[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the reintroduction of the Royal Yacht Britannia for the purpose of international trade.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, for what I think is the first time, in this important debate. We have to ask ourselves what sort of Britain we want to live in and what we in this Parliament can do to try to make Britain great again. On 23 June, the British public said that they wanted to take back control, be independent of the European Union, stand tall in the world again and project our power and influence around the globe as an independent nation.
The Government’s interpretation of that has been put forward as “Brexit means Brexit.” I believe that if Brexit is to mean successful Brexit, it should also mean the return of our royal yacht. Today, I want to set out the case for the renewal of the royal yacht, which is both economic and patriotic and, crucially, would be at low cost, if not no cost, to the taxpayer.
Since I launched the campaign, I have been supported by Ministers past and present, 100 colleagues on the Government Benches, The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Times, the Sunday Express and, most vociferously of all, Christopher Hope of The Daily Telegraph. That support is welcome and has been crucial in making today’s debate a success. However, the most moving and compelling arguments have been made not by newspapers or colleagues but by the hundreds of members of the public who have written or emailed me comments and suggestions of support. Some have gone as far as sending me cheques, and some have even offered to give up their winter fuel allowance this year to pay for a new royal yacht. Those hundreds of selfless acts and offers of help from the public are a demonstration of a proud nation, eager to support our royal family; a nation with hope and pride for our future. The British public have realised—perhaps before politicians—that a royal yacht is not some sepia-tinted look back to the 1950s, but about the Britain that their children, and indeed their grandchildren, will inhabit.
It will not surprise colleagues to hear that not all of the correspondence has been positive or supportive. I want to deal here and now, at the start of the debate, with those who seek to rubbish the idea of a new royal yacht and the contribution that our royal family can make to Great Britain and her future.
Our head of state is an inspirational leader who can represent our United Kingdom in a way that no other global leader can match. Over 60 years, she has met 4 million people in person, equivalent to the population of New Zealand. She is Queen of 16 countries and has travelled more widely than any other head of state in history. One of her greatest achievements has been to build our Commonwealth from eight members in 1952 to the 54 of today.
The Commonwealth represents a unique family of nations spanning every continent and global religion and covering nearly a third of the world’s population. Our Commonwealth is rightly the envy of the world, and in the years ahead this international body will be of growing importance and influence to the UK and its economy as we grow and succeed outside the European Union. A royal yacht is crucial to the leader of our Commonwealth. When launching Britannia on the Clyde in 1953, she said:
“My father felt most strongly, as I do, that a yacht was a necessity, and not a luxury for the head of the British Commonwealth, between whose countries the sea is no barrier, but the natural highway.”
Britain has the fifth largest economy in the world and remains the third largest maritime power. We as a nation have a unique history in connection with the sea. As an island race, our relationship with the sea is written into our DNA. The relationship has been represented on behalf of our nation, both symbolically and in actuality, by a history of royal yachts stretching back to the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II. We are foolish to have turned our back on the sea and all that it represents for our nation through our failure to renew the royal yacht Britannia in 1997.
I believe that Britain as a nation is partly blind to the perception around the globe of all that she represents. Our country, and in particular our royal family, have an unmatchable global reach. President Barack Obama, speaking at the funeral of President Shimon Peres recently, described our Queen as one of the
“giants of the 20th century that I have had the honour to meet”.
In a post-Brexit Britain, we need our head of state now more than ever. She can uniquely portray a positive role for our nation around the globe, and a new royal yacht is vital in her doing that.
A royal yacht, unlike our recently acquired state plane, is a small piece of Britain that can move from international port to international port, showing the soft power and prestige of our nation. It is a floating royal palace that can be used to host meetings as a platform for our humanitarian mission around the globe, and a showcase for the best of British industry. No other country, if presented with such an opportunity, would have squandered it away in the court of public opinion and envy, as happened in 1997 with the decommissioning of the royal yacht Britannia.
It is true that the role of the royal yacht changed since its introduction with Charles II. I would like to concentrate on the contribution that Britannia made to trade at the end of her service. Britannia was decommissioned in 1997 after more than 40 years in service. She conducted 968 official visits and clocked up more than a million miles at sea. In her later years—between 1991 and 1995—she is estimated to have brought £3 billion of commercial trade deals to our country. In 1993, on one trip to India alone, £1.3 billion of trade deals were signed. It is acknowledged that those deals would have been signed in any event, but the presence of Britannia sped up the negotiations from years to days. To put that into the context of the renewal and running of a royal yacht, the deal signed on that one trip would have paid for a royal yacht in its entirety and its annual running costs for 100 years.
During those commercially profitable years, Britannia hosted business figures from across the globe on what were called sea days, on which opportunities were discussed and trade agreements struck. Sea days took place around the coast of Britain and abroad, and were always organised to coincide with an official visit by Britannia. The prestige associated with Britannia attracted prominent figures from commerce and industry to attend the sea days. Invitations were sent in the name of Her Majesty the Queen, with key decision makers in global companies targeted. On occasion, a member of the royal family would also attend. A royal invitation to conduct business on the most exclusive yacht in the world was impossible for even the most successful businesspeople to resist. It is my view that a renewed royal yacht could be used in just that way today.
Hon. Members do not have to take my word for that—they can take the word of Henry Catto, who was the US ambassador to the Court of St James’s between 1989 and 1991. He found himself in the lucky position of being chief of protocol in 1976 when Her Majesty the Queen visited America. He wrote in his book:
“I was literally besieged with people wanting invitations to the various functions on board. Corporate moguls would devise the most outlandish reasons as to why they should be invited; society matrons would throw themselves at me”—
Members are listening now.
“In short, that ship was a superb tool for British industry and the British nation and to let her go and not replace her would be a great pity”.
Compare that with Barack Obama’s comments that the UK would be at the back of the queue in any trade deal with the United States. That shows the huge contribution a new royal yacht could make: we could go from the back of the queue to the front, just by using the power, prestige and global influence of our royal family.
Until now, the European Commission has been responsible for negotiating international trade deals on behalf of EU member states, meaning that the United Kingdom has not had a dedicated team of trade negotiators since 1973. The Minister, who is new in his Department, will acknowledge that negotiating British trade abroad is a huge task, but it would be made significantly easier, in my view, by the royal yacht and by the presence of our royal family.
I hope that I have made the case for the return of the royal yacht for the purposes of trade and explained the role it can play for Britain, but I also want to talk about what I believe a future royal yacht should look like and, crucially, how it should be funded. There are some basic rules we must follow. It must belong to the state, it must fly the white ensign and it must have a strong connection with our royal family. It has to belong to the state so it has the benefit of diplomatic immunity when it visits international harbours around the globe; it has to fly the white ensign, because it is crucial that it is crewed by our Royal Navy; and it has to have a strong connection with our royal family, as that is the unique quality that will make its service to our nation succeed.
Is it correct that the old royal yacht Britannia was actually a hospital ship that was used during the course of conflict, and that it was able to make a major contribution in helping our sick and injured servicemen and women?
