§ Mr. FRANCE
I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."
I desire to move the Adjournment of the House in consequence of certain answers which were given to me to-day at Question Time in relation to national shipyards and certain developments which have arisen in regard to them within recent times. For the benefit of those who are not acquainted with the details of the questions and the answers, I will briefly summarise them first. It was stated that the scheme for national shipyards, which depended 404 almost entirely at one time either upon enemy labour or military labour, was completely altered and the proposal to use military labour abandoned. I think this is the first time this has been stated officially in the House, and this introduces, therefore, a fresh demand for civilian labour for these national shipyards, and this despite the fact, as revealed in the answers to the questions, that there is at the present time certain and, in some cases, considerable shortage in the supply of labour in the private yards. I further elicited from the right hon. Gentleman (Dr. Macnamara) the fact that of the eighty-seven slips which had been sanctioned by the Admiralty as extensions to existing private yards, only fourteen had been completed, and that therefore seventy-three had still to be completed, and when completed equipped and supplied with labour. On the top of all this there is in the air and, if I may say so with respect to the right hon. Gentleman, in view of the light way in which he dealt with the matter, very much in the air so far as he was concerned, but rather more seriously on paper, and in prospect so far as those who are determined in this matter are concerned—a housing scheme which will provide accommodation for civilian and married labour which is required for carrying out the whole of this national shipyard scheme. I would remind the House that in the Report of the Committee on Expenditure this at present includes thirty-four berths.
The reason why I ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House is that I feel very strongly, and I have reason to know that I am supported in this in many quarters of the House, that a scheme of this kind which has been criticised so severely, which has been shown to have so many serious and I might almost say disastrous aspects from the financial and economic point of view, and which is failing, as we are told officially, to supply any needs so far as war emergency is concerned, is now to be extended, and that a further expenditure of money upon a considerable housing scheme—and it must be a considerable housing scheme if there is to be adequate accommodation for the number of men requisite for the supply of all these things—is to be incurred. All this while the existing yards are short of men, while the men who have been promised to be returned from the Army have as a net result not been returned, although I folly admit that 12,000 men 405 have been brought to the shipyards from some section of the Army, but we have not been told, and I do not desire to ask—it is not in the public interest to do so—the exact number of men who have been combed out of shipyards and gone into the Army, I think it is common knowledge that the net result does not considerably increase, I should be inclined to think it decreased, the number of men who are actually working in the yards. Further, these slips of which we have hoard to-day are additional slips to be devoted to private yards, which have been sanctioned but are not complete. I was rather amused, if I may say so, at the right hon. Gentleman's correction of my figure of seventy. I desired to under-estimate the unfortunate position in which the Admiralty found themselves. The right hon. Gentleman says it was not seventy which had been sanctioned, but eighty-seven, but if you deduct the fourteen from the actual figure his figure is seventy-three as against my modest figure of seventy, which I stated have not been completed. The seriousness of it is emphasised and increased by the figures announced a few days ago of the output of ships for June—a figure which greatly disappointed all those who had hoped that a considerable improvement was taking place. All the adding of months together and of the charts and "graphs" in the world will not remove the strong impression in the House and the country that something is wrong in the management and in the supply of labour to private shipyards.
What is the position as we find it, as reported upon in connection with national shipyards and the housing scheme by the Committee which inquired specially into this department of expenditure? May I just say, in passing, that we are dealing now with a type of ship which has been described, I suppose for the purpose of brevity and partly for the purpose of accuracy, as a fabricated ship. This is commented upon in an article which I read to-day. The writer asks what the definition is of the word "fabricated," and upon referring to a dictionary he finds it has two meanings, one is to put together by art and labour and the other to devise falsely. I am bound to say that the intention, no doubt, on the part of those who undertook this scheme was that ships should be put together by art and labour, but the Committee, in their Report have discovered undoubtedly that the whole 406 scheme has been devised falsely. The Committee discovered and reported to the House that the whole scheme rested upon the basis of either, first of all, enemy or prisoner labour, or, secondly, military labour, and it was alone on this ground the scheme in their opinion was justified. Anything which proposed to take labour from the unskilled or skilled shipbuilding market was strongly to be deprecated. The Committee went on to point out that as soon as it had been shown to them that a change bad been decided upon and that military labour was not obtainable, they then said that this necessarily involves a further expenditure on housing and delay in the output of ships. Later, a statement was published in the Press by the Comptroller-General that no ships were at present being fabricated, but that the material which had been placed in the yards for the purpose was being returned to private yards, and that no progress would take place in these yards until they were complete.
One question which I put to-day was to ask what the completion of the yards involved and whether or not it involved a considerable expenditure upon housing. The right hon. Gentleman in one of his answers indicated somewhat airily, if he will allow me to say so, that some further expenditure would be involved in respect of the married men, but those who were present will agree with me that nothing like a serious scheme was indicated. That is my object in asking the House to record an opinion upon this matter. I only want to know definitely what is the size of the scheme that is in contemplation, and what it involves. The number of men that will be required to successfully and properly man the construction of the shipyards I am not able to estimate, but it must be a very considerable number, and if you are driven, as you have admitted you are driven, to fall back entirely upon civilian labour, and have to abandon altogether your previous ideas, I think the House ought to know what is the estimated number of men who will have to be housed there, what is the new scheme, if the quarters are to be married quarters so as to provide for families, and, if so, what is the extent of the population which will form the new township in the district.
I might also ask the right hon. Gentleman, in reference to his reply about skilled labour, whether he is really advised that the fabrication of these ships—that is, 407 the putting together of these ships—can be conducted without a percentage of skilled labour, in a new place, without the traditions, without the experience, and without the advantages which come from the surrounding of a shipbuilding district. Does he really expect that the men who are going to be put there can do the work without a considerable percentage of skilled men? If not, where are the skilled men coming from? I would ask the First Lord of the Admiralty to consider in this matter the absolute necessity of looking at it from a strictly businesslike point of view. The fabrication of ships has sometimes been spoken of by those who apparently have not had experience of shipbuilding as if it were the application for adults of a game or exercise which is described as "Meccano" for children—the putting together of lightly arranged pieces of mechanism which are very pretty to look at, but which will not stand much strain.
I listened to the right hon. Gentleman when he announced the name of the officer who is to be in charge of this building scheme, and I am desirous of calling the attention of the House to that gentleman. General Collard is to be in charge of the scheme. We thought we had secured a new post for General Collard in the Admiralty, where his special gifts would have scope. We were assured in another place upstairs by the Controller-General that General Collard's gifts would be exercised in the post of General Director of Administration. I do not think anyone knew what it meant, but it seemed to imply that he would not come too prominently into conflict with either shipbuilders or labour in the future. He is now put in charge of this housing scheme. One naturally inquires as to his record in these matters. I have in my hand the Report of the Auditor-General with regard to a scheme of a somewhat similar character at a place—I will not mention the name—in connection with the Inland Water Transport Department. The Auditor-General's Report is very interesting with regard to the scheme of which General Collard had charge. To summarise it very briefly: A sum was sanctioned by the Treasury of £109,000, which was subsequently revised to no less a sum of £913,000. That is not all. Beyond that sum it was discovered that there was omitted the trifling item of £113,000. 408 Then, by some curious process, I suppose oversight, it was found that there had been an omission to add—that is how it is put—the small sum of £350,000. Then it was discovered that that did not include the cost of labour, which is generally an item which business men take into account in dealing with large operations. The cost of military labour was no less than £500,000, so that the original innocent and harmless little figure of £109,000 had risen in the Report of the Auditor-General—although one is almost inclined to turn it into ridicule, it is a very serious matter—of £1,893,000.
§ Mr. FRANCE
This is an officer who I should imagine from what I have heard is not a genius in finance, and from what I have heard he knows less than you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, about shipbuilding. That is the man who first of all had charge of the scheme to which I have just referred. Subsequently he had the management of merchant shipbuilding in the country, and he diverted his attention to the national shipyards, with the disastrous consequences revealed in the Select Committee's Report, and he is now to take charge of the new housing scheme in connection with the national shipyards. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Committee which has given us a warning in regard to the national shipyards, and the House I think should take, and will take, note of that warning and act upon it. I should like to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty if it is possible to explain to the House why he and those associated with him did not take note of the warning which was addressed to him, and also I believe to General Collard, as to the position with regard to labour in connection with these national shipbuilding yards? Is it by chance that it has now been discovered that military labour is not applicable in these yards? Had any serious effort been made by the right hon. Gentleman, who is primarily responsible in this matter, to ascertain if military labour could be properly used, and whether that course would be possible under all the circumstances, or was it like these other schemes, started and nearly £4,000,000 spent upon it, only afterwards to be found that the main essential upon which the whole scheme was built was missing, and the whole scheme fell to the ground?
