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Royal Dockyards

Volume 464: debated on Monday 2 May 1949

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Popplewell.]

10.10 p.m.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the question of the setting up of a working party for the Royal Dockyards. This matter was raised in the Debate on the Navy Estimates by my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot). He received a reply from the Civil Lord who said:

"I know it is difficult to see that every man is doing his job properly, but from my knowledge of those who are in charge I feel they are doing the job as well as it is possible for them to do.
I see no reason why the Admiralty should have to set up a working party within its own department because some people are complaining. Possibly they are the people who are always complaining. We have had no justification for acceding to the request that a working party should be established to go into the work being done at the Royal Dockyards. The question of civilianisation is a matter we could not deal with too lightly. It must receive most serious consideration. Whatever one may say about the admiral superintendent and commodore superintendents who have been in charge of the dockyards, these dockyards have helped materially in bringing us through two world wars. I am all for a change if I know it is to be beneficial, but I have to be certain that the change would be beneficial before I agree to it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March, 1949; Vol. 462, c. 1139–40.]
The two points which the Civil Lord made are the two points I wish to challenge tonight. One relates to administration and technical efficiency and the other deals with naval control. I want to make two things clear. I am not raising the question of working conditions or rates of pay. I admit quite frankly to the Civil Lord that in that respect he has probably done more for the dockyards than any other man who has ever held his office, and we are extremely grateful to him and his colleagues for what they have done in that respect. The second point I want to make clear is that I agree that the main business of the Royal Dockyards is the building and repair of His Majesty's naval warships. None of us will raise any objection to the insistence which the Civil Lord placed on that in his speech.

In spite of the great technical advances and administrative alterations which have taken place in industry, the main organisation of the Royal Dockyards is precisely what it was at least 100 years ago. The responsibility for this rests with the Civil Lord of the Admiralty. As the House may or may not know, there is a Board of Admiralty charged with the duties of the Lord High Admiral in accordance with the Navy Estimates and King's Regulations. It comprises three civilians—the First Lord, the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary, The Civil Lord and seven full Admirals. They rule the Navy and the industrial establishments. The industrial establishments are put specifically in the care of the Civil Lord. I remember the time when it was in the hands of the Financial Secretary but I understand that now, two members of the Board can give a decision on behalf of the whole Board, so that any responsibility whether a committee of inquiry or a working party is set up in respect of the yards is entirely a matter for the civil element of the Board of Admiralty.

The organisation which controls some 55,000 workmen and the Lord knows how many officers—

The hon. Member said "the Lord knows"; I want to know what the Civil Lord knows.

Whether the Civil Lord knows, I do not know, but "I ha'e ma doots" whether he knows how many officers there are. Of the 55,000 workmen there are about 15,000 in Portsmouth, 13,000 in Devonport, 10,000 or 12,000 in Chatham, some in Sheerness and various other places. The head of each of the departments is an Admiral Superintendent or a Commodore Superintendent. Whether an Admiral Superintendent or a Commodore Superintendent is quite the best person, after all his experience in managing warships, etc., with the aid of King's Regulations and naval discipline to put in charge of big industrial establishments in these days, I am not saying at the present time. I have known some good Admiral Superintendents and, believe me, I have known some bad ones who were much more prone to use the "on the knee" business than they were to understand industrial establishments.

It is because of this fact that we are asking for an investigation, because not only do we have that kind of overlordship but we have a series of departments. The yards are divided into, first, the Admiral Superintendent's side, then there is the Captain of the Dockyard who is second in command, then comes the shipbuilding side presided over by a civilian at the head of the Royal Naval Corps of Constructors. He rules the shipbuilding side and the various dockyards. Then there is the engineering department, ruled by a naval officer. He has commanders, all naval officers, to assist him, but I do not know how many assistants there are. It is not possible for an apprentice in the engineering department ever to rise to be manager of his department although it is possible for a shipwright in the shipbuilding department to rise to be a member of the Royal Naval Corps of Constructors and get to the top rank.

That is the curious anomaly, and a reason why we ought to have this committee of investigation as to whether modern methods are being applied and this is the best method of running these establishments. Then there is the electrical department, which at present is run by a civilian but is very rapidly being navalised. We have a fear that before very long there will be no civilian elements in charge in these industrial establishments, and that they will all be run by naval officers of one description or another. We should like some information about this and to have an investigation to see whether they are the best people to run these huge naval organisations.