That is absolutely correct. I propose that any new royal yacht would again offer a multitude of services, whether as a trade envoy, a hospital ship or a research and development vessel for our science and industry.
There are several proposals for what type of ship we should build, as well as proposals to recommission the existing royal yacht Britannia, which stands proudly in Leith docks. They should all be explored, but I will talk about my personal preference, which is to build a new royal yacht along the lines of the proposals put to the Government in the 1990s. The future royal yacht project envisaged a new ship that would be slightly smaller than Britannia but similar in design. Crucially, it would have an increased range and a much-reduced crewing requirement and would be much cheaper to run. It has been estimated that the ship would cost about £100 million to construct and could be funded either through private donations—for example, by giving industry naming rights for certain decks and rooms—through a private finance initiative model or through public fundraising.
The final idea of the future royal yacht commission was that the Bibby shipping line would construct a new royal yacht, with the Government putting no money whatever toward its construction. The Government would then use it on a bareboat charter basis for 12 years at an estimated cost of £7 million a year. After the initial 12 years’ use had expired, the yacht would become the property of our nation. While those charter figures are historical and may be out of date, I believe that the different ideas out there about how the yacht could be funded show that there are many ways in which we could commission a royal yacht with no up-front cost to the taxpayer.
The reason why I believe a new royal yacht is preferable to recommissioning the existing royal yacht Britannia is that such a vessel is about our country’s future, not its past. It should be a shop window for what is best about British shipbuilding. I imagine the engines might be provided by Rolls-Royce or Perkins, while the hull would be constructed using British steel in a British shipyard. The IT and communications system would be the best that Silicon roundabout in London could offer. It would be a thoroughly modern ship, reflecting a modern nation and a modern monarchy that is willing and able to serve Britain across the globe.
Today’s debate is an opportunity to show that a new royal yacht commands significant public support. British industry is already calling for the opportunity to showcase its world-beating ingenuity and engineering talent across the globe. Financial backers have come forward with ideas about how the royal yacht could be paid for, and more than 100 Members have signed a letter, published in The Daily Telegraph, calling on the Government to set up a commission to look at what service a royal yacht could provide our nation.
The people backing the campaign are not self-interested or driven by preferment. They want to make the dream of a new royal yacht a reality, and they offer their service to our nation without hesitation. That is why I hope the Minister will agree to set up a Government commission to carry out a full cost-benefit analysis of the contribution that a new royal yacht could make to our nation. That commission would act as a rallying point for all those who are interested in the project. It would be a place for people to offer their help and expertise and a place for those who are willing to make a significant financial contribution to try to make this happen.
In the long history of the Government’s involvement with the renewal of the royal yacht, offers of help have all too often gone unanswered. Expertise has been lost and opportunity upon opportunity has been missed. Brexit is a new chapter in our nation’s story, and I hope that the Government will be able to match the hope and optimism demonstrated by its people.
I commend my hon. Friend on his campaign, which I and more than 100 of my colleagues wholeheartedly support. He has mentioned the Government’s relationship with the royal yacht. In view of the clear advantages that a new royal yacht could provide in fostering trade and international relations, does he agree that it might be appropriate if a number of Government Departments were to share the running costs—not least the Department for International Development, which has a rising budget?
I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friend. It is interesting that some of the countries to which we have recently given, and continue to give, international aid have their own state yacht. India has a state yacht, and it was a recipient of international aid from this country until recently. The Philippines has a state yacht. Turkey has a state yacht. Here in Britain—the fifth largest economy in the world, as I said earlier—we feel it is something we cannot afford. Personally, I think that is a national disgrace.
I very much support my hon. Friend’s campaign and am one of the 100 signatories. Whichever model we choose, can we ensure that it is tasteful and not a gin palace or a Philip Green-type vessel?
My serious and substantive point is that in choosing the Government Departments that may chip in, we must ensure that the Royal Navy does not pick up all of the tab, since the Royal Navy does other things. While it is right that the yacht is badged with the white ensign, will my hon. Friend give some thought to how we can ensure that the Navy in particular does not pick up the tab in the way that it used to? That was the main bone of contention when I was serving, and it really rankled. We must ensure that the cost is spread more logically, preferably from the private sector, but certainly not by damaging defence. He will know that the yacht will present one whopping great target and will require frigates and destroyers to protect it, and that clearly comes with a cost.
I agree wholeheartedly that the cost should be spread over many Departments. The benefit of setting up a commission is that we could also look at spreading the cost across the Commonwealth. There is no reason why the Canadian navy, the New Zealand navy and navies from other Commonwealth countries could not be involved in crewing or contributing to the royal yacht. In fact, in the most recent proposals for a royal yacht, which were in 2012—it was called the jubilee yacht and was discussed widely in the newspapers at the time—a significant donation of some £10 million was offered by a Canadian financier. He is not British and does not live in the United Kingdom, but he acknowledged the huge opportunity that a royal yacht could bring to the Commonwealth, not just to the United Kingdom. The cost should be shared among Departments, but the commission could also look at the opportunity of sharing the cost among other members of our Commonwealth.
Today’s debate has shown there is real appetite to explore this issue. The Government should match the optimism of their own people. I want to be part of a Government who are brave enough to say that a new royal yacht should play its part in making Britain the leading free trade economy in the world. Her Majesty the Queen does not bend to the will of newspapers; she is constant. Our Government should not bend to the will of newspapers. They should do what is in our national interest, and I believe that commissioning a new royal yacht is in this nation’s interest.
May I congratulate the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on introducing such an excellent motion so well? I am very pleased to have the chance to speak today, especially as I missed the chance to sign the letter—I wish I had been able to be part of it.
A few years ago, before the royal yacht was decommissioned, it came to the north coast of Northern Ireland. There was immense pride. It was in all our newspapers, and it lifted everybody. During the royal visit, the yacht invited on board and celebrated the charities and the businessmen we have in Northern Ireland, and did everything that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. When we think about how fantastic a new royal yacht and its work in the Commonwealth could be, another factor is how well the royal family has gone down in Ireland, and all the work Ireland and Northern Ireland have to do together. Whether Prince Charles’s visit last year or the Queen’s momentous visit to Dublin, they illustrate what a new royal yacht could do for us, not only in Europe but in the whole world.
I was interested to hear the suggestions for how we would finance the royal yacht. One of my greatest concerns when I looked at this was how we could finance it—could PFIs work? Could donors help? Could the Commonwealth get involved? Today we have had presented to us an excellent idea of how that could be achievable. I want to see the best of industry involved. We want the new royal yacht to be an example of what is best—not a gaudy gin palace, as has been said, but the mark of everything that is best about the United Kingdom. We must set that target in place and all work together. This is a fantastic idea, and I am glad to be here to support it.
