asked the Secretary of State for Defence what studies are being made by his Department concerning the use of naval dockyard facilities for the construction, maintenance or repair of ships or rigs needed for the exploitation of offshore oil.
As I have previously assured my hon. Friend, my Department is in close touch with the Departments of Energy and Industry on this matter. Liaison has been established to ensure that where any problems arise on production for the exploitation of offshore oil the feasibility of the dockyards undertaking the work is fully and speedily examined.
The part the dockyards might play in producing equipment for the offshore oil exploitation programme will also be kept under consideration in the light of decisions on the defence review.
Does my hon. Friend appreciate that in the exploitation of North Sea oil there is a market for about £10,000 million worth of shipping and equipment? Does he agree that if the defence review, as I suspect, should involve the running down of dockyards for military purposes, it is of the utmost importance that they be converted to civil use in this respect?
Dockyards are generally fully laden with naval repair work, although some spare capacity becomes available from time to time. It is indeed possible that some construction or repair work could be undertaken for offshore oil or gas projects. This would depend on the type and extent of the work and the availability of suitable berths and associated facilities and labour.
Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that when any naval dockyard undertakes work which would normally be done in civil yards it takes out of employment people who would be employed in the civil yards? In such circumstances, what steps do the Government envisage to compensate workers who would be put on the dole because of the Government's actions?
The Government at all times have high on their list of priorities the consequences on employment of any decisions made in the sphere of defence, and this is a matter which will receive constant attention.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that rumours are circulating in Devonport that naval construction there is likely to be suspended or cut down and that work on oil rigs is likely to be introduced, and that there is considerable disquiet at this prediction, since naval construction is a permanent feature of the industrial scene while the maintenance and construction of oil rigs is both transient and speculative?
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I am not responsible for rumours which may circulate in any dockyard community. I can assure him that there is a full programme of naval work in Devonport Dockyard at the moment and that we see the future of Devonport Dockyard as being closely related to servicing the Navy and to the effectiveness of the Fleet.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) is not the only Member who understood the words of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence concerning the dockyards to mean that naval work would continue to keep full employment in the dockyards? Keeping the dockyards open for a lower level of activity for the Navy than they engage in at the present time would be the unforgivable breaking of a promise.
I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that the raison d'etre for the existence of the dockyards is the effective servicing of the Fleet. That will remain the primary rôle for all four dockyards. My right hon. Friends both said during the election campaign that if at any time spare capacity developed, steps would be taken to make sure that it was not allowed to be wasted but was used for other important national priorities. That remains the situation.