HL Deb 18 December 1929 vol 75 cc1480-8

EARL STANHOPE rose to ask His Majesty's Government how far and in what respects the scheme for the Singapore base has been delayed or postponed; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I apologise for again addressing the House. I had hoped that my last Motion would be entirely of a non-Party character and that is why I separated it from the question of Singapore which unfortunately, as I think, has to some extent taken a Party character. There have been several debates in your Lordships' House in recent years on the new base and I do not propose to traverse ground which has been covered on those former occasions. I may perhaps be allowed to remind the House, however, that the Imperial Conferences of 1923 and 1926 took note in identical terms of "the deep interest of the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand, and India in the construction of a naval base at Singapore, as essential for ensuring the mobility necessary to provide for the security of the territories and trade of the Empire in Eastern waters."

Mr. Bruce stated in 1926—he was then, of course, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth— I can only say that Australia believes that the Singapore base is absolutely essential. Those views are not surprising when we remember that the coasts of India are practically undefended and that it is common knowledge that we should be unable to send our Battle Fleet to the defence of Australia or New Zealand unless and until a base has been constructed at Singapore. At the present moment, with the exception of the floating dock which has recently been installed in the Old Strait, not a single dock east of Malta exists that is capable of taking a modern bulged capital ship. The noble Lord last week made an analogy in this House between the Airship R 101 and an ordinary ship, and he said that the airship shed was to the airship as a dry dock is to a ship and the mast to an ordinary dock. By an ordinary dock I suppose he meant a basin. He stated that the analogy was not very close but that it was fairly close. There I disagree with him entirely, but the analogy is one that he drew and it is for him to explain it away now if he so desires. But I should like to ask him whether he would think of sending an airship out to Australia or even to India in the event of war if he had no shed in which to do repairs should they become necessary?

In spite of these facts, which we all know, His Majesty's Government announced in another place on November 13 that they had decided that work already contracted for should be slowed down as much as possible, that all work that could be suspended should be suspended, and that no new work should be embarked upon pending the result of the Five-Power Naval Conference. Why should you wait for the Naval Conference before proceeding with work that does not concern in the least the Five Powers attending that Conference? Why that should be so I am unable to understand, unless it is that the Government are actually bartering the security of the Dominions in the hope that they may be able to obtain a reduction of a few cruisers. The Government appear to think that we alone are constructing or improving a naval base. Surely noble Lords opposite know that a very large amount of construction and improvement work has been carried out in recent years in the naval bases in Japan and in Pearl Harbour in the Hawaiian Islands belonging to the United States. Of course we have made no remarks on that work. It is solely a matter concerning those two Powers. Why they or any other Power should think that they have a right to make any remarks as regards what we do at Singapore, equally outside the area which came into the Washington Conference, I am unable to understand. In point of fact neither of these Powers have done so and why the Government should think they should entirely passes my comprehension.

So much nonsense has been written and spoken about Singapore that perhaps I may be allowed to say exactly what Singapore was intended to be. It is not a second Portsmouth with a large number of docks, with barracks, with very big workshops employing thousands of men. It was designed as an extremely small base. It was designed to have one floating dock capable of taking a capital ship with its attendant floating crane. The floating dock and the floating crane are already in the Old Strait. It was further designed to have one and only one graving dock, a wharf wall alongside which ships could lie, and a small basin capable of accommodating steamships taking out naval stores to the base. In addition there were to be only sufficient workshops for use with the docks, a very small supply base and a magazine capable of taking the ammunition from ships which were in either the floating dock or the graving dock. In addition, of course, houses are necessary for the accommodation of those working at the base, together with the necessary extension of the railway, roads, and water supply.

I think your Lordships will realise from this how very small this scheme for the naval base really is. In addition to the naval side, to which alone I have so far referred, both the Army and the Air Force come into the scheme to a minor extent: the Army to provide for shore defences and the Air Force to provide an aerodrome and its ancillary buildings. The total cost for all three services, exclusive of the floating dock, which, of course, can at any time be towed elsewhere, was estimated at a little over £11,500,000. This figure has been stated over and over again in another place and elsewhere. Of this £11,500,000, which was the total expenditure, Hong Kong, the Federated Malay States and New Zealand had contributed, or were in process of contributing, £3,250,000. The £8,000,000 odd which this country had to find was to have been spread over a period of nine years, and in no year would the expenditure which this country had to find for all three Services have exceeded, roughly, £1,300,000.