409 Instead of wasting—I will withdraw the word "wasting," because after the War there may be some scope for these yards—or spending these £4,000,000 in this way how might the energy of the right hon. Gentleman have been directed? He knew—I fancy the estimate came from him—that 20,000 more men were required in order to keep up the output of merchant shipbuilding in this country. Those men have never been supplied. There is a continued shortage. During the whole of that time, instead of turning his attention towards this scheme of national shipyards and this subsequent scheme of housing, it would have been better if he had thrown all his energy and business training into a scheme for increasing the work of the private yards and seeing that the extensions in those yards were completed. I would call attention to the fact that no ships have appeared from the national shipyards. There is no chance for some time of any ships appearing from the national shipyards. It has now become not a war emergency—the Report of the Committee makes that perfectly clear—but a speculative adventure in the hands of an officer whose career I have endeavoured to sketch, and the whole matter is one which I think the right hon. Gentleman will be bound to agree the House of Commons should express an opinion upon. Therefore, I desire to ask him one or two definite questions. What is the policy now of the national shipyards? What is the policy with regard to housing? What is happening now, and what is going to be done? I am informed that there are at the present time numbers of highly-paid foremen walking about the national shipyard sites, which I will call B and C, with nothing to do. The foremen and workmen in the adjoining yard, which is a private yard, are somewhat envious both of the pay and of the leisure of the gentlemen who have nothing to do there. There are young men who, I think, I might almost ask the right hon. Gentleman to bring to the notice of his illustrious and hon. relative in this House, who might very well be in the Army, who are using a great deal of petrol on journeys to and fro about lunch-time, but who have really nothing to do. What does all this mean? What is the policy of the national shipyards' What is the number of men it is proposed to take into these national shipyards? What is the total population that will eventually be brought there? What is the cost of carrying out this scheme?
410 I do not desire to put any hindrance whatever in the way of the natural course of the Debate which will take place, probably next week, on the Shipbuilding Vote, when the whole subject of shipbuilding, possibly including this subject, will be discussed. But I felt very strongly—and I believe that the House supports me—that there should be a stay in this matter, and that there should be no further procedure with regard to this possibly vast expenditure, in view of all the circumstances, until the House has had a chance of expressing its opinion on the whole matter. What I apply for is what, in legal phraseology, is described as an interim injunction, so that the Government may not proceed further in this matter until the House knows all about it and can express its opinion fully upon it. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to this Committee, which is throwing light on so many of these matters. We have received a clear warning from them in this matter. With this warning before us and with our eyes fully open with regard to this national shipyard, I would suggest to the House that it would be a criminal neglect of duty if the House were to let this matter go until it is satisfied that everything is being done, first of all to supply the private yards with labour and material and extend those private yards to the full extent sanctioned and not to allow another pound to be spent on this ill-considered scheme until we know exactly the answers to the questions which I have ventured to put and all the facts of the case. This matter is much too serious to be trifled with any longer. It is not a matter of war urgency. If it were, I should be the last person to endeavour for a moment to prevent immediate action, but it is a speculative venture, and no reputation however great, and no personality however brilliant, must be allowed to prevent the House of Commons from insisting that it should have a full explanation of policy, and be asked to give its decision upon it before any further step is taken.
§ Colonel Sir H. GREENWOOD
I rise to second the Motion which has been explained so clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Morley. I speak as the representative of the largest single shipbuilding town in the world, the borough of Sunderland, which did, and does, build more tonnage per annum than any other single town in the world. I wish to put before 411 the House shortly the miserable history of these so-called national yards, as viewed by the shipbuilders of the greatest shipbuilding town in the world. The Government did not go into this scheme unwarned. It blundered into it. For a Government that boasts as having at its command thousands of business men it has made the blunder the worse by ignoring the advice of the only men—namely, the shipbuilders of the country—who were in a position to give advice. Deputation after deputation of shipbuilders waited upon Major-General Collard and pointed out what would happen, and what they pointed out has happened. Deputations waited upon the First Lord of the Admiralty and failed to persuade him that the shipbuilders of this country, the greatest shipbuilders in the world, knew more about shipbuilding than he did. The advisory committee of shipbuilders, set up by the Government itself, and composed of some of the greatest builders in this country, waited at least twice on the Prime Minister himself in the presence of all his advisers, and pointed out to him the blunder of starting these yards. Deputations were ignored, advice was ignored, and the blunder started, and we are to-day in the position that unless we stop the Government in this House—the only place where they can be stopped, and the only place where free men can express their views with freedom and independence—the blunder will become a scandal.
§ Sir H. GREENWOOD
Well, it will become a greater scandal, and it will not help one iota in winning the War, but will be a very serious brake on many Departments of State which ought to be devoting their whole energies and enthusiasm to the War, and not to some plan of shipbuilding that cannot fructify until after the War, and meantime is a waste of a colossal kind. Then and now the shipbuilders of this country pointed out to the Government that many yards had room for more slips, that if the Government wanted to build ships, that were then and are now sorely needed, all they had to do was to ask the private yards to lay down more slips to build more ships. Neither then nor now had, or has, any shipbuilding yard in this country more labour than it needs. No yard has enough labour for 412 the work that it could and is anxious to do. I would remind the House—and here I speak with personal knowledge—that when you take an old yard you have the office staff there, you have the machinery, the supervisors, the gangers, the foremen, the draughtsmen, and all the heads of departments—the personnel that cannot be built up in a moment. It is all there, and in the old yard you can have one slip or two slips, and you can put another shipyard with a dozen slips on the same river, controlled by the same office staff and the same heads of departments. But when you start setting up new yards in the South-West of England, in a place which shipbuilders tell me can never possibly be the best place for shipbuilding owing to climatic, tidal, and other reasons, you have got to create not only your slips but the most difficult thing in business—the brains of the yard, in the offices, and in the yard itself. Where are you going to get them? As I said a moment ago, there is not a yard in the country where they have got a man to spare; there is not a yard where they have their full complement.
The only way you can get men, whether boiler-makers, draughtsmen, gangers, foremen, or others, is by seducing them, through offering probably higher wages or salaries, to leave the private yards in this country. I protest against this mean and shabby trick, which is a common thing among Government Departments, of seducing from private employers men who have been brought up in their yards, and taking them away from their position in those yards to which they have grown accustomed, and in which they can produce the best that is in them. Let me say one thing, and this is especially for the First Lord of the Admiralty, who does not seem to know much about shipbuilding: Shipbuilding in this country is a native and indigenous trade. On the Wear there are some sixteen shipyards, and in those yards are to be found the descendants of those who made the wooden walls of England that fought against Napoleon. This shipbuilding cannot be shifted from rivers to which they are indigenous to some spot in the Western part of England. It is an industry which is one of the great glories of the country. The private employer on the Wear looks upon his men as an inestimable asset in his business, and it is on the Wear, the Tyne, and the Tees, and other ports and rivers in the North of England, that our great ships are 413 built. May I say that there has never been a successful shipyard in the last generation south of those northern ports and rivers? Cardiff has tried again and again to make a success of shipbuilding, and they cannot do it. Every yard on the Thames has moved away for various reasons. [Interruption.] I am emphasising what I should have thought was a self-evident truth, that you cannot establish shipyards where you will, and that you can only get the best results in shipbuilding by developing the yards where they are now, where they have naturally taken their root, where the men and the employers take great pride in the yards, and where the history of shipbuilding production is really a family matter in the eyes of every worker employed in those great concerns. I think that the romance of shipbuilding in this country should appeal to everyone, and every consideration should be shown by any Government in order to encourage those men who have spent their time, and in some cases whose families have spent generations, in this mighty and paramount interest.
I am afraid that this is one of the tragic results of want of foresight on the part of the Government, and of their unwillingness to face the realities of war, quite independent of subsidiary considerations, like building ships in some dim future. The decision was made in a panic against the advice of everyone who knew. There was no estimate of the cost—a fine example of business control in shipbuilding! Millions have been wasted, labour has been wasted, the organising and supervision of personnel has been wasted. What really is a serious matter is that the time and energy of the War Cabinet, which should think of nothing but this awful War, where men are slaughtered daily, have been wasted by innumerable deputations, by arguments for and against, and by the pursuit of this phantom of a great national shipyard on the mud flats of a river in the West of England. Up to the present not a ship has been produced, and there is no sign of a ship being produced for years. I urge the Government, however foolish it has been, to be strong enough now to stop this blunder. I want to put one or two questions to the First Lord of the Admiralty, and I insist upon an answer, for Cabinet Ministers have long since lost their glamour for me. I think both these Front Benches are responsible for more hideous 414 blunders and loss of life than any two benches in the history of any war. To me this War is a horror, and when I find the Government blundering over national shipyards, and blundering in their Departments, it is time for us, or for me at any rate, to speak out. I am going to put a few questions to the First Lord of the Admiralty, and he has got to answer them. If he does not, I shall use every possible method of the House of Commons, which does not give us many, but still gives us some, in spite of the Government, to get an answer to these questions which I am about to put. Has the First Lord of the Admiralty got the backing of Lord Pirrie in continuing these shipyards? That is the first question. Is he himself personally responsible for their continuance? That is the second question. Is the War Cabinet responsible for their continuance? Finally, are the demands of the Minister of National Service, the harshest demands in the history of the War, for man-power, not only for the Army and Navy, but for these shipyards, to go on at one and the same time? Are some of our great industries to be bled white of men, and the Army to be denuded of men, for these national shipyards? Are all these demands for man-power to go on, this waste of man-power, and waste of the money of the nation for these shipyards still to go on? I put those questions to the First Lord of the Admiralty.
