HL Deb 21 December 1925 vol 62 cc1666-75

THE EARL OF ELGIN AND KINCARDINE rose to call attention to the recent decision to reduce the dockyard at Rosyth to a care and maintenance basis; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, in rising to move the Motion which stands in my name I feel that the. noble Earl who sits below me may have some anxiety, in that one who is associated with him in a Party which has always stood for economy and retrenchment should be so boll as to criticise and question one of the most extravagant Departments of the Government when they bring forward a scheme to effect, a real economy; but having been born in the parish of Dunfermline, and having lived a large part of my life within three miles of the Castle of Rosyth, I think your Lordships will excuse me if bring forward, even at this late stage of the Session, a matter which affects the district in which I live, particularly because I feel that some local considerations have not yet received full consideration.

Firstly, I do not feel satisfied, from the statements which have been made far on behalf of the Government, that the economy is so large, so sound, or so real, as it is asserted to be. I do not venture to criticise the decision on +be ground of policy; though it is but fair to say that even after the surrender of the German Fleet, which has been taken as the turning point at which the usefulness of Rosyth may have ceased, the noble and gallant Earl, Lord Beatty, made a statement on September 13, 1919, at Dunfermline, on the occasion of his being presented with the freedom of that City. These arc tile words he used— The future, which affects all of us. is not quite clear. But I take leave to say that the great dockyard at Rosyth, which has been built up at a cost of much effort, at the cost of much money, which is the most efficient and up-to-date dockyard in existence, must be maintained. I fully realise that circumstances may alter, and have altered, and that the noble and gallant Earl who now holds the responsible post of First Sea Lord is fully entitled to review an opinion even so positively expressed as that which I have quoted; but to the layman it does seem strange that, when economies are proposed, the dockyard which has been stated on the highest authority to be "the most efficient and up-to-date dockyard in existence" should be the first to be scrapped. Had the proposals of the Admiralty been more courageous and included one or more of the older and less efficient English dockyards, I should have felt less inclined to offer any criticism. It is, however, Scotland and Wales that have had to bear the brunt of the economy proposals.

I do not propose to say any more on the policy of the decision. We are told that the decision has been come to after careful consideration by His Majesty's Government. We know it has the blessing of the noble and gallant Earl, and that it has been confirmed by a large majority in another place. I would, however, ask your Lordships to consider for a few moments the proposed economy in a little more detail, to examine the soundness and reality of the economy, and particularly its effect upon the locality. In the White Paper which has been issued by the Admiralty, in explanation of the reduction, very little information is given, but I wish to point out two admissions in that Paper which are important when considering the question from a national as distinct from a departmental standpoint. The first is that the savings enumerated are purely departmental; that they take no account of possible or even certain increases in the expenditure of other departments contingent upon the closing of this clock-yard. It is true that some of them are mentioned in the White Paper, but there is no definite estimate of such offsets against the estimated savings.

May I illustrate my meaning on this head by figures? The estimated annual saving on the reduction of the two yards of Pembroke and Rosyth is stated to be £328,000. No separate allocation has been given to the individual yards, but I understand that for Rosyth the estimate is between £160,000 and £200,000. As against this let us consider what, from the standpoint of national economy, has actually happened at Rosyth since the decision was arrived at. Up to December 7 the number of claims to benefit made by ex-dockyard workers at the Dunfermline and Inverkeithing Exchanges was 315. Of these eighty-five had obtained other employment, leaving 230 still on the register. If this is the kind of proportion to which we must look forward, and the state of industry does not warrant a much more sanguine anticipation, your Lordships will realise what a very formidable offset this means to the estimated savings. Most of these men are married men with young families, and if one were to take the average figure of unemployment relief at a conservative estimate of 22s. a week and the number of unemployed at the end of the period of reduction at 1,000—also a conservative estimate—we shall arrive at a burden on the national finance of £57,200 per annum.

