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Hydrographic Services

Volume 972: debated on Monday 29 October 1979

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

11.31 pm

This is the fourth time in four years that I have raised in the House the need to ensure an adequate hydrographic capacity and capability in the United Kingdom. I feel strongly that the lack of positive support for the hydrographic department over recent years is a positive scandal and an indictment of the system hitherto adopted in Whitehall for dealing with practical matters.

I believe it to be very much in the contemporary national interest that this scandal be exposed and a potentially disastrous situation rectified. I say at once that I exempt my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy from any blame in this regard. He has been in office for only a short time. One of his first visits as a Minister was to the hydrographic department in Taunton. That visit was much appreciated. He is following it up with a visit to "Beagle" in the Irish Sea in a few days' time, on 6 November. I am one of many people, both inside and outside the House, who greatly respect his ability and application.

I hope that tonight's debate will be a strong encouragement to my hon. Friend to make up for the neglect of the previous Adminstration. I further hope that he will strongly urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to take such a course.

I hope that it is not necessary for me to argue at length the need to keep existing charts and sailing instructions as up to date as possible, the need to produce the new charts to meet the many and changing requirements of modern marine activities and the need to reduce the huge backlog of work that now exists.

It is commonplace to state that the United Kingdom is a maritime nation. Without free access to and from our ports our people may lack prosperity or go hungry. The fortunate development of offshore oil, actual in the North Sea and potential in other areas—especially in the western area of the United Kingdom—reinforces and re-emphasises the need for an adequate hydrographic capacity. The truth is no less valid for its plain restatement. The apparent indifference of past Adminstrations to the need to protect what we have is, I believe, a piece of criminal negligence. Let us not forget that we have not yet evaluated the potential riches of the sea bed. I believe that ultimately the sea bed may be an Aladdin's Cave of mineral deposits. How necessary it is that we should be fully informed!

Admiralty charts and publications have a thoroughly deserved reputation for excellence. As a user, in war and peace, I would not qualify in any way my respect for them. They are undoubtedly the best in the world. As the Admiral of the House of Commons Yacht Club, I find it a pleasure to make that plain statement.

However, a chart, even an Admiralty chart, is only as good and as adequate as the detailed information on which it is based. Much of the information available about the coasts around Britain is inadequate. For example, less than 30 per cent. of the United Kingdom's continental shelf has been surveyed to the latest modern standards. This includes about one-third of the areas which are now part of the traffic separation schemes around our coastline—in the Dover Straits, around the Isles of Scilly and the Lizard, Kintyre, the Casquets, and so on.

Sixty-eight per cent. of the whole area of the United Kindom continental shelf—that is, about 126,000 square nautical miles—is either unsurveyed or was only partially surveyed by lead and line between 45 and 170 years ago. The unsurveyed areas include even the approaches to various ports—for example, the Humber. My. hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will know that lately there have been indications of shallower depths than had been expected off Anglesey, in the approaches to the port of Milford Haven, on the North-West coast of Scotland, and so on. There are many more examples that I could give, but the Minister will know them as well as I do.

Our coastal waters being so inadequately surveyed, the implications for maritime safety are horrendous; for the last 20 years have seen a revolution in merchant shipping and maritime transport. In the nineteenth century, 27 ft. was perhaps the normal maximum draught. In the 1960s—I remember well—draughts exceeding 60 ft. were considered impossible. However, today merchant ships may draw as much as 100 ft. and are prepared to navigate with as little as 10 per cent. of their draught, namely, 10 ft. or 3 metres, about a fathom and a half, under their keels.

Our hydrographic effort has simply not kept pace with these developments. The tragedies, or perhaps it should be incompetencies, of such wrecks as the "Amoco Cadiz" and the "Torrey Canyon" are fresh in mind. So they should be, for they are frightening precedents. There are some 16,000 known wrecks in the 186,000 square nautical miles of our continental shelf. Recent work by HMS "Bulldog" with side scan sonar in an area of only 200 square nautical miles between the Varne Bank and the Dover-Dungeness coastline found 60 more wrecks than had been recorded in a survey which took place as recently as 1960 and which had disclosed 169 wrecks.

