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Hydrographic Service

Volume 885: debated on Tuesday 28 January 1975

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10.27 p.m.

My interest in the Hydrographic Service is long-standing and practical. I have been a user of Admiralty charts and publications all my adult life. Like so many navigators, professional and amateur of every nationality, I have depended upon them for certainty and safety. They are the best and most accurate of those available for public use published by any Navy in the world. As Admiral of the all-party House of Commons Yacht Club I record the fact with pride.

I have another interest to declare. The Hydrographic Service, broadly speaking, consists of two halves. First, there is the seagoing Surveying Service which is a specialist branch of the Royal Navy, with a fleet of a dozen or more survey ships, manned by 750 officers and men of the Royal Navy. The other half consists of the shore-based Hydrographic Service, with a headquarters echelon in Whitehall—including the Directorate of Naval Oceanography and Meteorology—and various outlying establishments. There are the Hydrographic School at Devonport, sundry chart depots at Rosyth, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Gibraltar, a Chronometer Section at Herstmonceux and, most numerous and significant, the Hydrographic Department in Taunton in my constituency.

There is a staff there of 800 devoted and competent people, as I know well, and as I am sure the Minister, who knows the establishment, will readily confirm. There are naval officers on the active and retired lists, civil hydrographic officers, cartographic draughtsmen and civil servants of executive and industrial grades. They control the work and equipment of the survey fleet, compile sailing directions and tide tables, light lists and notices to mariners. They compile, draw, revise and maintain 3,500 nautical charts and print, publish and issue for sale these varied and important navigational signposts—surely a formidable undertaking.

The Hydrographic Department prides itself, rightly, on being the oldest branch of the Admiralty, for it was formed 180 years ago. Dalrymple, a civilian, was appointed in 1795. At that time we were a good deal behind the French and the Dutch. I would happily explore the history further but I do not have the time tonight.

The branch has steadily evolved, but its task has been basically unchanged over the years—to chart the waters of the world and, so far as human ingenuity can achieve it, to provide guidance for the safety of
"all who pass upon the seas upon their lawful occasions."
I am indeed proud that Taunton and so many of my constituents have been associated with this fine and vital work over the last 35 years. But happy as I am to have a chance to pay these sincere compliments and tributes tonight, in which the whole House will join, that is not my chief purpose in obtaining this opportunity for debate.

Many right hon. and hon. Members—including, no doubt, the Minister, for whose courtesy in being here tonight I am grateful—may have seen the recent correspondence in The Times, in which such distinguished persons as the Director of the Royal Institute of Navigation, the President of the National Institute, and a former Hydrographer of the Navy have voiced great anxiety about the future development of the service. I share it, as I said in my own contribution to that correspondence. So does the House. So should all informed opinion. So must the country.

The Department de jure is in business to serve Her Majesty's Fleet. The diminishing ability of the national economy to support defence services on the scale we have been used to, coupled with the growing scepticism of certain vociferous sections of the electorate as to the relevance of defence in present circumstances, is now placing in jeopardy the ability of the department to continue meeting its de facto commitments to the civil sector.

I can put the problem in a nutshell. The hydrographic task is expanding and will continue to expand, whereas the funds from which it is currently financed —the Defence Vote—are likely to contract and continue to contract. A new method of funding the Hydrographic Service is therefore needed, free from the pressures of the defence budget. I will spell out the matter in more detail.

For the past 180 years the Royal Navy, as part of its recognised rôle in support of our maritime trade, has carried out hydrographic surveys along our overseas trade routes and the approaches to new ports and anchorages, opening up safe passages in unexplored areas, and so on, all to facilitate the growth of trade with all parts of the world.

The information has been displayed in the unique, world-wide British Admiralty chart series, which has been used not only by our own Mercantile Marine but by the ships of almost all international maritime trading nations. The charts and associated navigation publications have been sold to the purchasers at a fraction, I suppose, of their true cost, perhaps because it was considered to be in the best interests of a maritime trading nation that it should subsidise safe navigation, on which its whole economy depends, and partly because of the very substantial foreign exchange and other earnings, totalling about £2 million a year.

Over the past two decades, however, it has become increasingly apparent that not only is the hydrographic task in support of shipping growing at an alarming rate, due to the rise in the number of tankers and other bulk carriers of very deep draught, which require new surveys of much greater areas than before, but in some respects this requirement was exceeding the needs of the Royal Navy itself. A further burden is, moreover, being placed on the department by the growing interest in undersea mineral resource and exploitation of oil and gas, which call for new types of survey and new types of charts covering our own Continental Shelf.

