referred, I forecast a number of these proposals. They are, indeed, common sense. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that the Government will be determined to back a winner, to use that "Chequered" phrase.

Some have suggested that hydrography should be a separate Vote. There are good arguments for that on the analogy of the Meteorological Office, the point being that it is felt that the Hydrographic Service should be insulated from defence cuts. The way to do that would be to find a different method of financing and alternative funding. But however that may be, I hope that the Government will accept, and that the Minister will be able to say that he accepts promptly, these recommendations, so that the uncertainty may be removed and good progress made. It was suggested in another place that perhaps a statement would be made by the end of the year. This is almost the last debate that we shall have before Christmas. I hope that the Minister will think that this is an appropriate place and that this is the appropriate time.

I should like to refer finally to the annual report for 1974 by the Hydrographer of the Navy. The introductions are always excellent reading. The Hydrographer began this paper by talking a little about the history of the Hydrographic Service and said that the Department had been" … founded in self-interest 180 years ago. It is a fine story and I should have liked to have time to retail it now, but time will not allow. He also said: It was a task of such romance and magnitude". So it was, and those words are appropriate today. He went on: It was an investment by our ancestors from which we still reap the benefit. There is much in this country today for which we should thank our ancestors. I hope that, in future, looking back, those who are to come will say of us that we had as much foresight, courage, intelligence and enlightened self-interest as our ancestors had.

These words at the end of the introduction are worth reflecting upon and repeating: Hydrography is creative and meets a national need. It satisfies those who practise it. Well-motivated, they respond to rising demands. Morale is high, but so are expectations. I hope that the Minister will see that those expectations are properly fulfilled, in the national and the world interest.

2.52 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Fareham)

I endorse the summary of the situation given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), which everyone will agree was most able. We can all be grateful to my right hon. Friend for drawing attention to the fact that a vital interest of this country is at stake. The curious thing is that, at a moment of increasing need and decreasing resources, we face this dilemma. My right hon. Friend has drawn attention to the fact that there is a gross shortfall of adequate investment in the hydrography of the world's seas, for which we are not altogether responsible. Only 2 per cent. of them are said to have been adequately surveyed.

My right hon. Friend made the present situation sound much better than it is in respect of our own territorial waters. I believe that only 24 per cent.—a quarter—of our own Continental Shelf has been properly surveyed. This is at a time when, obviously, interest in it is increasing rapidly.

It is not without significance that the parts least surveyed seem to be in the north—north of the Buchan Peninsula, where I had the uncomfortable duty of serving in the last winter of the war, right up to the very north, past Scapa, with the exception of the approaches to Scapa itself. None of this has been even approximately surveyed, at a time when tremendous developments are taking place there. The situation could be summed up by saying that, at a moment when there is more need for work to be done, the resources for doing it face the threat of being cut away.

The three principal points of interest clearly line up. One is the development of the oil resources and, of course, not only the local exploration of the oil fields at the bottom of the North Sea up in northern waters, but the routes by which various large floating objects have to be towed out after manufacture before being sunk in situ, such as rigs, platforms and storage tanks, which ultimately will sit on the bottom.

The other day, I went to a symposium. There, I saw charts of the kind that I have used all my life in various capacities and in various parts of the world. I found it humiliating to see on one chart in an area within a few miles of one of the most heavily trafficked areas of water in the world, off Liverpool Bay and Holyhead, this pinnacle with only 24 ft. of water over it. Ships of 40 years ago were apt to draw 24 ft. Present vessels are threatening to draw more like 100 ft. How many more pinnacles are there in home waters that have not yet been discovered because of the inadequacy of our surveys? This is a matter of terrible urgency, because the consequences of our failure are so terrible.

Now we have the decision on limits which Iceland has arrogated to itself. But others before have done so. Chile did so some years ago without any of the left-right of ideological politics often brought into questions about Chile. I think that it was about 20 or 30 years ago that Chile arrested some of Onassis's whale factory ships because it claimed a 200-mile zone. It seems that we are likely by international agreement to have 200-mile zones belonging to the coastal countries and for the coastal countries to have responsibility for them, but at this moment we need the resources with which to exercise responsibility for safe navigation in our waters.

