Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum not exceeding £5,820,300, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Expenses of the Contract Work for Shipbuilding, Repairs, etc., which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1925.
§ Sir B. FALLE
I should like to raise a point in respect to the building and repairs of vessels in the two southern yards. The contract work suggests giving a monopoly to the private yard. The giving of this monopoly means that there cannot be that competition that there ought to be. Whether it be a Labour Government, or a Socialist Government, or a mixture of the two, or a Conservative or a Liberal Government, competition will be recognised as necessary. The Government dockyards are practically nationalised, because they have been built up and aided by the Government, and it is right and proper that they should have, at any rate, the opportunity of building the ships of war. There is only one slip at Portsmouth, and one at Devonport. Perfectly irrespective of whether I represent Portsmouth or some other place, it is most important that they should be able to build ships there. There is room at Portsmouth and Devonport to make one or two other slips on which, at a pinch, another ship may be built. There is room at Portsmouth and Devonport to lay down proper docks and to dock big ships, and it seems to me that it is more than ever necessary, now that we have come to a time in which we believe we are going to get peace—according to 744 some optimistic people, for many years—some do not see in the least why we should ever be at war again!—now is the time when we are at peace and we shall annoy nobody by building, that we should attend to some of these things, so that we should be able to build ships even if it should be only those steamers that have already been mentioned in the course of the Debate. If we are to turn those docks to building commercial ships, at any rate we must have, first of all, a slip on which to build them, and a dock into which we can put those ships if injured either by collision or by war or by anything else. At the present moment we cannot do that. The Parliamentary Secretary may say that this is not the moment to launch into such extravagance as the building of a slip or a new dock at either of our southern dockyards, but I maintain that it would not be extravagance, and that now, in time of peace, is the moment we might proceed with this work without offending anyone.
I am strongly in favour of the Singapore base, but that would not be much use if you let down the docking facilities and other necessities at home. If you cannot make provision for doing the necessary repairs at home it is almost useless having dockyards anywhere else. There is no provision at the present time at Portsmouth to dock a ship of the size of the "Hood." I hope the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty will fully investigate this matter, because I am sure that he will find that these dockyards are not fulfilling the purpose for which they were primarily built in regard to accommodating large ships. I think it would be a wise thing to provide a second slip at the places which I have suggested on which, if necessary, we might build further ships to assist our Navy.
§ Mr. HARLAND
We intended to raise on this Vote the whole question of the cruiser programme reduction, but as we wish to see an increase in the vote we propose to deal with that matter on the Vote for the salary of the First Lord of the Admiralty.
§ Mr. AMERY
I do not wish to raise the general question of policy involved in the cutting down by something like one-half of the programme which I foreshadowed some months ago. All I wish to do now 745 is to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he will tell the Committee how far actual progress has been made with the giving out of the contracts in connection, not only with the two cruisers to be built outside the dockyard, but also in connection with the machinery and armour plates for the ships which are to be built in the dockyards. It is very important from the employment point of view that that work, consistently with accepting reasonably low tenders, should be spread as far as possible, and I am sure it would be of great interest to the Committee if the hon. Member will give us some indication of how far the arrangements have gone both with regard to beginning the work in the dockyard and the contract work, and to what extent the Admiralty found it possible to spread the work in order to meet the difficulties of the unemployment situation in our great shipbuilding centres throughout the country.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
I am quite in agreement with those hon. Members who have urged the Admiralty to take steps to speed up this work. There may have been a difference of opinion as to the necessity for the five cruisers, but now that the House has agreed to vote them, I take it that everyone will agree that the work ought to be put forward as early as possible in order to relieve unemployment. I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary, if he possibly can, to use his influence to have this work brought forward at the earliest possible moment. Another point I wish to draw attention is in connection with these contracts. I do not know if the hon. Gentleman has any power in this matter, but I certainly think it is time something was done in this connection. I have listened to-day to hon. Members representing dockyard constituencies alluding to conditions affecting the employés, and I think they were quite right in raising those questions.
I think we should all try to improve the conditions of the workers in the service of the Admiralty. We are also entitled to try to improve the conditions of the men engaged on the work of the Government in private yards. Some of this work has been placed at Barrow and on the Clyde, and many of the men engaged in it will be paid wages which are little better than sweated wages. When you recognise that on the Clyde 38s. a week is the standard 746 wage for a shipyard labourer, and £2 8s per week for a ship's carpenter or joiner, after serving five years at the trade, no Government, whatever its complexion or colour, can defend conditions of that kind. I think that this Government ought to take steps in the work that is going to be done. As I have said, we have had differences of opinion as to the necessity of the cruisers, but, once they have been agreed upon, I think the Government ought to insist that, in any work that is being accomplished or performed, the first charge ought to be a decent standard of life for the men engaged in the industry. I assert, and I am sure that Members in all quarters of the Committee will agree, that no man with a wife and family can maintain them on 38s. a week, or even on the tradesman's wage of £2 8s.