I can do no better than quote from the 1973 report of the Hydrographer of the Navy, in which he said:
"Many of our charts are obsolete. Huge parts of the world's seas remain unsurveyed Thematic maps of the sea-bed hardly exist. Approaches to some of our emerging ports are virtually uncharted. We are not meeting the growing needs of either our yachts, yachtsmen or our fishermen. We are not providing adequately for future navigational techniques. We are not exploiting the enormous oppor tunities open to us in expanding markets for new products."
All this new activity, so vital to the United Kingdom economy, requires a substantial expansion of the Navy's Hydro-graphic Service—the only national hydrographic service we possess—afloat and in the office at Taunton. Obviously, this expansion cannot be effected from within a contracting defence budget, which hitherto has been its only source of funds.

As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy announced in a Written Answer in July, to resolve this dilemma the Government have set up an inter-ministerial hydrographic study group with representation from the Department of Trade, the Department of Energy, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and so on, as well as from outside interests such as the Chamber of Shipping. The group is chaired by the Ministry of Defence. Its function has been to assess the total task confronting the country, to identify the true extent of the defence interest in it and the resources needed for that purpose, to quantify the resources needed for the whole task and to consider how the balance of resources should be provided.

I deduce from what has been said in public that the report is not likely to be available for some months yet. My first question is, therefore, to ask the Minister if he will do his best to see that the report is speeded up and made available promptly. The subject is urgent and simply will not brook delay.

One can have no doubt that when the report is available it will confirm the obvious need for the expansion of the Hydrographic Service. This will mean more ships, more men, and an extension at Taunton.

Not having seen the report, I can only guess at the figures involved, but I would imagine that at the outside we are talking about an additional expenditure of £10 million per annum, although the figure could be less.

No doubt the Hydrographic Service could earn a part of this money from commercial users, but that the money must be found there can be no doubt, for this House will surely agree that it is essential that our charts and services should be completely up to date. I heard a cynical suggestion some time ago that shipping companies should rely upon their insurance. This surely is too ludicrous a suggestion to be entertained for a moment.

Our shipping, now running at 30 million gross tons—we are the third largest maritime nation in the world, and the two ahead of us are tax-haven countries—makes an enormous contribution to our balance of payments. The figure last year was £600 million. The expenditure required to give this industry the best facilities is very small in relation to that figure.

Nor can the world continue to risk shipping losses on the current scale. In 1958 under 300,000 gross registered tons was lost. In 1973 the figure was nearly 1 million tons. Much of that was in areas of little hydrographic knowledge. I think that the public are now deeply worried about the pollution risk which this entails. I would remind the House of the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology on offshore engineering. In paragraph 119 on safety and security it says:
"We were disturbed by the Evidence given to us.… Substantial areas have never been properly surveyed or were surveyed by lead and line over a hundred years ago. The existing facilities for gathering hydrographic information are not sufficient to meet present day civil requirements, particularly those of marine offshore structures and giant tankers.… Undoubtedly the fine work of which the hydrographer is capable needs to be expanded to meet civil needs. We believe that there is serious risk of accident unless urgent action is taken."
It confirms what I have already said.

I turn now to how the funding of this comparatively small additional expense should be accomplished. There are two alternatives. First, indirect funding, a method beloved of accountants and bureaucrats. As Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, I have seen something of this method whereby notional costs are split up between various Departments. In some circumstances there is merit in this system. In this case I suggest there would be none. It would be pettifogging and time-wasting, involve extra cost, and accuracy would never be guaranteed. I reject this proposal out of hand.

Second, some of the correspondents, and those who know about these matters, are now arguing for what one might perhaps call a direct funding system; that is to say, that the Navy should be provided with a separate fund for what is, as I hope I have been able to indicate, now becoming increasingly a non-defence function.

This would be a simple, straightforward solution. It would place control of hydrographic expenditure in the hands of Parliament, which right hon. and hon. Gentlemen might well think is where it should be, while leaving responsibility for hydrographic activity where it is now, with the Navy. In my view, this is the best and proper solution and one which I believe the Public Accounts Committee would endorse.

I truly feel that it is something of a scandal that the matter is still unresolved. It is agreed on all sides that the service must be expanded, and to an extent which can easily be quantified in financial terms. It is urgent that in the national interest the expansion proceeds with no avoidable delay.

Above all else, the House has the duty to establish correct priorities for our national expenditure. We can all argue over energy-consuming projects, and we do. Yet a comparatively trivial expenditure—one-hundredth part of the cost of food subsidies, for example—would, in Admiral Irving's words, transform the whole complex of marine research, exploration and exploitation, and bring forward by several years the economic independence to which we aspire. This depends—for we all know that the 180,000 square miles of the United Kingdom Continental Shelf are crucial to our future wealth and prosperity—upon thorough and systematic exploration and charting of these seas and the oceans beyond.

