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Barking and others have said, there is now incontrovertible evidence that the life chances of individuals can be crucially enhanced by good-quality nursery education. Why, when the evidence is so strong and has been so strong for so long, are we still languishing at the bottom of the international league table of nursery provision?

The Tories have dithered for 15 years about whether they are in favour of nursery education or not. While they have dithered, millions of children have missed the only chance they have ever had of getting the best start to their school life.

From what I read, nursery education is now back on the Government's agenda. However, words are not enough. After 15 years of Tory rule, whether people's children get a chance to go to nursery still depends on where they live and what they earn. Simply, for every month and every year of Government indecision on nursery provision, thousands of children are denied the chance to succeed.

Secondly, we need to examine what we ask our teachers to do and how we support them in doing it. Every parent knows that one of the important factors which determines whether a child does well at school is the relationship between the teacher and the pupil and what goes on in the classroom.

It sometimes appears that the Government have deliberately gone out of their way to make classroom teaching more difficult. All the changes of recent years have inevitably affected the way in which teachers do their job--and not simply the changes that have been forced through in legislation and Government experimentation. Changes in technology and teaching methods have made teaching substantially different from the job it was 30 years ago.

Nevertheless, throughout all the upheaval of the past 15 years, the Government have never once re-evaluated the tasks we ask of our teachers. It is about time that we considered what teachers do, and what pupils and parents can expect of them. It is about time that we considered that in its own right.

Most teachers now spend only half their working week working with children. No other profession receives as little support as teachers. When teachers are not teaching, they are clerks and typists, form fillers and resource makers. They have to learn to be technicians, bookkeepers and administrators. The effect on teacher morale is damaging enough, but the real losers are the children. People do not go into teaching to be paper chasers and form fillers, and parents want teachers to spend more time with their children.

Let the teachers teach. Let them spend more of their working week with children and less doing administrative and support work. If teachers had the clerical and administrative support that is given to accountants or solicitors, or even Members of Parliament, it would bring about a substantial improvement in the quality of teaching and the standards of achievement. The winners would be the pupils. Thirdly, we need to build an environment and a culture for learning. How can a child learn when he is being taught by a string of supply teachers because the school does not have the money to carry supernumerary teachers to cover for staff absence? How can one learn when one's class is being disrupted by other children because one's

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school does not have the resources to provide the support that destructive children need? How can children learn if they are the ones who do not have a book and whose classroom is waiting for repair? That might not be a familiar environment to the children of Conservative Members of Parliament, but it is only too familiar an environment to many children throughout the country.

However, it is not simply what happens in the school that creates an environment for learning, but what happens outside, and what children bring to the classroom with them. What type of learning environment is it for children who come from homes where there is no space for homework, for quiet or for study? What about those children who come from families that find parenting difficult? What about the 4.1 million children who live in poverty, or the growing number of children who suffer from poverty-related illness? The current Government have made it hard for so many of our children to succeed. Like many who have spoken in the debate, I spent my working life before being elected to this place as a teacher. In my case, it was at an inner-city comprehensive school. Like many other teachers, I know that the greatest professional satisfaction is to watch children succeed and progress. However, I also know that the greatest professional frustration is to watch talent and opportunity being wasted.

I have to believe Conservative Members when they say that they want to raise standards. I have to say to them, however, that, in 15 years of their rule, they have hindered the process rather than helped it. The Government will never raise standards as long as they fund differentially, as long as they make schools compete for the necessities, and as long as they make as many errors as they have done in the national curriculum and testing.

Education has given many of us in the House and outside all the opportunities that we have had in our lifetime. It is the responsibility of all Governments to give the same opportunities to everyone else. This Government have singularly failed to do that. The next Labour Government will deliver.

2.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Robin Squire): This has been a wide-ranging, entertaining and--I suppose predictably--at times controversial debate on education. Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), I have conceded some time, because I was anxious that hon. Members who had stayed in the Chamber throughout the morning should have the opportunity to speak. I hope that, in turn, hon. Members on both sides of the House will understand if that limits my ability to give way, because I want to concentrate on the debate rather than raise fresh issues. In a spirit of friendship I shall start on a note that I am sure will unite the House. I congratulate the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and for Yardley on their maiden speeches from the Opposition Front Bench. I thought that they both performed well--by account, in the first case, and from the evidence of my own eyes and ears in the second. The hon. Member for Walton and I meet relatively regularly due to my role as sponsor Minister for Merseyside, but I can reassure him--he may need it--that any agreement that we regularly find

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on matters involving Merseyside has not yet been evident over most of the education issues that have been discussed today.

