HL Deb 28 November 1957 vol 206 cc593-600

3.6 p.m.


My Lords, I will, with your Lordships' permission, make a statement about the future of the Naval Dockyard in Hong Kong. I should also like to apologise for the fact that my noble friend the First Lord of the Admiralty is unavoidably prevented from being in his place to-day. The statement is as follows.

Her Majesty's Government has decided to close the Naval Dockyard in Hong Kong. The rundown, which will extend over two years, is expected to end by November 30, 1959.

This decision has been taken with very real regret in view of the long association of the dockyard with Hong Kong and the loss of jobs for many employees which must inevitably result from the closure. It has been necessitated by the current reorganisation of naval forces and their shore support throughout the world in the light of Government policy outlined in the Defence White Paper. The future requirements of H.M. Ships in the Far East will no longer justify the maintenance of a full-scale dockyard in Hong Kong.

The closure of the dockyard will not mean the disappearance of Her Majesty's Ships from Hong Kong and Far Eastern waters. A number of naval vessels which will be based upon Hong Kong will continue to discharge the responsibilities of Her Majesty's Government for the protection of British shipping and the security of the Colony. A small naval base from which ships can be serviced and operated will be retained in Hong Kong island. In addition, other ships of the Fleet in the Far East will continue to visit Hong Kong from time to time.

3.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, for making us acquainted with this doleful news. I am glad he has expressed the Government's regret at having to come to this decision. It raises very important issues indeed. The situation in Hong Kong may have considerably changed since I was last there, as Minister of Defence, in 1949, but I felt bound to recommend at that time to my Government that we should not reduce but make our position stronger in Hong Kong—which we did. And in the eight years which have supervened I am bound to say that in my own opinion that policy has been absolutely justified, both during and since the Korean campaign.

I should wish to ask a certain number of questions, which I have had to formulate very hurriedly in the few minutes that I have had the statement—and I am obliged to the noble Lord for letting me see the statement in advance. The statement says that certain naval ships will still be visiting Hong Kong but that naval requirements will no longer call for provision of the dockyard facilities as at present. The first question I have to ask—it is a delicate question—is this: Does that mean that the Government are reducing the strength of the Naval Forces in the Far East? My second question is this. Because of the imperative necessity to maintain confidence in the great and crowded population of Hong Kong, can the Minister say (and I am glad to think that to-day he represents the Minister of Defence, and not only the First Lord of the Admiralty) whether there is any intention to reduce the Garrison or to reduce the increased strength in the Fighter Air Force which we provided from 1949 onwards?

These points, to me, are exceedingly important. As regards Naval requirements being less now than before, has piracy ceased in Bias Bay? Could we have an answer to that question? Further, could we know what are the facilities which will be available in Hong Kong Island? Will they cover all urgent repairs to ships, and will they be able to provide the necessary docking facilities for the overhauls—large overhauls—which inevitably have to be made during the tours of duty of Her Majesty's Ships overseas?

Next let me ask this question. What consultations have taken place with other Governments before this decision was reached? Have the Government had consultations with Australia and New Zealand? Do they agree? Have the Government discussed it with them on the joint consideration of both Hong Kong and the future of Singapore, whatever that may be, or the likelihood of our being only temporarily in China Bay in Ceylon? Can the noble Lord tell me, further, whether the matter has been discussed with the United States—because, as I understand it, their naval ships now regularly visit Hong Kong, in order, among other reasons, I think, to give the personnel a proper run ashore occasionally and to carry out minor repairs.

Then in the statement the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, expressed his regret at the number of people who will be thrown out of work. What steps are to be taken to deal with that situation, as already there are hundreds of thousands of refugees from Communist China in Hong Kong? What is to happen to the large number of trained British Chinese nationals who work in the Dockyard? I think that we ought to know what steps are being taken in that direction. Lastly, I would ask whether consultations have taken place with mercantile interests; and, if so, what kind of consultations. We know that there are great firms like Jardine Matheson, which are interested in this part of the world, and great capitals are involved, including investments in shipbuilding as well as in ship repairs. If there is to be a change of use of the Dockyard, has any arrangement been made for it to be used for mercantile purposes? If not today, perhaps fairly soon, may we know what is to be the saving in cost?


My Lords, I should like to add my regret that Her Majesty's Government have found it necessary to consider the closing of the Dockyard at Hong Kong. Only recently, I think, it was announced that it was the policy of Her Majesty's Government to build up a Far Eastern Fleet. I should like to ask how it is proposed to repair ships of this Fleet if no dockyard is available in the event of a serious breakdown or of emergency repairs.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he has any information about the number of workmen involved in this closure?


My Lords, may I ask one other brief question? A point of first importance in this matter is the protection of British merchant shipping in case of need. Russian submarines are likely to operate in these waters. Are the Admiralty fully satisfied that they will be able to afford complete protection to British shipping in these waters, if need arises? Those who are connected with the interests of the British mercantile marine will certainly want to be fully reassured on that point.


My Lords, a number of the questions which I wish to make have been covered satisfactorily, particularly by the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition, who speaks with such great authority on strategic matters; but I should like to underline two of his questions. What measures, if any, have been taken for the resettlement or re-employment of the vast numbers who will be thrown out of work? I gather that in a population of some 2½ million many are dependent on the Dockyard, and I hope that Her Majesty's Government have taken into account—as no doubt they have—the future of these people. My other question with regard to consultations with America and the Commonwealth countries has already been put.