The curious feature is that the scale is so tiny compared with the stakes involved. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government, even of Governments which I do not necessarily support in other ways, to think of some way of developing a viable trade and commercial exploitation of the arts of the hydrographer so that they may become self-supporting, because I am sure that no one in the country can fail to agree that in principle this function has to be kept alive.

I believe that we have fallen short of what we could do about commercially exploiting publications. The charts are by no means cheap, but the sailing directions and other publications are still extraordinarily cheap compared with other much less worthy forms of literature.

Surely, too, as 55 per cent. of the benefit of hydrography has been said in another place to be made use of by civil as opposed to military users, these many Departments—Energy, Industry, Trade, Environment and others, Scotland not excluded—could very well be expected to contribute towards their future prosperity. Industries themselves, even though there are difficulties about secrecy in the exploitation of various underwater works, must be expected to help contribute to the functioning of the Hydrography Department.

Furthermore, there is an interchange of cartographical knowledge among the Governments of various countries. I think that there are only six which actually make charts. There is a good interchange. Surely we could set up some kind of consortium to work together and to make common cause and common finance.

But I am sure that our own contribution is vital. It may be that we should have a separate Vote and that appropriations-in-aid coming from the sale of these publications should be shown to belong not to the defence budget, but to the hydrographic budget. This would make the whole affair look a great deal healthier.

But I am convinced that, as all those who go to sea must agree, we have developed a vital national asset which has been of tremendous pride to this country in past years. We must not let it waver now.

3.0 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. Frank Judd)

I know that I speak for the whole House in saying how indebted we are to the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) for bringing to our attention once more the wide concern which is felt about the future of the Hydrographic Service. We know how deeply impressed he has been over the years by the work of his constituents, and I can well understand how he has come to the conclusions that he has made.

The right hon. Gentleman was well supported in a brief intervention by my old friend the hon. Member for Fareham (Dr. Bennett), who we know has a long personal interest in the sea as well. He will forgive me if I do not follow him into the wider issues on which he touched which were central to the Law of the Sea Conference. It would not be my place to do so in this debate. However, he referred to pinnacles. In that connection, I am sure that we can all agree that this short debate will be a pinnacle in the last day of Parliament before the Christmas Recess. Again, we are deeply grateful to the right hon. Member for Taunton for having made it possible.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Hydrographic Service is a service for which I personally have the highest possible unqualified regard. Its standards of professional accomplishment, both civilian and Service, at all levels, both ashore and afloat, are unequalled anywhere in the world. On my own ministerial visits to the organisation, I have never failed to be impressed by the calibre and motivation of its staff.

In the two speeches to which we have listened, several specific matters have been raised, and perhaps I might say a word or two about them.

First, I was asked about the possibility of a separate Vote. I noted carefully what was said by the right hon. and the hon. Gentleman, but I ask them to bear in mind that it is probably central to the success of the Hydrographic Service that it has traditionally been so closely integrated with the Royal Navy as a whole, and we should be cautious about following any suggestions which might inadvertently perhaps tend to draw the role of hydrography apart from the main ongoing work of the Royal Navy itself. I make that point because it is one which we should not cast aside lightly.

As for the issue of charts, I can assure the hon. Member for Fareham that this is a matter to which I give close personal attention. We review prices regularly, bearing in mind that we do not want to go against the general commitment of the Government to avoid inflation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, they are at the moment standing at £1.80.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to possibilities in the Third World of closer liaison with the Overseas Development Ministry. Again, this is a matter that we are always watching closely to see that no important need goes unconsidered. The Persian Gulf, too, is an issue which receives my detailed attention regularly. I am not yet in a position to say what the outcome will be in that sphere, but the right hon. Gentleman will know it is one at which we are looking very closely.

On the question of yachting charts, I am able to report that only this week discussions have taken place with the yachting organisations to see how best their needs can be met. But the priority for such charts has to be considered against those required for larger shipping.