In his reply the Civil Lord said that he had to be satisfied in some part that this was necessary. If he had to be satisfied about this, why did he accede, on paper at least, to a demand from the Admiralty Joint Industrial Council that there should be a kind of working party, as he did in 1947? Having acceded to that request and appointed three gentlemen whose names were given to the House of Commons, why were they not allowed to carry out their work in an ordinary, normal way? What actually happened was that this committee of inquiry visited Devonport Dockyard one morning, spent the day looking round, and then discovered that the men had something to say. The Chairman was kind enough to stay overnight to see the men next morning and told them he thought his terms of reference were far too limited and confined. He had a talk with the men and left again next day. That was the working party inquiry as given to us by the Civil Lord for the establishment at Devonport.

Whatever was done at Portsmouth or might have been done somewhere else I do not know, but in 1941 the Minister of Labour, the present Foreign Secretary, was gravely concerned about the use of labour in His Majesty's Dockyards and appointed a Committee of Inquiry. He appointed a representative from Lloyd's surveyors, an admiral and one other. That one other served on the Committee, made the inquiries and spent some three months in visiting the establishments. We produced a report, which has been pigeonholed, which contained recommendations about the manner in which labour should be used in the dockyards. Nothing was ever heard about that report.

It is because of the experience I gained on that Commission and my inquiries into the workings in the Dockyard that I am convinced that if we are to get a fully efficient establishment we must have a proper working party, properly authenticated and given the opportunities of making the inquiries and making it possible for us to have 100 per cent. efficiency inside the naval establishment. What on earth is the use of the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Economic Secretary telling us that we must have more and more production, or telling us of the great benefits which have accrued from working parties in the cotton industry, in furniture making and in pottery, when the Government themselves do not practise what they are preaching to outside industries in their own establishments? The granting of this request is the least they can do in view of the criticisms that have been made.

These criticisms are not coming from the officers. "Everything in the garden is lovely" as far as they are concerned. They do not want any alterations, but the men are asking that this inquiry should be held. I am not saying that the inquiry will be satisfactory as far as the Admiralty are concerned, for they think that nothing is wrong in their beautiful establishment. But I believe that the men are right when they say that in a time like this when production has to be brought up to the maximum in industry, that should apply equally in Government establishments and workshops.

While I am not making any charges as to under-employment, I believe that many jobs are overmanned at present. The organisation is in departments and once inside one of those departments it is very difficult to transplant workmen to another. I have never understood why there should be a coppersmith's shop and a joiner's shop in the shipbuilding department quite separate from the coppersmith's shop and joiner's shop in the engineering department. They are quite distinct and the twain never meet. During the past few years things have altered materially. The trade which used to have the greatest demand made upon it was the shipbuilding trade, but today the emphasis has changed and the demand is on the electrical industry. In the yards the organisation was on a basis of shipbuilding and shipwrights. Because of factors like that, I ask that the Admiralty will seriously consider setting up a working party or committee of inquiry to get complete efficiency in His Majesty's Dockyards.

10.28 p.m.

I should like to add my word to that of my hon. Friend the Member for the Drake Division (Mr. Medland) in asking the Government to consider setting up a working party to look into the whole organisation of the Royal Dockyards. I do not ask that in any carping spirit, because I realise, as do my colleagues, that much has been done in the last few years; indeed, much more has been done in the Royal Dockyards in the last three and a half years than in the preceding 30 years. What we are concerned about is to ensure that the money we vote in the Naval Estimates, a considerable proportion of which goes to the Royal Dockyards, is used with the utmost efficiency and that all the organisation and administration in the Royal Dockyards is conducted as efficiently as possible.

Recently we had a report from the working party on the cotton industry and learned from it that the majority of the manufacturers already considered their businesses sufficiently efficient before the working party was set up; but the working party's report, which pointed out considerable shortcomings in the cotton industry, has been taken advantage of by only 15 firms out of a considerable number. It may well be that their Lordships of the Admiralty, although they must be sensitive to certain defects in the Royal Dockyards, are nevertheless of the opinion that in the main the staff is being used to the best advantage and that the country is getting the best advantage out of it.

All one can say in reply to that, apart from pointing out some of the administrative inconsistencies to which my hon. Friend referred, is that men who are at the point of production do not think that the labour is in all cases being used to the best advantage. In these circumstances, I should have thought it would have been best, because the cost will not be very considerable and the administrative inconveniences will be inconsiderable, to appoint a working party from outside to ensure that the very modern machinery which is installed in all the Royal Dockyards is being employed to the best possible advantage.

I do not think it is any good having a inter-departmental committee appointed to do this, because if one gets an interdepartmental committee there is often an inhibition affecting those questioned in the course of the inquiry which makes it difficult for them to answer frankly all the inquiries made. I feel that if the people who work in the Royal Dockyards had an outside inquiry which came round on a business efficiency basis and made all the inquiries which it thought fit to make, confidence would be inspired among those in the Royal Dockyards, and their Lordships at the Admiralty would be enabled to form an accurate assessment of the position. I do not see that there would be any harm in this, and there might be considerable advantage; and it might also be of use to Members of this House when they come to vote on the Estimates in the ordinary way. I hope, therefore, that the Civil Lord will give this quite reasonable request favourable consideration.