In my constituency, in the yard where one of the cruisers is going to be built, there are men who, in many cases, will be as well off, if not better, unemployed. That is not to the credit of past Governments, and all I am asking is that this Government should try and alter, if it possibly can, the way in which past Governments have acted. I have only intervened in this Debate for these two reasons—firstly, to try to get the Admiralty, now that there is agreement upon it, to speed up the work and try to bring it forward as early as possible, with a view to alleviating the conditions that are so bad, both in Barrow and on the Clyde; and, secondly, to secure that the men employed in the industry, both at Barrow and on the Clyde, on this work, shall have at least wages and conditions equal to those of the men employed on similar work in the dockyards. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will at least secure to the men engaged in this work that small and, possibly, too meagre minimum. Even if that is granted, it will be a considerable boon to men and women who have been facing great hardships.
§ Viscount CURZON
I see, on page 125 of the Estimates, this item:Royal Reserve of Merchant Cruisers, etc.; Subvention for right of pre-emption or hire as armed cruisers or transports, £90,000.The same sum was also provided last year. I presume that this refers to the subsidy in respect of the "Mauritania" and "Lusitania" of the Cunard Line. 747 I think I am correct in saying that it was agreed to pay this subsidy in respect of those two ships, but it seems to me extraordinary that, now that the "Lusitania" has been sunk, the subsidy still goes on, and, as I think I am also right in saying, is still paid at exactly the same figure as when the original agreement was entered into. In any case, in these days, in view of the experience we had during the War, it is an extravagant sum. I quite agree that other Governments have been in power since the War, and might have gone into it, but they have not done so, and, surely, here is an opportunity for the present Socialist Government to go into this question and see whether this arrangement should be continued or not.
If it is a question of contract, I suppose we are bound to continue some sort of agreement, but would it not be possible for the present Government to go into the matter and see whether they cannot secure a certain reduction in the figure? The sum of £90,000 is, in my opinion, far too large a one to be spent on the hire of a vessel which may conceivably never be, and I hope never will be, required for war purposes again. Speaking from memory, I fancy that this subsidy has a few years to run, but I do think it is a matter on which the Government might, in the public interest, if on no other ground, approach the company, and see whether it would not be possible to secure a reduction of this figure. This is a question on which the House might give us a certain amount of support, and I hope the hon. Gentleman, when he comes to reply, will give us some idea as to whether he thinks it will be possible to secure a reduction in what I, at any rate, regard as much too high a figure in respect of only one ship.
§ Mr. AMMON
I want first of all to deal with two points to which the hon. Baronet the Member for North Portsmouth (Sir B. Falle) drew my attention, and on which he particularly wants an answer. I understood him to say that there was some suggestion of, shall I say, alleged intimidation with regard to how certain people employed by the Admiralty or in the dockyards cast their vote. I can only say that, so far as the Admiralty are concerned, we have no knowledge of any 748 such thing, and, certainly, it would be viewed with great disapproval, and we should deal with it in an appropriate manner if anyone endeavoured in any way to interfere, in whatever way, with the legitimate rights of men exercising their franchise as citizens.
The hon. Baronet's other point was the composition of the dockyard committees, but that is a matter with which we have no concern. We are not concerned with their politics, their point of view, or anything else. It is the whole affair of the men, and it is left to them without any interference from the authorities whatever. Another point that was raised by the hon. Baronet—it is a familiar point of his, and I can quite understand it, not only from the point of view of his own position as representing a dockyard constituency, but from the point of view of those who have any concern about the equipment we have—was that we have not more than one slip which will take a capital ship. It is the fact that in the existing dockyards we could not build more than one capital ship, because the slips are too small, and the earliest date by which we could have got another slip, or enlarged a present one, would have been March of this year, and the cost of the work on the slip alone would have been well over a quarter of a million—£286,000 or £290,000.
§ Mr. AMMON
I have no idea; I am simply giving the cost. That outlay, however, would not have been accepted, and we should not have got authority for it. Moreover, the Law Officers of the Crown advised that, having regard to the Washington Treaty, it would be necessary that the new capital ships should be laid down before the end of the year 1922, and that could not have been done except building them by contract. Under the Washington Treaty no further capital ships will be laid down until somewhere about 1931, so that there will be opportunity to consider the point, if necessary, with regard to further accommodation.
§ Sir B. FALLE
There was also a question as to the secrecy of the ballot in the dockyards. I have not the slightest doubt about it, but I should like to have a statement from the hon. Gentleman that, in the ballot at the 749 dockyards, as elsewhere, secrecy is rigidly maintained, and that by no possibility can it be violated.