Sir N. GRIFFITHS
I only intervene in this Debate because it so happens that the day before yesterday I was in the neighbourhood of Bristol, and, knowing this question was to arise, I took the opportunity to visit these national shipyards. To my mind, to say that they are on mud flats, and, from that point of view, are in a hopeless position, is to give quite an erroneous impression. During the last three months I have been concerned in the extension of some private yards in that delightful part of the country from which my hon. and gallant Friend comes, and, having that experience in my mind, when I went to the national shipyards, I found that there were eight berths, which so far as the berths themselves were concerned, were most admirable. They have every foundation which is required, and the piling of the foundations was done in a less number of days than the two or three extensions which I was concerned in making up North. From 415 the launching point of view the work which had been done was absolutely good, and in regard to the driving of piles rock was very soon reached. Indeed, you cannot even pile, which we all know is one of the main items of cost in building a slipway, except right at the lip, on account of the firmness of the ground. I am not giving an opinion as to whether or not the Government were wise in developing a national shipyard policy.
§ Mr. FRANCE
Can the hon. and gallant Member say whether or not at that particular site the builders responsible have added a considerable amount of unnecessary concrete to the firm ground?
§ 9.0 P.M.
Sir N. GRIFFITHS
I should say, taking it on the whole, no, and the concrete which they put in is practically without reinforcement whatever, and that is what costs the money. The actual expenditure in concrete on the berths which I saw being concreted would be less, I should think, than £200 or £300 per berth. The depth is merely 18 ins. in one place, just skimming on the surface. These yards which I saw are ideal berths from a launching point of view. There is no difficulty; the rise and fall of the tide make no difference whatever in the Launching. There is virtually no grading to do, which is the case in most places, and from a shipbuilding point of view I classified it, having seen 1,000,000 odd cubic yards of stuff in the course of movement now to make one yard that I visited up North, as an ideal spot for a yard because they had nothing to move. I will not be sure as to one or two berths, but there were virtually completed something like sixteen berths—it might be eighteen or it might be fourteen—and another four more than three-quarters finished—that is, as far as the ground work is concerned and the piling in front. All that remains to be completed is the erection of cranes for lifting up the material and so forth. There are to-day thirty cranes on the ground, which would enable them to start to-morrow, or perhaps I had better say in a fortnight's time, and lay down at least four keels. That is the position as I saw it yesterday. When I say it could be done in a fortnight, I mean that I could do it if I had anything to do with it myself. I only want to tell the House 416 what I really saw. I went to some extent into the figures, and I did not see any great wastage as far as the site is concerned. To inquire into the method of construction and whether they have had too many men or not on the work would take a week or more, and I did not go into that matter, but I had occasion to meet General Collard, and I happen to have had some knowledge of his work beforehand. I knew him when he was in Nigeria when I was building a big railway in another big territory next door in East Africa. He is a man of extraordinary energy and driving power. He is a mover, a hustler, and a driver, and he has had very considerable constructional experience. [An HON. MEMBER: "In shipbuilding?"] No; in railway undertakings. I knew of that experience four years ago, before he ever had anything to do with this business, and, indeed, I did not know the two men were the same man until I saw him yesterday. I purposely got an invitation and wont down to a spot, which was criticised, for which General Collard is supposed to be responsible. The man who had most of the work to do was General Williams, an engineer of world-wide experience, including such places as Singapore and Bombay, and big dock and harbour schemes elsewhere. I visited the other place, and it is certainly, from a military point of view, doing admirable work. I cannot go into the cost of it, but it is a very essential part of our shipbuilding programme at the present time. With regard to the question of fabricating ships, I went into that with a very experienced firm in the North the other day, or rather with two firms, who are now fabricating ships, and the view they take is that in a very short time they will be able to adapt their machinery to enable them considerably to improve the output, and to switch over from bridge-building into fabricating ships. As far as fabricating ships is concerned, I am sure that bridge-builders on this occasion will rise to the national demands and meet the requirements of the various shipyards.
Sir N. GRIFFITHS
With regard to the labour position, I do quite agree it is a very complex proposition. It affects the question of dilution, which is the 417 bedrock of the whole thing. Dilution carried to certain limits might be opposed by different unions interested in shipbuilding, and we have got all sorts of complicated sides to that. One does not want to develop an argument on labour and so forth, but I admit it is a problem to-day, and I know that up in the North, in one yard I was in, there have been built two extra shipways, and they are something like 350 men short of their complement. If they could get 350 more men, they could do almost twice the amount of work they do at the present time. There is no disguising the fact that every shipyard in the North is short, and seriously short. It is a problem, I know, and I have seen the Minister of National Service on this matter. It is one of the many problems he has to face to-day as to how to keep yards going and at the same time keep the line in France, If we do not keep that line, the ships building in this country are no good. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] Because if you do not hold your line in France the enemy will be in this country. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] It is a very optimistic view to take that no landing is possible in this country, but I think that is a matter which is outside the bounds of our discussion.
In conclusion, I would only suggest to this House that you have one of the greatest of shipbuilders in this country to-day at the head. Everyone was delighted, I think, throughout the country when we heard that he had been placed in supreme command. I do think that the House would be safe in sending a message, as the result of this Debate, to Lord Pirrie that we in this House look to him to send us his direct views, through the First Lord of the Admiralty, telling us whether or not he believes in this national shipyard scheme. I think also we in this House would be prepared to support him up to the hilt if he said "Stop!" I think it would have a great effect on this question, because it is a very great responsibility on any man, however great and experienced he may be, suddenly to come into office, and to scrap millions of pounds' worth of work or shut it down, but I do think if this House indicated to-night that we have implicit faith and confidence in his ability, and that we look to him to do the right thing, and that whatever it is we should support him, and that we should like to get his views through the 418 right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty, I think it would go a long way to help him in the difficult task he has to perform.
§ The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Sir Eric Geddes)
The national shipyards to-night have been described as a blunder, and that is really the charge against the Admiralty that I have to endeavour to answer. The Committee which reported on finance drew attention—and, I think, it was most useful that they should draw attention—to the fact that these yards were started without the proper procedure of estimates having been passed to the Treasury. It is very useful that that criticism should be made of any Department. But I would ask the House to recollect—not in excuse for the national yards, because, in my opinion, they do not require excuse; they merely require to be explained and to be justified—but I would ask the House to recollect the atmosphere in which this decision was taken by the War Cabinet. At the time that the War Cabinet decided to go ahead with the national yards, the world's shipping was shrinking very fast. The enemy's submarine fleet was increasing, and I have learnt—as many hon. and right hon. Members of this House know themselves—that it is a lengthy business to frame and get through estimates for a large undertaking of this kind, and in the atmosphere that then existed, I felt justified in recommending the Cabinet, and the Cabinet accepted the recommendation, that we should go ahead with these yards, cutting out the very desirable and essential Estimates which ought, under normal proceedings and conditions, to be presented before any undertaking of this magnitude was embarked upon.
These yards were decided upon in order to build the fabricated ship. At that time it was perfectly clear to us that the skilled labour available in the country to build ships was insufficient. It was insufficient to build ships as they have been built in the past, and the only way which was open to us to increase the output of ships was to do without the quota of skilled labour employed in the methods of construction which had been adopted by the great shipbuilding industry of which this country is so justly proud. It may appear that that was a 419 very bold venture on the part of officials who had not behind them the backing of the Advisory Committee on Shipbuilding.
§ Sir E. GEDDES
The Advisory Committee on Shipbuilding had devised a standard ship, and that was affording as much difficulty at the time as any shipbuilders' advisory body, or, indeed, any body of officials, was prepared to face. The device of the fabricated ship was come to on the advice of a large body of experienced shipbuilders, but not of the Advisory Committee. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Sir N. Griffiths) has asked: Is Lord Pirrie in favour of the national shipyards; is Lord Pirrie in favour of the standard ship? It is not necessary to wait until the Debate next week on Vote 8. Lord Pirrie is here in the Gallery, and I know his views, as I knew them some months ago. Lord Pirrie is entirely in favour of the standard ship and of the national shipyards.
§ Sir E. GEDDES
Since he became Comptroller-General he has entirely supported them, and before he was approached to take up the appointment he entirely supported them in conversation with me.
§ Sir E. GEDDES
The method of completing the fabricated ship is to prepare the parts in the bridge yards and take them to the shipyards to erect them. The object of that is to get the benefit of the labour and of the machines which are in the bridge yards to-day and to erect them with an economy of skilled labour in the shipyards. When these yards were decided upon—and I endeavour to bring to the recollection of the House the atmosphere in which the decision had to be taken—it was clear that a very considerable change in the labour position would have to be made before ships of this type could be erected under the ordinary conditions of labour. In these yards, which were located on the Severn, and the situation for which has been so generously testified to by the hon. and gallant Member (Sir N. Griffiths), and also for the purpose for which they were constructed 420 by the Committee which reported on the financial aspect of the scheme, the idea was that the ordinary civilian labour of the country would be fully occupied in the ordinary yards building ships in the way which has been adopted with such great success by the shipbuilders of the country, and it was proposed then to build these ships with prisoner of war labour, and to some extent possibly by military labour. That was the scheme which was put before the Cabinet. When at a later stage Lord Pirrie met the trade unions on the possibility of getting the bridge-yard fabricated parts of ships erected in the ordinary shipyards, because the shipbuilders of the country, finding a great shortage of skilled labour realised that they would have to adopt this new system of construction—and they are adopting it—he found that the trade unions were prepared whole-heartedly—and I acknowledge this to the full—to co-operate with the Controller-General, and were prepared to raise no difficulties either in the private yards or in the bridge yards or in the national yards if the labour in the national yards, so far as it was British labour, was civilian, and after those negotiations we were able to undertake the building of these ships with civilian labour. If there was a shortage of labour it was agreed with the trade unions that the work could be done by soldiers transferred to the Reserve working as civilians at civilian rates of pay, and that is the scheme that is at present being worked to.
