Portsmouth Naval Base

Part of Questions to Members, etc. – in the House of Commons at 12:51 am on 17th October 1990.

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Photo of Mr David Martin Mr David Martin , Portsmouth South 12:51 am, 17th October 1990

The debate arises from the present and latest consideration within the Ministry of Defence of the future of the fleet maintenance and repair organisation in Portsmouth dockyard, which is crucial to the future of the dockyard. It follows upon a letter which I received in September from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement, who is making tonight his first appearance at the Government Dispatch Box since taking up his ministerial duties in July, and whom I welcome wholeheartedly.

With about half of all naval personnel and their families living in Portsmouth, or within its immediate area, the considerations generated by the debate cannot be confined merely to the naval base. Its future has profound implications for the future scope and effectiveness of the Royal Navy itself. We must never forget that the Royal Navy is the world's third largest as an effective fighting force, and I want it to remain so.

The people of Portsmouth—above all, the debate is about people—have grown used over the centuries to cuts in times of peace and to expansion in war. There is a deep understanding of such necessities. These are timely considerations in the present Gulf crisis. In the euphoria of the aftermath of events in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, there was much talk of a peace dividend, of making huge cuts in our armed forces, including a drastic reduction of ships in the Royal Navy. I did not share that judgment, and to his everlasting credit nor did my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I asked him during the most recent defence questions on 17 July whether he agreed with me that it would be criminal folly to reduce our defences, including nuclear weapons, to a lower level than any eventuality, however unforeseeable, might demand?"—[Official Report, 17 July 1990; Vol. 176, c. 847.] My right hon. Friend's reply, and subsequent remarks in the "options for change" statement a week later, were encouraging.

The events of 2 August and subsequently in the Gulf wholly vindicate such an approach. Many of our ships are serving in the Gulf and more are likely to be needed. Thank goodness for the Royal Navy and for Portsmouth dockyard and those who serve it so well. The present investigation into the future management of the FMRO identifies several options, depending on several assumptions. I have not the time to explore them all. No one expects the present arrangements to continue indefinitely. Change is expected, and positive change will be welcome.

Before dealing with the options, I want to underline the importance of my hon. Friend reaching a swift decision. An interim report is sought from the consultants by 14 December, with a final report in February 1991. I suspect that the December report will be the vital one on which irrevocable decisions will be made. Apart from docking and essential maintenance work, the type 42 refit stream is being kept employed on HMS Nottingham, with a planned finish in August 1991. At that time, the FMRO was expecting HMS Manchester, but Plymouth's needs appear to be winning that order.

Portsmouth will suffer grievously from indecision and I urge my hon. Friend not to permit it. Whatever the structure of management, we need a continuous programme of work to keep the strengths of the FMRO together and the morale and confidence of its work force assured.

The options include privatisation and the introduction of commercial arrangements similar to Plymouth. However, the option I wish to be adopted, which I wish to concentrate on as the positive option, is the introduction of a defence support agency with a trading fund. That would assume a core programme of docking and essential defects on ships based at Portsmouth. Such an option keeps military control and the prized integration of service and civilian personnel which I referred to in my maiden speech almost exactly three years ago and which has been working so effectively since 1984. That integration also provides the best safeguard against industrial action.

Such an option would, in addition, give an undisputed yardstick for comparing costs so that the FMRO can compete fairly in the marketplace through tendering for naval refits or any other suitable work such as cross channel ferry maintenance and repair, rather than risking it going to French yards. Had such a structure been in place last year, we probably would not have lost the type 42 HMS Southampton repair and refit, which was a great blow at the time. Such a structure would keep in being the apprenticeships, of which there are 125 at present and 32 a year, which provide vital opportunities for young people in the work force.

The alternative to that option, which is the worst and most unacceptable of all, is a bollards and fenders option—in effect, closing down the existing FMRO, selling off the greater part of the dockyard and using what is left as a parking lot for ships, with all necessary work being contracted for and usually to be carried out at a great distance from Portsmouth.

To pursue such an option, or any other tantamount to it, would be foolhardy in the extreme for several reasons. Of the three dockyards—Portsmouth, Plymouth and Rosyth—Portsmouth is the most sensible in which to concentrate work on ships. It would be wise to increase the number of ships based there, and there is space. The policies of harmony, Slimtrain and others have for many years led to the highest concentration of people, ships with home base and training bases in Portsmouth and its area. Apart from the naval base, including HMS Nelson and Gunwharf—I press as strongly as possible for the special clearance diving unit to remain there—there is Collingwood, Whale island, which is soon to have the addition of Phoenix, Sultan, Dryad and Mercury, which is being transferred to Collingwood.

That is why I referred earlier to approximately half of all royal naval personnel and families living in Portsmouth or near to it. To reverse such policies would lead to excessive separation and the loss of good men and women, would risk personal morale and would have a serious effect on recruitment. It would be incomprehensible to many serving in the Royal Navy, let alone the people of the city of Portsmouth.

The city, as my hon. Friend is well aware, has coped magnificently with previous large reductions in the work force, which is reliant on the dockyard. A heritage area has grown up around HMS Victory and the royal naval museum, which comprises the Mary Rose and Warrior. Massive new investment is planned there. A thriving ferry port has increased in strength and importance, but to pursue any option that neuters the naval base, the core of the royal naval presence in Portsmouth, would be to sacrifice centuries of the closest and most fruitful relationship between the city and the Royal Navy, to the damage of both.

This brings me to the third and final strand of the debate. It concerns Navy days. Practically everybody in the United Kingdom is aware of Portsmouth's Navy days. For many visitors in late August, that is why they come to Portsmouth. They and those who live in the area produced an attendance of about 70,000 at Navy days this year. Navy days began in Portsmouth and are a veritable showcase of the Royal Navy. They make a sizeable profit every year, even after allowing for the greatly increased costs of security arrangements. This year, the net profit was £106,000, which was shared between various naval charities, chief among them the King George V Fund for Sailors. By contrast, Plymouth-Devonport attracted merely 23,000 visitors to its Navy days and made a net profit of £15,000.

It is rumoured that we are to lose our annual Navy days, to alternate them with Plymouth. I cannot understand why successful Portsmouth should suffer for the deficiencies of Plymouth as a magnet; nor can my constituents. It is not just a question of having an aircraft carrier to inspect. Portsmouth has many other related attractions. It is highly successful; it is not remote; and it is central, with an enormous catchment area.

Annual Navy days are a vital catalyst of interest in naval affairs by the public which has contributed to the special affection in which the Royal Navy is held. Portsmouth is inextricably linked with that feeling. The contribution of our Navy days to recruitment over the years should never be underestimated. This unique throwing open of the gates should be retained every year. There is no sense, operationally or financially, in jettisoning such a successful and profitable—particularly for charities—annual occasion.

I should like to draw together the strands of the matters that I have raised. The presence of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth and the surrounding area, with its core at the naval base, is above all about people who are proud of its service and traditions. Napoleons, Kaisers, Hiders, Galtieris and Husseins are always popping up in one guise or another. That is understood in Portsmouth as nowhere else in Britain in greater measure.

In Portsmouth, generation after generation of citizens and families have crammed the ancient battlements, crowded the shores or massed at the entrance to one of the greatest harbours in the world to mingle their tears, cheers, enthusiasm and profound respect in seeing off or welcoming home the men who do their duty in fighting our battles, in risking life and well-being for the preservation of our freedoms. That is the very lifeblood and spirit of Portsmouth. It will never be dated, and it will never be redundant.