Orders of the Day — R.N.V.R. (Humber Division)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st January 1958.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Finlay.]

8.52 p.m.

Photo of Mr Patrick Wall Mr Patrick Wall , Haltemprice

I would begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary on his appointment to the Admiralty, which, I am sure, will give the greatest pleasure to his friends on both sides of the House, and, indeed, to the Royal Navy as a whole. I should like him also to pass my congratulations to his predecessor on his elevation in Ministerial rank, even if it does mean going to a more junior Service.

The question I wish to discuss arises out of an Answer to a Parliamentary Question on 4th December last year relating to the decision of the Admiralty to close the R.N.V.R. Division on the Humber known as H.M.S. "Galatea". In this debate, I want to discuss the future rather than the past, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I start by saying that in my view and in the view of my colleagues, on both sides of the House, who represent Humber constituencies and of many of our constituents, the Admiralty has made a wrong decision in closing H.M.S. "Galatea".

The Humber Division of the R.N.V.R. has an excellent record. I believe that the sea time spent in the minesweeper belonging to the port of Hull, H.M.S. "Humber", is second to none. The division has been criticised concerning recruiting for its List I, but I feel convinced that had it been given a chance to establish a recruiting drive and allowed, say, one or two years in which to raise its numbers before being closed down, it would have succeeded in gaining the required numbers on List I.

The closing of H.M.S. "Galatea" means the severing of the active link that binds the great County of Yorkshire to the Royal Navy. This, together with the closing of H.M.S. "Ceres" at Wetherby, means that the only naval establishments in Yorkshire will cease to exist. The closing of the one R.N.V.R. division between Newcastle and the Thames raises in the minds of many of us the question of why the Humber was singled out as the only R.N.V.R. division to be closed. I do not, however, wish to make invidious comparisons with other R.N.V.R. divisions. I wish to address my remarks to the future rather than to the past. Before doing so, however, I ask the Minister to convey my thanks to his noble Friend the First Lord for his courtesy in receiving a deputation of Members from both sides of the House before the final decision to close H.M.S. "Galatea" was taken.

Now, as to the future. First, in regard to the position of the officers and ratings at present borne on the list of the Humber Division and the accommodation of that division in Hull. What is to happen to the existing officers and men on List I? List I means that officers and ratings must be able to attend the division one night a week for training. Obviously, if the division closes and the nearest division is Newcastle or London, they will not be able to do so. It seems, therefore, that there will be no future List I from the Humber.

On the other hand, when the question was raised on 4th December, we were given the assurance that the officers and men at present on the books of the Humber Division would continue to receive sea training.

What about men on List II. Their obligation is to carry out two weeks' sea training a year. What happens to them? Can they still have their two weeks' sea training attached to other divisions? It so, what will be the cost to the Admiralty in taking these men from the Humber to other parts of the country to give them training? It has been said regarding the Hull Sea Training Centre …the Sea Training Centre will be reduced to a centre for training communications ratings."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th December, 1957; Vol. 579. c. 384.] May I ask what that means? The implication seems to be that a training school for communication ratings in the R.N.V.R. would be set up at Hull. Is that supposition true? I hope that it is. On the other hand, it has been rumoured that all that is meant is that a section of what is known as the Royal Naval Volunteer Wireless Reserve will be maintained on the Humber which could be accommodated in one small room in the present accommodation used by H.M.S. "Galatea". Could my right hon. Friend give me some idea as to the scope of this new training centre to be set up on the Humber? Also, can members of other naval branches at present on the books of H.M.S. "Galatea" transfer to the communication branch to carry on with their training in their own home port? What happens to potential recruits for the R.N.V.R. in a very large area of country—both Yorkshire and Lincolnshire'? They cannot now join List Is it still possible for them to join List II and do their two weeks' training elsewhere? Or does it mean that the men in this large area will not be able to join the R.N.V.R. at all?

I appreciate that the reason for this reduction of the R.N.V.R. is that fewer people are required because only those immediately available on the outbreak of war are wanted in this thermo-nuclear age. I should like it made clear, if there is no longer a reasonable requirement for large numbers, whether in the future this means that only those allowed to join the R.N.V.R. are those who happen to live near an existing R.N.V.R. centre.

May I turn in the same context to the future use of the accommodation at present used by H.M.S. "Galatea." It is, I understand, on lease to the Admiralty, and I believe that the lease has five years to run. I believe the Admiralty have spent a considerable amount of money on these buildings in the past few years, including the installation of a new automatic telephone exchange. What will happen to those buildings? If they are to remain vacant, surely the Admiralty will be involved in expense. Will facilities be made available, as today, to other organisations such as the Sea Cadets, which count very much on the co-operation they have had from the Humber Division of the R.N.V.R.? Will they still be able to use accommodation used by the new communications school in Hull?