So, to put it another way, the fact is that modern equipment has discovered that there are now one-third more wrecks than were previously known in one of the most heavily trafficked areas in the world.

The urgency of the need for full surveys of our coastline and our coastal waters simply cannot be over-stressed. It is a matter of criminal negligence that that is currently the case.

Again, various parts of the sea bed around the United Kingdom are unstable. The southern North Sea and the Sandettie-Fairy Bank area of the Dover Strait are examples.

Additionally, the annual reports of the Hydrographer of the Navy, with which I have no doubt my hon. Friend has been familiar for many years, give a clear indication of the heavy growth of new work: the changes to a new buoyage system under IALA—and how good it is that Trinity House is ahead of some of our Continental neighbours in this respect—the new traffic separation schemes under IMCO, the new chart series under the International Hydrographic Office at Monaco so brilliantly directed by my constituent, a former Hydrographer, Admiral Ritchie, the omega lattice charts, and the new series now being introduced, for example, to accommodate the growing armada of yachtsmen.

I put the catalogue shortly. It represents a huge programme of essential work.

In 1975, nearly five years ago now, the hydrographic study group recommended a minimum work programme. It is well behind schedule. In other words, we are not even keeping up with that minimum. I do not talk about what is desirable. I talk about the minimum, and we are not keeping up with it. There was even a proposal to subcontract some work to commercial firms. I do not know whether that was right or not, but it was never done. Two of the five possible companies—Kelvin-Hughes Survey Limited and Sonar Marine Limited—have gone into liquidation.

In April 1977, the Queen's award for industry was presented to the Hydro-graphic Service. I was deeply pleased and honoured to be invited to that ceremony in Taunton. The award was an honour that was richly deserved.

Afloat or ashore, at home or abroad, the men and women of the Hydrographic Service are dedicated and competent and brilliantly led, not least by the present Hydrographer, Admiral Haslam, who is heir to the noble and excellent traditions of his predecessors.

I was sorry that some of the men and women in the service were made so unhappy by recent disputes about pay in which I am not clear that their interests were properly understood before the settlement. I hope that that matter is now behind us. They are successful and their success can be measured. In 1977, Taunton sold 3·3 million charts, twice the 1968 volume, and about 600,000 other publications—about treble the 1968 sales.

I am arguing for money to be spent on the service and I do so at a time when the Government are cutting expenditure. I am a proponent of that and have been a proponent of better value for money for many years, not least during the time that I had the honour to be chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. However, here is a service which pays its way and makes money for Britain. I believe that it could make much more. The service deserves, and the nation needs, better practical encouragement, and that is exactly what it did not get from the previous Administration. I raise the subject because I look to the Secretary of State for Defence to bring about a radical improvement.

The service urgently needs expansion. Past uncertainties about its future have led to a serious shortage of specialist personnel. There is a 12 per cent. shortfall of officers and a 10 per cent. shortfall of surveying recorders below present requirements.

That is not surprising, because although the survey group report to which I have referred recommended in 1974 increasing the size of the survey fleet of four ocean ships, four coastal survey vessels and eight, now obsolete, inshore survey craft to four, eight and eight respectively—the eight inshore craft to be of new design—we are nowhere near letting contracts for new construction.

On the subject of construction, perhaps I should mention another worry that I should like to put on record. We have an urgent need for a new offshore patrol vessel with reasonable capital and operating costs. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider those excellent designs, the Condor and the Osprey, and will consider the Hawk design for inshore work. That seems to be a most suitable design.

The Condor and Osprey would also be suitable convoy escorts. It is remarkable to reflect, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and you are knowledgeable about naval matters—that we had about 350 potential convoy escorts on the books in 1935 and by the end of the war in 1945 we had 1,250. It is not possible to identify many more than 100 today. Condor and Osprey would be a valuable recruitment in that regard. The alternatives seem to be more expensive and less suitable, with less export potential. It is wrong to suggest that only Bath, however excellent it may be, can design naval ships and that only the so-called traditional naval yards can build them.

