The Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:38 pm on 28th November 1983.

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Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Pendle 9:38 pm, 28th November 1983

There is no such thing as a naval Vote. I shall endeavour to write to the hon. Gentleman to deal with his point.[Interruption.] I shall not give a glib answer.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) referred to the United States dollar expenditure on Trident. We have always recognised that Trident involves a significant dollar cost. We took account of that when the original decision was reached. We still expect the dollar spend to be about 45 per cent. of the total. Those figures have been stated before.

I am glad that a number of my hon. Friends, including the Members for Beverley, for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Pink), for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), and for Corby (Mr. Powell), have spoken strongly in defence of the Trident programme.

The hon. Member for Attercliffe and a number of other hon. Members talked about the Merchant Navy. The hon. Member for Attercliffe mentioned the Merchant Navy's adequacy to support defence operations. That is a matter which my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Transport keep under regular review. There are sufficient ships available of the right type to support current defence plans. The question of subsidies to the Merchant Navy is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

I wish to pay tribute to the men of the merchant marine, especially for their Falklands contribution. My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) and for Corby and the hon. Members for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) and for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) have referred to the sterling work of the merchant marine.

Perhaps second only to the question of ship numbers as a subject for debate in naval circles and in the naval enclaves of this House is the issue of the role and future of Her Majesty's dockyards. I should like to say a few words about that now.

The reduction in size of the royal dockyards organisation announced in Cmnd. 8288 was not a self-contained decision. It was of course a consequence of the decision to discontinue the practice of major mid-life modernisation of surface ships. It also reflected the decision on the future size of the fleet. It was not an easy decision; but it was a necessary one. Of course it is very sad when a chapter of history comes to an end as at Chatham and Gibraltar, but I can assure the House that this Government are committed to do everything possible to minimise the disruption and hardship to those most directly involved.

I wish briefly to summarise the position in our respective dockyards—first at Chatham. As the House will know, Chatham naval base, including the dockyard, is to close in March next year. Ship refitting came to an end in June following completion of the refits of the nuclear submarine HMS Churchill and the frigate HMS Hermione. Both these major projects were completed in a timely fashion and to a high standard. That achievement expresses the character of the Chatham work force.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) made a moving speech and those hon. Members who heard it must have been enormously impressed. I am sure that all those who work or worked at Chatham will appreciate his words.

This House has heard much about the financial imperatives that have dictated the closure of Chatham naval base, and we all know their force. Let me now refer to the pride and loyalty of the men and women of Chatham dockyard. It was these qualities that enabled them, with the knowledge of closure in their minds, to work unstintingly through the Falklands crisis of last year and right up to the present time, to finish their task with such distinction. We owe them a great deal.

In recognition of this, we have been involved since the closure decision with the efforts of other central and local government departments and agencies to put the site to productive use in such a way as best to serve local interests. The more modern part of the dockyard is being taken over for redevelopment by English Industrial Estates. The Medway ports authority has taken over one of the basins, and various other concerns are already in occupation, in advance of final dockyard closure. In the original part of the dockyard are a number of architecturally important buildings and facilities that will be preserved, and we have already released several factory buildings in this area to firms which are carrying on traditional activities, including rope-making and the production of flags and banners. It is our hope that measures such as those I have briefly described will do much, as they mature, to offset the consequences of naval base closure.

I recently saw a delegation of those hon. Members most concerned with the Chatham rundown. If I may say so, my hon. Friends the Members for Medway (Mrs. Fenner), Gillingham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) are working assiduously for their constituents.

At Portsmouth, I am pleased to say we have now reached agreements with the work force over working practices that allow us to go ahead and establish a fleet operating maintenance base with effect from October next year. This will mean that, instead of reducing numbers in the present dockyard element of the naval base to some 1,500 as originally planned, we will retain instead about 2,800 civilian employees, in addition to the people employed on stores and other duties. It also means that refitting work will continue at Portsmouth to supplement the capacity of Devonport and Rosyth.

I regret that time is rather short. I had intended to say more about the Gibraltar dockyard. I am sorry to say that there are still those in the House and outside who do not seem to believe that the Government mean what they say in saying that the naval dockyard at Gibraltar will close by the end of 1984. Those people are mistaken. There is no going back on our decision.

I wish to mention the Government's plans for the other dockyards at Devonport and Rosyth. Since taking office I have visited both dockyards, which I hope demonstrates my concern for the wellbeing of dockyard skills, which have been built up through generations and are a major national asset. Who could fail to be impressed by the massive covered frigate refitting complex at Devonport, which takes three frigates at a time, or its nuclear submarine refitting complex with its enormous refuelling crane—a facility unparalleled anywhere in the West, even in the United States. Rosyth has a fascinating synchrolift and also houses the Polaris refitting operation. The cost of the work carried out in the royal dockyards during 1982–83 was about £608 million.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West referred to the worries and concerns at Rosyth. The Government have every faith in Rosyth—it has a future, as has Devonport.

On the question of new equipment——