I too am delighted to serve under your leadership, Mr Chope, and wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on this initiative and on an excellent speech. I was involved in this campaign when I was at the Ministry of Defence about five years ago. I believe profoundly in this cause, so I am delighted that my hon. Friend has taken it up. One of the darker moments of my political life was the picture of Her Majesty the Queen standing on the dockside with something of a tear in her eye as the royal yacht Britannia was finally decommissioned. It was a great disservice to Her Majesty. Let us hope therefore that we can now put that error right.
As my hon. Friend said, Brexit makes the building of a new royal yacht not a luxury but a must-have. As we embrace the new world, reigniting the unrivalled historic relationships Britain has enjoyed around the world and forging new trade links, a new royal yacht would be a brilliant addition to our national trade promotion toolkit. Sadly, however sleek and dignified the lines of Britannia remain, I am advised by experienced naval personnel that refurbishing the existing royal yacht is simply not a starter. In any case, this presents us with a magnificent opportunity to celebrate the latest skills to be found in our national dockyards across the country, from Appledore to the Clyde and, of course, Northern Ireland.
We have the opportunity to construct a brand new, potent symbol of our newly reasserted national sovereignty through a ship whose presence in every port across the globe will make a statement of our national intent. Whether hosting an export drive, carrying the Prime Minister to important international events or, of course, bearing the sovereign on a state visit, the new royal yacht would be a symbol of our country in which the entire nation could once again take pride. As my hon. Friend so rightly said, it would enable us to stand tall in the world. I pay tribute not only to my hon. Friend, who has picked up this ball and run with it, but to The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun. We had better name-check Quentin Letts, because we cannot let Christopher Hope get away with the only mention here—a favourable reference please, Mr Letts.
I would like to make an important point. Too often, our media have dismissed such ventures as luxuries the nation cannot afford, translating the cost into x number of hospital beds or y number of teachers. The coalition Government finally overcame the criticisms of what was dubbed “Blair Force One” in respect of the very modest £10 million VIP module for the Royal Air Force’s new A300 Voyager transport aircraft. At last, the Queen and the Prime Minister can fly around the world in a modern RAF jet instead of the ignominy of watching on our televisions as our Prime Minister turns up to be greeted at some foreign venue—I remember in particular when it happened with President Obama—in a third-world chartered commercial airliner. I felt very embarrassed, and I think many other people shared that sense of embarrassment.
There is a serious value in projects such as this, because they tell the world something about how we see ourselves. We are neither a third-world nor a second-rate power; we are a world leader and we should not be ashamed of proclaiming the same. I know the difference it made when I was a Defence Minister. If I pitched up at some international gathering in a Royal Air Force aeroplane, with Royal Air Force roundels on it, I would be treated with greater respect than had I turned up in the alternative desired by some media—an easyJet flight. There would not have been a string of cars with blue lights waiting to greet a British Minister; it would have been some minor official. This is very important to the dignity of our country. It is not a luxury, as I had the privilege of experiencing, and we need to ensure that people understand that.
I give way to my surgeon commander friend.
I succeeded my hon. Friend in ministerial office. He will remember, as I do, the effectiveness of running trade missions from the back of destroyers and frigates, not only for defence and security but a range of British export possibilities. How much more effective does he think this yacht will be, going around the world projecting what is best in British export, than those very effective trade missions in which he and I were involved?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I recall signing a treaty with the Brazilians aboard HMS Ocean. It was very instructive because of what the Brazilian Defence Minister said to me at our first meeting. Apropos of nothing, he stretched out his hand and said, “There is only one Navy in the world, Minister.” He paused and said, “It is true the United States has a Navy, but there is only one Navy: the Royal Navy.” Why should a Brazilian say that? Because of Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane. There is not a child in Brazil or Chile who has not heard of him. Sadly, thanks to our education system, there is not a child in the United Kingdom who has heard of him. He was once the Member of Parliament for Westminster and the amazing liberator of Brazil and Chile from foreign rule. We are respected around the world and a new royal yacht would add to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen has made the case for trade, so I will not repeat it.
I also agree that the new ship must fly under the white ensign in the name of the Royal Navy. That will of course add to the cost, and we all know about the enormous pressure on naval personnel and on the MOD budget more generally, so, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) suggested, the cost of acquisition should be split between four Government Departments: the MOD, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Foreign Office and, of course, the rich as Croesus Department for International Development. We have to find something good to come out of its money.
Finally, I do not think anything exemplified the enormous respect and affection that the British people have for Her Majesty the Queen as much as the diamond jubilee. What struck people was the extraordinary selfless service that she has given to our nation. We as a nation ought to reflect the profound thanks that our people have for her leadership of our country over 60 years by procuring a new royal yacht, in her name and on her behalf, to serve the purposes set out in this debate, as that would be an enduring way of marking the most astonishing period of leadership by our sovereign, Her Majesty the Queen. So I say, “Rule, Britannia”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I declare an interest of sorts: Britannia is moored in my constituency. It is not going anywhere, partly because one of its propellers has been melted down and is now in the form of a statue of a yottie, or royal yachtsman, and partly because it is owned privately by a trust; it is not in public hands.
The hon. Lady might show true respect to the royal yacht Britannia if she described it not as “it” but as “she”.
That semantic point is appreciated.
The yacht is promoted as the museum piece that she is, harking back to a time that cannot be recaptured: a piece from the days of steamships, polished and gleaming from bow to stern, beautifully cared for as a floating curiosity, but not a working ship, so recommissioning is out of the question. I assume Members have had a look at the YouGov poll and seen that the building of a new royal yacht is not supported. In fact, only among Conservative voters, by 41% to 39%, are there more people in favour of building it than not, and when we ask about whether the money to build and run a new ship could be justified, even Conservative voters turn against it.
It is notable, too, that Scotland has a more solid opposition to the idea than anywhere else: 60% against recommissioning, 66% against buying a new one and 68% think the costs cannot be justified. The costs, which are important at a time when working families have joined benefit claimants in the queues at food banks, are simply unjustifiable. We have heard there are lots of ways in which the yacht could be funded, but we have heard no firm proposals. As usual, the burden would fall on the long-suffering taxpayer. Like PFI and PPP and every other cunning plan that Governments come up with, it would cost the public purse, not private finance.
As has been mentioned, the old yacht had a crew of 250 and 21 officers drawn from the Navy. On royal duty it had a platoon of marines on board and warships accompanying it. I am guessing the Navy’s top brass do not have a new royal yacht as their dearest ambition, given the current state of their resources. Then we get to the capital costs. Are they to come from a defence budget already groaning under the pressure of carrying Trident, or are they to come from another part of the public purse? Given what we hear repeatedly about the shortages of equipment that armed forces personnel face, can anyone justify adding another capital spend to that burden?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution to the debate. I think she is arguing that the public should not pay for the royal yacht, but would she support a royal yacht if it was funded privately?
