HL Deb 18 February 1958 vol 207 cc775-81

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, may I have the permission of the House to make a statement about the future of the Royal Dockyards, naval air establishments, and the structure of the Home Air Commands?

Her Majesty's Government have decided, with great regret, that the Nore Command should be abolished; and that Sheerness and Portland Dockyards, the Aircraft Repair Yard. Donibristle, and five other air establishments in the United Kingdom, should be closed.

The decline in naval repair work resulting from the planned reductions in the Fleet will not require the closure of any other dockyard in the United Kingdom. Singapore and Gibraltar Dockyards will be retained. The future of Malta Dockyard is still under consideration.

The Nore Command will be abolished by April, 1961, and its remaining functions transferred to other authorities. At Sheerness, the dockyard will be run down gradually, closing April, 1960. At Chatham, the dockyard will be retained; but the barracks and other naval establishments will be closed—also by April, 1961.

At Portland, the dockyard will be reduced by July, 1959. The naval base will be retained. I have considered with particular care the final stage of the concentration at Portland of under-water research and development, and have decided that the Torpedo Experimental Establishment must be transferred there from Greenock, in order to achieve the closest co-ordination in the development of under-water weapons. This move will take place towards the end of 1959.

The tasks of the Home Air Command will be concentrated in larger groups at fewer bases. The Aircraft Repair Yard at Donibristle will be closed by the end of 1959. The Royal Naval Air Stations at Ford, Bramcote and Eglinton will also be closed in about a year's time. The Air Station at Brawdy, which will be kept in reserve, and the Air Electrical School at Worthy Down, will close later.

I am well aware of what these decisions will mean for Chatham men of the Royal Navy and many Fleet Air Arm ratings, and for the civilian employees of the establishments to be closed. My right honourable friend the Minister of Labour will arrange as necessary to open special employment offices inside these establishments before discharges begin. I shall also be in touch with the Northern Ireland Minister of Labour and National Insurance. With the assistance of my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade, everything possible will be done to bring the facilities, which will be available, to the notice of suitable industrial interests. We shall enter into consultation immediately with the staff associations and trade unions.

Details of these plans, and of their effects, are included in my Explanatory Statement on the Navy Estimates, which will be available in the Printed Paper Office later this afternoon.

The result of the reorganisation will be a total reduction of about 2.700 naval posts ashore and of over 7,000 civilian posts. Thus more men will be available to serve at sea, and an annual saving of about £7 million will be achieved. The Government are confident that, although some hardship will be unavoidable, all those in the Naval Service will appreciate the necessity for these drastic measures for the purpose of maintaining the strength of the seagoing Fleet.

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, I am quite certain that there will be at least more than half the Members of your Lordships' House who will have heard that statement with the greatest of regret, and with deep sympathy for those whom it is going to affect individually. There was talk several years ago, when the personnel strength of the Fleet was not to be any larger than is now contemplated—about 89,000 to 90.000—of closing down Sheerness, on the ground that it was not soundly strategically based. But it was less hit by bombs in the last war than almost any dockyard in the country. In the island of Sheerness a community has been built up since 1809 or 1810 when the building of the dockyard was finishing. I know of a co-operative society that was founded by the first naval dockyard employees in 1815 and which is now an enormous establishment in the Island of Sheerness.

Apparently this decision has been taken almost without any real thought of the consequent rooting-up of families who by tradition have been based upon this place for 150 years. This is an exceedingly grave and difficult situation for those people to face. I agree that Portland is not so historical or traditional, but I am quite sure that this decision will have an effect on ordinary citizen establishments on shore there. I hope that perhaps a more detailed statement will be made on what the plans of the noble Earl the First Lord may be. I should like to know more about the future of the torpedo exercises, as well as about the submarine and anti-sub-marine work which has always been carried out there. I should like to know more about the under-water work at Portland and the closing of Greenock—where the work is in future to be carried out.

I feel that we shall have to speak at greater length on these matters when we come to the general debate on the Defence White Paper, but I must say that I am filled with great concern about what is to be regarded as the future strength and rôle of the Royal Navy, not only its great strategic rôle but its rôle as "maid of all work," which the Royal Navy has always been. That matter fills me with a good deal of gloom, though I will not say despondency, for I know what the Royal Navy can do, even in difficult circumstances like this. As I see it, nearly the whole of the £7 million to be saved by this series of operations and reductions represents salaries and wages, but we have not yet been given any information as to what is to be realised on the other side, or what is to be done with those places which are finally to be closed down. I hope that when we come to the other statement we may learn something more about that. In the meantime I hope that something is going to be done especially for established men in the dockyards. Could we know the plans of Her Majesty's Government for those men, who have been established for anything from five to thirty-five or forty years? Are they to be moved, or how are they to be dealt with?