The hon. Member for Walton highlighted performance tables. Speaking from the Government Benches, it is only fair for me to welcome the new support from the Labour party for the principle of performance tables with value added. I recognise that that has still to be worked through some parts of the Labour party.

The hon. Gentleman also asked, quite properly, about the progress on Ofsted inspections. I readily confirm that in this term we have had some difficulties in securing the flow of inspections that we have sought in primary schools. Her Majesty's chief inspector has taken a number of steps to deal with the matter, including using Her Majesty's inspectors and Ofsted to lead some inspections of primary and special schools. The House will realise that it is too early to judge whether that has been successful. We are in the first three months of the first year of the cycle of primary school inspection. It remains the Government's clear intention to ensure that every school is inspected within the four-year cycle, as originally set out.

The hon. Gentleman--and I suspect almost all hon.

Members--predictably referred to grant-maintained schools. I shall not contribute an enormous amount to the subject. I think that my hon. Friends have more than coped in their efforts to expose what can best be described as a certain embarrassment on the subject among Labour Members at present.

Self-governing status for schools is not an end in itself; it is a means by which schools improve themselves and improve the standard of education offered. I recently read that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) was quoted as saying that he wanted to investigate what it was that made GM schools special. If, unlike so many of his colleagues, he is prepared to visit GM schools, not regard them with utter hostility, hoping that they will go away, he will discover from heads, staff and parents that, at heart, what they like is is the ability to run the whole of the school, the immediacy of decision making, better value for money and greater freedom. If he remains unconvinced he can always bring the matter to the shadow Cabinet, which might yet be formed of a majority of GM parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) has apologised to the House for his inability to be present for the conclusion of the debate, as has the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright). As ever, my hon. Friend speaks with great authority on matters educational. He rightly spoke of the welcome rise in standards as measured by GCSE results. That fact was welcomed on both sides of the Chamber. It is clear evidence that the anti-studying ethos that was a problem in so many of our schools, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, has been significantly reduced. The hon. Member for Hemsworth mentioned the Government's attitude to a general teaching council, as did the hon. Member for Bath. I can confirm that nothing has changed in Government policy since the conference of the Professional Association of Teachers and the correspondence with Professor Tomlinson in the summer. A professional body, established voluntarily by teachers and committed to high standards in teaching, would be a

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positive and welcome step and would not need statutory powers to be effective. As Professor Tomlinson knows, we are willing to discuss such proposals when he or others are ready.

The hon. Member for Hemsworth also mentioned the problem of the numbers of religious education teachers. There have been some shortages, but the numbers are increasing. As the numbers going into teacher training and coming out of it are increasing, the problem is obviously declining.

I also sympathised with what the hon. Gentleman had to say about modern language teaching in primary schools. Although such teaching is not a statutory requirement, a growing number of primary schools are offering modern languages; and I hope, in the space created by the curriculum reforms, that further primary schools may take up the option. It is of some advantage both to the children and to our country.

My long-time hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) gave, as ever, a thoughtful speech. I could have spent my whole speech dealing with his points, but time will allow me to mention only two or three of them. He joined in what must be a universal welcome for the stability that now seems to be with us. A period of stability for the curriculum is, we recognise, important for our schools. The Government's commitment to five years without change remains firm. We shall most certainly stick to it.

My hon. Friend also highlighted the importance of mathematics. I am sure that he, like me, welcomes the creation of the first 50 technology colleges, with their concentration on science, technology and mathematics. The numbers will grow, not least because we have enhanced the opportunities for all schools, including LEA county schools, to seek that status. Although they have been in operation as technology colleges for only a short time, they are already starting to influence their pupils, and they are certainly popular with parents.

