HC Deb 22 January 1997 vol 288 cc959-72 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Portillo)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the royal yacht.

Britannia has just left Portsmouth for her last voyage around the globe. Since the royal yacht was commissioned 43 years ago, she has travelled more than 1 million miles and undertaken almost 700 royal visits overseas—serving both as a royal residence and as a setting for official entertainment by Her Majesty. The royal yacht has also played an important part in national events, such as the silver jubilee and the anniversary of D-day and of VJ-day. She will be at the ceremonies marking the end of British sovereignty over Hong Kong.

Britannia has also lent her prestige to the promotion of British exports worldwide and the attraction of inward investment to Britain, and she has hosted numerous commercial events. The benefits that Britannia has brought to the British economy are invaluable.

It was therefore with great sadness that we announced, in 1994, that Britannia would be decommissioned this year. Although a beautifully maintained ship, she is old. She is increasingly difficult to maintain, and a major refit would be required to convert her to modern sea-going standards.

The decision stands to decommission Britannia. However, the Government have decided to commission a new purpose-built royal yacht, and have so informed Her Majesty the Queen. We have taken the decision because we believe that a royal yacht is an important national asset, which projects a prestigious image of Britain, adding powerfully to official occasions and assisting greatly in promoting British economic interests. Her Majesty the Queen has made it clear that she expects such a role to be the primary purpose of the new yacht. Moreover, the new yacht will at times provide Her Majesty with a suitable residence overseas, thus contributing to the impact of her visits and enabling her to represent our nation in an appropriate setting.

The vessel will be a symbol of the Crown, of the kingdom and of its maritime traditions. It will be designed to exhibit an enduring level of style, elegance and dignity appropriate to that role, and should act as a showcase for Britain's design and engineering skills. Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will be consulted on the design.

The Ministry of Defence will procure the new royal yacht. After a study to enable us to draw up a formal specification and a competition, a contract will be placed with a British shipyard. She will be crewed by the Royal Navy and fly the white ensign. The Queen will contribute to the furnishings and fittings of the state rooms and the royal apartments, drawing some items from Britannia.

We have considered carefully what would be appropriate for Britannia after decommissioning. The Government do not believe that it is appropriate to sell her to a new owner for private use. She will not put to sea again, but we are interested in proposals for a suitably prestigious use for Britannia in the public interest in the United Kingdom. Such a scheme would need to take account of the plan to transfer royal fittings to the new yacht. Any proposals for Britannia would need to guarantee that the yacht would be kept in excellent condition. If that cannot be assured, it would be better to see her scrapped than to see her deteriorate.

That leaves the matter of paying for the new yacht. The running costs should not be much more than half those of Britannia. They will be accounted for by the Ministry of Defence. For the capital cost of about £60 million, we have received many interesting proposals for private funding. The Government are grateful for them all, but we believe that a new royal yacht—a symbol of the nation's pride—should be funded not by sponsorship or subscription, but by the nation. The capital cost will be met from public funds in the reserve.

Britain can look forward to a new royal yacht in the new century. I trust that she will enter service in time for Her Majesty's golden jubilee in 2002.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I thank the Secretary of State for bringing the House this news, but we are disappointed that there has been no discussion whatever with the Opposition on the matter. As you know, Madam Speaker, it has been the convention that policy regarding Her Majesty is an all-party matter. Why was the Secretary of State not prepared to discuss the issue with the Opposition?

We, too, appreciate how valuable the Royal Yacht Britannia has been over the past 43 years. We recognise that she epitomises all the best traditions and the excellence of the British maritime industry from shipbuilding to ship repairing and, indeed, the manning and crewing of the vessel. She has epitomised the excellence of British craftsmanship and we wish her well in her final voyage.

The Secretary of State said that Britannia is to be decommissioned when she comes back from Hong Kong. Could he perhaps give us some information about what will fill the gap between the end of this year and the commissioning of the new royal yacht that he envisages in about three years' time? Will he also give us an idea of when he hopes to issue the tender and when he anticipates the contracts being signed?

Why has the Secretary of State rejected in such a cavalier manner the injection of private capital—[Laughter.] I have been told over the past few years that the partnership of private and public capital is the most efficient way of conducting public business. I recall being told by the Secretary of State that the best way of providing accommodation for our service families was by the injection of private capital. If it was good enough for the accommodation of our service families, why has he not considered it for the royal yacht?