§ Mr. FRANCE
Did the right hon. Gentleman ignore the advice given to him before the adoption of this scheme, that it would be necessary to come to an arrangement on this matter of military labour?
§ Sir E. GEDDES
As far as I recollect before the scheme was embarked upon we were not warned, but it was not necessary, because we realised that it was obvious that there might be difficulties.
§ Sir E. GEDDES
Certainly the intention was to construct them by military labour and by prisoner-of-war labour, because we realised that the skilled labour available for the ordinary yards constructing ships in the ordinary way was likely to be, and has proved to be, deficient to a 421 greater extent than we believed owing to events which have happened in France. That was the basis of the whole scheme.
This employment of civilian labour in the national yards has affected the question of housing. If the men were to be prisoners of war or enlisted men they would be housed in hutments, as enlisted men and prisoners are housed throughout the country, but with the introduction of civilian labour in a great many cases a certain proportion of the housing will probably have to be of a little more elaborate type, and that will probably cause a certain increase of cost under that head. But there is a compensation under the head of housing also. If you have prisoner-of-war and military labour under ordinary discipline it is undesirable—in fact, it would be very inconvenient and unsuitable to house them for a lengthy period of time in houses and halls in the town, but civilian labour can be housed in that way, and as the scheme developed, and with the introduction of civilian labour, it has been possible to arrange for the use of a dock at Portishead for an annual payment for fitting out berths for ships, and the ships will be moved down there to be fitted out. That takes a good deal of the higher class of labour, and that labour, together with a certain amount of the civilian labour for the yards, will be taken out by train in a way that is done in all munition works, and to a great extent that civilian labour will be able to use town houses. I regret that I am not in a position to give the House any estimate to-night exactly how we shall stand financially on housing. It must depend on the number of men we can fit into the houses at Bristol, Portishead, and the district. But it is estimated and believed that the actual net increase for housing will not be a very large item.
§ Mr. FRANCE
Does the right hon. Gentleman pledge himself to anything like a sum of £1,000,000 sterling?
§ Sir E. GEDDES
I have said I cannot commit myself to any definite sum. The question of the alternative extension of private yards has been mentioned. Of these eighty-seven have been sanctioned, and fourteen are complete. It has been stated that but for the construction of the national shipyards labour would have been available for these extensions of private yards. I do not think, on examination, that will be found to be the case. It may be to some extent, but not to any 422 considerable extent. In the first place, the labour to be used in the national yards was prisoner-of-war labour and military labour. As the House is aware, labour under these conditions cannot be used conveniently or very properly in small parties working in thickly-populated areas, where it is difficult to separate military and prisoner-of-war workers from civilian workers. I do not think that the building of the national shipyards has interfered to any extent with the extension of private yards for this reason, that the extensions of private yards are being made, with, I think, the exception of one yard on the Tees, for the building of ships not in the fabricated way, but in the other way, which requires the installation of a considerable amount of additional machinery. It is machinery, I am informed, which is retarding the completion of these extensions of private yards.
The labour situation, so far as the construction of ships and the building of the extensions are concerned, is really this: There is a great shortage of skilled shipyard labour. That shortage existed when last year the building of ships began to be a matter of prime importance, and it is accentuated to-day. In the first place, events which occurred in France have prevented us getting back men from the Army whom we had hoped to get, and it has necessitated other men whom we had hoped to retain being sent out, not from the shipyards themselves, which have been combed out to that serious extent, but from other industries which would have helped us. Thus there is to-day a greater shortage of skilled labour for shipbuilding than we had anticipated, although we did realise there would be a shortage. The advantage of the fabricated ship as against a ship of the ordinary type is this—and here I am quoting figures which Lord Pirrie himself has given me—that in building ships in the ordinary way, I will not say the old-fashioned way, but the way generally adopted, the proportion of skilled labour is one to four or one to six, whereas in building ships of the fabricated type Lord Pirrie puts the minimum at one to forty. That is one of the main advantages which we hope to derive from building fabricated ships.
The fabricated ship was not taken up in any of the private yards in the first place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland has told us about 423 that great shipbuilding centre. I claim to know something about that place myself. I realise that Sunderland shipbuilders are among the first in the world. It is those very people who now, because they are short of skilled labour, are asking to build fabricated ships, and one of the reasons, not the only reason, why the national shipyards are not building to-day is that in fulfilment of a pledge given in this House we agreed that they should not be used unless the private yards were working to their full capacity. The very material that to-day is going to the private yards was fabricated for the national yards, and eleven ships now being fabricated in the private yards would in other circumstances have been available for the national yards. As I have said, the private shipbuilders were not willing to take up the building of fabricated ships at first. My hon. Friend who moved the Resolution referred to General Collard. I have known General Collard since the spring of 1916, and I can confirm in every way what my hon. Friend said about him. He is a man of extraordinary ability. He is one of those who get things done. General Collard is not today employed by Lord Pirrie on the construction of ships. [An HON. MEMBER interrupted.]
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
I must ask hon. Members to observe the ordinary courtesies of debate. It is not possible to continue a speech with continual interruptions. If there is a point worth making, let the hon. Member ask a question, but not indulge in interruptions.
§ Sir E. GEDDES
General Collard is not employed in charge of the construction of ships. He is employed by Lord Pirrie as his assistant, with some sort of title which I do not recollect for the moment. He is employed on work which he knows very well—engineering work—and I have every reason to believe that he is conducting it with that skill with which everyone who knows him credits him. Reference has been made to certain estimates leading from £100,000 to an expenditure of £1,500,000 at a place of which General Collard was in charge. I am not here to answer that criticism. It does not relate to an Admiralty matter. But I happen to know something of the case, because at a certain time I was also connected with the place. It started as a small 424 undertaking, but in the result it formed the nucleus of a great success in the matter of transport across the Channel and to Mesopotamia. Those who started the undertaking, with the greatest possible courage, embarked on a scheme of transporting goods across the Channel until it became a system of transportation to France and to Mesopotamia of which the country has every reason to be proud. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sunderland asked four questions. He asked, Does Lord Pirrie back the scheme? The answer is, Yes, in every way, and whole-heartedly. Secondly, he asks. Did I back it? The answer is, Yes, in every way, and whole-heartedly. Thirdly, Does the War Cabinet back it? Yes, in every way, and whole-heartedly. There was a fourth question in relation to the Ministry of National Service, but I am not quite sure that I follow it. I think it was, Do we propose to go on with the national shipyards while the Minister for National Service is in need of men for other purposes? The answer must necessarily be, If we are convinced of the need of the national shipyards, the men for them will have to be found so far as they can, and I believe they can be found just as they have to be found for agriculture or anything else. In the opinion of myself and of my advisers, my chief adviser being Lord Pirrie, in regard to whose great ability and great knowledge I hold the same opinion that is held by all those who know him, the national shipyards will be a great asset. They are being built in a thoroughly practical way to build ships in a shorter time with far less skilled labour than the old type of ships. The fabricated ship is an essential part of the national shipyards, because they cannot build any other type, and it is one of the great revolutions in the industry, and here I am again quoting Lord Pirrie. It is one of the greatest revolutionary movements we can imagine.
I think the House would like to know who is responsible under Lord Pirrie for the building of ships in the national shipyards. Lord Pirrie has brought to the Severn the managing director of his Belfast yards, and I think I am right in saying a very large proportion of the drawing staff and technical heads, and under him that gentleman and that staff is responsible for the running of the yard. I think when I have told the House that, it will carry very great confidence. As to the site itself, the position on the 425 Severn, with its absolute mud flats—I do not know what they are suitable for except for shipyards—the site was confirmed by an undertaking given by a committee, of which Lord Inchcape was chairman, and they are a body of men who stand high in the opinion of the people of this country. We believe that the national shipyards will be a success, and although we admit that it is a pity that in the situation as it then existed it was not possible and not desirable to go into detailed estimates, we believe they will be a success, and the Controller-General, myself, and the Cabinet mean to see them through.
As the House will have observed, the four questions put by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sunderland have been answered precisely by the First Lord of the Admiralty, but it will also be observed that he said that the Controller-General of Merchant Shipbuilding, the First Lord himself, and the War Cabinet were whole-heartedly in favour of the scheme. Now it is around the scheme that the whole of this discussion is centred, and I would like to ask which scheme are they in favour of? May I point out that the original scheme has been abandoned? As explained to the Committee on Public Expenditure, that was a scheme to provide for the employment of labour which would otherwise have been wasted so far as shipbuilding was concerned. In another part of the Report it is declared that these yards were to be used for the employment of military unskilled labour and prisoners of war. That was the original scheme, and it was only because that was the original scheme that the national shipyards were ever put forward in the first place or escaped criticism when they were first described. The original scheme has been abandoned, Therefore in regard to that scheme it has become the fashion to ask the First Lord that question, but I do not need to wait for the answer. If the right hon. Gentleman was asked whether Lord Pirrie was in favour of the original scheme, would he say that he was whole-heartedly in favour of it?