Coming back to the hydrographic department, I emphasise that it has a brilliant record of work overseas, often for overseas Governments. It was astonishing to see in a recent written answer that, although there are 67 coastal States without hydrography, the Ministry of Overseas Development reported in 1978–79 that there was no identifiable request for the services of the Hydrographer. That seems to show an extraordinary indifference to the opportunity for selling the services of the hydrographic department.

Even the Ministry of Defence cannot escape blame. It has seemed to give the hydrographic department little priority. The half-life refits of two ocean survey ships recently were seriously delayed or extended and urgent hydrographic work, in turn, was delayed. Now we have announcements, some covert, some overt, that the Defence Ministry is apparently willing to fund only about 47 per cent. of the cost of the survey service. There has even been talk of paying off vessels. I find that latter suggestion wholly unacceptable. I believe that the Defence Ministry would be right to argue that the Hydrographic Service is not merely a defence requirement but also a commercial requirement, perhaps in these days more a commercial than a defence requirement.

I personally think that the Department of Trade, where I once had the honour to be a Minister, has a duty to contribute substantially. So have other Ministries. I would be very much in favour of seeing this happen. We are talking about practical expenditure in the national interest.

The debate about these matters has gone on for four or five years. This foolishness and this shilly-shallying must stop. The Government's indecision and vacillation are as inexcusable as they are dangerous. I wish my hon. Friend every success in his most responsible office. I look to him, in particular, to make Britain's excellent hydrographic service, which owes so much to the old traditions of Cook and Beaufort and the navigators of old times, at least adequate for the needs of today.

11.46 pm

I should like to take the opportunity of thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) for raising again this most important subject and for giving me the opportunity to speak about the hydrographic service. I also thank him for the kind remarks he has made about me personally. As a former naval officer, I know the value of charts and the value of the work of the Hydrographer and his department. The House will surely acknowledge that the contribution by successive Hydrographers to the safety of shipping is inestimable.

I think I can say without fear of correction that the maritime community throughout the world recognises the debt that it owes to the Hydrographer of the Navy. Through the years and across the oceans his works as I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree, has been of unparalleled excellence. The words "Admiralty chart" instil a confidence that no other chart can match. I should like to take the opportunity to associate myself with what my right hon. Friend said and pay my personal tribute to members of the hydrographic department, Service personnel and civilians alike. We can be justly proud of the efforts of the hydro-graphic service and of the excellent work done by the staff at all levels.

As my right hon. Friend said, I had the pleasure in August of going down to his constituency and visiting the hydro-graphic department and seeing, at first hand, the complexities and the intricacy of the work that is being carried out there. I was impressed by the enthusiasm and motivation of all members of the staff whom I met at Taunton. Theirs is a most responsible and demanding job. The compilation and production of a chart cannot be hurried but all details must be carefully and repeatedly checked, since a single error at any stage could, if not spotted and corrected, cause the stranding of a vessel with possible loss of life and damage to the environment.

I am pleased to say, and I am sure my right hon. Friend would agree, that morale at Taunton was good, justifiably so in view of the importance that we attach to defence in general and to hydrography in particular, and in view of the significance of the hydrographic department's work of providing all those who go down to the sea in ships with the basic tools they need for safe navigation.

While at Taunton I was able to inspect new facilities currently under construction. These will house staff and will also provide a storage area. I was personally delighted to approve a £1 million project for the installation of equipment to improve the operating conditions in the print room and to provide air conditioning and humidity control for the large stores of paper that the department needs to hold. This I believe helps to illustrate the confidence which we have in the work of the Hydrographer.