As I understand it, the Secretary of State has announced that the royal yacht will be financed from existing public expenditure. He has admitted that the project has been under consideration for more than two and a half years, so why were the figures not included in the Budget? Will he also confirm that the £60 million to come out of the reserve will not be available for emergencies in the years ahead?

Mr. Portillo

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I miss a point or two. Part of his statement was drowned by laughter and I was not able to pick up every point, but I shall try to do my best.

After Britannia returns from Hong Kong, she will still have a programme running to the end of the year, probably within British territorial waters. After the end of 1997 and until the new ship enters service in 2001 or 2002, there will be a gap, with no royal yacht on the seas. That will not be as long a gap as the 14 or 15 years between the end of the Victoria and Albert and the commissioning of Britannia.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we had rejected out of hand the idea of using private capital. We did not reject it out of hand; we considered it carefully, but we did not believe it appropriate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] If Labour Members had not learnt their capitalist lines like parrots, they would understand that some uses of private finance are appropriate and some are not. A royal yacht to support Her Majesty and this nation in our economic and export efforts is not an appropriate use of private money. I am very grateful to all those who stepped forward with suggestions for using private money, but it is not appropriate.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)


Mr. Portillo

If the hon. Gentleman does not realise why, he has simply learnt his lines and spouts them and no longer thinks—if he ever did. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I shall be calling hon. Members to put questions. Wait for it.

Mr. Portillo

The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) asked how long it would take to build the yacht and when contracts would be let. I have told him that it should be in service in 2001 or 2002. It will take about two and a half years to build and the period up to the beginning of building will be taken up by deciding on the specification and by the competition.

The hon. Gentleman also asked why we did not discuss the matter with the Opposition. I do not regard today's statement as a constitutional one. I regard the yacht as an important aid to Her Majesty and to this country's economic interests, but not as a constitutional matter. I have come to the House and made a clear statement at the earliest opportunity. I should like to contrast that with the announcement of the previous royal yacht, when a Labour Government, during the 1951 general election campaign, issued a press notice from the Admiralty announcing that there would be a new royal yacht. In comparison, I have made a clean breast of my proposals to the House. The hon. Gentleman ought to study his history better before making such imputations against the Government.

Mr. Douglas Hurd (Witney)

Is it not characteristic that new Labour should have announced its conversion to private finance on the wrong occasion? May I congratulate the Secretary of State on the Government's decision, including the decision on finance, which seems to me entirely right? I accept entirely what my right hon. Friend says about the usefulness to British finance and industry of Britannia and her successor, but at the heart of the issue, is there not the deeper point that a royal yacht is the best way of enabling the sovereign of our country to remind us—and, indeed, the world—of the links between these islands and the sea, which are fundamental to our past and our present?

Mr. Portillo

Indeed. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are a maritime nation, a nation of traders, global thinkers and global doers. The royal yacht will help to emphasise all that and enable us to extend the hand of friendship and connection to our many allies and friends around the world. I am so pleased to have my right hon. Friend's support—not least for the funding, which is wholly appropriate to the dignity of the monarchy and the vessel that will support them in it.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

I fear that the Secretary of State might be embarrassed by the amount of congratulation on his conversion to the virtues of public funding for such a matter. Does he share my disappointment that the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), for whom I have the greatest respect, did not seem able to match his commitment? Is not the virtue of what the Secretary of State has proposed the fact that the vessel can assist Britain's economic and trade interests and provide dignified and often secure accommodation for the royal family while they fulfil their duties abroad? In view of the fact that the yacht's running costs are to be met from the defence budget, is it envisaged that the vessel should have any role in time of war?

Mr. Portillo

On the last point, it is not envisaged that the vessel should have any role in time of war. I cannot of course predict the future, but it is not expected that she will double as a hospital ship, for example, as was the plan with Britannia. The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right that the vessel is secure accommodation for Her Majesty. She will be escorted and protected by the Royal Navy. It is an admirable way in which to protect our economic interests and to underline our ties with the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth values the vessel as well as our own country.