§ Sir E. GEDDES
Yes. It is perfectly true that, later on, when he had discussed the matter with the trade unions—this 426 applies not only to those yards, but also to private yards—he thought it was better to make some modification, and I entirely agree with him.
§ Sir C. HENRY
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he has ever ascertained if Lord Pirrie had been Controller in May, 1917, he would ever have embarked upon that scheme?
If Lord Pirrie was in favour of the original scheme for the employment of military labour and military unskilled labour it was very singular. I think we must examine the scheme in the light of its original form because the reason why there is a great deal of nervousness in the House about this matter is that the scheme changes from time to time. I hesitate to mention the name of the Director-General again, and as he is a personal friend of mine I should never criticise anything he did unkindly. I knew his great business ability before he became a friend of mine, and in regard to merchant shipbuilding I think the country was most fortunate in securing his services. I must point out that Lord Pirrie has now been given an extremely thankless task. He is asked to make this scheme into a thoroughly workable and practicable concern. On what basis? There has been a good deal of criticism about the expenditure of these yards as they stand. The Committee on National Expenditure discovered that nearly £4,000,000 had gone in the cost of these yards. When the First Lord tells us it was not practical to obtain estimates I must point out that the scheme was approved in July, 1917, and that the estimate was not placed before the Treasury until the end of January, 1918, an interval of six or seven months.
I know nothing about that, but these facts show that their creation of the scheme was certainly not on the lines which would have governed a private yard. We know that private yards had been constructed in various parts of the country. There is not a single yard with which the hon. Member for Wednesbury is connected in the North or any other yard on the North-Eastern coast that has run up anything like the cost per berth that this will come to. The 427 total cost will work out at £120,000 a berth at least. I know one excellent shipyard in the North that has been able to add berths to its yard at a cost of about £40,000 a berth, and it can turn out vessels as large and as good as could ever be constructed at Chepstow. The total cost of the yards when finished will be bad enough, but let us turn to the sites. I think my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Sunderland (Sir Hamar Greenwood) was carried away in his enthusiasm for Sunderland. Sunderland is a great shipbuilding centre, and it reflects great credit upon my hon. and gallant Friend, but I am not at all sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol will be so pleased with his description of the sites in the West of England. Indeed, as far as Beachley and Portbury are concerned, the sites are good, but I am afraid that my hon. Friend will say that they are in the wrong part of England. I venture to say that if he could find sites at Sunderland as good, the value of the Wear would be greatly increased. Chepstow was not a good site. It is no use saying that there are shipowners who joined together to buy this Chepstow yard. If they had been left alone they would have been producing ships already, and that it is because they were interfered with that vessels have not been forthcoming. They were not a shipbuilding group but a shipowning group, and they were warned by shipbuilders that they had not chosen the best part of the world for the erection of a shipyard. Sitting next to the First Lord of the Admiralty is the Leader of the House, and I have no doubt that he has the same belief in the Clyde as my hon. and gallant Friend has in the Wear. But there is one thing that distinguishes the Clyde from the Severn. The Clyde is a good deal colder than the Severn.
It is true that it has nothing like the rise and fall of tide as the Severn, and it has other qualities which go to make it a great shipbuilding centre even greater than the Wear.
§ Sir H. GREENWOOD
Let the right hon. Gentleman be exact and accurate. I said that Sunderland produced more tonnage per annum than any other single town, not river. That is its glory, and that is the fact.
I will leave Sunderland to the care of my hon. and gallant Friend. I repeat: There has always been this distinction between North country yards and South country yards. The Clyde climate has a great deal to do with the amount of work that can be turned out. That is a simple, well-known fact in shipbuilding circles, and there are other advantages. If Lord Pirrie devotes his attention and the attention of his director in Belfast to these yards he can make them a success. Under what terms can he make them a success? That is really the question that we have to discuss. The original scheme was to provide for military, unskilled, and prison labour. It is absolutely impossible to employ prison labour there and get your fabrication created. If you try to do it, you will have trouble with labour which you cannot ignore. I offer no criticism of General Collard except this. General Collard's experience in Nigeria can have taught him absolutely nothing about the management of English labour and shipbuilders. He showed great driving force and great energy there in the creation of the place which has been referred to several times, but he has not been distinguished by success either in the management of labour or of shipbuilders, and that fact must be known to the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty. The employment of that labour has now been abandoned, and the scheme, if it is to work at all, is only to be brought into operation after the private yards have been fully occupied, namely, not until the extra seventy-three berths referred to at Question Time today are in full working order. Lord Pirrie was well advised in making that statement immediately he came into office. It has allayed a great deal of anxiety not only among shipbuilders, who were naturally anxious upon this subject, but also among Members of this House, who were also somewhat disturbed at the idea of shipbuilding centres being removed from their constituencies. He realised that to extend yards and to build in areas where there are fully organised staffs, where they understand shipbuilding from top to bottom, where for generations they have been connected with the sea, and, what is more, where in normal times you have the labour on the spot, was the surest way of getting quick output.
The only way in which these yards can be worked is by bringing the labour to 429 these places. What the House really has in mind in supporting the hon. Member in his Motion for the Adjournment to-night is the question: How are you going to supply the labour? There is no doubt that there is some scheme on foot of some greater capacity than that outlined by the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Sir N. Griffiths) when he said that in the course of his journey in the train he estimated that from £70,000 to £100,000 was all that was necessary for the housing of the men who would be required. I cannot imagine what men he was thinking of. He must have been thinking of the Royal Engineers. He cannot possibly have been thinking of the men in the shipyards. He did not mean that these yards were going to be worked with thirty-four men to the berth, The thing is absolutely impossible. I think we are entitled to ask how many men are going to be employed. It is not giving any information to the enemy to say that there are going to be 5,000, 6,000, or 10,000. I am inclined to think that it will be 10,000. You must know the number, and, if you are going to house 10,000 men, you will not do it for £70,000 or £100,000
Yes, and their families, too. A certain number of married men are going to be taken down there when the yards are fully equipped. The Admiralty have proceeded with this housing scheme. They are anticipating the movement of 10,000 men there. Where are the 10,000 men to come from? There is not a single industry in the country that is not short of labour at the present time, and the vital industries are as short as any others. The First Lord of the Admiralty knows about railways.
§ Sir E. GEDDES indicated dissent.
The right hon. Gentleman was longer at railways than he has ever been at shipbuilding. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the railways have not too much labour. It will be impossible to allow men to go from the railways. He said something in the course of his remarks about men being used for the purposes of agriculture. The whole House knows—I think it was during his absence—that we had a discussion upon that subject. We are so short of labour in agriculture that the President of the Board of Agriculture has told us that he has grave fears about the gathering in of this year's harvest. There are certainly not too 430 many men employed in the iron trade. If you turn to any one of the trades upon which our national existence now depends, you will find a shortage of labour. It is most marked in the shipyards. I doubt whether there is a shipyard anywhere in the country that could not employ more men. The reason we are short in our output now is obviously not because we are short of material. I understand that material is now forthcoming much more freely than it was before. Certainly in some districts they have as much material as they can go on with for some little time. What they are short of is labour. How are you going to help these efficient private yards to produce more ships if you abstract any of their labour? You say that one skilled man in forty is to be used in these national shipyards If that is the estimate made by Lord Pirrie, I accept it at once, because I know he would not make a wrong estimate. He has had too much experience in this sort of thing to make a wrong estimate. But even with one man in forty you must still have skilled men. You have only to take the total number of 10,000 unskilled men and apply it to the situation as it is to-day to see that hundreds of skilled men must be drawn in some way or other from the private yards. What private yards? There is not a private yard which is not short of skilled as well as of unskilled labour. In spite of all the dilution of labour, there is not enough to go round.
The fault that is found with this scheme is that, as it stands at present, its basis is not that of prisoner labour or military labour, it is not even that we have reached an agreement at this belated hour with the trade unions. The only way it can be started is by crippling the private yards. If the Government do that, they will be making a grave error from a national point of view. I know that there is sometimes a tendency in some quarters to believe that private yards are always endeavouring somehow or other to bolster up private as against State industry. If State yards would produce more ships than private yards, let us sacrifice the private yards. The provision of more ships rapidly is the first necessity, but we have found the national yards, so far from producing more rapidly, have crippled the arrangements made in many directions; they have embarrassed the Department itself, and up to the present no single vessel has been produced from any one of these three sites. The right hon. 431 Gentleman referred to the system of fabricated ships. Far be it from me to deprecate any new idea in construction. The world is learning a great deal with regard to novelties in the course of this War. It may be that experience in America will show that the normal English way of constructing vessels, good as it may be for times of peace, is not rapid enough for times of war. I myself have grave doubts about the quality of the tonnage that is being produced in America. It is quite possible that when the War is over we shall be able to regain the shipbuilding position which we are rapidly losing on account of the quality of the tonnage we produce. I agree that what is necessary at the present day is to have as many bottoms afloat as we can secure which will carry the men and materials required. If having fabricated ships is the easiest way of getting them, by all means let us have fabricated ships. I must confess that we hear a great deal of exaggeration about the virtues of standard ships. In spite of that exaggeration, private shipbuilders have not been averse to taking on fabricated ships. Some of them, in the first instance, thought it was a mistake to embark upon them, but I know that some of them have actually constructed fabricated ships. It was only one part of the original national shipyard scheme. Will it be believed that at least one private yard has been started in the North, has been completed, and has already turned out three fabricated ships, while the national yards have done nothing but absorb money! I do not believe that any man except Lord Pirrie could rescue this scheme from complete disaster. He can go on with his work in the full assurance that he has the sympathy of this House. Both he and the Government must realise that the best and most economical way of producing ships is to use the existing organisation, machinery, and shipyards to the full before embarking on the diversion of any labour whatever to the national shipyards. The desire to use the name of the Director of Shipbuilding in support of this scheme was very natural. I would point out, however, that he only came into office two months ago. His responsibility for the scheme is very clearly defined; it starts from the time he took over the national shipyards. He is not responsible for anything that happened before. The 432 First Lord of the Admiralty is the person who was responsible for everything that took place before the Director of Merchant Shipping came into office. The First Lord is responsible for it now, and answers for it in this House, but he was more directly responsible then than he was at any other time. He is to be congratulated on having most excellent assistance, but however excellent the assistance may be, the House has a right to express great anxiety, as it has tonight, that there is to be further large expenditure on these national yards, which, up to the present, have produced nothing, and that the private yards indirectly will suffer from a transference of labour from them to these expensive national concerns.