The public say they are not supportive of the recommissioning of the yacht. That does not take into the account the running costs, which it has been suggested will come from several Departments, including the Department for International Trade. If the intent is to take the capital spend and running costs from elsewhere in the public purse, where will that blow fall? Given the austerity fetish that the former Chancellor inflicted on all of us and the reported comments of the current Chancellor that he intends to deliver on all of the already planned cuts, where exactly is the spare cash to come from? And how exactly does anyone square the fact that benefit sanctions mean that the poorest, weakest and most disadvantaged people are left to go cold and hungry, but we will all be paying for what must seem to them a new pleasure cruiser for the royal family? This is just a wistful throwback to the days of the Raj, a pleading with history to run backwards and ignore the dodgy bits on the way. This is a rosy-tinted fiction of a time that never was, a fond imagining that empire was a good thing and that fine gentlemen rise to the occasion upon demand.
It is reminiscent of John Major’s thoughts when he said,
“Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and—as George Orwell said—‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ and if we get our way—Shakespeare still read even in school. Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials.”
He was actually talking about why the UK should remain in the European Union. The current fantasy is a fairy story from the imagination of Brexiteers who imagine the UK has only to denounce the EU to rise again to great heights.
The sad and sorry Britannia plan sounds like the regrets of someone who has missed their chance drawing the tattered remnants of their dreams around them for whatever warmth they can offer while the world rushes by uncaringly. Flash-boat democracy has no place in the modern world, which has changed utterly from the day in 1997 that Britannia was decommissioned. We have emails, electronic trading, smartphones with more computing power than the moon landing craft, and entire businesses that exist only online. This is a different world from the world in which the yacht was decommissioned, never mind the world in which it was commissioned in the first place.
The hon. Lady is obviously having a lot of fun with her caricature. She may have noticed that both Mr Letts and Mr Hope are scribbling down furiously everything she says. None the less, did she not hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) said about the possibilities of the new royal yacht for creating more business opportunities, more revenue, ultimately more tax revenue and therefore more money for the Government for nurses and teachers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I also heard that Blair Force One is still current. I cannot see why that is not being used, as apparently it should be, for trade throughout the world.
I am almost finished. I do not see why we need to commission another yacht at a cost of £60 million in 1997, allegedly £100 million now, and then running costs unknown. The running costs were £66 million between 1990 and 1997. What are those costs today? We have no idea.
As I said, this is a different world. If Members want economic revival they should ask for austerity to be eased, and spending resumed. If they really want international trade to improve, they will petition for UK embassies to be retooled as permanent trade missions. If they want to get on their feet and build an economy they should dump the daft ideas and get on with the serious hard work that is needed. It is what their constituents deserve. They can hang a new bauble on the jacket of the UK as it shuffles down the road, but that does nothing to feed a hungry child, support a struggling industry or boost a flagging economy. Dump the bauble. Get wise about what we have to do now.
I had thought that there was a parliamentary convention that we did not refer to the royal family, but I imagine it has been waived for this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on obtaining the debate and notifying me about it. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who will I understand be making his maiden ministerial speech, if there is such a thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen drew our attention to the fact that many national newspapers support the campaign; that is a very good start. There can surely not be a better year in which to consider the issue than when Her Majesty the Queen is 90 years old. My hon. Friend has already referred to the outstanding service that she has given the country.
I visited Britannia when she was in service. I remember that really there were two ships—the front run by the Navy and the rear an amazing platform for entertaining and persuading people to our interests. I think, from memory, that the dining room table would seat 50. It was a splendid boat. Interestingly, Her Majesty’s quarters were unbelievably spartan, so there was nothing for the Green camp to look at there. It was very rough and ready accommodation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what is different about having a new royal yacht now is that we are sailing into a brave new world, and that we will do, and need to do, many more trade deals across the world? There is a great opportunity not only to support the royal family, but to support the nation in getting those trade deals.
I agree, and I like my hon. Friend’s metaphor about sailing out into a brave new world. We are certainly in a brave new world.
I was, like you, Mr Chope, in the House in 1997 during both the Major Government and the Labour Government, when they took over. I remember the debate on the royal yacht as a complete shambles. The proposition that there should be a new royal yacht was introduced at the end of the Parliament. The failure to secure Labour support was lamentable, and the then Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, Sir Edward Heath, described it as an extraordinary mistake. It was perhaps no surprise that when Labour took power Gordon Brown knocked the project on the head. I still think that, if there had been all-party negotiations at the time, earlier in the Parliament, we would not be having this debate, because the decision would have been carried, but it was too close to a general election and it was too difficult for Labour after the general election.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen has admitted that trade deals that happened on the royal yacht might have happened anyway, but I note the £3 billion of deals that he said were made, and the extraordinary amount of business done on one visit to India. The yacht was always going to provide a tipping point for major deals. I think that that is one of the crucial aspects of the recommissioning of the yacht—the lady, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) would probably like her to be considered.
A new royal yacht that does not earn its keep will not, I think, have public support. I thought that we had already disposed of the point about its being a charge on the public purse. The idea is that it should not be. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) was saying that the cost would be split between four Departments and that we are not talking about a new vessel paid for by some kind of non-governmental subscription, which would be paid back by virtue of the fact that the vessel was the royal yacht and that possibly it would have another role when not being used by Her Majesty.
Incidentally, the royal yacht would of course have to fly the white ensign for security and docking purposes, but it would also fly a totally different set of flags for Her Majesty, one of which would be the flag of a Lord High Admiral, which, from memory, is a deep red colour with an anchor on it. So there would be no dispute about who was on board at any time.
The point made by other hon. Members about Brexit is also relevant. This is a fantastic time for us to build this new flagship of the nation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as he has just mentioned, this is a perfect time to recommission a royal yacht? I have no doubt that we will make trade deals with it, and that in due course it will fund itself and help with diplomacy; but it will send out a massive signal to the world, once we unshackle ourselves from the dead hand of Brussels, that the British are back—confident, proud and outward-looking.
I thank my hon. Friend; there could not possibly be a better time. We need statements of confidence at a time when our currency is fluctuating and there is a degree of uncertainty. It is about our nations coming up to the plate and saying, “Yes, we believe in ourselves.”
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who is a former Defence Minister, touched on the fact that the royal yacht is always accompanied by a warship, usually a frigate. It is also worth making the point that it would be a very secure vessel for Her Majesty and whoever else was present for trade reasons. At a time of cyber-attacks and all kinds of other attacks it is probably better to be in a secure space, as was the case for Her Majesty on her royal visits.
One of the ideas that was mooted was a royal commission. The metaphor for royal commissions is grass so dark and long that one can never see through it. Their history shows that they take for ever. Why on earth do we need a royal commission when surely the simple approach would be to get good people with good money around a table, and come to some agreement with the palace and, no doubt, with my hon. Friend the Minister?
The commission would not necessarily be a royal commission, but a commission with Government support. Having met several leading naval architects who would like to volunteer their services for free, and major engine manufacturers who would like to put engines in the new royal yacht for free, I would say that the difference between warm words of support and their actually coming forward and saying, “Yes, let’s make this happen,” is some form of Government support. They want to support a royal yacht that will serve our nations for decades to come. The best way to ensure that that happens is for the Government to have, even if they do not pay for it, some form of ownership. Until we get that Government hat-tip, as it were, to the idea, I do not think that anyone will come forward with substantive support rather than words.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. I do not think that in my midlands constituency there is support for a new royal yacht that is not paid for by some form of subscription. I do not think that people want it to be a charge on the taxpayer. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who made a flamboyant and exciting speech, would certainly be in that camp.
