Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:46 pm on 6th July 1982.

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Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham 5:46 pm, 6th July 1982

I shall give way, with pleasure in a moment. When I made that intervention the Under-Secretary smiled and smiles were exchanged between him and the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend replied: I was hoping to be as generous as I could, but I believe that little, if any, task force work was carried out at Chatham. At that, I felt impelled to leave the Chamber. A few minutes later, my hon. Friend said: My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham chooses to leave before I make my comments about his dockyard. That is somewhat discourteous."—[Official Report, 1 July 1982; Vol. 26, c. 1127.] There was nothing more that the Minister could say about the closure of Chatham dockyard. The hopes for its future role had all been raised before. It would have been an ineffectual cosmetic. The next day, I received a letter from the hon. Gentleman that merely demonstrated that all that he would have said, had I remained, would have been cosmetic. I take the greatest exception to his remark. Nothing that the Minister could possibly say would go beyond conciliatory mutterings that would do little, if anything, to provide real hope for the vast majority of workers in Chatham dockyard and to the people in north Kent as a whole.

By a touch of good fortune, the next morning I received a copy of the local newspaper. In it, a headline stated, Well done dockyards, says boss". That praise for the dockyard workers came from Captain Philip Stearns, the production manager in the yard, who had sent a shipyard brief to the workers. He said that 38 miles of rope had been produced during the Falklands crisis by workers, all of whom have been told they will be made redundant in September. He said that another startling success was the double refit of HMS "Phoebe", a frigate that has now been converted for anti-submarine work. The workers also made the inflatable rubber lifeboats for the Falkland Islands operation, according to Captain Stearns, and they put in 800 man-hours on HMS "Phoebe" in 11 weeks. At the very least, they did all that they were asked to do. The workers resented most bitterly the suggestion that they had done little or nothing.

I hope that the words of the captain of the dockyard gave them some comfort. I had hoped today that my hon. Friend would apologise for saying that the Chatham workers had done little or nothing. I also resent the Minister's remark that I was discourteous in leaving the Chamber after that statement was made. There was no way in which I could have remained in my seat.

The Under-Secretary told me yesterday that he had spoken on radio Medway. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and I pressed the Minister about this interview. I telephoned radio Medway this morning. I do not know whether he asked to go on radio or whether they asked him.