Given all those advantages and the vessel's versatility, it is indeed disappointing that Her Majesty's loyal Opposition were not able to say today that they support it and would continue the project were they elected.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for today's decision? It will mean much rejoicing in the Isle of Wight. Will he forgive me for mentioning pounds, shillings and pence? As the new royal yacht will play a bigger role in promoting Great Britain plc than Britannia, may I remind my right hon. Friend that the arrival of Britannia in Cowes week every year makes a substantial contribution to the Isle of Wight's economy? I would hope that I could hang on his words and that, perhaps, Britannia will sail on in UK waters beyond 1997. That would make a big difference to us on the island. Her arrival is very much treasured every year by my constituents.

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend has been a notable and strong advocate of the replacement of the royal yacht and I can understand its impact on the Isle of Wight, as on all of us. However, I want this statement to be entirely straightforward and without ambiguity. We do not intend that Britannia should run on beyond the end of 1997. I do not want to mislead my hon. Friend on that; I want to make it perfectly clear that there will be a new royal yacht in 2001 or 2002.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

It is hard to conceive of who has been more ill advised, the Government in offering the matter to the palace in an attempt to bring it into the political game, or the palace in making the mistake of accepting it.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)


Mr. Williams

I am allowed to make my point. Is it not a fact that, over the next three years, there will be unprecedented cuts in social services? I cannot understand a sense of priority that diverts £60 million more away from such services. Halving the running costs will still cost £10,000 a day. If the royal yacht is a symbol, it is one of extravagance and irrelevance.

Mr. Portillo

I found the right hon. Gentleman's comments ungenerous, inaccurate and wrong. It is entirely the Government's decision as to whether there is a royal yacht, and although we have informed Her Majesty, Her Majesty did not request this. Her Majesty's assent is not required in that sense. Her Majesty is pleased with the decision, but it is not a matter for her. Any blame to be attached should be attached to the Government only. The right hon. Gentleman is not right to bring Her Majesty's name into the matter, as he sought to do.

This is public expenditure and we are entitled to talk the language of priorities and proportion. The social security budget is £90,000 million a year. We are talking about spending £60 million for a yacht that will last about 30 years—a capital cost of £2 million a year. I am sure that one after another, hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies will rise in the Chamber to pay tribute to the many ways in which this vessel will contribute to our nation economically, but also to the way in which it will contribute to our prestige, status and pride. I know that I have lost the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) now, because he does not understand those three words.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Nowhere will my right hon. Friend's statement be more welcome than in Gosport, with its Navy connections and loyal traditions. May I ask further about the future of Britannia? Her home port has been Portsmouth and she has been berthed in Portsmouth harbour for many years. Nowhere would her future be more secure and more applauded than in Portsmouth harbour, as a centrepiece of the exciting millennium project there. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that suggestion will be given full consideration?

Mr. Portillo

Certainly it would be given consideration. I was in Portsmouth recently on HMS Victory, and I am aware of the marvellous heritage of the city and of the ships berthed there, which represent some of the maritime history of this nation. However, I must repeat the conditions that I made clear during my statement. The proposal must take account of the fact that at least some of the fittings will have been stripped out from Britannia. The yacht must have a prestigious use; it must be in the public interest; it must be in the United Kingdom; and we need a sponsor who can guarantee the excellence of her condition. I stress again that it would be distressing for all of us to see Britannia deteriorate—we would rather see her scrapped than deteriorate.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The present Britannia has made a valuable contribution to Britain's presence overseas, both diplomatically and commercially, and I have no doubt that the Government have made a good decision in ensuring that we have a worthy successor. May I particularly congratulate the Government on their conversion to the use of selective public sector purchase? May I ask the Secretary of State to give the assurance that the yacht will be built in a British shipyard? Will he make it absolutely clear that on no account will he allow the European Commission to insist upon open competition among European shipyards? Will he give a pledge that, even if Mr. van Miert refers him to the European Court of Justice, he will not allow the Commission to interfere and to get away with it?

Mr. Portillo

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the generous way in which he welcomed the statement. The yacht will be built in a British shipyard—for security reasons, the yacht should be built here. In any case, this will be a royal yacht and it is appropriate that it should be built in a British shipyard. If there were any challenge to that decision, I would defend it every inch of the way.

Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement about the existing royal yacht and its replacement, and I particularly welcome the fact that the yacht will continue to be crewed by the Royal Navy. Will he confirm that I will have his personal support for the proposal that the new royal yacht should be home based at Portsmouth, as the existing yacht has been for so many years?

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend has been generous in his welcome for the statement, and he has been a great advocate for today's decision—as many others who have spoken today have been. I ask him by all means to open his campaign today, but not to press me for a final decision on that—although I understand perfectly the strength of his claim.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

I certainly welcome a statement that will bring work to Britain's hard-pressed shipyards, which have suffered so severely from the cuts in the Government's defence expenditure. I should welcome the return of the Royal Yacht Britannia to the Clyde, where she was constructed so skilfully and ably many years ago. However, the Secretary of State should give the House more details on why it was decided to use public money for the capital costs of Britannia.

Mr. Portillo

On the last point, I repeat that it was because we thought that it was appropriate to the dignity of the monarchy. On the earlier points, if the hon. Lady is concerned about our hard-pressed shipyards, I would remind her that those at Barrow would not be building a fourth Trident boat if it were not for the fact that there was a Conservative victory at the previous general election.

I remind the hon. Lady that it is the pledge of her Government—[HON. MEMBERS: "Aha."]—of her party if it were in government, to have a defence review. The hon. Member for South Shields has said clearly that it would be a review with painful consequences. If her party were to win the general election, she would discover soon enough what those painful consequences were, because they would be visited on her constituents by the cuts that would be made by a Labour party in power.

When the shadow Chancellor was asked directly by Jim Naughtie on the "Today" programme yesterday whether he would have to cut defence in order to fund everything else within unchanged public spending ceilings, he simply refused to answer. He dare not answer the question, because it is clear that defence is the place from which any other spending increases would be funded. Defence under Labour would be a soft touch for any Chancellor.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

May I thank and congratulate my right hon. Friend most warmly? Does he, however, accept that Britannia is part of this country's maritime heritage and that it would be as appropriate to maintain it at public expense, either as part of the complex at Portsmouth or at Greenwich, as to pay for the new yacht? Will he think carefully about that and about keeping Britannia in service until the new yacht is ready?

Mr. Portillo

I am glad that the statement pleased my hon. Friend, but it is a statement with firm edges. We do not intend to keep Britannia in service beyond the end of 1997, and we do not believe that it would be a suitable use of public funds overall to keep it as some kind of museum. Others may wish to make proposals for a public interest use of the yacht, and I dare say that those people could apply for funding in the usual way—to the national lottery, for example—but we do not intend to launch a Government initiative to keep Britannia in any particular form. The challenge to those who would come forward is clear: suggest a use that is prestigious and suitable and by all means apply for the funding that is available; but any proposal must keep Britannia in excellent condition.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Why did the Secretary of State, in responding to my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), have to turn to insolence, pomposity and arrogance, knowing that out there in Britain, probably 30 or 40 per cent. of the people—it may be more—do not agree with the monarchy? Those views should be expressed in the House. The Prime Minister, on being elected, talked about a classless society.

Is it not right that some of us should say that £60 million should not be spent on a yacht for the royal family when it could be spent on kids who are being lined up in hospital and kicked out; on people who are waiting in corridors on trolleys; on schoolchildren who do not have pencils or even classrooms, in some cases; on pensioners, who are being robbed blind; or on the 4 million people who do not have a job? Surely there is a case to be made that the yacht should not be built. There is a language of priorities that says that we should not spend any more money on this aristocracy, which has been pushing its own self-destruct button for the past decade.

Mr. Portillo

There is a language of priorities and there is a language of proportion. The hon. Gentleman has no sense of proportion. He equates the billions of pounds that we put into the health service and social security with a few million pounds that will be spent on this project over several years and which is, in any case, economically justified. There is more to it than economics. There is national esteem and pride, which he does not share or even understand. Some might think that he was arrogant in pontificating with such self-satisfaction and certainty about the views of 30 or 40 per cent. of the population. I criticised the right hon. Member for Swansea, West not for his views but because he blamed Her Majesty for a decision that was not hers.

Sir Keith Speed (Ashford)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the all-party maritime group, which I chair, welcomes this decision, for which we have campaigned for more than two years? The new yacht should not only be built in Britain, but contain the finest British marine technology, to show the rest of the world that we still lead in maritime affairs.