We would not be having this debate in the first place if the matter had been dealt with properly in 1997. The case for a new royal yacht is overwhelming, provided that the money to fund it comes from the private and not the public sector.
I invite Ian Paisley to follow the example of his colleague from the other part of Antrim, so that we have the opportunity also to hear the hon. Members from Plymouth and Portsmouth who wish to participate, before the winding-up speeches start at half-past 3.
Thank you, Mr Chope, for calling me in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on bringing this important matter to the House. I will be brief, as you have requested, Mr Chope. In fact, I feel like bursting into song and singing, “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! Many, many jobs she intends to save!” I hope that we can get to that point. I hope that the Minister will get on with it, commission the report, commission the work and ensure that we soon have on the high seas this floating advertisement for all that is wonderful about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The question has been posed as to who will build the ship. Well, if the Scots Nats do not want to build it, we have a shipyard in Ulster. The Ulstermen will happily rise to the opportunity to rivet those steel joints together and make that boat for Ulster and for the United Kingdom.
The question is not only who should build the ship, but what will be on board. I hope that it is an advertisement for all that is great—the great foods that we produce and the great products that we have. Perhaps there will even be room enough for a great bus, built in County Antrim, that we can advertise around the world. We will be able to show the many trading opportunities that we have to other parts of the world. We may even have whisky on board—I hope that we will have the whiskey with an e, which is made in Bushmills. Mr Chope, do you know why it has an e? Because it is excellent; that is why it is there.
Where will this ship go? I hope that it goes everywhere on the high seas. From no port should it be turned away. Nowhere shall it be said that the British will not have the opportunity to sell their wares in, yes, this new opportunity to promote trade deals and to promote the United Kingdom post-Brexit.
However, the most important question, which has been posed by the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen, is of course who should pay for the ship. That does deserve rigorous and serious challenge, because at this point we do not require the taxpayer to fork out for everything. There will be perfect harmony in the opportunity for the public, private and charitable sectors to work together to bring about this idea and to ensure that we finally deliver on it and get the ship on to our seas. Therefore, I commend it. I wave the opportunity Godspeed and I hope that the Minister will not torpedo it but support it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on securing this interesting debate.
Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia was based in Portsmouth dockyard and for decades was a familiar sight to my constituents and visitors. She was based at South Railway jetty, the traditional dock for royalty and distinguished visitors travelling by sea. From there she could be seen by every ship coming and going from Portsmouth when she was alongside. There was therefore considerable sadness when Britannia was removed from service without the prospect of a replacement. Portsmouth expects, should Britannia be replaced, that we will be her home again.
Does my hon. Friend agree that actually the only true home for the new royal yacht Britannia should be the country’s only royal harbour—Ramsgate, in my constituency?
That might be one of the cinque ports, but I still think that Portsmouth will be the best place.
There is an excellent case for renewing the role of Britannia as a floating base for UK diplomacy. The royal family are a formidable and hard-working element of the UK’s soft power mission, and a ship equipped with conferencing and hospitality facilities offers them a great base. However, Britannia was not just a floating hotel, but a symbol in her own right of the prestige and reputation of the UK. Many of the deals done by UK exporters aboard Britannia were won without the presence of the royal family, but with the aura of “Great Britain” very much present. It is worth noting that our competitors recognise the usefulness of ships employed in that way, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen said. Many nations operate training ships that actually serve to promote their national interests. The Chinese Government, for instance, have just commissioned a new one.
The motion refers to reintroducing the Britannia but, like other hon. Members, I hope that we will be looking to build a modern replacement for her. Whether this is done by reactivation or replacement, there are some basic principles that the Government should adhere to. First, her home, like Britannia’s, should be Portsmouth. Secondly, as a vessel operated and supported by the Royal Navy, she must not be an excessive burden in terms of either manpower or budget. A good argument for replacing Britannia is that her systems are somewhat outdated and labour-intensive compared with those of modern vessels. She is a steam-age ship in a digital world, with a relatively short range compared with equivalent modern vessels. She could showcase outstanding products from the UK marine sector in her design and build. If the ship exists partly to promote British trade, it follows that not all the burden of paying for her should fall on the MOD budget or, indeed, the taxpayer. Thirdly, her operational use must be as wide as possible. By all means title her a “royal yacht”, but she should be capable of adapting as need requires.
Britannia was designed to operate as a hospital ship in times of crisis, but that happened only once, during a humanitarian crisis in Aden. Alternatively, this ship could be used more intensively than Britannia was, as a mobile educational facility around the UK. We are a country dependent on the sea for our past security and future prosperity, yet we are increasingly “sea-blind”. Air travel is the long-distance mode of transport that dominates our everyday thoughts, but it is not actually the most important: 80% of all world trade is seaborne and more than 90% of Britain’s trade, by volume and value, travels by sea; we still rely on sea trade for much of our food.
In Portsmouth, the museums and ships in our historic dockyard are a permanent reminder of the importance of the Royal Navy and the seas to our national story. Britannia could be a mobile showcase for the importance of the maritime industry to people around the UK. The overwhelming majority of space in our dockyard is engaged in maintaining a Royal Navy that is at the leading edge of technology and is supported by a defence sector that drives a great deal of innovation in the civil as well as the naval and military fields.
The sea-blindness that I referred to is hard to understand, given the importance of the sea and the maritime sector to our lives. We know from the maritime growth study, published a year ago, that the maritime industries sector contributes more than £11 billion a year to our economy. It is bigger than aerospace and on a par with our world-leading pharmaceutical sector. It may represent only 5% of our employment base, but it is a vital part of our manufacturing and service sectors.
A revived Britannia could tell that story and promote the skills and technology of the sea at home as well as abroad. I hope that the Government will look carefully at the options for renewing the capability that Britannia provided, by whatever means, and will recognise that it could give us a competitive edge in world trade and diplomacy.
It is a delight and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. You and I have known each other for more than 30 years and, if I may say so, it is always a pleasure and a delight to serve under you.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on securing the debate. Post-Brexit, it is clear that we have to put our best foot forward by going out and getting as much trade as we possibly can. That will be absolutely vital. Needless to say, I would like the new ship to be built in Plymouth, either by Princess Yachts, which is one of our great luxury yacht producers, or by Babcock, which is responsible for managing and running the oldest naval dockyard in the country.
In 2020, Plymouth will commemorate the Mayflower leaving Plymouth to go and found the American colonies. That gives us a unique opportunity to have a fantastic trade exhibition down in the south-west. The country needs to grab that opportunity with both hands, in no uncertain terms. By building Britannia down in Plymouth, the Government could stimulate and create a tourist attraction. If we are successful, we could also have a fleet review, or even a review of the NATO fleet. That would encourage tourists to come to our wonderful part of the south-west. Britain needs to encourage American tourists to come here.
