Orders of the Day — Dockyard Services Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:21 pm on 2nd December 1985.

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Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Blaenau Gwent 7:21 pm, 2nd December 1985

I shall answer that point by giving the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) and the Government a history lesson. This matter has been considered before by people who have spent their whole lives in the dockyards. The trade unions and management have had to deal with the problem of pressure on the yards at special times. In war time or at times of near war and special moments of crisis, the resources must be available to do things that cannot be done on a common form basis. If that special responsibility were removed and the dockyards were run on a normal commercial basis, another Falklands crisis might occur and no royal dockyard would be able to meet the special responsibility.

The Labour party found the correct solution to that problem, and the same solution would work today. After the first world war, the numbers working in the dockyards were not maintained. People were sacked and made redundant. They were sacked quicker then than now. In 1919 almost 1,000 workers were sacked on one day, and they had to be out within a week. That is how dockyard workers were repaid for what they had done in the 1914–18 war. The workers were extremely bitter about that. That was one of the main reasons for the foundation of the Labour party in Devonport, and I am sure that the same is true of Portsmouth and Chatham. After 1918 Governments were reckless in human terms. They did not care about sustaining on a long-term basis the service that the dockyards could provide for the nation.

In 1945, after the second world war, a Labour Government had the responsibility of caring for the dockyards. The Labour party learnt from previous mistakes and would not sack dockyard workers. The Labour Government would not return to those former barbarous methods, partly because they recognised what the dockyard workers and the Navy had done in the war, but also because they did not believe that that was a sane and sensible way to run anything.

After 1945 the Labour Government managed the dockyards differently. All the clever ideas that the Minister talked about—for example, that the dockyards should find other kinds of work, which he claimed were his brilliant schemes—were merely what the Labour Government did after 1945. The Labour Government introduced repayment work. Some of the admirals at the time were not passionately fond of that, but we went ahead and managed to maintain the dockyard labour force at a good level throughout that period. We enabled the dockyards to refit other types of ship and merchant vessels and so maintain the strength of the labour force. We did not say that it was necessary to maintain the labour force at that level for all time, but if the royal dockyards have to perform the essential task of maintaining the British Navy the labour force must be maintained over a long period. It must have security, and the workers must see a future for their children, their families and their communities.

There may have been a need for further changes in the past decade. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) said that huge sums were invested in the dockyards to enable them to do their job properly. The Opposition do not believe that that solution is perfect or that no further changes are needed but nothing could be so crass as the Government's present proposals. The Government are wrecking all that has been built up in the dockyards over this period by turning on the dockyard workers after praising them for their hard work during the Falklands campaign. The Government have forgotten how quickly the dockyard workers dealt with all their problems. I believe that Devonport royal dockyard is the most efficient naval dockyard in the world due to the way in which it has been managed and the spirit of its workers. In saying that, I do not mean to denigrate Rosyth. Rosyth, Chatham and Portsmouth also have fine records.

Under the proposed new scheme there will be great competition between Devonport and Rosyth. I am not sure how that competition will be resolved. I do not know what will happen if the new Devonport dockyard company goes, or seems likely to go, bankrupt. Will the Government let that happen or will they step in? Will it be a fake type of competition? The whole idea is monstrous. The Government should never have embarked upon it. Even after embarking on it, they should have listened to what was said in so many quarters.

The Government say that this has nothing to do with the Royal Navy—that it is just a question of commercial management. That, too, shows how little they understand. If they had gone to Devonport and Rosyth, or even to Portsmouth before they started closing it, and talked to people who had spent their lives there—dockyard workers, admiral superintendents or whatever—they would have heard a very different story.

The roots of this matter lie deep in British history. I know that it is an insult to mention history to the Government. Both history and consultation are dirty words in their dictionary. The great naval triumphs of Britain were first the triumphs of the dockyards—nationalized dockyards, although I do not wish to rub that in too much. If the Minister ever takes time to read some history, or if any member of the Government has the first beginnings of any knowledge of our history, he will discover the truth of the matter. As Trevelyan puts it, Henry VIII had founded the Royal Navy. Under Edward VI and Mary it had been permitted to decay. Under Elizabeth it was revived … Then, in a fortunate hour"— 1578, 10 years before the Armada— Elizabeth put John Hawkins in charge of the building and upkeep of her ships. During the decade before the coming of open war, which the Queen had so long and so wisely postponed, Hawkins did as great a work in the dockyards as Drake on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. The same has happened twice in our own century. The Falklands could be regarded as a third example. On none of those occasions has anyone dared to say that the people in the royal dockyards have not served this country properly, yet the present Government care so little about all that that they will not even consult those people properly about their own future.

All this is just part of the Government's doctrine that nothing counts but the balance sheet. Governments who proceed on that basis eventually find that they cannot even run the balance sheet properly. Having begun by saying that everything must be subordinate to the balance sheet, the Government have landed us in bigger deficits than we have ever known in a whole range of areas.

An article by Raphael Samuel in The Guardian today, albeit on a different subject, touches on the Government's attitude to these matters. He says: If there is one thing which may yet sink this government … it is the way it has personally devalued us and poisoned the very idea of public service. Under the harsh glare of cost-benefit analysis, and in the shadow of micro-chip technology, it appears that the entire working population of this country—teachers, miners, engineers, even Health Service workers"— we must now add dockyard workers— are all, in some final sense, actually or potentially redundant, a drag on the nation rather than its precious human capital, as 'uneconomic' as the villages which Mr. MacGregor is consigning to oblivion. With this Bill the Government are poisoning a public service which has brought nothing but help and honour to this country. Whatever the Minister says, the best thing that he can do is to report to the absent Secretary of State for Defence, who did not have the nerve or the courtesy to come here today, that the whole House is outraged by his proposals and will fight them every inch of the way. Moreover, it will be no use carrying them through because, when Labour returns to government, we shall restore the royal dockyards to their proper place of esteem and operation.