I hope to be able to see the other side of the hydrographic department's activities when, early next month, I plan to visit HMS "Beagle" while she is engaged on her surveying tasks in the Irish Sea. I am looking forward to seeing in some detail and at first hand the various operations involved in collecting the raw data which is sent in to Taunton to be incorporated in our charts. I understand that—as in the work done ashore—increasing use is being made of automation and modern technology, but, here too, the work is painstaking and extremely methodical, as it has to be.

I believe that the achievements of the Hydrographer in the defence field have been very considerable over the past few years. In the civil field, too he has done much of which we can be justly proud. For example, my right hon. Friend may be right in saying that not enough has been done, but a substantial programme of hydrographic surveying has been undertaken both in the United Kingdom waters and overseas during the last decade. We have eight large, modem surveying ships which are at least as good as those of most comparable maritime nations and have plans to replace the smaller inshore survey vessels.

Over the last few years, this fleet has concentrated on areas within the United Kingdom continental shelf where work is required most urgently in the national interest—in other words, where the defence and non-defence priorities coincide. At present, about 30 per cent. of the shallower waters around our island have been surveyed to modern standards and this percentage is increasing steadily each year.

In addition, the Hydrographer has been moving forward to improve the clarity and general usefulness of his whole range of 3,500 charts. A major programme to modernise all the charts of our worldwide series was started 10 years ago; this involves re-scheming all the charts and recompiling them from all the basic data available.

At the same time, the unit for depths and vertical heights is being changed to metres. To date, all the large and medium scale charts of our own waters have been re-issued in modern format and the Hydrographer is now turning his attention to the charts of overseas waters. Not only material from our own ships is used. Under the auspices of the International Hydrographic Organisation, all information affecting the safety of shipping is freely exchanged internationally and most of the Admiralty charts are based on data received in this way from a very wide variety of sources—including foreign hydrographic offices, many port and harbour authorities and commercial surveying and engineering companies.

Much useful information is received from individual ships and mariners, and each year about 3,000 notices to mariners and 1,500 radio navigational warnings are issued by the hydrographic department; each week charts awaiting sale are hand-corrected so that each is up to date on the day of sale. That operation is unique to our hydrographic department.

Additionally, a special service has recently been established by the Hydrographer to meet the rather different needs of yachtsmen and navigators of small craft. This consists of a compendium of notices to mariners relevant to the owners of small craft. I know that this will please my right hon. Friend in another of his capacities. Charts, therefore, are being modernised and are being improved all the time; standards are being maintained and raised wherever possible.

The report of the Trade and Industry Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee was warm in its praise of the accuracy of the charts. It drew attention to the fact that considerable areas of sea have not been surveyed to modern standards. I accept this point, although, as I have indicated, the percentage surveyed is increasing annually. At the same time, it confirmed that the standard of British Admiralty charts is very high and that no tanker accident is known to have been caused by chart deficiency. Our charts, when used by the prudent mariner, are quite sufficient for safe navigation.

My right hon. Friend in earlier Adjournment debates has taken successive holders of my office to task for delays in resolving the long-standing difficulties over providing additional hydrographic effort to meet the needs of the civil community.

The basic problem is well known, and was described by my right hon. Friend. At the heart of the matter is the provision of resources for an increasing task, which has been carried out and funded by the Royal Navy since the hydrographical department—as it was then known—was formed in 1795.

Until fairly recently, the draughts of warships and merchant ships were more or less comparable, whilst the areas in which they were interested were related. But, with the size and draught of large and very large merchant ships growing steadily in relation to the size of the Royal Navy's largest surface ships, these are now in different leagues. As my right hon. Friend reminded us, merchant ships are also operating along new routes and to new oil terminals not normally used by warships. Warships, too, need to operate in areas away from the heaviest concentration of merchant ships in order to have the maximum freedom, and they need to know more about the structure of the actual water column itself. As a result, demands on our Hydrographic Service have grown and diversified over recent years.

At the same time, pressures have increased on the defence budget, as a result of the rising cost of the sophisticated equipment which the Services need nowadays and the need to recruit and retain the right kind of personnel. The previous Administration's cuts served only to increase the pressure. We are taking steps to rectify these problems, but the fact remains that the demands on the defence budget are always considerable.