It is absolutely brilliant that the Minister who will be responding to the debate is the former commodore of the House of Commons yacht club. My final point to him is that the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, is the High Steward of Plymouth, and we should send him a clear message that we support having the ship rebuilt and relocated to Plymouth.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) for securing this entertaining and interesting debate. The enthusiasm of Conservative Members and the sparsity of Labour Members in the Chamber will be spotted by those elsewhere.
I like the fact that the UK is looking up and wants to catch up with the great powers of the world: Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Saudi Arabia—places with royal yachts. It is great to the see the UK having such ambition to catch those countries, and good luck to it in doing that. Perhaps the royal yacht will be the answer, but I do not think it will.
I am very familiar with the former royal yacht Britannia. As a child, I used to see it often behind the island of Vatersay, from Castlebay. Its three masts were seen every August as the Queen went on a cruise around Scotland to the castle of Mey. I am delighted that it is now tied up at harbour in Leith, and that there are no designs today on that ship that now belongs to Leith. The designs today are based on pomp and circumstance, and I can see no circumstance at all for this pomp. In fact, we nearly had civil war between Ramsgate and Portsmouth at one stage—
And Plymouth, sorry.
It was pointed out that Her Majesty is Queen of 16 realms, and that perhaps Commonwealth countries could contribute to the yacht, which might mean that they would want it themselves for rambling trade expeditions across the world. Who knows? I think they would be reluctant to call it Britannia in that case; they might want to call it The Commonwealth. Otherwise it might fuel awful sentiments, such as republicanism in Australia, if people were paying their taxes to contribute to a yacht for a far-off country.
That brings me to the name: Britannia. I thought some hon. Members might have looked at the opportunity of having the yacht for the 100th anniversary of the UK, which will fall in December 2022 when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland becomes 100 years old. That opportunity was missed—perhaps there is some nervousness that Britannia as currently constituted might find itself being two states before that date, with the boat perhaps needing to be called Scotia.
The answer to the calamity facing the UK is not a yacht, which I think a number of hon. Members, in the backs of their minds, really do feel. The answer is not the superstitious notion that all future trade success depends on having a royal yacht. The idea that getting to the front of the queue is based on having a royal yacht belongs on the back of a fag packet. It is not the back of a yacht that gets nations to the front of the queue; it is the professionalism of being a good trading nation and having negotiators—the UK currently has twelve, but it needs about 200. There is a real danger that the UK could be mugged at international negotiations because it does not have the experience of small places like the Faroe Islands or Iceland, which have 50,000 and 300,000 people respectively. Those are the issues that should be bothering the UK.
Top trading nations do not have a royal yacht. China does not have a royal yacht, the USA does not have a royal yacht, Germany does not have a royal yacht. Nor do South Korea, France, Hong Kong or Italy, and all those nations are ahead of the UK.
The countries the hon. Gentleman has just talked about do not have a royal family; we do.
I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making, because they are ahead of us in trading. As a monarchist myself, I do not particularly like the republican sentiments he is leaning towards by indicating that we might be better off in trading if we were a republic. I do not find that at all appealing.
If the UK were able to build a ship, could it not be doing so now? The idea that the Conservatives have suddenly become Keynesians and are looking for a fiscal stimulus to ignite industry across the country rings hollow, particularly when we have seen the fetish of austerity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) said.
The hostility to the gin market today has surprised me—I would have thought that people could have supported the gin industry, but no. Hon. Members have shown some hostility towards it this afternoon, although happily the whisky industry, in which Scotland excels, was not included in that.
The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) made a serious point about a royal yacht being a very big target. A lot of royal naval assets would be tied up in ensuring its safety. In the world we are in at the moment, it would be a sitting duck, and it would cost an awful lot of money to make sure it was safe. In fact, although the costs were put at £7 million a year to finance the boat back on charter from her owners, the crew of about 250, which the royal yacht had, would cost about £7.5 million to £12 million in wages, and the officers would cost a further £1.2 million. That is not including the cost of defending the yacht, which was the important point that the hon. Gentleman made.
Reality came crashing into the debate in the fantastic speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, which some of the hon. Gentlemen present greeted with, indeed, great honour and gentlemanliness. She made a great point about food banks and cuts to social services. To add to that, with the pound crashing, the current projections of costs for the royal yacht may go further north. She correctly made a point about the shortage of armed forces equipment. It is a rose-tinted fiction that we will have a royal yacht, and then all will be well with the situation the UK has found itself in.
This debate has shown that the UK has found itself in some sort of trouble, but I say to colleagues that the answer is not the comfort blanket of a royal yacht. In fact, to the outside world the idea will look bizarre. I cannot wait to see “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah; the previous presenter Jon Stewart had great fun a few years ago with the UK’s fetish for shipping on the Thames, but this will be seen as high comedy across the world. The idea is that a royal yacht will make Britain great again—I cannot remember which hon. Member said Britain was not great. He did not exactly say that, but he implied that Britain was not great by saying that the yacht would make Britain great again. Another hon. Member said that Britain would stand tall in the world, indicating that Britain does not stand tall in the world at the moment. Indeed, it does not, because of Brexit. It is a laughing stock from Reykjavik to Buenos Aires—that is the reality, and building a royal yacht would only add to that. I am sorry to say that to hon. Members, and I wish them well in what they are trying to do, but the idea of having the comfort blanket of a royal yacht is barking up the wrong tree.
Captain Chope, I pay tribute to your skill in charting this debate away from the rocks and along its voyage. I note the gentlemen of the press waiting, acid pens poised to keelhaul anyone bold enough to disagree with the proposition we are debating today. I defy them; all I can say is, let us hope I am not walking the plank into troubled waters.
I stand second to none in my admiration for the dedicated service of Her Majesty the Queen, and there is little I would begrudge her personally—even what the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) described as a floating palace. So it is with some trepidation that I find myself debating the idea that has been floated by the hon. Gentleman and some 99 of his Back-Bench colleagues. Given how often Conservative Members have attempted to relaunch this idea of a new or refitted royal yacht, it should really come as no surprise that it has surfaced once again. It is not a new idea; indeed, in my time in the House, this is no less than the third time the matter has been dredged up, Mary Celeste-like, to the surface.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) referred to Sir Thomas Cochrane. Of course, Sir Thomas was an admirable seaman in a great many ways, but I trust the hon. Gentleman recalls that during his service on the Barfleur in 1798 the Sea Wolf, as he was known, was court-martialled for showing disrespect. He was actually dismissed from the Royal Navy in 1814 after being convicted for fraud on the stock exchange.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane. It is indeed true that there was a trumped up charge against him, which forced him to leave the country, and the beneficiaries were Brazil and Chile. Of course, he upset the Admiralty because he believed that there was a better way to protect ships—by using tar—and he was against the widespread corruption in the Admiralty in those days.