Mr. Portillo

Speaking from his position and with his background, my hon. Friend's approval is especially welcome. I emphasised in my statement that the ship will provide a showcase for British skills, engineering and design. That, too, will be of great benefit to our nation.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that most people throughout the country will warmly welcome this statement? Does he accept from me that most people throughout this country very much appreciate the services rendered by Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Charles to Britain? Does he not agree with me that the Carlton TV programme was a load of unutterable rubbish and totally unrepresentative of British public feeling? [Interruption.] I will be heard. Does he not finally agree that very few people in this country want to see a series of political presidents?

Mr. Portillo

If I may add to that, very few people in this country want to see a brave Labour Member who speaks up for the monarchy being barracked by his colleagues in the way that the hon. Gentleman was. I appreciate his remarks. Apart from their feelings about the monarchy, many people will look forward to the 400 or 500 jobs that I estimate will be created by the contract. As was said by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire), who has left the Chamber, the shipyards will welcome the work.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, with the exception of a few Opposition Members, the nation will warmly applaud the Government's decision? Her Majesty the Queen and other members of the royal family will be able to visit the Commonwealth and other nations in a royal yacht that is fit to show the fine maritime heritage of this country. Could he say a little more about the design of the yacht? May I hazard the thought that, after free competition, and bearing it in mind that Britannia was built on the Clyde, the new royal yacht might also be built there?

Mr. Portillo

Certainly. the Clyde would be a candidate, but there must be a competition and a specification. In welcoming my right hon. Friend's remarks, I must make it clear that the new yacht's specification will be different from that of Britannia. In those days, the designers envisaged that the royal family would travel long distances on board. Today, they travel by air and use the yacht as a residence. Modern technology will allow lower running costs and a smaller crew. There will be substantial differences, but some important things will stay the same. The yacht must be prestigious. It must carry status. It must have royal apartments and state rooms that are suitable. It must create a great impression when people visit it, as something special, something remarkable, and something uniquely British.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

May I, on behalf of not only my party but well over 1 million people in Northern Ireland, warmly welcome the statement? Even 77 years after the Republic separated from the kingdom, there are those in the Republic who still have royal yacht clubs and other titles because they, too, are royalists. May I express the hope that when the time comes for the competition, Harland will be one of the bidders, maintaining a tremendous tradition? As a Belfast Member, I hope that there will be those with the vision to bring Britannia to the new Lagan waterfront, which is making Belfast boom. Amidst all the cringing, it is encouraging to realise, when people think that we are bankrupt, that the £90 million is coming from the reserve.

Mr. Portillo

It is £60 million. I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says. I know that the decision will be welcome to his constituents and to, I think, the vast majority in the Province. He rightly points out that it will be welcome north and south of the border in the island of Ireland. I am pleased that he reminded us of that. I thank him for the two bids, one in respect of Britannia and the other in respect of the new yacht. They have been carefully noted. Again, I recognise that those claims could be very strong.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of our people, including some living in the constituencies of Opposition Members who poured scorn on the decision, owe their jobs in part to the £2 billion of trade that the royal yacht has won overseas during the time that she has been operating as our national flagship? Does he further agree that in future the Britannia replacement should be called our national flagship, because that is what she is, rather than a yacht, which conjures up visions of junketing around the Mediterranean? If my right hon. Friend is thinking in terms of berthing her, she should be berthed in London as our national flagship, where most people can see her, rather than being tucked away in Portsmouth.

As my right hon. Friend is canvassing opinion on laying up the old Britannia, rather than confining his market to the United Kingdom, will he bear in mind the dependent territories? The rundown of his Department's expenditure in Gibraltar has led to that dependent territory having to switch its emphasis to creating an offshore finance centre, which is precisely the sort of economy that the royal yacht has hitherto been used to promote. Perhaps if he is looking for a fitting final resting place for Britannia, Gibraltar should be the place for her to berth. That would be welcome and it would give just the right message to Spain.

Mr. Portillo

I am tempted to call, "Any more bids?" I heard very well what my hon. Friend said, but I reiterate what I said in the statement—that we shall be looking for a use of public interest in the United Kingdom, and that stands. I cannot accept that anything that was in Portsmouth would be tucked away. I understand the promotion of the case for London. It is not within my authority by any means to propose that the royal yacht should be called anything other than the royal yacht. That is a contentious suggestion.