My hon. Friend's third point--if I did not mention it, he would tick me off afterwards--was to reiterate his long-held commitment to nursery schooling, which he has championed for many years. I am delighted to note that he now sees broad agreement between his views and those of the Government.

I gather that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) intervened to mention some DFE press release that he had seen, quoting projections of numbers of GM schools. I can confirm here and now that there is no such press release, although there have to be working assumptions for all projected budgets.

Mr. Don Foster: I was referring not to a specific set of figures in a press release but to an ability to work backwards from the budget figures to extrapolate from them what the assumptions must have been--that is why I asked the Minister about the assumptions.

Mr. Squire: If the hon. Gentleman will look at the tables, he can make that sort of calculation more quickly than I can standing here. Here, as in so many other areas, each year we have to make some projections, but they are not necessarily predictions of what will happen.

The hon. Member for Bath also drew attention to what can best be described as the utter confusion in the Labour party on the matter of GM schools. But just when I was about to agree with him, he used phrases such as "GM

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failure". These are schools which, by any standard, are usually more popular with parents and are obtaining better results than LEA comprehensives. Ofsted has said that they often exhibit higher teacher morale and lower truancy rates. Some failure! Would that all our schools performed as well as most GM schools do.

The hon. Gentleman also commented on Ofsted. I hope that he will take into account what I said earlier when responding to a point made by the hon. Member for Hemsworth. The independent inspectorate stands quite apart from the DFE policy units. The inspectorate not only highlights good and bad schools--the latter being the ones that require attention--but also informs future policy making. They are independent of the Government and we must look at our own policies from time to time, especially in terms of how we can improve schools in general.

I enjoyed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry), who highlighted the excellent improvement in examination results in his constituency. I congratulate the schools involved and assure him that there is no question of debasing the standards and quality of our examinations, GCSE or any other. There is now a system to ensure that that cannot happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak spent some time correctly pointing out that, while there is an element in the standard spending assessment for measuring sparsity, it is not necessarily to be found within an individual LEA's locally managed school scheme. I have exchanged a considerable amount of correspondence with hon. Members on that subject. My hon. Friend made it clear in his speech that responsibility for the LMS scheme lies absolutely with the local authority. If as he suggested it is currently discriminating against some small but excellent schools, I trust that the opportunity that he has taken to highlight that will be widely read in his constituency and elsewhere in Derbyshire.

I shall dare to praise my hon. Friend for a third time by saying that he spoke wisely about depoliticising the issue of

grant-maintained schools. It is quite common for some GM school governors to say to me, "We are not Conservatives." Of course, that is a temporary unpopularity. However, they wish that their parties, whether they are Liberal Democrat or Labour, were more in tune and appreciated the success and importance of grant-maintained status. They share my hon. Friend's view that those schools are here to stay in their present form.

I have enjoyed considerable discussion in Committee and in the House in recent years with the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthall), who spoke of his concern about performance tables. I absolutely respect his right to hold the views that he expressed, but he must accept that, at least in some schools, there is clear evidence that heads and senior members of staff have combined to ensure that the appearance of the tables and the relatively poor position of some schools have served to galvanise them to improve their schools. That has been shown by the performance either this year or in a previous year.

The hon. Member for Lancashire, West spoke about the balance of funding through the standard spending assessment. In view of the time that is available, he would not expect me to go into the highways and byways of that, but I am sure he accepts that there can be no question of standard spending per pupil across the country. Whether

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one considers sparsity, much higher salaries in the south-east or the proportion of pupils who have free school meals or have English as a second language, there must be a means of measuring schools in areas with different factors or sometimes problems. It is right that such schools should get extra funding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) was, as ever, present for a debate on matters educational. He emphasised the issue of choice and I was delighted to hear him refer to the Labour white paper of just four months ago and to read out the marvellous passage from it that this was

"consultation not seen since the 1944 Education Act."

My hon. Friend will agree that, in a year or two, we will be lucky if we see the white paper again in any shape or form.

I agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of primary grant-maintained schools expanding. The number is going up and I suspect--this is not a prediction--that within a year or so there will be more GM primary schools than GM secondary schools.