The second recommendation of the Select Committee was:
"We recommend that immediate provision should be made for a substantial increase of ships and equipment for surveying the Continental Shelf".
How right that is!

I am sure that Parliament has only to hear the need defined as I have attempted to define it tonight to say at once "Let this work have the highest priority." I hope that the Minister will say without equivocation that the funds will be made available promptly. This is a matter which meets Winston Churchill's old adjuration. "Action this day".

10.42 p.m.

The House owes the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) a considerable debt for raising this subject. I am grateful to him for asking me to support him.

I absolutely agree that it is nonsense that many of the activities in the North Sea which now go down to the Ministry of Defence funds should not be put against the Department of Energy account in an age when, rightly or wrongly, defence expenditure as such will be contracting. Therefore, I echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about the way in which we put the Hydrographic Service to the proper accounts inside the Government. It is basically an accounting operation. I hope that my right hon. Friends in the Government will pay attention to this aspect.

Secondly, what is happening about the important projected deep-ocean research and recovery vessel, the plans of which some of us recently saw at the deep-diving establishment at Alverstoke?

10.43 p.m.

I am grateful to be able to speak for two minutes. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) on raising this important matter. Like him, I have in my constituency some people who work in the Hydrographer's Department. I realise their deep concern about the future work of the department.

I pay my tribute to the tremendous importance of the department's work over the years, both afloat and in the home establishments. The Admiralty chart is respected and regarded as of the greatest importance as a document because of its accuracy and reliability. Four fifths of the world's merchant fleet use it.

It is essential that we retain a global chart policy. The present policy, as I see it, is that the Admiralty chart should provide world-wide cover for coastal navigation, and enable ships to gain access to parts of the world available to international shipping. As one of the few countries able to do that, we should continue to do it.

The service needs to expand, and not contract. I support my right hon. Friend's statement that a good deal more thought must be given to how to make the service more of a commercial success. I do not believe that we charge enough for the documents we produce. We do not cover their true cost of production. A good deal more thought and energy must go into that aspect.

I want to see an expanding service, something of which we shall continue to be proud for many years.

10.45 p.m.

I am deeply grateful to the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), who was supported with so much genuine concern by his hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) and by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), for giving me the opportunity to speak about the Hydro-graphic Service.

May I quickly deal with the point about the deep-water rescue vessels. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian that the Royal Navy requirement for a vessel for deep-diving operations is under consideration in the defence review. Possible applications of this system are being fully examined in association with the Department of Energy. We are also discussing it with industry.

It is clear that hon. Members are aware of the changing requirements for hydrographic surveying and are rightly concerned that an adequate service should be provided to meet the current commercial, economic and defence needs of the nation.

With his practical experience, the right hon. Member for Taunton does not, of course, need me to tell him about the contribution and work the Hydrographer's Department, with its home in his constituency, makes to the economy and general livelihood of the area. I have seen it myself and been deeply impressed. The department moved there in 1968, and a large proportion of its new entrants have since been recruited locally. Today more than 800 people are employed in the establishment.

We can indeed be justly proud of our Hydrographic Service and its outstanding naval and civilian staff at all levels. The Admiralty charts and publications compiled and printed for the Royal Navy are available to all mariners. Such diverse users as oilmen, engineers, lawyers, oceanographers and public authorities also obtain information from them. Hydrographic surveys before about 1935 were carried out by hand-lead and line and those prior to about 1960 were by echo-sounder, based on the assumption that the maximum likely draught ship was about 18 metres. Deep-draught vessels now overate with up to 28 metres draught, creating a need for new surveys in many areas, thus increasing the continuing need for updating to identify new or changing obstructions. Clearly, adequate charts are an important aid to good navigation, while the costs of maritime accidents may involve loss of lives, ships and cargoes apart from environmental damage from pollution. To meet these important new demands and to keep pace with modern developments there have indeed been significant advances in both hydrographic technology and survey techniques.

I should like to emphasise that the scale on which the manpower and equipment of the Hydrographic Service has been provided in recent years has necessarily been affected by the constraints of a reducing defence budget. It has also been related primarily to the needs of the defence programme, though we have always also recognised the importance of the Hydrographer's work for the civil community.