On the crucial question of energy, in categorical terms I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that there will be no delay in the North Sea programme as a result of unsurveyed routes. Orders have been given for HMS "Hector" to complete surveys of the North Channel, starting in late January, and HMS "Herald" will start surveys off the East Shetlands in March.

The other specific issue raised by the right hon. Gentleman was whether defence is subsidising the non-defence aspects of the work of the hydrographic fleet. I am afraid that the situation is that the defence budget is significantly subsidising the non-defence tasks being undertaken. The right hon. Gentleman and I have had a full discussion about the value to the community of our Hydrographic Service. I explained in that Adjournment debate that the study group would assess the national hydrographic requirements with the current capacity of the fleet and make recommendations. As he correctly reminded us, we made the group's report available to all those with an interest, and I am sure that that was the right thing to do.

It was in many ways a novel step. We were aware that we might be making a rod for our own backs, but it was also a most valuable exercise in opening up the issues to discussion. The interest that has been stimulated clearly demonstrates that we were sensible to the issues, but the fact that the final decisions have not yet been made does not mean that the issues have been put on the shelf. That is far from being the case.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that a great deal is at stake. It would be foolhardy to underestimate the complexities. The requirements of defence, the safety of the mariner, the future of the world-wide British Admiralty chart series, the employment prospects at Taunton, and safe and successful exploitation of our offshore resources, are all intimately linked with the future of the Hydrographic Service.

The problem has been spelt out many times before, but I would be failing in my duty as Minister responsible for the Royal Navy if I did not make it clear that the Ministry of Defence can afford to pay only for the survey fleet that is needed to meet the Royal Navy's own requirements.

Although there has been an increase in the need for new hydrographic and oceanographic data for submarine and anti-submarine operations in areas not normally used by merchant shipping, surface warships are of much shallower draught than the present-day deep-draught merchant vessels and are no longer deployed world-wide. At the same time, the amount of defence funds available for hydrographic work has shrunk in step with reductions in the defence budget.

The new, increasingly divergent defence and civil requirements therefore needed to be properly identified and ranked according to priority. Alternative sources of funding also needed to be considered. This is what the Hydrographic Study Group did, and the House should not underestimate the significance of having established a study group of this kind. For the first time, the national hydro-graphic task was examined as a whole by a group comprising representatives of all interested parties, Government Departments, shipping interests, the port authorities, and offshore operators and oil companies. I am confident that one very positive result will be a much greater degree of co-ordination of effort in future. Indeed, this was something urged by the Study Group itself.

Although the Study Group made suggestions about the mechanics of funding, they were unable actually to go away and start printing money. However, as I have said, the Ministry of Defence now has more than ever to cut its coat according to its cloth, and I can only underline what I have told the House several times in the past—that only that part of hydro-graphic work necessary for the work and operations of the Royal Navy can be financed out of the defence budget.

Following the defence review—and here I want to underline something which the right hon. Gentleman said—the Ministry of Defence estimates that it will require a survey fleet of two ocean survey ships, four coastal survey vessels and four inshore survey craft. That represents a reduction in the current strength of the fleet by two ocean survey ships and one inshore survey craft. Whatever the historical precedents may be, this is all that the Ministry of Defence itself can afford to pay for.

The penalties to civil requirements of a reduced fleet would, of course, be considerable. We would have to disperse our pool of trained surveyors who have unparalleled experience and expertise. If this know-how had to be disbanded and the ships disposed of, it would be incredibly difficult and expensive to build them up again. Furthermore, reducing the fleet would mean virtually abandoning the highly regarded Admiralty chart series, which, as the House will know only too well, is a British product, unrivalled throughout the world. Before long, charts would become obsolescent and that, in time, would affect the safety of ship-borne trade on which the British economy itself depends. Hon. Members will therefore see the predicament. That which can be justified for defence purposes falls far short of that which is needed for the nation overall.

