HL Deb 22 July 1994 vol 557 cc474-5

11.18 a.m.

Lord Molloy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for the future of H.M. Yacht "Britannia".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Henley)

My Lords, as we announced on 23rd June, Her Majesty's Yacht "Britannia" will be decommissioned in 1997. However, we will be looking for ways to allow her to continue to serve a useful purpose after this date, although she will no longer go to sea. We will make a further statement on the subject in due course.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Does he agree that we in this House can now pay great tribute to the Clydeside shipworkers who created this magnificent ship, which carries all our names. Whether you are English, Irish, Scots, or Welsh, it is "Britannia" of Britain. Will the Government explore whether there are British or Commonwealth organisations which may well wish to take over "Britannia" and keep her? If there is the possibility of offers by such people as Sir Donald Gosling, can the noble Lord assure the House that those opportunities for "Britannia" to be looked after and maintained in a proper manner will not be easily dismissed but will be given thorough examination?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to those who built "Britannia" and all those who have served on the ship during her 40-year life. She has performed a very useful role. The noble Lord will not be surprised if I say at this stage that it is too early to speculate on what may be her future after she is decommissioned and what may be the further options which my noble friend, now the Lord Privy Seal, announced when he replied to a Written Question some time ago. I can certainly give an assurance that we shall consider all options fairly and openly.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that "Britannia" is much more a floating office and base than a pleasure craft? Does he further agree that its retention is important for the sovereign's discharge of her constitutional duties in the Commonwealth and abroad? As this is a very much loved ship, will he accept that the best solution may be for a refit to be carried out and for public accessibility to be given, as is the case now with Buckingham Palace?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is right to stress the precise nature of the role of "Britannia". The ship is now very old. She is very expensive and costs some £10 million a year. I am advised that a further refit would cost in the order of £17 million and would keep her seagoing only for another five years or so. As I said, I can give an assurance that we shall study all possible options for meeting the tasks that the ship currently performs. All possibilities will be looked at.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, will the noble Lord— whom we welcome to his new post—accept that to my personal knowledge parliamentary Questions about the future of "Britannia" have been asked for more than 30 years in the other place and no doubt in this Chamber? The noble Lord says that he is studying every possible option. Can we expect a decision by the end of the century?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we have announced that the ship will be decommissioned in 1997. As I made clear, it is too early to speculate on any further decisions that may be made. I would rather not do so at the moment. We shall certainly make an announcement in due course.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I was an Admiralty Minister for some five years and learned the origins of this ship? The ship was ordered during the 1951 general election. Mr. Attlee said that the question would come before the Conservatives and that they would not dare order a ship which would be entirely for the monarch, because that would be highly criticised. Therefore, Mr. Attlee said that he would order it during the general election. I thought that that was a magnificent gesture and to his great credit. That fact is not generally known. Could the "Britannia" be refitted and used more widely? Might she be used again as a hospital ship? Will the noble Lord consider her being fitted out to attend disasters or where there is need? Does he agree that most people wish the ship to continue its useful life, perhaps, as has happened in the past, in export promotion or as a venue for visits by large numbers of people not only in this country but at ports overseas? Will the Government consider such proposals very seriously?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as I tried to make clear, we shall consider all options. I again stress to my noble friend that "Britannia" is a very old ship and very expensive. Some of the options mentioned by my noble friend in the way of refitting are not within the realms of practicality.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Lord appreciate that anyone who has had the privilege of going aboard "Britannia" knows that she is the most magnificent example of British craftsmanship? Does he agree that it would be a great tragedy if she were to be scrapped or, worse still, sold to the highest bidder to become some tawdry tourist attraction in Florida or California?

Lord Henley

My Lords, it is premature to speculate. I do not feel that the option of scrapping her is likely at this stage. We are certainly looking at possible future uses, but I do not think that they will be seagoing uses.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that if, because of her age, the decision has to be taken that "Britannia" can no longer serve the purpose for which she was built, at least she should be replaced? We are all aware of the wonderful work that she does.

Lord Henley

My Lords, again I give the assurance to my noble friend that I and colleagues in the Government are studying all future options for meeting the current tasks performed by "Britannia".