And yet the Government proposes to postpone some works and to stop others. It says to India and to the Dominions: "It is quite true that, by the alteration of a single clause in one Bill, we have incurred an annual expenditure of £4,000,000, but we are not prepared to spend £8,000,000, spread over a period of nine years, in order to obtain security for you and for your trade. It is quite true that you gave unstintingly of money and of men to render us assistance in the Great War, but we are not prepared to give even the small expenditure which would enable us to send a Battle Fleet to your assistance should the need unfortunately at any time arise."

I think the House would like to know what work has been slowed down and what has been suspended. The contract for the construction of the dry dock, the wharf walls and the basin was signed by me last September on behalf of the Government. That contract came to more than half the expenditure on the naval side of the base. The work was to be completed in seven years, and this period was selected as being that which was most economical for working and best not only for the Government but for the firm that was doing the work. Indeed, one firm that tendered stated that, if they got the contract—they did not get it—they would prefer to do the work in quicker time, as being more economical. I should like to ask whether this contract has been interfered with and, if so, whether the Government have received any assurance from the contractors that the work will not in consequence cost more than it would have cost under the contract that was approved? The workshops that were to be completed by Departmental labour were not due to be begun for some years, and therefore there can be no question of postponement in their case, but other works are being done by Departmental labour, such as the building of houses for those employed at the base. I should like to ask the noble Lord opposite whether the work on these houses is still being proceeded with or if the staff has been reduced or is going to be accommodated in temporary buildings instead of in the proper houses that were being erected for their accommodation?

As regards the connection with the railway, the roads and the water supply, I imagine this work must be very nearly completed, but I should like to have the assurance of the noble Lord on that point. The magazine, as I have stated, was designed to take ammunition from ships that were put into the graving dock or the floating dock. Your Lordships will, of course, realise that ammunition ought to be taken out of a ship when she is opened up or put into a dock, whether floating or otherwise, and it is really essential, therefore, that a magazine should be constructed in order that this ammunition may be safely housed underground while the ship is being dealt with, even now, at the floating dock. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether the magazine is being proceeded with and whether the work in regard to the armaments supply depot is going ahead. Work was also being done at the aerodrome and on the jetty, barracks and buildings connected with it. Perhaps the noble Lord can give us some further information on that point also.

What I should particularly like to ask him is whether work on the military defences has been stopped or not? Speaking on the Singapore question on July 1, 1925, the noble Lord said:— Presumably from the moment work is started at the Old Strait some measures will have to be taken for defending that locality. The work is proceeding, or at least has begun, at the Old Strait, and I should like to ask the noble Lord whether this is still his view and whether the measures necessary for the defence of the locality are still proceeding. I do not think that there are any other points that I wish to ask the noble Lord about, but I hope that we shall obtain definite information on the various points that I have raised, in order that the people of this country and of the Dominions may know what the policy of the Government in regard to Singapore actually is.


My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Earl detailed information in regard to every one of the buildings and appliances in Singapore that he has mentioned. There was no indication in his Question that he required such detailed information as that. If I had known, I should certainly have obtained it for him, but I trust that he will not suspect me of discourtesy in not giving him all the information that he asks for. I think he will agree that there was a great deal of detail in the form in which the Question was put in his speech. I will do my best. The Question that stands on the Paper is:— How far and in what respects the scheme for the Singapore base has been delayed or postponed. An answer was given in a speech from which the noble Earl himself quoted, or rather on the day on which that speech was made, which I cannot improve upon. With the permission of the House I will read it. The answer was given in another place, and was to this effect:— In all the circumstances, the Government has decided that the work already contracted for at Singapore shall be slowed down as much as possible, that all work that can be suspended shall be suspended, and that no new work shall be embarked on pending the results of the Five-Power Conference. That answer really covers a great deal concerning which the noble Earl is seeking information.

I would lay special emphasis on the fact that this decision is reached pending the results of the Five-Power Conference. I must again insist that the Conference is designed, if it is humanly possible and consistent with the security of the British Empire, to achieve a reduction in armaments. I am not going now into the category of armaments—that is not my function at the moment—but I am sure that the noble Earl and your Lordships will agree that, if we can be successful, it is obvious that in respect of an enormously expensive dock like Singapore dock—a scheme like that may he modified in essential respects, with consequent saving of money to the taxpayer, and, it may be, a saving of provocation to other nations throughout the world. It is a purely tentative decision. It is not the intention of His Majesty's Government to go into this Conference and use the Singapore dock scheme as a bargaining counter. We are going into this Conference with absolutely clean hands and a definite policy—a policy which has been repeated and reiterated countless times. If we achieve the results which we hope for, then, without using Singapore in any sense at the Conference, we shall quite obviously be able to apply some of the results of the success of that Conference to the modification of the Singapore scheme.