If the survey fleet were to be maintained at its current level of operation, priorities would need to be picked with great care, but it would be possible to complete the energy source exploration, and platform tow-out routes by 1980 and 1977 respectively. This would, however, be at the expense of the defence and shipping priority work, which could not then be completed until 1986, and some scientific work that could not be carried out at all. A high proportion of the effort would need to be concentrated on home waters, and although the Hydrographer would have to abandon at aleast one of his traditional overseas areas—the South-West Pacific—and reduce effort in another—the West Indies—some overseas surveying would be possible, and this would mean that he could at least hope to hold the line on the Admiralty chart series.

In broad terms, keeping the ships together when their support is not needed for defence purposes would cost from £15 million to £18 million over the next seven years at September 1974 price levels, and I must insist that the money would have to come from non-defence funds. We are considering carefully how this money could be raised, and non-Government sources are being examined as well as Government sources. I am, however, not yet in a position today—I cannot deny this—to give the House an answer.

The Hydrographic Study Group also indicated that if all the tasks that the Hydrographer might well, in national terms, be doing were to be done, he would need, on top of what he already has and in a relatively short time scale, an expanded survey fleet of four ocean survey ships, eight coastal survey vessels, and eight inshore survey craft—that is, two ocean survey ships, four coastal survey vessels and four inshore survey craft more than those required for defence purposes.

Mr. du Cann

I am, of course, absolutely sympathetic to what the Under-Secretary is saying in general about the need for other Departments to contribute, but is he really telling the House—I am not complaining about his conduct in any way—that nine months after this Report was published we still do not have agreement between Departments on who is going to contribute, and how much? Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that although the ships are going to do the survey work which he described, and the tow-out routes are to be completed, there is no agreement for the Department of Energy to contribute? Is he saying that the pay-off dates for the various ships are still firm so far as he is aware?

Mr. Judd

If the right hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall in my remaining sentences deal with that point.

I was emphasising that we had to increase the size of the fleet if it was to do the optimum job as described by the Hydrographic Study Group. This, including the £18 million needed to maintain the survey fleet at its present level, as distinct from its defence level, and taken with the associated costs of increasing the staff at Taunton, would, in effect, cost about £50 million in round figures, at September 1974 prices, over the next seven years. Again—I am sorry to keep emphasising this, but it is most important that the House should not be misled—I cannot emphasise too strongly that this sum would need to be found from outside the defence budget.

We therefore have to make a choice, and a choice in stark terms. This is the problem that confronts us. The survey fleet has to be run down if its size is to be related to that solely necessary for defence requirements. This would mean that the civil sectors would benefit only from spin-off from the defence programmes. If we, as a nation, are to retain the fleet at its present level and maintain at least a holding position as regards the Admiralty chart series, it will cost about £18 million over the next seven years, though of this sum only £5 million need be found for the next two years. It would be necessary to find about £50 million, spread over the next seven years, to expand the survey fleet to its optimum size as described by the Study Group.

The House may feel—hon. Members have stressed this—that the sums involved seem small, but, even so, in the present economic situation there are, as we all know, a multitude of conflicting high priorities. This was why we concluded that hydrography should not be considered in isolation but should be related to competing national priorities. It was therefore specifically decided that those recommendations of the Hydrographic Study Group's Report which deal with public expenditure should be considered in the context of the annual public expenditure review. This is the only proper way of dealing with the matter—I am sure that when the right hon. Gentleman, with his characteristic objectivity reflects on it, he will agree—but I am afraid that it means that we are not yet in a position to make our final decisions about the future.

I assure the House that we are well aware of the profound importance of ensuring that the mariners of our nation can go about their trade in peace and safety. But we can do only so much from the defence Votes. It is a question of ensuring that the costs of a national service lie where they fall, and we must pursue this with energy.

I have been deeply encouraged to hear again the strength of the right hon. Gentleman's concern, expressed with such characteristic eloquence and passionate commitment today. We shall, of course, be taking decisions just as soon as we can, but we had better be under no illusions. The consequences of some of those decisions may, in the end, prove to be very tough. However, I naturally agree that it would be wrong if we had to spoil the ship for ha'porth of tar.