If nothing else, the hon. Gentleman and I are agreed on our admiration for Sir Thomas Cochrane. Of course, he was not readmitted to the Royal Navy until 1832 and, in 1806—he later admitted—he bribed the electors of Honiton by paying each 10 guineas so that he could enter this place, so perhaps he was not always a model that we should aspire to follow.
Here we are once again debating the recommissioning of a yacht that was launched some 63 years ago, as if it were the missing part of the Government’s international trade plan. Unfortunately, it is not. What is most troubling is that it seems to be, if not the only part, certainly one of the more credible parts. When it comes to international trade negotiations, the Government are not very able seamen, who have found themselves drifting rudderless into uncharted waters. A decommissioned boat, however, is not the ideal vessel to pilot their way out.
The recent EU referendum has presented significant challenges about what our future trading relations will look like and how we can go about ensuring that Britain and the British people can benefit. British businesses have relied on access to the single market since it came into force in 1993. Before that, they relied on the reduced tariffs of the customs union that preceded it. Few British businesses, and even fewer British business leaders, will recall just what difficulties were encountered when attempting international trade before that.
Furthermore, our participation in the European project and our membership of the customs union and the subsequent single market made the UK an extremely attractive destination for foreign investment. I do not doubt that that was enhanced by our strong international network, our respect for the rule of law and the dominance of English as an international language, but it is equally foolish to identify our success as having stemmed exclusively from our attributes and not from the access that we enjoy to the world’s largest consumer market. Our trading capacity is a manifestation of our attributes combined with our access to and capacity to influence the regulations of that wider market. Chance and good fortune also played their part, because our capacity to engage in and lead international trade is greatly magnified by virtue of our geography, location and time zone.
A combination of those elements has enabled us to play a leading role in international affairs and trade throughout history, and is why we have been able to continue to attract business investment and promote British exports overseas. It takes time to develop markets, and requires thorough analysis. It take confidence on the part of investors and trust on the part of trading partners.
Today, I am wearing the tie of Polska Zegluga Morska, the Polish steamship company. I put it on quite deliberately this morning, not because the royal yacht was built as a steamship, but because in 1989, before the Berlin wall came down, I began my first trade mission to Poland. Over the next five years, I took delegations from Maritime London, and put on conferences and trade missions in Poland, Ukraine and Russia to open up the market for our marine services industry—our lawyers, insurance brokers, protection and indemnity clubs, engineers and marine surveyors. I know what it is to export into new markets, and I inform the House that it is not about a flash yacht. It comes through diligent market research, understanding the regulatory structures and identifying the gaps that a team or product can fill. That is not doom-mongering or “Project Fear”; it is a reasoned assessment of the factors that feed into successful exports.
The Brexit vote threatens our trading capacity because it makes the questions about regulatory structures and market gaps impossible to answer. Businesses have no idea at the moment which markets they will be able to do business in, nor at what cost. They have no idea about the regulatory framework they will face or which non-tariff barriers they will encounter. They do not know whether they will be able to retain foreign staff or fill recruitment gaps from overseas if they need to.
Investors now see the decision to invoke article 50 as soon as possible as prejudicing the very possibility of a stable transition whereby the answers to those questions can be methodically worked through. We cannot know the extent of the investment decisions that are being suspended or cancelled.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Because of the time, I will not.
Certain things are literally incalculable, but that does not make them less certain. Such investment decisions are being made, and they will have a long-tail liability—a liability that might only crystallise over years to come.
The idea that we could relaunch an ancient yacht as a beacon of British innovation and enterprise is entirely symptomatic of the nostalgic nonsense that has infected the Government’s approach to the new trading relationship that we must develop in a post-referendum world once the UK leaves the EU. We face the biggest constitutional and commercial challenge of our lifetimes, and we are here today to discuss relaunching a long-retired yacht. The Germans and the French must be quaking—not in their boots, but with laughter. The Chinese and the Americans, who are looking on in astonishment, must be wondering why we are incapable of seeing the gravity of our own situation.
It greatly concerns me that this debate sends a signal to the rest of the world that we still see the best of Britain as being behind us. We are a world leader in financial and legal services, the automotive and engineering sectors, pharmaceuticals, biosciences, business, energy, construction, fashion, art and music. But at this precise moment—when the fashion and textiles industry is asking where it will get linkers from in a post-Brexit world, when Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover are suspending future investment decisions until they have clarity on market access, and when the pharmaceutical sector is at its wits’ end over losing the European Medicines Agency from the UK—the best that this Government can come up with, as they studiously avoid giving us a running commentary, is to bring us here today to debate the recommissioning of Her Majesty’s yacht Britannia.
Government is not about playing with toy boats as virility symbols. The Government should be engaging with British business and setting out strategic proposals on an industry-by-industry basis, to promote Britain and our exports overseas. They need to tell the financial services industry—our biggest export sector—how they propose to protect the passporting regime that has allowed British financial institutions to transact business across the EU. That facility has been material to our capacity to attract foreign banks to establish their European operations throughout the UK. Those banks are now openly discussing and actively investigating relocations to Dublin, Paris, Frankfurt or Luxembourg.
Given how many trade missions the royal yacht Britannia undertook on behalf of the British Invisible Exports Council, perhaps the Back Benchers who signed the letter supporting the motion might better spend their time exploring the threats to the financial services industry in the UK. How much would it cost to refit a yacht of that size and bring it up to modern technological standards? How much would it cost to crew and maintain the vessel? How many Royal Navy staff would be taken away from active service elsewhere to crew the yacht? What security and counter-terrorism measures would need to be undertaken to ensure that the yacht would not be a sitting duck terrorist target?
Order. The convention is that Front Benchers have 10 minutes to wind up. The hon. Gentleman has already been speaking for 11 minutes. It would be helpful if the Minister had time to respond and the proposer of the motion was able to have the last word.
Captain Chope, I apologise. I had not realised that the time had gone so fast. I will conclude my remarks there.
It is a great pleasure to follow the shadow Secretary of State for International Trade with his surfeit of maritime metaphors and his admiration for Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on securing the debate. The topic is clearly a subject of great passion for many people across the House. I, for one, have always been a great fan of the royal yacht, which has been involved in many totemic events in our history, not least on 1 July 1997, when it slipped its moorings at HMS Tamar, rounded Hong Kong island and set off into the South China sea as the Union flag was lowered for the final time on the crown colony of Hong Kong.
I will pick up on a couple of points raised in the debate. The first is the recommissioning of the royal yacht in support of trade promotion. It is pretty clear that this Chamber is not in favour of that at all, which is right. In 1997 it was calculated that buying an extra five years for the former royal yacht would have cost £17 million and an extra 20 years would have cost £20 million. The former royal yacht is clearly well past its active life.