My hon. Friend is right to recall how much the royal yacht does for the promotion of trade and how much good it can do for the dependent territories. However, I do not want the yacht to be seen simply as a commercial transaction, simply in pounds and pence. It also involves questions of our feeling about ourselves as a nation, and that matters, too.

Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

I warmly welcome the announcement to replace Britannia. Anyone who has seen the thousands of people who flock to see Britannia anywhere in the world—I particularly look back to the pictures from South Africa last year—must know the importance not only to the economy but to the whole image. Given the announcement last week of £500 million—a large amount—to be spent from the millennium fund in Greenwich, which is a project that we can support, although there are certainly some queries about the amount, why has the Secretary of State not considered taking £60 million from that fund, so that the money comes from public money, but money that has been paid for by people through the national lottery?

Mr. Portillo

The answer is simple. The legislation governing the national lottery does not allow us to use it as a substitute for proper public spending, and that is an important rule. This is a burden that properly falls on the nation and the taxpayer. While it would have been possible to think about private finance, it is not possible to use the national lottery for that purpose.

I very much welcome what the hon. Lady said and I am hoping that, given the pressure this afternoon from at least some Labour Members, by the end of the statement we might hear from the Labour Front-Bench team that it has decided that it wants to back the Government's action and to confirm that, in the unlikely event that Labour was elected, it would maintain the pledge that we have made today. Although it is clear that the Labour party is badly split on the issue and that the old republican guard is here in strength, none the less many hon. Members such as the hon. Lady would welcome such a commitment.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

In congratulating my right hon. Friend on his admirable decision, which was announced in the most felicitous language, may I be practical and ask that the specification include a helicopter deck? Secondly, could the ship's company of the Royal Navy, who take a great pride in fulfilling that most important role for the duration of their tour, from time to time include distinguished members of the Royal Naval Reserve, who would enormously appreciate the honour of serving on board?

Mr. Portillo

I can accept my hon. Friend's first suggestion straight away. Of course, a helicopter deck should be part of a modern ship. The possibility of arriving and leaving by helicopter and, indeed, of evacuating by helicopter in an emergency, should be part of the design. My hon. Friend's second suggestion is extremely important, and I should like to consider it. I mentioned state rooms and, of course, there must be provision for a band to play on board, because that is an important part of the image, prestige and projection associated with the royal yacht.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Given that the public are paying for the yacht, will they be able to visit it when the Queen is not in residence, which will be most of the time? Has the Secretary of State given any thought to a dual use—what about using it to take disadvantaged children from our inner cities to a foreign destination for a holiday?

Mr. Portillo

I must make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that we have never considered financing the yacht out of swaps, as I believe he used to do in his early days. The royal yacht attracts many people, all over the world. I would not propose making any great changes in the usage of recent years. No doubt the way in which the yacht is used will evolve over time, but it is important that it should be there principally for the promotion of Britain and of her economic interests abroad.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

Does my right hon. Friend understand that the Scottish people will be delighted at the proposal to replace the Royal Yacht Britannia? They will hope that it will be based on the Clyde after it ceases to be operational. Secondly, they will hope that the Clyde will have the opportunity to build the new ship, just as we built Britannia. We should also like my right hon. Friend to note that the Scottish national party has called for a bicycling monarchy, and there would be no prospect of a new Britannia being built on the Clyde with such a monarchy.

Mr. Portillo

Let me assure my hon. Friend that no part of the specification will include room for bicycles. During my hon. Friend's remarks, I heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland say, "Hear, hear." I am sure that he was doing that clearly within the bounds of collective responsibility, but none the less my hon. Friend was well heard on the Front Bench.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I welcome the statement, although I have some suspicions about the motivation that may lie behind its timing. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about what he regards as being appropriate or not appropriate in respect of total or partial private financing? Why is it not appropriate to have any private financing for the royal yacht, given that he recently decided that it was entirely appropriate to sell all the married quarters of all our soldiers, sailors and airmen in England and Wales to Nomura, a Japanese bank?

