HC Deb 16 November 1982 vol 32 cc136-7
7. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when the closure of Royal naval dockyard facilities at Chatham and Portsmouth is now expected to occur; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Blaker

I have nothing to add to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence during the defence debate on 1 July.

Mr. Dubs

Given that the White Paper on the lessons of the Falklands war has been promised us before Christmas, would it not make sense to delay making any further progress on the closures of these two dockyards until we have had a chance to debate the lessons of the war? This is particularly so as one outcome of such a debate might be that we would wish to put more resources into submarines, which would make the facilities at Chatham even more valuable.

Mr. Blaker

We have already said that there will he no further redundancy announcements in Portsmouth before the beginning of next year, and some redundancy notices that had been declared have been withdrawn. With regret we have to repeat the decision, already announced, that Chatham will close as planned.

Sir Frederick Burden

When did the first SSN submarine go to Devonport for refit and refuelling, what was the target date when it was to come out, what is the position with regard to that submarine now, and when is it now expected to come out?

Mr. Blaker

The first submarine was "Swiftsure". It is now expected to come out in March next year. It has been delayed. The principal delay was at the beginning of the process when work was not started on the submarine for 15 months because of an industrial dispute. Since then there has been another industrial dispute, which affected all the dockyards last year, as my hon. Friend will know.

Mr. John Silkin

Is not one of the lessons that can be drawn by the House in advance of the White Paper—and one that is corroborated by many people who took part in the Falklands war—that had the rundowns and closures in Chatham, Portsmouth and Gibraltar proceeded a little earlier there would not have been the slightest possibility of our being able to send a fleet to the Falklands?

Mr. Blaker

That is untrue. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are expanding Devonport and Rosyth. We still have to take a decision about the exact size at Portsmouth, and in addition there are the commercial yards.

Mr. John Wells

Will my hon. Friend assure the House that if he is quite determined on his policy on Chatham there will be sufficient opportunities for there to be a transition from military to civil use, so that the professional and technical skills that are so famous in Chatham will not be dissipated, and the work force can move over to civilian work with an easy transition?

Mr. Blaker

I agree with my hon. Friend about the skills available at Chatham. Some of the personnel from Chatham have already moved to Devonport and others will move in future. As my hon. Friend will know, North-West Kent has been declared an enterprise zone, and Chatham is one of the only three places in the country that benefit from the enterprise allowance scheme. I hope that these measures will help.

Mr. Rhodes James

How can my hon. Friend tell the House that the Government have already come to a decision before the White Paper has been published? Does he realise that many Conservative Members share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs)?

Mr. Blaker

We shall be taking a decision about the level of manning at Portsmouth in the light of the White Paper, and that allows us a certain amount of flexibility. With regard to the broad picture, we have said that we propose to continue with the strategy set out in last year's White Paper, but within that strategy we shall be prepared to draw lessons from the experience of the Falklands. On that basis, it is clear that we have to say, with great regret, that Chatham will not be necessary for our purposes.