My near neighbour the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) alleged failure at a time when there are improved numbers in higher education and higher grades at GCSE and other examinations and a wider range of courses on offer. She was rightly and wisely corrected in a brilliant short speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin). The hon. Lady was wrong about nursery education and she was certainly wrong on her general charge that standards were not rising. They are continuing to rise.

Let me draw up a brief checklist of where we stand on standards in education. We welcome the fact that there is some agreement on the national curriculum, possibly on testing and certainly on publication of performance tables, but if we are talking of quality, what about assisted places, whereby some of the brightest from some of the poorest households are currently educated in some of our best schools? What about selective schools, where some 170 schools, including some of the best in the country on educational merits and examination success, are threatened by the Labour party? What about city technology colleges, which have an all-ability intake and are out-performing the average in virtually every LEA in which they are situated? Finally, of course, what about grant-maintained schools, where the Labour party can go neither forward nor backwards, but can only watch as the popularity of such schools increases?

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.



That at the sitting on Monday 12th December, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr. Greg Knight relating to the Committee of Privileges not later than one and a half hours after their commencement, and the said Motion may be entered upon and proceeded with, though opposed, at any hour.-- [Mr. MacKay.]



That at the sitting on Tuesday 13th December, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Ways and Means Motions in the name of Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer not later than Ten o'clock.- - [Mr. MacKay.]

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That the Speaker shall--

(1) at the sitting on Wednesday 14th December, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business)--

(i) not later than Seven o'clock put the Questions on the Motions in the name of Mr. Secretary Gummer relating to the draft Non-Domestic Rating (Chargeable Amounts) Regulations 1994 and the draft Water Undertakers, Railways, British Waterways Board and Telecommunications Industry, Electricity Supply Industry, Docks and Harbours, and British Gas plc (Rateable Values) Orders 1994; and (ii) not later than Ten o'clock put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of the Prime Minister relating to the Common Fisheries Policy; and

(2) at the sitting on Monday 19th December put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Mr. Tony Newton relating to Sittings of the House (Private Members' Business), Consolidation, &c., Bills and Law Commission Bills, Money Resolutions and Ways and Means Resolutions, Statutory Instruments, &c., and European Community Documents, and Short Speeches not later than Ten o'clock; and those Questions shall include the Questions on any amendments to those Motions which she may have selected and which may then be moved.-- [Mr. MacKay.]



That, at the sitting on Thursday 15th December, any Consolidated Fund Bill ordered to be brought in and read the first time shall be proceeded with as if the second reading thereof stood as first order of the day, and Standing Order No. 54 (Consolidated Fund Bills) shall apply.-- [Mr. MacKay.]



That, at the sitting on Friday 16th December, the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until she has notified the Royal Assent to Acts agreed upon by both Houses.-- [Mr. MacKay.]



That Sir Donald Thompson be discharged from the Accommodation and Works Committee and Mr. Sydney Chapman be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. MacKay.]



That Mr. Robert Dunn be discharged from the Select Committee on Members' Interests and Mr. James Clappison be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. MacKay.]



That Estelle Morris be discharged from the Select Committee appointed to join with a Committee of the Lords as the Joint Committee on Consolidation, &c., Bills and Mr. Eddie Loyden be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. MacKay.]

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Royal Yacht

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. MacKay.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the subject of the future of the royal yacht. Back in 1980, I had a similar debate about the Queen's flight: two different topics, but with a similar starting point--time has overtaken equipment in the royal service.

On 23 June, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made an announcement about the future of Britannia in a written answer. It was short on answers, but posed some interesting and worthwhile questions. A further statement was promised, but has not yet been made. It is good of my hon. Friend the Minister to be present this afternoon, and the House hopes that he will use this opportunity to take the issue forward as it is a matter of considerable public interest.

The House will be familiar with the basic facts. Britannia was launched in 1953 on the Clyde and has travelled more than 1 million miles, serving as a secure royal residence in the age of international terrorism, providing a wonderful setting for official entertainment--she can host a reception for some 200 people and seat more than 50 around the dining table--and promoting this country's commercial interests abroad. Her last major refit was in 1987. A future refit, at an estimated £17 million, would be necessary in 1996-97, but we are told that this would prolong her life for only five years more. I understand that she would need new engines and, indeed, much new machinery. Even then, she would be difficult to maintain and very expensive to run. It has therefore been decided to decommission her in 1997.