10.32 p.m.

I am very grateful indeed to my hon. Friend the Member for the Drake division (Mr. Medland) for raising this matter once again. The question of a working party for the Royal Dockyards seems to me to be cropping up rather frequently these days, despite the fact that an answer, and I think a very reasonable answer, has been given previously in regard to the matter. I will say at the very outset that I cannot claim the experience of the Royal Dockyards which my hon. Friend has had through his long service in Devonport Dockyard, but I do know a little about them, although I have not actually worked in them. I have served in ships which have had to be refitted in the Royal Dockyards, and in this House I have had the responsibility during the last three and a half years of being the Civil Lord and have thus had a fair amount of association with the Royal Dockyards both in this country and abroad. Hon. Members who have spoken tonight have obviously left in- sufficient time for me to answer all the points which they have raised. Out of 30 minutes, they have, I think, left me seven minutes in which to reply.

It is the easiest thing in the world to say "Yes," but one does not necessarily do the easy thing and say "Yes" when one is convinced that, by doing so, one would be doing a disservice to the Admiralty administration. How ever, so that it may be put on record, although I do not have to tell this to my hon. Friend or any of the other hon. Members who have Royal Dockyards in their constituencies, I must say that it ought to be clearly understood that the Royal Dockyards, at home and abroad, are in no way comparable with the shipbuilding and ship-repairing yards in this country.

A Royal Dockyard is a naval base, and we have not found yet that it has been in the best interest of the country to have civilians in charge of naval bases and naval ships. I presume that that is one of the reasons why my predecessors at the Admiralty felt that it would be in the best interests of the country if they were to have men in charge of the Royal Dockyards who are au fait with the functions of a naval base. Consequently, they felt that those men had to be naval men and in the main, as far as home dockyards are concerned, they are Admiral superintendents.

May I ask a question? While that may be so, will the hon. Gentleman explain why he refuses to allow Members of Parliament to visit dockyards unless accompanied by all the pomp and circumstance of the Admiral Superintendent which makes a visit perfectly useless?

In all cases we have not refused to allow Members of Parliament to go over a dockyard unless accompanied by the Admiral Superintendent.

In fact some hon. Members during the life of this Parliament have been over the dockyards which they represent without the escort of the Admiral Superintendent, and from what I gather they were perfectly satisfied with the way they were treated. I am sure the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) would agree that, although I am not going to say that he would be placed in the category, there are some people of whom we have to be very careful in this and other countries and obviously we have to be rather cautious about it. I know that the hon. and gallant Member for North Portsmouth (Major Bruce) will agree that he was given every facility.

We find the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) saying that the hon. and gallant Member for North Portsmouth does not know anything about it and then the hon. Member for the Drake Division saying that the Admiralty does not know anything about it.

It is a conflict of opinion the whole time. The hon. Member for the Drake Division says I do not know enough about it. I think it will boil down to a position where we shall have to depend completely on the hon. Member for the Drake Division. We have the responsibility at the present time but it is a little bit away from the point if my hon. Friends mention the working party on the cotton industry and compare that to the administration of the Royal Dockyards. There is really no comparison, and in fact I think it is perfectly true to say that in no other Government Department during the lifetime of this Parliament has there been a request for a working party to be set up within that department.

Whether we are going to deal with this question of navalisation as against civilian control of the dockyards and whether the working party is going to deal with that, I do not know. I do not know what their terms of reference might be, but I am bound to repeat what I said in my speech on the Navy Estimates. I am quite certain, while I have any responsibility at all for the control of the Navy in this country, that before we make a change from naval control of the Royal Dockyards to civilian control, I must be absolutely satisfied that it will be in the interests of the nation. I am not yet satisfied, and I do not see any reason for using the Admiralty administrative staff for setting up a working party to go into matters which to us seem perfectly obvious at the present time.

I must go on. I want to make this one point. I do not think the situation warrants an inquiry any more than that in any other Government Department. There was one point which was made by the hon. Member for the Drake Division. He referred to the fact that I was supposed to have acceded to a request by the Admiralty Industrial Council, and that I appointed three gentlemen to comprise a working party to go into the engineering section of Devonport and other home dockyards. I can assure my hon. Friend that there was no request from the Admiralty Industrial Council to which I acceded on that occasion; and in fact that body was appointed not by me, but by my noble Friend the First Lord. Then my hon. Friend says that the men are asking for a working party. With respect to my hon. Friends who represent dockyard constituencies, I think that if they investigated the opinion of the vast majority of men who work in the dockyards, they would find that there would be no request of that description made.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour. Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.