HL Deb 12 October 1982 vol 434 cc683-5

2.51 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what proportion of Royal Navy auxiliary ships needing repairs or overhauls after the Falklands War are being sent to each of the following:

  1. (a) the Royal Dockyards;
  2. (b) Gibraltar Dockyard;
  3. (c) British Shipbuilders' yards; and
  4. (d) private sector yards.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, all necessary repairs and overhauls of Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels returning from the South Atlantic are being carried out in the Royal dockyards at Rosyth, Devonport and Gibraltar. Rosyth and Devonport have already undertaken work on seven vessels and Gibraltar two vessels.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it was always understood that the Royal dockyards, with their special expertise, should be kept for refitting warships? Is it not true that, as a result of the Falklands tragic experience with fire, there is a considerable task to be undertaken in refitting warships with anti-fire materials? Is not this the proper work of the Royal dockyards and would it not be better, therefore, to feed the refitting and repair of the Royal Fleet auxiliaries to the ordinary competitive shipyards, including those of British Shipbuilders, which is a nationalised industry, in order to alleviate the desperate unemployment in places like Tyneside and elsewhere, which are urgently needing this work and could undertake it quickly and economically?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, adequate capacity currently exists for the necessary repairs and refits of Royal Fleet auxiliaries to be undertaken in the Royal dockyards and it is the Government's normal practice to take full account of the capacity available within the dockyards before turning to the commercial sector. On the specific point of the repairs needed to be made to Royal Navy ships, I am sure it would be better to wait for the White Paper on the Falklands before commenting on this. I believe my noble friend is aware that some 18 vessels of a trade nature have been repaired in other shipyards.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, does not the noble Earl consider it a disgrace to send ships to be repaired in Gibraltar when on Tyneside four ship repairing yards are being closed? Is it not a disgrace that in the whole area of the North-East we are now standing at about 15 per cent. unemployed and yet we are sending work to Gibraltar and leaving the shipyard workers on Tyneside on the dole?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I would not like to agree with the noble Lord about the future of the Gibraltar shipyard. As the House will be aware, the Gibraltar yard is to be closed in 1983 and I am sure the House would want the Gibraltar dockyard to be fully employed until that date. Regarding the other point which the noble Lord made, to date British Shipbuilders have been awarded contracts for six vessels at a cost of over £6 million and the private sector yards have 12 vessels at a cost of approximately £3.5 million.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, in view of the recent experience of Her Majesty's Government in regard to the task force to the Falklands, would the noble Earl not agree that it is time that the Government's decision about the eventual running down of the Portsmouth dockyard was reconsidered? Is it not quite clear in the light of the events that took place that the services of the Royal dockyards, whether they be at Rosyth, Chatham or Portsmouth, are of the utmost importance to the country as a whole?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am very interested in the noble Lord's question because, of course, it looks at the other side of the coin to that put forward by my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing, who has pointed out that we are taking work away from the private sector in order to give it to the Royal dockyards. I am saying that the Royal dockyards have the capacity to take the work, even with Rosyth and Devonport and without, I am afraid, using Chatham. As far as Portsmouth is concerned, again I think we should wait for the Falklands White Paper to see whether there are any new decisions on this subject.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, would my noble friend reconsider the matter of stating, as he did in one of his replies, that Royal Fleet auxiliaries would be fed to the Royal dockyards? This is the grist of the task of the commercial sector, whether it is British Shipbuilders or the private yards, and they are in woeful lack of orders at the moment. Has he seen the Lloyd's List of 30th September which states that a Tyneside repair yard is to lay off 550 workers just because they cannot get any work on this refitting task? Has he got the right balance? Will he please re-examine the situation in the light of unemployment in these desperately needful areas?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I fully sympathise with what my noble friend says, but as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, there are two sides to the coin. As the noble Lord is aware, we are cutting down on the naval dockyards, which not everybody agrees with. I am sure my noble friend is equally aware that there is adequate capacity currently existing to undertake the necessary repairs and refits of Royal Fleet auxiliaries to be undertaken by the Royal dockyards.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, will the Government consider, when working out their future policy about the Royal dockyards, that the Falklands force could not possibly have got off in such a short time or with such striking efficiency if it had not been for the dockyards in Chatham, Portsmouth and other places, including Gibraltar? Will the Government realise that a lot of people will require a great deal of convincing that it is a good thing to dispose of or wind down these first-class industrial assets which are necessary for the Navy at a time like this?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, again I fully appreciate what the noble Lord says, but may I say that if we wait for the Falklands White Paper, which we expect towards the end of this month, we can then more easily appreciate the lessons.

Forward to