Your Lordships are probably aware that the staple industry in West Fife is coal mining and in Dunfermline the manufacture of linen. The depression in the first of these industries is well known to your Lordships, and the position of the second is not much better, partly owing, no doubt, to the fact that many householders, including probably many of your Lordships, have abandoned the use of the fair linen tablecloth and now dine off hare boards. In the present state of these two industries it is impossible to look forward to any appreciable number of men discharged from the dockyard being absorbed into other work. It may be argued that this claim is not dependent upon the closing of a particular dockyard and that the discharges would have to take place in any case consequent upon the reduction of the naval programme; but I would maintain that the burden is increased in force and in extent by concentrating it in one locality, particularly when the industries of that locality are not in a position to absorb more labour.

On these grounds, therefore, I would urge the Government in the working out of their scheme of reduction to consider carefully this aspect and not to make light of the financial burden because it is placed upon another Department, or to lose sight of the moral effect of placing so many men on the unemployed list, both to themselves and to the community. Further, they should not forget the individual hardship and anxiety caused to the men and their families by this action, taken at a time of year when household expenses are necessarily higher, and when the prospects of obtaining substituted work are necessarily more meagre. May I, therefore, conclude this site of the question by urging upon the Admiralty, on practical, financial, and sympathetic lines, to adopt the motto Festina lente in the discharges?

I will ask you now to look at another aspect of the case, the effect upon the district, and particularly on the burgh of Dunfermline. I do not wish to weary your Lordships with too much detail as regards the history of Rosyth, but, in order that you may appreciate the true position, it is necessary that I should refer to one or two facts in that history. Before the establishment of the dockyard Dunfermline was a town with a population of rather less than 20,000 in habitants, situated about two and a half miles north of the Firth of Forth at its nearest point, Rosyth. When the Government decided to establish a naval base at Rosyth they also apparently decided that it was impossible to have that dockyard administered by the County Council of Fife, and it was necessary that the Rosyth dockyard should be incorporated in Dunfermline. Under pressure, therefore, of two Government Departments—the Admiralty and the. Board of Health—Dunfermline put forward a claim for extension Of boundaries to include the dockyard. After a considerable fight this extension was given effect to, and an area of roughly three and a half miles from north to south, and three miles from east to west, including half of the estuary of the River Forth ex adverso was added to the burgh of Dunfermline. Evidence was then produced that, on the analogy of Portsmouth and other dockyards, it was anticipated that in the course of a few years an addition to the population of 40,000 might h expected in the burgh of Dunfermline, and Dunfermline was urged to provide the contingent services—roads, drainage, water and light. A vast town planning scheme was embarked upon, which cost a very large amount of money, but the irony of the situation is that when the houses came to be built they were built on Admiralty ground outside the original town planning scheme.

Your Lordships will not expect me to present at this time a detailed claim on behalf of the burgh of Dunfermline, but there are three items of expenditure on the provision of trunk services which will, I think, satisfy your Lordships that the clam of the burgh of Dunfermline against the Government must be fairly substantial. In the first place it was necessary to widen the roadway from Dunfermline to Rosyth. The sum expended on this was £21,812. Secondly, the provision of water mains for the new town and dockyard cost £28,290. This must he kept distinct from the provision of the actual water, which was supplied by the county council, and for which an agreement stands and holds. Thirdly, the proportion of costs of a new sewer attributable to the establishment of the dockyard amounted to £22,130. The total of these three claims is nearly £73,000. These are outstanding capital claims, and it can be shown, in addition, that the burgh of Dunfermline is called upon to pay for the maintenance and administration of the extended area an annual sum of about £13,000 over and above what it receives by way of rates and Government contribution in lieu thereof. If this is the position when the houses are all occupied it will be enormously aggravated when, as a result of the reduction in the dockyard, a large number of the houses are rendered tenantless.

I do not propose to go into the question of housing, because the. question is so complicated by inter - departmental guarantees and agreements, but this broad fact is clear, that on the reduction contemplated by the Admiralty several hundreds of these houses will cease to be occupied by dockyard workers, and will therefore become tenantless, or will have to be let to men employed elsewhere. There are two serious obstacles to the latter alternative: first, that the proportion of large houses, that is, with four rooms and over, is too great for the general needs of the locality, and, secondly, that the rents are very much too high. Hitherto the rents charged to dockyard employees have been on the average £22, but to outside tenants the rent has been in the neighbourhood of £40, and if this rata is to continue I think your Lordships will agree that it will he impossible to make use of the houses.