The Parliamentary Secretary will realise that behind these questions there is a suggestion to this effect: is it really worth while closing the division? Is the saving in pounds, shillings and pence worth while in view of the fact that for the next five years they will presumably have to pay for this accommodation, and also pay to transport to other parts of the country officers and ratings who originally received their training in Hull?

I turn from the question of H.M.S. "Galatea" herself to the broader question of the new Naval Reserve in the context of which the fate of H.M.S. "Galatea" has been decided. We were told that the R.N.R. and the R.N.V.R. were to amalgamate into a new Reserve to be called the Royal Naval Reserve. I repeat the question I posed a short time ago in a slightly different context. Does this mean that only officers and men who live in towns adjacent to existing R.N.V.R. centres are now able to join the new Naval Reserve? If they are allowed to join only List I and are not allowed to join List II, surely that is what it means.

At the moment, if a man wishes to join the R.N.V.R. but cannot attend weekly drills he is permitted in certain circumstances to join List II, which means that he undertakes two weeks' training a year and attend the annual inspection. This enables officers and men who are keen on joining a naval Reserve to do so even though they do not happen to live near R.N.V.R. centres. If List II men are not now to do this two weeks' sea training, it makes it virtually only a paper reserve. That may be forced on the Admiralty by the advent of modern war. If so, I would understand it, but I hope that my hon. Friend will make it clear today as there has been a certain amount of confusion about the position, which could not be cleared up within the scope of a Parliamentary Answer.

If indeed List II is to become a paper list requiring no training, are officers, and ratings at present on List II in all R.N.V.R. divisions to be allowed to retain their uniforms, so that they may be used on ceremonial and other special occasions which so often fall to the lot of the Reserves?

I asked my hon. Friend's predecessor in office whether any of this new organisation of the reserves particularly the alteration of regulations affecting List I and List II, apply to the Royal Marines Forces Volunteer Reserve. I received an answer that it did not. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to reassure me that any changes in List I and List II which may be contemplated for the new Royal Naval Reserve will definitely not apply to the Royal Marine Forces Volunteer Reserve.

The Humber division has had a comparatively short life compared with some other R.N.V.R. divisions, but it was won its place in the affections of very many people on both sides of the Humber. That has been fully shown by the great amount of publicity there was, and the number of letters which members on both sides of the House received, when rumours got around that H.M.S. "Galatea" might have to be closed. The record of training of the division has been excellent and the performance of H.M.S. "Humber" in the N.A.T.O. exercises earned praise on all sides. It is very sad that such a centre has either to be closed or to be reduced.

I hope that the nucleus which will remain, even if it is only a R.N.V.R. wireless reserve, or as I hope, a communications training centre for the whole of the R.N.V.R., will form the nucleus on which a new division can be built when the time comes to expand the Royal Navy and the naval reserves.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for bombarding him with so many questions on the first day of the resumption of the sittings of this House and on the first day in which he comes here new in his Ministerial office. I apologise for that, but I feel confident he will be capable of dealing with these questions. I would conclude by offering him once again my congratulations, and of indicating to him the great pleasure his appointment has given to very many people in the Royal Navy who know of his interest and his long and excellent record in the Senior Service.

9.5 p.m.

Photo of Commander Sir John Maitland Commander Sir John Maitland , Horncastle

I should like to join my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary, Admiralty on his very honourable appointment and to assure him how very pleased we all are that he has a job which everybody would like to have. His first engagement, which happens so early after his appointment, is a very minor one in the matter of numbers but concerns a subject about which many of us in the Eastern Counties and in the area behind the Humber feel very strongly. There are many people there who have in the past formed the source of volunteers for the Royal Navy.

In these days, when we are finding it so hard to secure Regular men to serve in the Royal Navy, to some extent, and in the Army and the Air Force, it is strange that we should be dispensing with one of the great opportunities that we have of attracting the voluntary services of these men. My hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice has dealt very ably with the question of how these men in this large catchment area are to be used. We cannot afford to be without these very keen volunteers in the Royal Navy. I know many of them and I have every evidence that, to express the matter in very simple words, they are very disappointed indeed at what is happening.

I should like to know how their services are to be used in the future and whether the new proposals will really be a saving of expense. It is so very easy sometimes to wash something out and to maintain that there will be a great saving if we replace it with something else, only to find that the total cost is really greater than it was before we started messing about with it. Therefore, even at this very late hour, I would plead for the retention of the Humber Division. The nearest two other divisions are a very long way apart and a great gap is left on a most dangerous seaboard, where there is no great area from which people can easily be drawn. I felt that it was the duty of those of us who live in that area and know the situation of the people there to express our very great regret that it has been found necessary to take these steps.