My predecessor at this Dispatch Box also enjoyed the immeasurable benefits of a naval background, like my right hon. Friend and me. If I may say so, he has his heart in the right place even if some of his right hon. and hon. Friends were not persuaded of the importance to the nation and to the Western alliance of maintaining an adequate and effective defence capability. But, friend though he was of the Royal Navy, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) found that it was not easy to take on new commitments in the hydrographic field. The problem is a very difficult one. I am the first to admit it.

The previous Administration were not able to reach rapid conclusions about the future tasks of the Hydrographer in support of the civil community and the resources needed to carry out this task. I accept that this delay was caused not by dilatoriness on their part but by the complexity of the problems they faced and by the need to appraise them carefully in view of the sums of money involved.

I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will not look too critically on me when I say that we must assure ourselves that the decisions reached by the previous Administration were the right ones. I am not saying that we necessarily reject them. What I am saying is that we must make sure that the most reasonable and practicable solutions are reached.

Work is already well in hand to review the whole problem. We intend to reach a conclusion at the earliest possible moment. We have no intention of taking any longer than is absolutely necessary. It would be wrong for me to go into details at this stage or to speculate about possible conclusions. But, while not excluding other issues, we are looking particularly carefully at the funding of expenditure on civil hydrography. In the light of the Royal Navy's current manpower problems we are also looking at ways and means of ensuring that the future hydrographic fleet is manned with the experts required to provide the basic data from which Admiralty charts are developed.

In the meantime, pending the outcome of our study, we are pressing on at full speed with initial feasibility studies for the three new coastal survey vessels which the previous Administration decided to order in their last days.

I should not close without a reference to the recent industrial dispute at Taunton. Regrettable though it was, I think I can assure the House that every effort is being made to recover lost ground as quickly as practicable.

During the dispute the issue of notices to mariners and radio navigation warnings continued as usual. Supplies of charts were maintained as far as possible from stock held at Taunton and in agents' hands in different parts of this country and the world. But by the end of the dispute stocks were substantially depleted. The Hydrographer's first aim was to restore the full range of charts as quickly as possible. This was achieved within four weeks of resumption of printing by the adoption as a temporary measure of two-colour versions instead of the normal four-colour versions. These temporary charts are not, of course, as convenient to all users as normal charts. In the course of the next few months they will be replaced by normal four-colour versions. All mariners will be advised when full-colour versions are available. I am sure the House will welcome this.

My right hon. Friend briefly mentioned the Osprey and the question of using it as a patrol vessel or escort vessel. Royal Navy representatives recently went to sea in the Danish-built Osprey. Their report on her performance relates specifically to her potential for offshore patrol duties in United Kingdom waters, and I think I can also say escort duties. They found her unsuitable for these duties, although the shortcomings revealed would not necessarily be relevant when considering Osprey for other less onerous tasks.

Specifically, her endurance was inadequate for normal Royal Navy patrol operations, her seakeeping was poor, and her motion uncomfortable. The arrangements for boat-handling were unsatisfactory, and the ship's motion was such that a helicopter could be safely flown on only a few days each year. In addition, her watertight integrity was inadequate to meet the Royal Navy requirement for operations in exposed waters.

To summarise, I found morale good at Taunton on my recent visit. As I have explained, every effort is being made to get back to normal as quickly as possible. The Hydrographer continues to provide an invaluable service for the nation and for the world. As for the future, I can assure my right hon. Friend and the whole House that the Government intend to reach conclusions at the earliest possible opportunity.

Important factors in our considerations are the need to maintain a substantial defence hydrographic capability, the requirements of the civil shipping community, and the need to take a decision without any undue delay. In coming to their decisions, the Government have been greatly helped by the views expressed by my right hon. Friend this evening. This short debate has highlighted the problems and my right hon. Friend has suggested the way ahead.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute past Twelve o'clock.