So far have dealt only with actual claims which have been submitted to the Admiralty by Dunfermline for work done: but it is fair to take into account the capital slink on other public services. The education authority has spent over £100,000 on the erection and equipment of schools. The parish council has spent a very considerable sum in the provision of cemeteries; and in addition to the provision of purely public services large amounts have been spent in providing churches and halls by the different denominations. The new population at Rosyth being mainly English, a gallant effort was made by the Bishop of St. Andrews to provide a suitable church, which has been erected at a cost of over £18,000 and which it is hoped will be open for use early next month. Several other denominations have also erected permanent buildings. Two masonic lodges have been erected by the enterprise of the local Freemasons at a cost of about £6,000, and about £85,000 has been spent in tramways and electric cables. Is it just and fair that no recognition should be made by the Government for these and other similar outlays if they are rendered useless by the action of the Government? And if recognition is to be made by way of compensation, surely it must be counted against the estimated departmental saving.

Finally, I would venture to press the noble Earl who will reply for the Admiralty to say exactly what is meant by "a care and maintenance basis." If, during six years when the dockyard has been on full equipment, it has sunk from being the most efficient and up-to-date dockyard in existence to the category of being the first to be scrapped, is it conceivable that on a care and maintenance basis expenditure will be incurred adequate to keep it really efficient or up-to-date? I venture to say that under such conditions the dockyard would soon become derelict, and the payment of a staff to keep it in that condition would be extravagant. The proposal to reduce the dockyard to a care and maintenance basis seems to me to savour too much of a dog-in-the-manger policy. If the dockyard is really superfluous it would be far more practical to take a more courageous course, to cut a large part of the capital cost, and use every means to make the dockyard in its present state up-to-date with power, plant and equipment available for a commercial enterprise.


My Lords, I am afraid there is very little new that I can tell your Lordships which the House does not already know in view of the discussions which have taken place in the other House and having regard to what has appeared in the Press. I rather had hoped that my noble friend's leader, or possibly somone else in his Party, would have defended the action of the Government that was in power when Rosyth was established, because what it really comes to is this. If the Government which was in existence when the dockyard at Rosyth was first proposed had carried out the scheme of extension and so forth as the Admiralty wished it to be done, Rosyth at this moment would not be merely a small dockyard—efficient and up-to-date as far as it goes—but would be a dockyard comparable with any others we have in the United Kingdom. Had that been the case I think there is little doubt that one of the other dockyards would have had to be reduced rather than Rosyth.

The whole difficulty with regard to Rosyth is this. There are only three dry docks there, and a comparatively small basin, and those docks are only capable of taking very big ships. They will take the smaller ships, but that is a wasteful method, and if the dockyard were to be made capable of undertaking the work which is at present being done elsewhere it would require not only very great extension in regard to shops and docks, but an increase of the basin, an increase of cranes, and also a considerable increase in machinery. That would not have been the case in regard to any of the three big southern dockyards. Further, it would almost inevitably have entailed the provision of barracks, of hospitals, a gunnery school, and so on. As your Lordships will readily see, that would have run into a very heavy capital expenditure, and I think the House will not hesitate to say that in the present condition of our national finances such a proposal would be quite impossible.

The noble Earl opposite, if he will allow me to say so, did not show a very great knowledge of the Admiralty; otherwise he certainly would not have criticised it as one of the most expensive of Government Departments. He seemed to imply that the saving on Rosyth was only going to take effect in one particular year, and that if the Government met in full all the various claims which have been put forward on behalf of Rosyth, Dunfermline, and Inverkeithing, then there would practically be no economies whatever. Obviously it would be very improper for me to say what action His Majesty's Government propose to take in regard to claims which, so far as I am aware, have not been as yet definitely drawn up, and certainly have not yet been presented, but I would point out that the saving in the reduction of Rosyth to a care and maintenance basis will, we believe, mean an economy of over £236,000 a year. If the claims are paid in full, it would probably only postpone for perhaps a slightly longer period the time when that economy will come into operation. For the first two years, owing to expenses in moving men from the northern dockyards to the southern, and for other reasons of the same kind, the saving is, of course, comparatively small, but as time goes on the full economy comes into operation.