9.6 p.m.

Photo of Commander Robert Allan Commander Robert Allan , Paddington South

I speak for the first time from the Dispatch Box with considerable trepidation, but I am glad that my baptism of fire comes from two of my hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) and the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland), with both of whom I share many seafaring interests. I should like to thank them both for the kind words that they have said about me, which I much appreciate. At the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice, I shall also pass on his congratulations to my predecessor and his thanks to my noble Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty, who saw a number of Members of Parliament from the area about which we are concerned tonight.

I feel it good from my point of view that this debate comes so soon after my taking up my appointment. Before we make a maiden speech in the House most of us shiver on the brink for some time, but in the case of this maiden speech of mine I am being pushed very quickly into the deep end. I only hope that, not having had much practice lately I have not entirely forgotten how to swim.

It happens, as my hon. Friend said, that I have a little personal experience of the subject which we are discussing. During my service in the R.N.V.R., both before and during the war, I made a number of contacts with those who were serving in the Humber Division. Of course my hon. Friend was right in emphasising the record of that division which during the war was first-class. Yet I think that both my hon. Friends will realise that at least some of the questions they have raised must be looked at in the general context of the new plans for the Naval Reserve which were recently announced by my noble Friend.

The new unified Reserve has been formed primarily for the purpose of greater efficiency. The over-riding consideration has been the need to have a Reserve that is fully trained and immediately available in time of war. Many who served in the last war will remember, perhaps with nostalgia, the training centre at Hove, H.M.S. "King Alfred." But such halcyon training will not be possible in any future war. Officers and men will be required at once to proceed to their mobilisation stations, and from the word "go" they will have to carry out their duties with efficiency. Such efficiency can only come from really quite strenuous training over some time.

Up to now the Naval Reserve has benefited from the experience of officers and men who join it on their release from National Service. As the House knows, soon those joining the Reserve will not have had any National Service background, and so training in future will be wholly on a volunteer basis. Therefore the Admiralty's plans for this general Reserve are based on what up to now has been known as "List I requirements" of the R.N.V.R. As my hon. Friends know, this involves regular weekend drills and an annual period of sea training. There will be very limited exceptions to these requirements for volunteers who have special skills, for example, postal ratings of whom there are a number at Hull. The change-over to this new Reserve will have to be gradual. Many existing Reserve officers have served in the Fleet and can keep up the standards required with comparatively short periods of refresher training. In these cases the training commitments will be adjusted to suit the individuals concerned.

Apart from changing the training arrangements, we are also bringing the R.N.R. and the R.N.V.R. together into one new Reserve, as my hon. Friend noticed. This will enable us to make the most economical use of all our training facilities. It will also give retired Merchant Navy officers and members of the fishing fleets an opportunity of putting their sea experience to good use in the sea training centres. Above all, it will bring into one organisation all those who volunteer to carry out peace-time training in order to serve with the Navy in time of war. I am sure my hon. Friends will agree, too, that it will be good to make an end of rivalries, most of them completely trivial, which have tended to exist in the past.

With this change the name and the separate entity of the R.N.V.R. will cease to exist. My noble Friend has asked me on this occasion to pay a tribute to the R.N.V.R. This I do with particular pleasure. It has been said that the Volunteer Reserve has always been able to recruit men of the highest quality with a spirit of devoted service to the nation. This is so because it is the desire of many people who live in these islands to be trained in the ways of the sea and to maintain and perhaps even to add to the lustre of the traditions of the Royal Navy. Such opportunities will continue to exist in the new Naval Reserve. The Admiralty is confident that they will be as fully used as they have been in the past.

The House has already been told that this reorganisation will mean a saving of about one-third of the present annual cost of the Reserves, which is £1,800,000. My noble Friend wishes to emphasise that these decisions were not taken on the grounds of economy alone. The Admiralty's main concern is to ensure that, by making the best possible use of the resources we can afford, we shall have the type of reserves we need. The answer to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle is that the Admiralty, as I know already from having had conversations about it, did not take these decisions at all casually but with the very deepest of regrets.

Let me answer some of the specific points raised by my hon. and gallant Friend. He asked about the present List II officers and men of the Humber Division. Before I answer the question in detail let me say that the present List I strength of the division is not sufficient to get full value from a sea training centre. The Admiralty had therefore first to see whether there was any chance of List I strength being increased. Unfortunately it did not appear likely because the area in which the division can recruit on the new basis is relatively small. Added to that, those in the area who suffer from a strong dose of sea fever have, by tradition, in the past joined either the Merchant Navy or the fishing fleets.