I think perhaps I may explain some of the details of that answer which I read out. The question of the main contract, that is, graving dock, reclamation, wharf walls, etc., is now under consideration. I think the noble Earl said that he wanted to know what was the last arrangement between the Government or the Admiralty and the contractor. I am afraid I cannot tell him. That is not a detail for which I was prepared. I am not at all sure that it would be possible for anybody to get that information, unless it was specifically asked for. I submit that it is not covered by the noble Earl's Question.


I must remind the noble and gallant Lord that I gave him private notice with regard to that contract.


I acknowledge with gratitude the courtesy of the noble Earl, but I must confess that I never noticed that he asked for the actual arrangements reached between the Admiralty and the contractor since this tentative suspension. Unless I am very much mistaken that was not mentioned in the noble Earl's letter. I have a very clear recollection of what he said in the letter, and I am grateful for his courtesy in sending it to me, but he did not mention this particular point. I certainly looked up the question of the main contract, and that is why I have had it written out by those best qualified to write it out for me. The question of the main contract, the graving dock, reclamation, wharf walls, etc., is now under consideration. It is not His Majesty's Government's intention to prejudice the date of completion of the base if the decision to proceed with it should eventually be taken. That in a sense answers the noble Earl's Question about the contractor. It is not the intention of the Government to prejudice the date of completion by anything they are doing at present. The decision does not affect maintenance and other services, which must continue.

The noble Earl has had the advantage of spending four years at the Admiralty, and is more conversant with these details than I am. I do not know whether that answer meets him. If I had only been prepared for these questions a little more thoroughly, I would certainly have done my best to get the information asked for, but I hope I have satisfied the noble Earl. The items to be deferred include some which the last Government decided to put in hand in 1930, the most important of these being the armament depot, which I think will account for £150,000 in next year's Estimates. Such items as water supply, workshops, store-houses, offices, residence, etc., are being carried out independently of the main contract, and are intended to be completed at various dates as required, during the period of the completion of the base as a whole. I think that covers many of the buildings which the noble Earl referred to. In certain cases where works are well advanced they will not be interfered with. Of the remainder, it is proposed to defer certain items of work. I have a summary of this answer which I think covers most of the ground. It is as follows:—The naval base is being slowed down by the suspension of such items outside the main contract as can be suspended and non-commencement of new items. The noble Earl with his knowledge of this base will perhaps be able to fill in the gaps. I regret that I cannot give him at this moment many of the details he asked for.


Can the noble and gallant Lord give us any information as regards the Air Force?


As regards the military side of the base the situation is for all practical purposes as the late Government left it, and the whole question is under review. A sum of about £2,000,000 is, I think, to be expended on the War Office side, and a good deal of that was on account of coast defence. That question is under review at the present moment. Generally speaking, the situation is as it was left by the last Government. As to the air base, it is in no way affected by this decision. The air base is proceeding. I observe the noble Earl laughs, but he presumably admits the value of the air base.


I admit the value of all three.


There is one other statement which I would like to make with the permission of the House, although I do not know that it was directly referred to by the noble Earl. It concerns the Dominions. His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom do not regard His Majesty's Governments in the Dominions as in any way committed by the provisional conclusions which have been reached pending the results of the Five-Power Conference which is to take place in London next month. Any proposal affecting this scheme as a whole, or the date of its conclusion, would be made the subject of full consultation with them and the fullest consultation would also take place with the Governments of Malaya and Hong Kong. I do not think that there are any other points that I have left uncovered, although I candidly confess that I have not covered them in the detail which the noble Earl appears to have expected. I hope he will accept my regrets. As regards the laying of Papers, here again I must appeal to the noble Earl. I do not know what Papers he expects me to lay. He has given full explanation of a great deal about the base to the House already, and there is nothing that I can lay in the way of Papers which would give much more information. Such Papers as there are I am afraid I cannot lay at present. I therefore trust that he will not press his Motion.


I am much obliged to the noble and gallant Lord opposite for the information which he has given. I would only have liked it to have been somewhat fuller, but of course I appreciate the fact that he has not been in as close touch with these matters as it was my lot to be for a very considerable period. I beg to thank him for the answer he has given and to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.