§ Mr. AMMON
I am afraid I did not make myself as clear as I hoped. I thought I conveyed the impression to the hon. Baronet—and I certainly intended to do so—that the ballot is secret, and that any attempt or suggestion of violation would certainly not receive any consideration, but rather condemnation in every possible way, from the Admiralty and dockyard authorities. A point was raised jointly by the right hon. Gentle man the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery), and by the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan), with regard to the ships that have been given out to tender. All the tenders have been placed, and, while no definite date for commencement of work has been fixed, it is understood that they must be put in hand at the very earliest possible moment. Of course, the distribution of much of the work will largely be left to, and must be controlled by, the contracting firms. We had to have regard to what are known as the black spot areas, and the work has been distributed very well among all those places which have been particularly badly hit during the unemployment period. I am sure I am on safe ground in assuring the right, hon. Gentleman that as far as the limited amount of work will go, it is being spread with the maximum of assistance in the districts that need it. My hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals is preaching to the converted when he speaks of fair wages conditions with regard to those employed in the work on these ships. The Admiralty take every precaution—I have looked back into past records to test this, and find it has always been done so—to see that fair conditions and wages as acquiesced in by the trade unions are carried out in contract work, and they have pursued it even into the sub-contracts, and seen that it is carried right through; and it will be done in this case. I suppose it would be resented by the trade unions if employers interfered with regard to what should be the conditions of work and wages laid down for the men who are more or less under their jurisdiction. It might give my hon. Friend some comfort to know that there is an arbitration pending on shipyard rates, where the men are 750 not satisfied with the position and have taken the matter to arbitration. The most I can do is to assure him and the House that every precaution will be taken to see that the maximum rates of pay and the best possible conditions, as agreed to by the unions, are observed in all those yards which are doing Admiralty work, and nothing will be left undone to see that they get the best conditions. I deplore as much as he does the low rates which are ruling in certain places, and if those low rates of pay are under trade union rates, they have only to be brought to the attention of the Admiralty, who will take steps to see that the necessary pressure is brought to bear upon the contracting firms.
The Noble Lord the Member for South Battersea (Viscount Curzon) mentioned the £90,000 subvention for the right of pre-emption or hire of ships as armed cruisers or transports. The position is not quite so bad as the Noble Lord thought, though I admit it sounds rather startling. The subsidy is under the 1904 agreement, and it was originally for £150,000 for the "Lusitania" and the "Mauretania." It is now £90,000 for the "Mauretania." The agreement has some years to run and I am afraid it is not within our power to amend it. I cannot give the exact number of years, as the point has been rather sprung on me at the last moment. I am afraid, from what I gather at the moment, that it is a binding contract and we have no legal remedy.
§ Viscount CURZON
Would it not be possible to address an appeal to the Cunard Company to see whether they would not make some slight reduction on a sum which I am certain most Members in the House would regard as being very excessive for the use of one ship which, in any event, in war time would be commandeered by the Government?
§ Mr. AMMON
Now the Noble Lord has drawn my attention to it I will make inquiries and, if necessary, follow up the suggestion he has made. I put in that little safeguard because I do not know all the facts at the moment. But I will follow it up and perhaps he will put down a question later on to see how far we have gone.
§ Major WHELER
An important statement has been made to the effect that an 751 offer for Sheerness Dockyard might be made. May I ask what conditions will be attached and whether the men in the dockyard will be protected? The hon. Gentleman will realise that the uncertainty a statement of that kind will cause in a dockyard town will be great.
§ Mr. AMMON
I am glad the hon. and gallant Gentleman has given me the opportunity to make that point quite clear. One of the conditions of sale will of course be that the staff therein engaged will be employed by the people who take it over. I gather what he wants is an assurance that a transference of ownership will not result in the people being thrown on the unemployed market.
§ Major WHELER
May I press the hon. Gentleman once more? He says a firm might take it over and employ the men. What guarantee can he have that the men who are employed this year can have any continuing employment?
§ Mr. AMMON
Surely the hon. and gallant Gentleman can see that when you are carrying out a deed of sale or a lease, you can see that the terms are carried out for the welfare of the people concerned. He may rest assured that if we get a favourable offer the Admiralty will see that conditions are carried out to safeguard the interests of the people concerned. I hope that will give peace of mind to him and to the people in Sheerness who might be disturbed.
§ Viscount CURZON
Further discharges are not contemplated at Sheerness Dockyard pending any result of this sort?
§ Mr. LOVERSEED
May I ask whether the "Mauretania" and the "Lusitania" were subsidised in 1904; whether the reason for the subsidy then was the very great competition between them and German ships with regard to carrying mails; and whether the payment was £150,000 in order to help the Cunard Company with regard to these two ships? Seeing that the "Lusitania" has been sunk, is it not 752 a fact that the Cunard Company are at the present time running the "Aquitania" without a subsidy? Therefore the real cause for the subsidy has ceased to exist, for the simple reason that the Cunard Company have not the same competition that they had when the subsidy was given. Seeing that there is no case now for the subsidy, there is something in the point raised by the Noble Lord that although the amount has been reduced because of the loss of the "Lusitania," £90,000 is far in excess of any payment that ought to be made to this company. As the "Aquitania" can be run without a subsidy, it is a question whether this amount of £90,000 should be included in the Vote for another year. The Admiralty ought to look into that point.