§ Mr. WILKIE
This House benefits by having representatives from the workers' point of view in connection with questions which are under discussion. Being one of the modest Members from the North, I do not want to assume an egotistical position, but I believe I am the only Member of the House who can approach the subject from the practical point of view. My hon. Friend the Member for Morley (Mr. France) and our Canadian Friend the hon. and gallant Member for Sunderland (Sir H. Greenwood) have spoken from one point of view. I want to approach it from another. I am not antagonistic to national yards. I am not against the First Lord or the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty because they are not shipbuilders. I have heard a lot about their inexperience and inefficiency, but I do not forget that the late Lord Armstrong was a lawyer and yet one of the greatest shipbuilders the world has ever known. Reference has been made to the First Lord's connection with railways. All that I can wish is that he were back again on the North-Eastern Railway to give us some of the privileges we had in the past but which we do not enjoy now. The last time this question was discussed a former Civil Lord of the Admiralty, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Molton (Mr. G. Lambert), complained strongly, and I think very rightly, that before the Admiralty or the Government or the War Cabinet entered on this scheme of national shipyards at this moment of emergency they ought to have consulted the employers. I say, as I said on the 13th December, 1917, that they ought to have consulted some of us who had risked our positions and even our 433 lives to assist our country and the, Government. We were not consulted. We still contend that if both sides had been consulted a great deal of the present difficulty would have been obviated. What is the difficulty? The First Lord has more or less glossed it over to-night. I know nothing about General Collard, and I am not going to say a word about him. He and others may be the best men for the purpose. But they have not had experience of shipbuilding in this country. Something has been said about shipbuilding elsewhere. I have visited the places that have been talked about. At the present moment I do not desire to say a word of what is being done across the Atlantic. Time will tell. They will find out, as we have done in the past, all about the difficulties. If they live for another year we will say, "God bless you! Go on, do all you can with their ships and the men!" The point of the difficulty I want the First Lord of the Admiralty to understand is—they have talked about building ships without skilled labour. I need scarcely controvert that view. I do not care what ships they are—regular, assembled, or standard. You must have a good percentage of highly-skilled constructors before you can build these ships, no matter what they are. The authorities forget they can only get them from us, because shipyard labour is thoroughly organised in all its branches. Yet they never consulted the employers or us how the thing could be done. We are all willing to assist the Government. Some of us who have met the Admiralty and First Lords sympathise thoroughly with their difficulties, and we have thought that they should have consulted us more than they have done. For the sake of our country we were willing to do all we could to help. I am speaking now in the presence of Lord Pirrie, whom I have known since I was a lad at the shipyard. We know that with his experience he will look at it from the great point—that is, the turning out of more ships for the benefit of our country. You cannot build these ships at Chepstow. I do not care whether it is a good place or not. What we cannot understand is taking shipyards to places where you have neither men, nor machinery, nor houses, nor anything. That is the practical point, and I speak us a practical workman. I want to ask the Admiralty as to whether it is or is not a fact that in some of their Admiralty 434 yards berths have been filled where ships could have been built now with all the machinery sheds around them. I refer to what were empty berths. How is it that every one of these empty berths in these yards have not been filled up?
When you talk about private yards, as I distinctly said on 13th December, we should have no private yards at present. They should all have been taken over by the Government, because you really now are, in effect—only under a different name—paying the workmen's wages, the manager's salaries, and the dividends of the shareholders—at all events, you are doing it on the railways. Why not, then, have taken over the shipyards and eliminated—and this is the great thing—from the minds of the workmen that they are simply working for private profit, and not for their country? You could do that if you only grasped the nettle. On 13th December I drew attention to the delay there might be in getting the national shipyards ready, and said they were going to be of no use to the nation during the War, because it would take from eighteen months to two years before you could get the machinery, foundations and works laid down. We have had some experience of that. Apparently they were going to be worked by military labour and German prisoners. I do not know whose brain evolved that idea, but I say, as a Britisher, you suggested that British workmen should work alongside German prisoners, building ships. No, never! There is plenty of work for the German prisoners to do, and to keep them clear of men who have gone to sea and been massacred by them. The Government certainly is entitled to use all the German prisoners they can, and other work can be found for them. Then upon another matter. As soon as Lord Pirrie was appointed we approached him, to point out various matters. We pointed out that a promise was given by the Government—and it has been repeatedly told us in this House—that if the workmen were brought back from the Army and put to shipyard or other work—and do not forget we have 2,000 of the members of my society who volunteered to go to the front, and who have now come back to the trade at the request of both the last and the present Prime Minister—and when they came back we had a promise, if they came from the Army, they would come back as civilians and be paid a civilian wage. This proposal was in 435 entire opposition to that promise. Hence the feeling that the men have held in every quarter of the country of which we now know. We have been informed by Lord Pirrie, who, I believe, is now in the House, that the work is to be done according to the promise of the Government, and that is, if our men go back into civilian life, they will be civilians and be paid civilian wages. That is the only way, it seems to me, that we can give the men evidence of good faith, and get the output of more ships expedited. I have nothing more, I think, to say on the question from the workers' point of view, except this, that as the Mover and Seconder of the Resolution have pointed out, we should endeavour to get clear of the idea of the national shipyards being run on different lines to the others. If we are to have national shipyards, I say, for goodness sake nationalise all the shipyards, and get clear of all difficulty. If you do not do that, then you cannot build ships with military labour or the labour of prisoners alone, for you must have a given percentage of real shipbuilding constructors, who must be taken from the other yards. The empty berths in the other yards should be filled, for here there are men and material, and the work can be expeditiously turned out, and there will be no more useless expenditure.
§ Sir C. HENRY
I must express my surprise to the First Lord of the Admiralty at the way in which he endeavoured to persuade the House that Lord Pirrie was so enthusiastic about this scheme. My colleagues on the Sub-Committee have had the advantage of having had Lord Pirrie present on two occasions. They regretted that they had not the opportunity of having the First Lord of the Admiralty there.
§ Sir C. HENRY
I said that we regretted we did not have the pleasure of hearing the First Lord of the Admiralty, but I hope we may do so on some future occasion. My hon. Friends will bear me out when I tell the House that Lord Pirrie, when he gave evidence, did not convey to us the impression which the First Lord wishes to convey, that Lord Pirrie had been asked if in May, 1917, when the First Lord of the Admiralty was responsible 436 for proposing the scheme to the Cabinet, he would have been a party to such a scheme. I think I rightly express the view of Lord Pirrie when I say he would not; and I may go further and say that when Lord Pirrie became Controller—I endorse every word which was said of the great benefit it is to have Lord Pirrie in this post—when he came there he was undecided as to what scheme should be adopted with regard to national shipbuilding. It is all very well for my right hon. Friend to say that it was impossible to frame estimates. I think that is what he said. Why was it more impossible to-frame estimates in July, 1917, than in December, 1917? In December, 1917, estimates were forthcoming, because in October, 1917, the Sub-Committee of the Admiralty on national expenditure insisted on estimates being forthcoming.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has many difficult tasks, but I venture the opinion that he has none more difficult than controlling the present First Lord of the Admiralty. When he accepted the position of Controller of the Admiralty, which I think was in May or June of 1917, one of the first things he asked for was that he should be empowered to employ a vast staff of men, without resort to the Treasury, at salaries of £500 and £1,000 a year. With that staff the right hon. Gentleman could have done his work efficiently and gone through the right procedure and framed estimates. I maintain that the House and the country has a great grievance against the First Lord of the Admiralty, because he embarked on this gigantic scheme without estimating what the cost would be. I was very surprised also to hear from the First Lord that Lord Pirrie had decided to send to Chepstow, or to one of the other places where these national shipyards are, one of his managing directors from Belfast, and also a skilled staff, including draughtsmen. I am getting more and more mixed over the whole concern. Why send a gentleman of the high standing as the manager of Messrs. Harland and Wolff and a highly trained staff to Chepstow to make draughts for ships when you have not got the labour, as the First Lord admits, to carry on the work? I believe I am right in saying that it is the policy of Lord Pirrie not to construct ships in these yards until all the other yards are fully supplied with labour. Therefore, in the name of goodness, why go to the expense of diverting from 437 Belfast to Chepstow skilled men of high standing? What have they to do when they get there? The First Lord says that the national shipyards are going to be a great success ultimately. I hope to goodness they will. Neither nor any other hon. Member desire that after all this lavish expenditure there should be no return. May I ask the First Lord, if ever he does make an estimate, if he will do it from the commercial point of view, and if he will take the capital expenditure on these yards, reckon the interest on the capital, and see how the expenditure will compare with that in private yards. The right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Runciman) said that every berth in these national shipyards would cost £120,000. I think he is well under the estimate. When we had the estimate for £3,800,000 for these national yards it was before the increase of 12½ per cent., and I shall be very much surprised, even deducting the £500,000, if these thirty-four berths are constructed below the figure of £4,000,000. Therefore, I think my right hon. Friend is taking too optimistic a view altogether.