Having made that assessment the Admiralty then had to decide whether it was justified in maintaining a sea training centre which was unlikely to be used to the fullest advantage. The cost of maintaining such a centre would have to come from funds allocated to fully manned divisions. So, as I have said, with the greatest regret the Admiralty felt that rather than curtail the activities of other divisions it must close down the Humber Division. Of course, all existing members of the Division, H.M.S. "Galatea", have been invited to join the new Reserve and will of course be made most welcome if they choose to do so.

My hon. Friend pointed out that it was most unlikely that any of them will be able to fulfil the List I requirements owing to their inability to get to an alternative sea training centre. It is recognised that many of the officers of the Humber Division have already been allocated to special mobilisation duties. Although, because of the closing of the sea training centre, it will not be possible for these officers to continue to meet List I training requirements their mobilisation duties will not be changed, except in special circumstances. Arrangements wall be made for them to carry on their annual training.

There will also be no substantial change in the position of existing List II officers. I would point out that this applies not only to Humber but to all the divisions of the new Reserve. Existing List II officers, who, after all, have valuable training behind them, will be wanted, and the type of training they have enjoyed in the past will in general be continued.

I am afraid it will not be possible in future for new entries to be accepted into List II. As my hon. Friend foresaw, from the point of view of new recruits, List II will be closed down. Of course, that raises the point mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle that there will be no opportunity for those in that East Coast area to join any Reserve organisation on a List II basis. As regards ratings, the existing communications training centre at Hull will be retained. It is intended not only to maintain it, but to expand it so that signallers as well as telegraphists, who hitherto have been in the Wireless Reserve, will now be trained at this communications centre. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that it will not he just a Wireless Reserve centre, but a much wider training centre and will become the biggest of this type of training centre in the whole country. We hope that many of the List I ratings at Hull will feel inclined to turn over to this branch of the Reserve.

The postal ratings at Hull will still be required and the new arrangements will make practically no difference to them. There are also special arrangements for pre-National Service ratings so that they can perform their National Service, if it is required, in the Royal Navy. Any ratings in the Humber Division who do not join these specialist branches can still join the new Reserve, but they will have no training obligations. Whether they join or not, they will receive the bounty for the current year. I should like to emphasise that List II officers and men are being treated no differently from List II officers and men in any other division.

My hon. Friend asked about the uniform of officers and men on List II. I can tell him that they will be able to keep their uniform and be entitled to wear it on the same occasions as they are entitled to at present. My hon. Friend asked me to reiterate the promise made by my predecessor that there would be no change in the Royal Marine Forces Reserve. I can do that. My hon. Friend also mentioned the question of sea cadets. Every endeavour will be made to look after the sea cadets in that area and it is still hoped that they may be taken on short trips in Her Majesty's ships visiting the port.

Now I come to the question of the savings. I emphasise again that the main motive in closing the Humber Division is not one of economy. The closing will, in fact, result in a saving of about £50,000 a year. The new communications centre will not occupy more than a small part of the existing building which, as my hon. Friend said, is on lease to the Admiralty, and the lease expires in 1962.

It is intended to try to dispose of the remainder of this lease and to find a smaller and more economical building in the centre of Hull which will be more convenient for those ratings and officers who continue to serve in the communications centre. It is quite possible that the telephone exchange which my hon. Friend mentioned might be taken over by anyone interested in taking the lease of the building. We have it on a ten-year agreement. If it is not taken over by the new occupant of the main building, we hope that we might come to some arrangement with the Hull Corporation.

I hope that I have answered all the questions which have been put, but if there are others I will try to answer them on another occasion. I should particularly like to emphasise that despite the closing of the Humber Division the Navy intends to maintain close contact with the area. One of Her Majesty's ships will certainly visit Hull and Grimsby during this summer and it is hoped that an additional visit will also be arranged.

Finally, the Admiralty is aware that emotions as well as reason enter into this matter. I hope that what I have said will bring some comfort to the minds and hearts of those on whose behalf my hon. Friend has initiated this debate.

9.27 p.m.

Photo of Mr Thomas Steele Mr Thomas Steele , Dunbartonshire West

I rise to make two comments. First, I wish to associate this side of the House most warmly and sincerely with the tribute paid by the Parliamentary Secretary to the R.N.V.R. and to say that in this period of change which is taking place we shall watch the position most carefully. I also noted the emphasis that this change is in the best interests of the Navy and is not merely a matter of saving £50,000.

I should like to compliment the hon. Member on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. That is particularly why I rose at this time. He brings to his job a wide personal experience of the matters of which he is now in charge, and I congratulate him on his appointment. He and I had a very great battle in the by-election of 1950, which was a very close contest on which I look back with some pleasure. I think even the hon. Member will recall that battle very keenly. I welcome him to his new appointment and look forward to his next speech at the Dispatch Box.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past nine o'clock.