The second proposal is the potential commissioning of a new royal yacht in support of trade promotion, and I will take this opportunity to provide some context for the role and purpose of the Department for International Trade. The new Department has overall responsibility for promoting British trade across the world under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). We will bang the drum for Britain across the world and pull out all the stops in boosting our trade, working with our overseas diplomatic missions to promote the UK as a place to do business and to trade with, driving inward investment and, in time, negotiating trade agreements. The Department will be the key player in selling the UK through exports and trade promotion, negotiating trade deals and attracting foreign direct investment into the UK. The Department will use any and all resources and assets at its disposal to secure those agreements and to boost our trade.
The royal yacht Britannia was, and is, an iconic symbol of Great Britain. As the second royal yacht to bear the name Britannia, and the 83rd such royal vessel, she was for more than 40 years an instantly recognisable feature on the seas as a representation of the United Kingdom, our royal family and our diplomatic service, and as a platform to showcase the best of the United Kingdom. Britannia’s primary role, at which she excelled, was to provide a base for the royal family’s national and international engagements, for which she sailed more than 1 million miles, undertaking just under 8,000 engagements—272 of those engagements were within British waters.
Britannia was the first ocean-going royal yacht, and her primary role was to provide a base for the royal family when going overseas. Before the royal yacht was built, the royal family used to—“hijack” is the wrong word—take control of an ocean liner or a royal naval warship and use it as their base, but the yacht’s secondary role was to provide a base from which the UK could engage with other Governments through diplomacy to secure trade and investment opportunities. Thirdly, of course, HMY Britannia had a reserve role as a potential medical facility in the event of conflict, a role for which she was fortunately never required but, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), she was used for the evacuation of Aden in 1986, when she evacuated 1,000 people of 44 different nationalities.
The royal yacht’s multifunctional role made it unique and special, projecting the United Kingdom’s diplomatic influence and reflecting the United Kingdom’s proud heritage as a seafaring trading nation. We are determined to make a success of our global role in the world, but recommissioning the royal yacht Britannia is not something the Government are considering at all. We will listen to the cases being proposed, but there are clear issues on feasibility and cost. The existing ship is a popular tourist attraction in Edinburgh.
Although there is no doubt that Britannia presents an impressive backdrop to the signing of trade and investment deals, there was and is much more to negotiations, which involve discussion, engagement and hard graft behind the scenes away from the pomp and splendour of the signing table—my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen said that although £3 billion-worth of trade deals were done, there is no conclusive evidence that the deals would not have been signed were it not for the royal yacht. Such hard work is central to the Department for International Trade’s responsibility to successfully negotiate trade agreements when we leave the EU in order to secure the UK’s economic future.
Today’s debate proposes the reintroduction of the royal yacht, which is currently moored in Scotland as a popular visitor attraction. Twenty years ago, the then Government proposed a replacement for Britannia, which was then more than 40 years old and in need of overhaul or replacement. Of course, as we know, the decision was taken to retire her without replacement. More recently, the royal yacht has been moored at the port of Leith and receives hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. The cost of reintroduction, including major overhaul to the engines, has not been explored but, as I mentioned earlier, even in 1997 it would have been very expensive. I also have no doubt that making moves to commandeer Britannia from her current home in Scotland would be strongly resisted—that point has been made vociferously.
As we have heard, there are also proposals to commission a new royal yacht, which many Members and organisations would support. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) said, I was once commodore of the House of Commons yacht club—I am not entirely certain that I do not still hold that position—and as such I am a natural ally of all things offshore, but hard facts stand in the way of a new yacht, not least the need for significant levels of funding to commission, build, fit out and maintain the vessel. We have heard that a vessel could be funded from outside sources, but a new yacht would require the latest design and technology, which the United Kingdom is best placed to provide. That would come at a cost, and we have yet to find out exactly how the yacht would be funded.
Media coverage over the past fortnight has included an alleged proposal for a replacement yacht from almost 20 years ago. Although it was not an official proposal, the figure of £60 million to build the new yacht would now likely be double that. There is also the additional cost to the taxpayer of operation and maintenance, which would need to be factored in.
I welcome the Minister to his role but, for goodness’ sake, let us place this in context. We spend £12 billion a year on overseas aid and, although it may not be possible to itemise exactly how much the royal yacht Britannia delivered in trade deals, the sentiment in this Chamber today is explicit that a new royal yacht at a modest £120 million would deliver for the British people a statement of our intent post-Brexit and would deliver a return on investment to the British economy.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, and I know he is passionate about this subject and Sir Thomas Cochrane, but we have not seen a business proposal or a cost-benefit analysis, so this debate is slightly hypothetical. The international development budget is separate from this discussion. We are talking about trade, not international development, which is slightly different. I think we would all be keen to see my hon. Friend make a business proposal, and no one is trying to stop him.
The former royal yacht was crewed by the Royal Navy and, as we have heard, there are three particular factors that need to be taken into account. A new royal yacht would fly the white ensign, would be state owned and would function as a floating royal palace, which means that the royal yacht would have to be manned by the Royal Navy. That would put pressure on the senior service. Even once those financial challenges were potentially overcome through private sponsors and donations, it would not negate the ongoing liability for 10, 20 or 40 years.
I also wonder whether a new yacht would provide the best return on investment. From 1989 to 1996, Britannia undertook 37 visits in support of UK exports and investment, which is not a huge number when we consider that in some years it cost as much as £12 million to run—it was expensive. Of those visits, more than a quarter were around the United Kingdom. We have new routes in emerging markets, and we have stronger ties and partnerships than ever before that have helped to secure our position as an open, outward-facing trading nation. It is also worth bearing in mind that we have 270 posts and missions across the world where we are flying the flag for Britain and going out to promote our country, which is important.
The Department was set up with the purpose of ensuring that we seize every opportunity that leaving the EU presents to forge a new way in the world and to make Britain a global leader in free trade. I am acutely aware that people in this room are firmly behind the proposal, but I make it clear that the Government have no plans, and have had no plans, to commission a new royal yacht. As such, it is very unlikely indeed that we would use taxpayers’ money to fund either a royal commission or an investigation into whether we could commission a new royal yacht.
I thank all colleagues who have attended and supported today’s debate. I also thank you, Mr Chope, for being such an excellent Chairman. I was a remainer in the EU referendum, and I have tried not to become a “remoaner,” which is what we heard from the Labour and Scottish National party spokespeople. Our proposal is simple: no public funds should be committed to the building of a new royal yacht. The will of the House is clear today that people do not have an appetite to recommission the existing royal yacht Britannia, but if we can find a way to privately fund a new royal yacht, it is something that the Government should seriously consider. I am encouraged that the Minister said that the Government would consider a cost-benefit analysis and that their minds are not closed.
The old royal yacht, which is in Leith docks, is something in which our nation can still take huge pride. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Scotland, and we have heard today that it should remain as a beacon for Edinburgh and Leith around the globe. This debate has received international attention, and I have been overwhelmed by requests for interviews from the German media. We need to understand that in Britain we do not appreciate the contribution that a royal yacht can make in a way that other countries would appreciate—they seem keen to see a new royal yacht rule the waves.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).