There are those who think that Britannia should have the refit and not be decommissioned. They would like to see her given new engines, and the accommodation altered to allow more exhibition space. I must tell the House that I am not one of that number, as I believe that that would be allowing the heart to rule the head.

Britannia was originally designed to have an alternative function as a hospital ship. That concept was always put forward when her expense was criticised. Personally, I regret that she was never used in that role, and it is no longer practicable to do so. At the time of the conflict in the south Atlantic it turned out that she used the wrong type of fuel. The holiday liner Uganda was therefore used instead. However, the Britannia did rescue some British subjects trapped in the Yemen in 1986.

This is the moment to pay tribute to the Britannia's present and past crews. I am proud to have a cousin on board serving as a comparatively senior officer. Britannia has been a centre of excellence in a service renowned throughout the world for its skills and high standards. I lunched on board in 1991 when the British Council of Shipping took over the ship for a seminar. It was a memorable day in the pool of London--all was sparkle and style. From the admiral to the ratings, we were talking to carefully selected and dedicated individuals with many professional qualifications. There is tremendous enthusiasm in the Royal Navy to serve on such a ship. Will the Minister tell us today about plans for the reduction and final removal of her present splendid ship's company, now down to some 220 sailors? May we also

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be told what are the present guidelines governing the use of Britannia and the level of fees charged by the Ministry of Defence? I am told that Sir Robin Butler--the Cabinet Secretary, no less--chairs a commission to consider applications for her use. The ship certainly should not be made available free of charge for private or corporate functions at a time when, as we all know, the defence budget is under such strain.

Britannia has done Britain proud on countless visits abroad. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) has kindly given me permission to quote from a letter that he received from a former United States ambassador to the United Kingdom, Henry Cato. In 1976, that distinguished diplomat was the US chief of protocol, charged with preparing for the Queen's state visit to America. His letter said:

"I was literally besieged with people wanting invitations to the various functions that were to be held on board. Corporate moguls would devise outlandish reasons as to why they should be invited; society matrons would throw themselves at me. In short, that ship was a superb tool for British industry and the British nation and to let her go and not replace her would be a great pity, sending a bad message to the world."

Prudent Ministers could take heed of such comments.

What should happen to that splendid ship after 1997? The Government believe that she should serve a useful purpose while never again going to sea. The bids are pouring in. I had a letter from the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) and as I have fine memories of his part of England I am happy to read out the key sentence: "I would like it to have a nice dignified retirement in Hartlepool where a maritime heritage centre and the new Imperial War museum are to be located."

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has been most active in this area. His constituency is very concerned about not having a royal yacht for Cowes week. He tells me that children have been raiding their piggy banks to buy the royal yacht for the Isle of Wight. The local council wants to use Britannia as a hotel, reception centre and museum--making her available, of course, for the royal family during Cowes week.

Nearer to my neck of the woods, Greenwich council wants the Britannia to be moored permanently on the Thames for use as a museum or conference centre. However, Greenwich already has the fine old Cutty Sark, which is well worth a visit. There are plans to get visitors to London to go to see outer London and not just stay in inner London. Let Britannia therefore be moored permanently by Erith in the London borough of Bexley. She would be a wonderful attraction and would create much local interest and employment. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister would note my suggestion and share his ideas with us.

The Government have now had five months to consider the question of whether to replace Britannia. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said:

"The Queen has made it known that in the light of changes in the pattern of royal visits since the yacht was built, she does not consider a royal yacht to be necessary in future solely for the purposes of royal travel."

Perhaps some weight should be given to the world "solely". In a week when the royal family has been the subject of considerable political debate inside and outside the House--including a colourful and over-the-top contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), a former diplomat--the

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Queen's views are a reminder that the monarchy well understands the need carefully to scale down its size and scope and to evolve, to face better new national and international conditions and challenges.