The importance of the offshore resource industries to the economic health of the nation is evident to us all. It is also clear that the resources and vast experience, as well as the professional expertise, of the Hydrographic Department has a really valuable contribution to make in this area. Further, hydro-graphic surveying of a kind which the Royal Navy has not previously been called upon to do is now required. To meet this new and important national requirement, surveying effort has already been re-deployed to undertake an extensive geophysical survey of the United Kingdom Continental Shelf.

The Hydrographer continues to play a full part in the work of the various international hydrographic organisa- tions.In particular, the Hydrographer will chair a meeting of the North Sea Hydrographic Commission in this country in April. The aims of this body and of the International Hydro-graphic Bureau are to achieve standardisation and co-ordination of world-wide hydrographic effort.

The Hydrographic Service has been paid for from the Defence Vote to date. Generally speaking, the chart series and associated publications it produced were required by the Navy. The fleet was deployed in most of the areas for which there was a mercantile hydrographic requirement, and the requirement for hydrographic survey was comparable for both interests. Taking account of revenue from charts and other sources, this arrangement has met the interests of all tolerably well for many years. Unfortunately, inflation and rising prices have had their effect and chart prices have had to be raised accordingly, but it is true to say that mariners still get a remarkably good product for their money.

I am afraid that time is short. I have already given time for other speakers.

This marriage between the military and civil requirements may have been a marriage of convenience, but such arrangements are not always unhappy and the Ministry of Defence is not seeking grounds for divorce, though it is looking at the terms of the marriage settlement.

There are two reasons for this. First, it was no doubt at one time reasonable to assume that warships would be amongst our very largest vessels and would be as far-ranging in where they went as merchant ships. Such an assumption is no longer valid. No surface warship is ever likely to be of the size of some of the new super-tankers and commercial freight carriers and there is no commercial equivalent to the requirements of nuclear submarines. Secondly, the political and strategic responsibilities of this country have obviously markedly changed since the Hydrographic Service was first established at the time of the Napoleonic wars.

I am sorry, but I gave a great deal of time to other hon. Members to speak, and we are rather short of time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the position.

There has thus been a developing problem in the way the hydrographic needs of this country as a whole were being met as one function of the rôle of the Royal Navy. It is quite true that the recent defence review has made it imperative that the nature of this problem should be examined. I make no apology for this. Such an examination could, with advantage, have been undertaken some time ago.

From the point of view of the Ministry of Defence, the defence priorities as they effect our need for hydrographic services come out clearly in the statement on the defence review made by my right hon. Friend on 3rd December 1974. He explained, firstly, that NATO will remain the first charge on defence resources, and, secondly, that the level and quality of front-line forces must have priority.

We naturally have no wish, in applying these principles to working out the size and shape of the fleet, to overlook the needs of other users of the Hydrographic Service to the extent that a review of the fleet is bound to include a review of the Naval Hydrographic Service. But the fact is that on the basis of the defence review the fleet will no longer have any major commitments outside the NATO area and will, therefore, no longer have the same requirement to maintain for its own purposes a world-wide charting and surveying organisation. Indeed, with a strict limit on the amount of money available for defence, it can do this only at the expense of its fighting capability. The question, therefore, clearly arises whether, as the recent report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology has recommended in the case of Ministry of Defence assistance to the offshore industry, the surveying requirements of the civil community should henceforth be met by the Royal Navy on a customer contractor basis. As the right hon. Gentleman said, a study group has indeed been set up to look into the problem and make recommendations, which will include the future funding of the Hydro-graphic Service.

The work of the study group needs to be kept in step with the preparation of the Defence White Paper referred to by my right hon. Friend in his statement. Its report is thus expected to be available in March.

The initial task of the study group has been to identify the defence and civil requirements of hydrographic work over the next decade and to establish what resources in terms of both men and materials would be needed to meet their requirements. The requirements also need to be ranked in order of priority, taking account of safety factors and defence needs, as well as economic and commercial considerations. The group will compare these requirements with the current capacity of the Hydrographic Service and make recommendations.

I would not wish to anticipate this evening what these recommendations will be and cannot, of course, forecast what the Government's view of them may be. As in the main defence review, the Government will, of course, have to take account not only of the ideal requirement, whatever that may be, but also of our overall economic situation.

However, I hope that what I have said will reassure the House, and all those outstanding men and women, to whom the right hon. Gentleman so rightly referred, who work with the service, that, far from the Government underestimating the national importance of the Hydro-graphic Service, its future is being given the most serious and expert consideration available. It will be valuable both to the work of the hydrographic study group, and to the Government when they come to consider its recommendations, to have heard the views expressed by right hon. and hon. Members this evening, because what they have to say is essentially relevant to all the considerations and evaluations now taking place.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.