§ Major BURNIE
I deprecate this attack on the Cunard Company. The "Mauretania" and the "Lusitania" were built about 1903/4, and the reason why the company were able to run them was that the Conservative Government of that day thought that the "blue riband of the Atlantic," as it is called, should be in British hands. In other words, they thought that it was desirable that the record for the fastest passage from this country to the United States should be held by British steamers. They made a firm and fast agreement with the Cunard Company to build these two ships. If the Cunard Company had been satisfied with a reasonable commercial speed the ships would have burned 500 or 600 tons of coal per diem, whereas they have burned between 1,000 and 1,100 tons of the best Welsh coal. The "Mauretania," which is the only one of the two ships left, has been converted to an oil-fuel steamer, and the oil consumption uses up the £90,000 paid in respect of the steamer.
It is true that the "Aquitania" was built some years later by the Cunard Company very largely as a result of the experience gained in connection with the "Mauretania" and "Lusitania." This is one of the few occasions that I know of where a Government subsidy has given us any beneficial experience. The fact is that the "Aquitania," largely designed as a result of that experience, has been a paying steamer from the time the Cunard Company brought her out. If we took away the subsidy from the Cunard Company, the "Mauretania" 753 would cease to be a paying proposition. She is a faster ship than the "Aquitania" and has not quite the carrying capacity in regard to passengers as the "Aquitania." I might say that the Cunard Company also runs a steamer called the "Berengaria," formerly a German steamer. The hon. Member for the Sudbury Division (Mr. Loverseed) evidently has very little knowledge of shipping, because he says that the competition to-day is not as keen as it was when the German ships were running. I would point out to him that these Cunard ships are of no use for any other trade but the United States emigrant and passenger trade, and that the United States to-day admits only a certain quota of emigrants into the States and a certain number of passengers. Therefore, the Cunard and the White Star Lines have to come to an agreement to lay up some of their ships during the winter and to run ship and ship about from Southampton to the United States.
§ Viscount CURZON
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the "Mauretania" has been used as a yacht in the Mediterranean?
§ Major BURNIE
She has been sent to the Mediterranean as a yacht because the Atlantic trade will not keep her fully employed. It does not pay to run her there all the time. I have no share, interest or concern in the Cunard Company or the White Star Company; neither of them are friends of mine, but I do deprecate attacks on the Cunard Company, which has one of the finest mercantile fleets in the world, which upholds the honour of the British flag—it did so during the War and does so during peace—and holds the blue riband of the Atlantic.
§ Mr. LOVERSEED
I did not want to make an attack on the Cunard Company. I merely wanted to point out that the subsidy was far too large in these days, and that if one ship can be run without the subsidy, the other could, at any rate, be run cither without a subsidy or the subsidy could be greatly reduced.
§ Mr. WALLHEAD
The hon. Member for Bootle (Major Burnie) has, inadvertently, led the Committee to believe that the Cunard Company find no saving between oil fuel and coal. They may not 754 find any saving as between oil and coal, but do not they save on wages? Is it not a fact that the wage bill is lower for oil than for coal, and that the saving comes there?
§ Mr. AMERY
I hope the Committee will forgive my saying a few words on this question. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty has promised to give us a fuller statement, but I should like to deal with a remark made by the hon. Member for Bootle (Major Burnie). He rather left the impression that the assistance given by the Government was only for the sake of getting this country the credit for the blue riband of the Atlantic. There was an Admiralty point of view, if I remember, and quite rightly so, and it was this, that while the blue riband of the Atlantic was being held by several fast German liners the whole of our shipping might be very seriously endangered in time of war by the conversion of these fast steamers into light cruisers, and that that would give them an advantage over any ships of the kind which we possessed. It was to induce the Cunard Company to do something which was not in their ordinary commercial interests that the Government bound themselves to give the Cunard Company the subvention. To-day, no doubt, ships can be built to run at that speed without subsidy. The whole scale of speed has increased, but at the time, these two ships would not have been built and that speed would not have been secured for this country without the subvention. A contract was made to that effect, and it was, of course, a binding contract. It involved the company in expenditure out of all proportion to the commercial needs of the time, and no doubt it still figures in the interest which the company has to pay on its capital. I only suggest these points for the consideration of the Committee, because the Parliamentary Secretary promised to give, either on the Report stage or later, or by answer to a question, a fuller statement of the situation.
§ Question put, and agreed to.