Mr. Portillo

I do not think that it is the duty of the state to own houses, but I do think that it is the duty of the state to support the monarchy.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his personal commitment to this project over the past two and a half years and on winning the arguments that must have occurred in the Cabinet? Given that the new royal yacht can be built in only one location, can he give an undertaking that there will be a proper symbolism in its construction and fitting out of the fact that it represents the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Can he remind the House of any conventions that might exist on what the royal yacht should be called? Have the Government given any consideration to that matter and has Her Majesty expressed an opinion?

Mr. Portillo

We do not yet know the name of the yacht. Undoubtedly, that question will be considered and many suggestions will be made; Her Majesty will certainly be consulted. My hon. Friend, who also fought hard for this decision, makes an excellent point that the yacht must be representative of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Her Majesty the Queen is the Queen of the United Kingdom and her yacht should reflect that.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Was the Secretary of State in the House on Friday, when we witnessed another spending decision? A Bill on the wind chill factor, which was presented by one of my hon. Friends, sought to provide £60 million to give essential life-saving help to poor pensioners. The question that the country will ask about Government priorities is why the Government do not have £60 million to give to poor pensioners, but do have it to allow one family to travel in a billionaire life style.

Mr. Portillo

Yes, but the cold weather payments scheme was invented by the Conservative Government—it did not exist when the Labour party was last in office. Time and again, it has been improved in its generosity and extent. The Labour party did not make those payments. When the hon. Gentleman blathers on, as he has just done, let him admit all that the Government have done in providing a social security budget of £90,000 million. Let him then go away and talk the language of comparisons and proportion, about £60 million over 30 years for a royal yacht.

Sir Cyril Townsend (Bexleyheath)

While regretting the lack of forward planning some years ago, despite prodding from Conservative Members, which means that inevitably there will be a delay, I warmly welcome this sensible decision. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the offers of financial support from commercial and City organisations that were put to the royal yacht parliamentary group and others are a signal of how much interest is felt in such sectors for the concept of a royal yacht? Does he further agree that having a royal yacht is a tried and tested formula and a good way of presenting the latest in British technology and expertise?

Mr. Portillo

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent knighthood—this is my first opportunity to do so. He is right to say that tremendous interest was shown in the matter, and the interest expressed by the business community tells us a lot about what is happening in the general community and about the spirit in this nation. I entirely reject the remarks of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) in that respect. The yacht is tried and tested; the nation has benefited from it; it has helped our sovereign in her work; and I believe that almost the whole House will warmly welcome today's announcement.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

May I support the introduction of a vessel that will be unique to the United Kingdom as an aid for the royal family? It has been suggested in the past, however, that the royal vessel could be used as a training ship when Her Majesty was not using it. There is also the question of the royal family's future. We are told that the royal family will have to use passenger trains and that no extra provision will be made for special aircraft. The Secretary of State says that it is important that the royal family should have a vessel financed from public funds, but that it is not important for the royal family to have their own train. What is the difference?

The nation will be confused about why we are taking this stand today when, in the recent past, the royal family have been told that they should use public transport. Why could not the royal yacht be financed by private sector money, given that the Government say that the royal family want to be involved with the private sector and move away from dependency on the state? Why have the Government changed their stance on that issue?

Mr. Portillo

First, I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I have already said several times: this decision was for the Government, not the royal family. The Government believe that it is for the nation to finance something that so closely touches the monarchy's dignity. I can continue to repeat that all afternoon if the hon. Gentleman likes, but it remains our firm position.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we did not choose the training ship design, which was an imaginative idea. We took the view that the vessel's primary purpose is to combine use by the monarchy with promotion of Britain abroad and of our economic interests. To confuse that primary purpose with something quite different, which would be difficult to make compatible, seemed to make the matter too complicated and likely to fail in its primary purpose.

As Secretary of State for Defence, I am responsible for announcing this decision, which has been taken by the Cabinet. We have taken that decision because of all the reasons that I have given about how the yacht helps to project Britain and the monarchy abroad. Those reasons stand on their own legs and are self-explanatory.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

May I assure my right hon. Friend that nowhere will the Government's decision to build another royal yacht be more happily received than in Lancaster, with its special relationship with Her Majesty in her style as Duke of Lancaster?

Mr. Portillo

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. The connection between Lancaster and Her Majesty is clear and well known. I am relieved that, to the best of my knowledge, Lancaster has no shipyard, so I do not have to chalk up another bid.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you very much.