My Lords, I do not wish to "shoot" any more questions at my noble friend, but as one who has spent many happy years in Hong Kong may I express my deep regret and sadness at the necessity for closing down the Dockyard? I am glad to know of the retention of at least this small base in Hong Kong Island, so that we know that the extremely happy relations between the Chinese Dockyard employees and ourselves will not be completely severed.


My Lords, I am not going to attempt, one way or the other, to criticise the policy of closing the Dockyard, but I am sorry that nothing is said in the statement about the possible alternative use of the Dockyard by civilian interests. I should like to ask whether that point has yet been gone into.


My Lords, before I try to answer the numerous questions which have naturally occurred to your Lordships on this important matter, I should like to reiterate that it was with very great sorrow that this decision was taken. We have gone into it with great care and considered all the matters which your Lordships have raised. We have considered it in conjunction with Australia, New Zealand, Malaya and the United States. Of course they share our regret, but they appreciate our difficulties and the necessity for this decision.

The Royal Navy will be very much in evidence in Hong Kong though, as I have explained, on a reduced scale. There will be six inshore minesweepers based there, and normally a frigate or destroyer will be in the area. There will be visits by units of our Fleet in the Far East which, as the Government have already made clear, will be maintained in considerable strength. Our Fleet in the Far East will continue to use Singapore Naval Base. The long-term future of Singapore Dockyard, as your Lordships know, is still under examination.

Several of your Lordships have asked about the future of the men who have worked long and loyally in the Dockyard. The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, asked me the number who would be affected. The number is about 4,700. The local government and Dockyard authorities will, of course, do their utmost to obtain offers of work elsewhere for redundant employees. The two-year period to which I referred has been fixed in order to facilitate a phased run-down in all departments of the Dockyard so that employees have the best possible opportunity of finding other employment. At the moment there is a boom in building in Hong Kong, and I hope that many of the men will be able to find work there. I hope that many will be able to find work in local government. Of course, there is the risk that the large number of refugees coming across from the mainland may also be competing for these jobs, but I can assure the noble Lord that the finding of honourable and decent work for these men is uppermost in our minds.

The noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, mentioned the decisions which he had come to some eight years ago, and I would not quarrel with those for a moment. I heartily agree with him about the need to maintain confidence in Hong Kong—and this, of course, is wrapped up with the Navy, the Army and the Air Force as well. When we are re-assessing what soldiers, sailors and airmen are required, we have that point in mind and are continuously keeping it in mind. The noble Viscount asked me about piracy. So far as I know, in the last few years there has been a reduction of piracy, but as long as there are Chinese waters I imagine that there will always be pirates. Mercantile interests were consulted. The noble Lord, Lord Gifford, asked me about the civil dockyard. That, of course, continues, and will be able to carry out major work, as it has done in the past. I think I have answered the majority of the questions that your Lordships have asked, but if there is any other specific question I can deal with I shall be happy to do so.


The noble Lord may be unable to-day to give me the figure of saving to the Estimates by this step, but perhaps he will look into that aspect and let your Lordships know what the situation is. I do not think he answered the point as to whether the Naval Dockyard facilities which are proposed to be closed down have been offered to the civil interests engaged in shipbuilding and repair. I was glad to hear what he said about the boom in shipbuilding, because that is important. I must say that I am feeling exceedingly unhappy about this position. The noble Lord has tried, I am sure quite sincerely, to make the best of the position in the answers he has given to your Lordships this afternoon, but I feel bound to say that this will be a major point in the Defence debate which we hope to instigate in the early part of January. While I have no doubt that my fellow countrymen are all anxious for disarmament which can be arranged on a decent basis, it is news to me to represent the people of this country as desiring disarmament on a unilateral basis.


My Lords, I rise after the reply of the Minister to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the inevitable loss of confidence which this statement will create in the Far East, and the misunderstanding to which it will give rise, they will undertake to make known to the people of the Far East, through the Governor of Hong Kong and through the Commander-in-Chief, Far East, and all other eminent authorities, that we are not clearing out and that our interest in that vast theatre is as great to-day as ever it was.


My Lords, I do not think there will be a loss of confidence, but I appreciate the noble Lord's point; and to that end an announcement is being made contemporaneously in Hong, Kong explaining exactly what Her Majesty's Government are doing, and why. That is being done in order to meet the objection which the noble Lord has in mind, that there might be some misunderstanding. I sincerely hope that there will be no misunderstanding.

I apologise to the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, for having overlooked the question of the disposal of the Dockyard for some other purpose. The disposal of Admiralty lands and buildings in Hong Kong will be the subject of negotiations between the Hong Kong Government, on the one hand, and the Admiralty and other Service Departments concerned, on the other. I am under the impression that the Dockyard cannot be disposed of as a going concern and that there are no detailed plans yet for the use of the land which will be released.


My Lords, there was one point to which I did not receive an answer. I am not clear whether there is going to be any reduction of our land or air forces.


My Lords, I think I have dealt with that. The whole question of the Garrison at Hong Kong and other vital points is, as the noble Viscount knows, now the matter of careful examination and I prefer to delay my answer until the question has been thoroughly considered. It is too important a matter for hasty decisions to be made on it.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply to my question, but I do not think he has quite taken my point: that is, that there should be something quite unusual in the way of a public statement—not just a Press release from the Government of Hong Kong but that someone like the Governor or the Commander-in-Chief, or both of them, should get "on the air" and explain to the public. I am sure that if that does not happen there will be a great loss of confidence in our intentions in that vast area.


My Lords, I thought I made that clear. An exceptional statement is now being made by the Commodore Superintendent in person.