HL Deb 11 June 1997 vol 580 cc881-3

2.58 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

By how much British exports have increased as a result of sea days and export conferences held on board HMY "Britannia", since sailing from Portsmouth in January.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert)

My Lords, since leaving Portsmouth on 20th January, Her Majesty's Yacht "Britannia" has visited 23 ports in 15 different countries. All but two of those visits have included significant commercial and diplomatic receptions. Regrettably, I am unable precisely to quantify the value of these events, but I can confirm that they have all been well attended and well received by representatives of industry in the ports of call. Contract signing ceremonies were held on board "Britannia" in India, Thailand and Japan.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Will he accept that I am a little disappointed that he was unable to quantify the exports which the Royal Yacht will have generated since sailing in January? Particularly observing that the President of the Board of Trade was on board the Royal Yacht in Tokyo within the last few days, so that she personally will have witnessed the Royal Yacht in action, one might say, I wonder whether the noble Lord could tell the House what are the Government's plans for a replacement for Her Majesty's Yacht "Britannia".

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, first of all, I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the persistence and eloquence with which he has pursued this enthusiasm of his. Perhaps I may just explain that one of the difficulties about quantifying the benefits of "Britannia" or any other type of sales promotion is that very often the benefits accrue many months, if not years, after an event has taken place. That is why it is quite impractical to try to assess these matters.

So far as concerns a replacement for "Britannia", we have had four or five very interesting proposals. They are currently being studied by officials and will, I believe, be sent to Ministers before very long.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, would the Minister like to tell the House why there should be any problem about getting a replacement for the Royal Yacht "Britannia"? If the enormous success in commercial contracts claimed for "Britannia" is true, should not private industry be queuing up to pay for a new one? Can the noble Lord say whether the department is undertaking any research in order to discover why countries as diverse as Germany and Japan or the United States and Taiwan manage to have enormous commercial success without a royal yacht? If we could find the secret, would not it mean, by definition, that we should be world beaters every time?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I listened closely to the noble Lord and am still not sure whether or not he would like us to have a successor. However, there is no question but that "Britannia" has been enormously valuable to this country in export promotion terms and we all recognise that.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that it is only right that the Government should provide a royal yacht for Her Majesty the Queen, quite apart from the commercial aspects? Is that not the most important point? Is it not something that generations of governments have done over the past 200 or 300 years? Surely this is not the right moment to stop.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord recognises that it is not a question of Her Majesty's Government providing the yacht; it is a question of Her Majesty's taxpayers providing the yacht. We must assess the priorities of whether we would rather have a yacht with the high running costs of "Britannia" or her successor against other provisions in the public service.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that in Scotland we would be happy to have a royal yacht, provided it was built on the Clyde?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am always open to commercials from my noble friend.

Lord Charteris of Amisfield

My Lords, I had the privilege of seeing "Britannia" operate with the Queen on board over many years. Does the Minister agree that I am right in my recollection that HMY "Britannia" was built under the socialist government of Mr. Attlee? Does he agree also that they were extremely sensible in doing that?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am delighted to have the noble Lord's endorsement of all decisions taken by previous Labour Governments. I have no doubt that he will have no difficulty in endorsing those taken by this one.

Earl Howe

My Lords, despite what the Minister says about spending priorities, is he aware that there is a widely held feeling in the country at large that not only should there be a replacement for the current royal yacht, but that that replacement should be publicly funded in order best to be a focus for national pride and to uphold fully the dignity of the sovereign? Will the Government undertake to think again about this matter?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am not at all sure that there is widespread public support for the proposition that a successor be publicly funded. That is why Her Majesty's Government are at the moment considering the many alternative options being put forward, none of which involves recourse to public funds.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, in dealing with the question of proper priorities, does my noble friend agree that the priority of this specific expenditure is more beneficial to the United Kingdom than the waste of money on the tobacco regime in Europe, which costs twice the amount per annum?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, my noble friend is tempting me along paths down which I would be tempted to follow him. But now is not the time nor the place.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the interest he attributed to my noble friend Lord Ashbourne is shared widely both in this House and outside it? It was stimulated in myself on a recent visit to Oslo to see the royal yacht of Norway—a country the population of which is less than that of London—riding proudly at anchor. Does the Minister realise what an enormous commercial and political benefit to this country a replacement would be?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, as I hope I made clear to your Lordships, there is no doubt about the value which "Britannia" has produced for the country over the past 40 or so years. The only question is whether there should be a successor, what form it should take and how it should be financed.