Let me come to the housing scheme. I know the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Dr. Macnamara) is a great enthusiast for housing schemes. I am quite in agreement with him. I am an enthusiast for housing schemes, but why was not this housing scheme embarked upon when the scheme for the yards was embarked upon instead of relying upon the system of housing military and prisoner labour, which now is found to be absolutely useless. One hon. Member spoke of £70,000 or £100,00 for the housing scheme. The First Lord of the Admiralty said he reckoned there would be 10,000 men at these yards when construction of ships is started. These 10,000 men will want at least 2,000 houses, and as a house cannot be got for less than £400 this means an expenditure of £800,000. The hon. Member for Morley and the hon. and gallant Member for Sunderland were quite right in bringing this matter forward. I go further and say that the matter cannot be left where the First Lord of the Admiralty left it to-night. We must know, because Parliament has a right to know, what will be the cost of this housing scheme, when it will be started, and what will be the conditions of the scheme. Is it to be by contract?
I wish the Chancellor of the Exchequer were here. It is time that the Treasury exercised more control over the Admiralty 438 than at the present time. The whole procedure and the whole record of these national shipyards reflect not only upon the First Lord of the Admiralty, who is primarily responsible, but upon the Treasury and the Government as a whole for allowing it to be proceeded with without due consideration and without proper estimates as to the expenditure to be incurred.
§ Mr. HOLT
The explanation of the First, Lord of the Admiralty is singularly unconvincing. First take the statement that an estimate was impossible. Before you can know that the work is feasible you must have some idea of what it will cost. You cannot even tell that engineering operations are possible without forming some idea of what the cost is going to be. The First Lord said that it was a matter of delay, to tell how much it was going to cost. How much time does it take? We know that there is between the Admiralty and the Treasury a most admirable system of conference by which any scheme which the Admiralty wish to carry out can obtain Treasury consent by an oral conference in something like twenty-four hours. The Treasury consent could have been got in less than twenty-four hours if the Admiralty had prepared their estimate, so that there is no foundation for the suggestion that any material delay could have been possibly occasioned by the obtaining of an estimate. It is not the fact that it was considerations of time, and of time alone, that justified the First Lord of the Admiralty in not preparing an estimate. I can entirely corroborate what has been said by the hon. Baronet who has just sat down with regard to Lord Pirrie. I was present also as a member of the Committee, and Lord Pirrie gave evidence before us, and he stated in the most explicit terms that he would not have been a party to the origination of the scheme There can be no doubt about it, on the part of any person who was present when Lord Pirrie gave evidence, and though no doubt it is true that he is in favour of going on with the scheme now, having regard to the position in which the country is involved, it is not fair to quote Lord Pirrie as a defender of the scheme, because it is quite certain that if he had been consulted when the matter was a clean sheet he would have been opposed to the scheme. The whole project was originally based on a calculation with regard to labour which everybody ought to have known was an unsound calculation. The 439 Government thought that they could carry on these great shipyards with German prisoner labour and with conscript labour. This military labour is really conscript labour. Men are being brought into the Army for the purpose of being compelled to work in shipyards. They are not people who were brought into the Army originally as soldiers and were then found unsuitable, but persons who were deliberately enlisted in the Army not for the purpose of fighting but for civil work, and many of them have had no military training whatever.
§ Mr. J. MASON
The hon. Member is hardly justified in calling this conscript labour. A great many of these men are over military age, who enlisted voluntarily for the purpose, I admit, of this labour.
§ Mr. HOLT
One of the principal reasons for raising the military age was to bring in men for this particular class of work. Anybody ought to have known that trade union labour in this country would never assent to the employment of these men for the purpose of putting together fabricated ships. The reason for choosing these particular sites was that it was contemplated to employ this labour. Had the Government realised that they were going to employ civil labour in building these ships they would not have chosen these sites. They were chosen not because they were good sites for shipbuilding, but because they were the best sites for shipbuilding that could be found out of sight of trade union labour. Directly that factor disappears, the whole scheme falls to the ground. Had the Government intended to use civilian labour from the beginning, they would have chosen a very different and more suitable place to create the shipyard, and where it could have been established with economy. Then the housing scheme involved very great difficulty. I think the House has been rather misled on this point, because the Government had to fall back on civilian labour, and the housing scheme, being an essential part of the project—unless they were going to scrap the yard—ought really to have been added to the original estimate. In regard to the slipways, there was an economy of £500,000. That scheme was turned down directly Lord Pirrie came to examine it, and I believe the Committee suggested that even before Lord Pirrie. In fact, 440 £50,000 was wanted at the commencement to carry out that scheme. Then take the case of the Chepstow Yard. I think it was admitted, as the Committee say in their Report, that the Chepstow is a very bad site. Lord Pirrie, than whom no one can speak better as to its deficiencies, gave evidence to that effect. It is a very bad site, with almost every possible difficulty. From the point of view of situation, it is exceedingly bad. It is at the bottom of a hole, and it is very hot in summer. It is near a small, miserable town. [An HON. MEMBER: "A beautiful town!"] Not beautiful from the point of view of the work of a shipyard, though it may be beautiful from the point of view of gentlemen who want only to look at it. As a member of the Committee I went with two members of the Committee to make an inspection of the place, and I can only say that I should be surprised if any person who had ever seen a shipyard would put 1d. into it. I am pleased that none of my money will ever go into it except through the action of this House. What we really want to know is what is the best policy in the future as regards the yard. Is it really better to go on with housing, under the idea that there will be a large quantity of labour for the building of ships, in view of the fact that there is really more urgent work waiting to be carried out? As I ventured to suggest the other day, would it not be better to turn all this labour to making sure of the harvest; or would it not be better to turn the labour to the more useful operation of completing the work in the private yards? With regard to fabricated ships and the proportion of labour required, I think the statements which have been made are rather misleading. The parts which have to be assembled have to be made elsewhere, and they are simply doing the same work that would be done in the shipbuilding yard. Although I think it is not a complete balance, to a considerable extent you are transferring skilled labour from one place of work to another, and therefore it cannot be quoted as if you were simply saving skilled labour.
Of course, a fabricated ship is a speculation; it may be quite right; none of us really know that, and nobody could take it upon himself to say it will not be a success. It may be a success, though I think most of us are rather doubtful as regards the quality, and the success of British shipping has depended on quality 441 quite as much as on quantity. I think the Government have clearly made a mistake in entering upon this scheme at all—and, indeed, they themselves have condemned their own original scheme. Is it really so that it is better to go on with the scheme and that the money and the labour which the Government are going to spend on Chepstow and Portbury is going to produce more results than the same amount of labour and money spent in other directions? I do not think the Government have proved that proposition, and it is up to them to prove it. I think my hon. Friend who proposed this Motion ought, if they do not succeed in establishing their proposition, to persevere in the action which he has taken.
§ Mr. MASON
I was, unfortunately, unable to be present at the earlier part of the Debate, and, therefore, I do not feel justified in saying very much on this subject, but I feel called upon to make one or two remarks to prevent any mistake as to the responsibility which this House is called upon to throw on either the First Lord or the Government or somebody else. In attempting to fix any responsibility for what has been done in regard to these national shipyards the House should carefully remember the conditions in June, 1917, which were very much influenced by the appalling rate of sinkage which had gone on shortly before that time. The Government was faced with an extraordinarily alarming state of affairs at that moment, and it is only just to say that any consideration of this question now must be viewed not so much from what we know to-day, but from what was the evidence before the Government at that time. My right hon. Friend below me (Mr. Runciman) said that at the present time there was practically no labour to spare in any direction, and that is, of course, quite undeniable. Probably the only place where you could find any labour to spare at the present time is from the lower grades in the military categories—from soldiers in the lower grades or discharged soldiers—but the point is what was the position when the scheme came before the Cabinet?