I must also challenge the noble Earl upon another matter. He made what I might almost call an attack on the Government by saying that Scotland and Wales have to suffer, whereas England escapes scot free. I can assure him that when the full economies that we are now proposing at the Admiralty are brought into operation he will have no cause to think that Scotland has been unfairly dealt with as compared with England.


May I interrupt the noble Earl to make a personal explanation? I think I said that Scotland was bearing the brunt of the proposals. That is the case whatever happens.


I am afraid it will not be even the brunt when the full economies come into operation. As regards the expenditure in other directions, my noble friend himself said that if men were not thrown out of employment at Rosyth it would probably mean that other men would be unemployed elsewhere and therefore from the Admiralty point of view, and from the Government point of view, it naturally made very little difference financially whether the men are discharged in one place rather than in another. I unfortunately have only too much reason to know that when economies, are brought into operation it inevitably means that men are thrown out of em- ployment. I have full opportunities of realising, as Chairman of the Whitley Council at the Admiralty, the distress that that causes, And I am in touch with trades union representatives at the dockyards.

I think any noble Lord who has had to do with cutting down in the Government service or elsewhere knows what a hateful task it is, and how much one sympathises with the inevitable distress that is caused when cutting down takes place. If it is to be contended that a Government is never to cut down because it entails increasing unemployment, then it is good-bye to all economy in any Government Department. The hope that the Government hold to strongly—and I believe that all Parties hold to it strongly—is that if we can only reduce the State expenditure and taxation, we shall thereby help private employers and trade in the country generally and reduce the total volume of unemployment.

The noble Lord asked what was meant by "care and maintenance," and he drew a comparison between the statement made by my noble friend the First Sea Lord a few years ago and what is said of Rosyth to-day. I have already touched on the point, but I might make it a little clearer. There is no question whatever that Rosyth is very up-to-date and efficient so far as it goes. It is only a question of the size of the dockyard which makes it impossible to continue it. It is rather difficult to explain briefly to your Lordships, but there are very many trades engaged in a dockyard and it is difficult to keep the balance of labour correct; sinless you have a series of ships coming in one after the other. When a ship comes in or is being repaired there are, probably, rivetters and platers at work on the hull. When that work is done electrical fitters and others come in to do their work, and there is a whole series of men of different trades coming in to restore the ship to a condition in which she can again put to sea. Unless you are prepared to discharge those men and therefore, lave in-and-out labour you require another ship to come in, so that as soon as the men have finished work on one ship there is work on another to which they can go.

Your Lordships will see, therefore, that if there are only three docks in a dock yard it is impossible to keep your men fully employed all the year round and they have either to sit still and do nothing on full pay or to be discharged. In that way you get casual labour which, I think every one of your Lordships will agree, is something which should he avoided if possible. Therefore there tan be no question of Rosyth being out of date when, in fact, it was and still is efficient.

What is proposed under "care and maintenance" is simply that enough men will be kept there to keep the machinery in order and the buildings weatherproof and to enable the dockyard to be re-opened at short notice if and when it is required. My noble friend suggests that it should be scrapped altogether. If we could be certain that we should never have another war I should entirely agree with him; but if, unfortunately, another war were to take place we should want every one of our dockyards to undertake the work of keeping the Fleet in order. For that reason it would be necessary to re-open Rosyth and also Pembroke. With the reduced Fleet we have now there are too many dockyards and too many men employed in those dockyards. Therefore, for the ordinary peace-time work of keeping the Fleet in condition, it is necessary to reduce the number of yards and the number of men employed there. That is the sole reason why we have been enabled to reduce the dockyards.

If it is suggested that we should not close dockyards at all, that does not mean that we have merely to find the pay of the men whom it is proposed now to discharge, but to find work for them to do. That means that you have to pay more money and to keep ships in commission which it is now proposed should be scrapped. It means also that you have to undertake repairs of ships which are becoming obsolete. In other words, it means the spending of a good deal of money without making the Fleet any more efficient by doing so. For all those reasons I hope your Lordships will agree that the Board of Admiralty have been wise and economical in proposing the reduction of these two yards, and will support the Government in the very unpleasant task of having to throw men out of employment and causing distress by measures of economy such as this.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.