I am sure that there will also be very grave concern about the proposed closing of naval barracks. We shall debate the abolition of the Nore Command on a wider debate later, but so far as I can see we are to have just as many men in the Navy as were allocated to me by the good will of the Treasury in 1929; and at that time we had full use of the barracks at Chatham for Naval purposes, as well as barracks in the other ports. What are Her Majesty's Government going to do about the actual housing of Naval men? I do not know what my colleagues think of the administrative arrangements, for I have not yet been able to consult them, but I am very sorry that Her Majesty's Government have come to this pass, at a time when they seem to prefer to make a bargain with themselves that their main defence policy in future shall be based on nuclear fission, whether or not it leads to suicide.


My Lords, if I might reply to one or two of the detailed questions put by the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, first let me say that I am aware of a great many of the points he has made. I have endeavoured deliberately to give as much warning as I can of what is to take place, and I am sure that that is the right attitude. For instance, it w ill be two years before Sheerness Dockyard closes and three years before Chatham Barracks closes. As much notice as possible has been given, and it would be wrong to say that these decisions were taken without a great deal of thought and consideration. I cannot maintain any establishments on shore for which there is no use for the Royal Navy, and it would be quite wrong to do so no matter what the circumstances, though I very much regret having to take this step.

I would assure the noble Viscount that the experimental work on under-water Asdic and acoustic frequencies will continue at Portland, and there will be a concentration of work in that area. I can assure him that there will be no relaxation at all in the efforts of the Royal Navy to produce proper under-water weapons and techniques. All established men will be retained in Naval employment, and nearly half the men at present employed at Sheerness are either established or apprentices who will be transfered to some other place. The noble Viscount's remark about the Royal Navy being a "maid of all work" is quite true. None the less, in these days we must try to see that our resources are used to the best advantage, and the purpose of these decisions is to get as many men as possible to sea and to ensure that our resources are put to seagoing ships.


My Lords, the noble Earl the First Lord has covered all the points I had intended to raise. I would only add that it is rather melancholy to see the noble First Lord chipping away his kingdom, inch by inch, and making his little island still smaller. However, I am glad that Her Majesty's Government have had the courage to do what they consider necessary, and in view of the matters which the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, has asked him to bear in mind I feel that there is little further to say at this stage


My Lords, having regard to the noble Earl's reference to Greenock, may I ask whether these decisions are irrevocable, or are they still open to discussion and negotiation in the course of debate?


My Lords, the decisions I have made are irrevocable, in the sense that I have examined them with the utmost care and Her Majesty's Government have come to the conclusion that these are the right decisions to make. If the noble Lord wishes, I can explain in greater detail why the decisions have been made in each case.


My Lords, could the noble Earl say what is the purpose of the discussions with the local authorities and trade unions?


My Lords, there are a great many subjects to be discussed, particularly with the appropriate Whitley Council, as noble Lords will be aware. All kinds of problems are involved. Until now we have not been able to have discussions with the Whitley Council, for naturally I have had to tell Parliament of these decisions first and as soon as I could. Discussions with the Whitley Council will have to proceed and a great many matters will have to be dealt with by them.


My Lords, in discussions with local authorities, especially with regard to Sheerness, consideration may have to be given as to whether what is done should be done with Naval or with general funds—whether Sheerness should be made a special area. Except for some agriculture, the whole area lives on the dockyard.


My Lords, I am sure that that is quite right. Sheerness is a very difficult case, and it is for that reason that practically nothing at all will happen there for two years, which will give the President of the Board of Trade quite a lot of time to get the machinery into operation.


My Lords, I am sure that anyone who has had any association with the Royal Navy feels very sad about this announcement. I am not going to say much until we have an opportunity to debate this matter. But is it possible, or is it intended, that any of the persons likely to be dismissed from their present posts can be absorbed in some of the other dockyards? I should also like to hear something more about Brawdy, which I believe is about the only naval establishment we have in Wales, and how many men are likely to be discharged from that naval station. I, too, am anxious about the established men, and I am very pleased with the reply which has been given by the First Lord with regard to them; I will leave the other points until such time as we may have an opportunity to debate them.


My Lords, the noble Viscount is, of course, quite right. There will be a considerable absorption in other yards. But it will be established men who will be absorbed in the other yards from the places which are being closed down. The noble Viscount is aware of the position of established men, and we shall, of course, honour fully the undertakings to those people. With regard to Brawdy, this establishment will be maintained on a care and maintenance basis. A small party will be retained there, and about 150 men are to be discharged in that area. In many respects we are very sorry to be leaving Brawdy. We shall not be leaving it until a later date—I think it will be three years from now before we shall leave Brawdy—and by that time we hope there may be other developments in the area which will affect the labour situation.