The position then was really an alarming one, and I gather that this scheme was entered into on a full understanding that the private yards would be developed and used to their fullest capacity, and that when that question was examined it was found that, even when they were 442 developed to their full capacity, the requirements would not be met. This scheme was put forward, rightly or wrongly, I presume on the authority of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and was based on a certain assumption, namely, on making sure of what was then anticipated to be the only source of labour to begot in addition to that already in existence in shipyards, and that was military and prisoner labour. This scheme was entered upon on the assumption that that military labour could be used, and I think the acquiescence in the scheme by the War Cabinet was only justified on one of two conditions. One was that they could, and intended to, employ military labour, and, if they decided on that line, to persevere in it and carry it through at all costs. That was one assumption. The other assumption was that, before embarking on the use of military labour, they would make arrangements with the trade unions, and make sure before spending the money that it would be feasible to employ that class of labour. The fault I have to find with the Government is that they fell between two stools, or changed horses in crossing a stream, which, I think, more correctly describes it. They changed their policy in the middle. They started out in the belief that the first idea was possible and to carry it through at all costs, and eventually they have come to the conclusion that they have to accept the conditions they can with labour. I think that is an unfortunate position, because, obviously, if it had been intended to work these yards with civilian labour, they would not have been built under the conditions in which they have been built.
I do not wish to go further into this matter to-night. I hope we may have another opportunity of discussing it later, but I wish to point out that this shows the extraordinary difficulty even in war-time in accepting a policy which will take more than a very few months to carry out, because in a policy of this kind, which it was known would take a very considerable period to carry out, it was almost certain that there would be a change of man or a change of conditions which would make it impossible to carry the policy through to a conclusion. I am pretty well convinced that if the whole thing could have been carried through in a few months it would have been done, and it would have been under the first of 443 the two conditions I have named; but, owing to the delay and the time over which the whole matter has been spread, the personnel of the Admiralty having changed, and so on, the conditions, which held good at the beginning have not been able to be maintained at the end, and I think that is an unfortunate position. I do not think one can altogether compare this with the Loch Doon case. It is not quite so bad in one sense, except that there is more money. In the case of Loch Doon the country spent half a million before it discovered that it usually rains on the West Coast of Scotland. In this case a good deal has been spent before discovering that trade unions will not put up with military labour. Beyond that I do not think the analogy can be drawn. I hope we shall have another opportunity of discussing this. For the moment, I thought I was called upon to say one or two words to-night on account of some of the remarks made.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the ADMIRALTY (Dr. Macnamara)
I have tried so frequently, though quite inadequately, to defend the national shipyards in the last few months that I should like to say a few words on some of the points that have been raised. I greatly appreciate the comment of the hon. Member (Mr. Mason), and his remark that we should all try to project our minds into the position, the alarming position as he called it, which confronted the country in June, 1917, when the scheme was put before the War Cabinet. If we do that we shall get the right perspective. Some of the comments which have been offered to-night seem to suggest that these national shipyards were an utter fiasco, that 4,000,000 good British sovereigns have been absolutely thrown away, and I rather think it was the idea of my hon. Friend (Mr. Holt) that we should shut the yards and cut our losses.
§ Dr. MACNAMARA
I thought I was not misinterpreting my hon. Friend. It has been put in such a way that we were in a panic, and we rushed into this thing at someone's suggestion without due consideration. I would remind the House of the statement I had to make on behalf of the Admiralty on 3rd July:The whole question of the shipbuilding resources of the country was placed before the 444 War Cabinet in July, 1917, by the then First Lord, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Dublin University, who put in the comprehensive survey—it is so described in the Fourth Report of the Select Committee—which had been prepared by the then Navy Controller, the present First Lord. That comprehensive survey led up to a number of proposals, and these were contingent upon a series of objectives to be aimed at as regards output of new merchant tonnage.The figure which was accepted, which was, I think, suggested by the Shipping Controller, would involve the starting of three national shipyards, and thereafter, when the proposal, which involved the three shipyards, was agreed in principle, and then, after a Sub-Committee of the War Cabinet, of which I think Lord Curzon was chairman——
I do not want to press my right hon. Friend too far, but he says the estimate was the estimate of the Shipping Controller. I understand at the time he is speaking of merchant shipbuilding was under the control of the Admiralty and not of the Shipping Controller.
§ Dr. MACNAMARA
Let me make that clear. I said the survey included a certain number of objections as to new merchant tonnage output which should meet our needs in the situation in which we found ourselves. The figure which was suggested and which was concurred in by the First Lord as the figure of output which was necessary was. I think, concurred in, if not suggested, by the Shipping Controller, and to reach that figure you not only had to extend existing yards, besides a great many other proposals and schemes for improving plant, but you had to start additional shipbuilding resources in the shape of these three national yards. That was agreed to in principle, and subsequently looked into in detail. No estimated was submitted, says my right hon. Friend (Mr. Runciman), and the Committee of National Expenditure having discovered that fact—I am sure he did not mean it to bear a sinister interpretation——
§ Dr. MACNAMARA
"Disclosed" was the word. There was no discovery. The estimate had been submitted to the Treasury—I have it before me now—on 28th January, 1918. On 13th November I said, in reply to my hon. Friend (Mr. Lambert):The right hon. Gentleman is fully aware of the vital necessity of proceeding with the utmost expedition in the provision of new merchant tonnage to make good the loss by enemy 445 submarines. He knows that in order that this provision may not be delayed it is essential to short-circuit some of the traditional peace procedure. As I have already said, as soon as they can be prepared, the estimates will be placed in the hands of the Treasury."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th November, 1917, col. 227, Vol. 99.]That was on the 13th November, and they were so placed on the 28th January. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham paid a tribute to the Emergency Standing Committee, and asked why the matter was not referred to that body. But the Treasury would not have considered a detailed estimate of this sort, running into very considerable figures, by the method of the Emergency Standing Committee, which could not possibly transact business of such a character.
My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor says there was a change of policy with regard to the manning of the yards for the purpose of shipbuilding. That is so, but there was no change of policy as to the building of the yards. They will be built, and are being built, by prisoner labour and by military men. What is the position? The relations of Lord Pirrie with labour have always been of the most cordial character. If we had gone on as proposed we would have been guilty, it was said, of a breach of faith. It would have been said it was industrial conscription. It was suggested to us, roughly speaking, four months ago, when the question of new merchant shipping was all-important, when every rivet driven home meant another American soldier earlier in the field, that we ought not to contemplate upsetting the whole labour market, and so there was a change of policy, but not with regard to building of the yards, but in regard to the assembling of ships in the yards. The First Lord has stated that a smaller number of skilled men will be required for these special fabricated ships. There has been a good deal of instruction in regard to the use of pneumatic tools, and men who have been taught to use these tools will be transferred from the Engineers to W Reserve, placed under civilian authority, and paid civilian rates. With a very much smaller proportion of skilled men needed we hope to be able to get sufficient men without withdrawing labour from other yards, although, I agree, there is a shortage in certain directions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Runciman) appears to be under a misapprehension as to the amount of money involved for housing. 446 There is already in this estimate—I hope I shall not be pressed for details, as it contains confidential figures as to tonnage—an item for housing, a considerable figure within the region of £300,000. It is for hutments for soldiers. This provision can be used for the single men who will be employed to put the fabricated ships together, but we still have to provide buildings for the families of the married men. My point is that we have already got a large amount of provision in hand under the original estimate. I hope I have made that point quite clear. Hon. Members speak as if the national shipyards were the only places where the housing problem came in, but you find that problem wherever you go, and it is not quite fair to raise that problem merely in connection with the national yards. Here we have already a considerable amount of our needs at hand, for we have the huts which were orignally intended for the Engineers. I do not know what Lord Pirrie told the Committee, but I know that on the 26th June Lord Pirrie issued the following statement in regard to British shipbuilding and the national shipyards:I have lately had an opportunity of visiting the national shipyards and of going carefully into the whole scheme. These yards were conceived solely with the idea of re-erecting fabricated ships manufactured at the bridge and other constructional engineering works in the centre of England, and in my opinion this policy, which was initiated by my predecessors, is one which is calculated greatly to increase the output of merchant ships, so much so that I have decided that the units constructed by the bridge-building firms for the first nine of the fabricated ships, which were to have been laid down in the national yards, are to be transferred to private yards. This is not only following out the policy that the private yards are to have preference, but the output from these yards would incidentally be improved, as the shipbuilders in question agree with me that they can produce more tonnage by this means.The progress made at the national yards is remarkable and reflects the greatest credit on all concerned. It is essential, however, that the construction of the yards should be finished before shipbuilding is started. It would be an easy matter to start laying down keels at the national yards to-day, but in my opinion we shall get finished ships more quickly if we delay the actual building until the construction of the yards is complete.I am assuming personal responsibility for the running of the national shipyards and believe they will form a great asset to the nation and a means of substantially increasing the output of merchant ships.No doubt the House would desire some further consideration of this matter and would like Vote 8 to be put down as originally proposed. So far as we are concerned 447 at the Admiralty we wish to meet that desire, and if we can more closely define our housing proposals we will endeavour to get the details and all other possible information which we can give.
§ Mr. WILSON-FOX
The explanation which has been given by the right hon. Gentleman has left the House unsatisfied, and I welcome the announcement that the Admiralty will be ready to give a further opportunity at an early date. It is clear that notwithstanding the admonitions of the Committee on National Expenditure the Admiralty has not yet lost the habit of procrastination in regard to the preparation of estimates. [HON. MEMBERS: "Divide, divide!"]
§ Mr. PRINGLE rose in his place and claimed to move "That the Question be now put," but Mr. Deputy-Speaker withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.
§ Mr. WILSON-FOX (resuming)
The Committee ascertained that millions were being spent without any adequate idea of the amount or any Estimate having been framed as to the lines on which the money had been spent.
It being Eleven of the clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.