My noble Friend Lord Ashbourne wrote to me, after raising the subject in another place, to suggest that a new royal yacht should be designed and built, re-equipped for export promotion and royal duties. She could be funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, which could rent an admiral and crew from the Ministry of Defence. I agree with my noble Friend that the cost of a new yacht should not be borne by the defence budget, because her purpose would not be defensive and she would not have any defence capability.

I see no problem in Royal Navy personnel manning such a ship. The Merchant Navy would also be happy to take on such a responsibility, but we have a working formula and should keep to it. I imagine that a smaller crew would be required. At a time when Royal Navy destroyers, frigates and submarines have sadly been axed left, right and centre, such a vessel could provide valuable sea training and experience afloat.

My hon. Friend the Minister would be wise to announce today that he has decided that in future there will not be an admiral on the royal yacht. In the light of changing circumstances and roles, and bearing in mind that the yacht's crew is only 220 strong, I cannot believe that such an appointment is still justified. If an admiral is required on rare occasions for particular state visits, one could be despatched from elsewhere. In reality, the Queen is likely to use to the royal yacht only 20 days next year.

If some hon. Members still query the need for a royal yacht, primarily tasked for export promotion--as a country, we must export or face economic collapse--I draw attention to remarks by Britannia's present admiral, Rear Admiral Rob Windward, who was reported by a Portsmouth newspaper, The News , on 9 November as saying:

"She more than pays for herself many times over."

He told a Portsmouth audience that the royal yacht helped to secure hundreds of millions of pounds' worth of business for Britain, compared with annual running costs of £10 million to £12 million. The admiral is well placed to know the true position. During Britannia's recent visit to St. Petersburg, for instance, she was the venue for an event at which British bankers were put in touch with their Russian counterparts and a number of significant new business links will follow, to the great benefit of both countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Sir Keith Speed), chairman of the parliamentary maritime group, told me last night that he is fully behind placing an order for a new royal yacht for export promotion. I envisage private capital playing a major part. Sir Donald Gosling, chairman of National Car Parks--a young wartime signaller on HMS Leander--proposed in the summer that a consortium of British business men should contribute £5 million each to funding a new vessel. He has already pledged £5 million of his own considerable fortune. Management staff at Devonport dockyard, Plymouth's privatised royal naval facility, confirmed that they have held exploratory talks with Sir Donald, so that is not just a pipe dream.

Since its privatisation in 1987, Devonport has successfully attracted more than £40 million of yacht work, including the last big refit of Britannia. You,

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Madam Deputy Speaker, will know better than I that it faces a severe shortage of orders for surface ship work after the blows of "Options for Change", and has recently announced 850 redundancies. The project could have huge importance for the Plymouth area and its skilled work force. They have had a rough time and the Government owe them a measure of support. The Times reported Mr. Williams of Devonport Management Ltd. as saying:

"Ideally, we would like to see a vessel that is a floating advertisement for the very best in British design, technology and engineering skills, as well as having the powerful draw of the Royal cachet. You will not achieve that by converting any old ferry." To summarise my case, I am asking the Government to announce without further delay that there will be a new royal yacht which will be primarily a selling machine for British exports, including our valuable defence exports.The new Britannia will become a symbol of our centuries-old maritime tradition, too often badly neglected by the Government, and of our own national pride. Visitors to her will see the latest and best of British design and fashion, British engineering and end-of-century advanced technology.

The present Britannia initiated the idea of so-called "sea days" when she is left to British exporters while in foreign ports. Buckingham palace introduced the scheme partly to counter mounting criticism of the cost of the yacht. The scheme has proved to be a gigantic success and some big contracts have been signed on board the yacht, including a £1.5 billion agreement with India. The scheme has enormous potential, not least in the far east with the new south-east Asia tigers. It will allow us to take our products to them with a style and panache that they cannot yet emulate, for at its heart are the centuries-old traditions of the Royal Navy.

I ask today whether Whitehall has the agility and wisdom to sponsor such a proposal, involving as it does at least two Departments and their much- fought-over budgets. I trust that the comparatively new Minister, who has already demonstrated his interest in service traditions and who has personal links with the royal household, will give us an optimistic and far -sighted answer.

2.47 pm

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) on securing this debate on a subject which has been a matter for a great deal of rumour and speculation. As he rightly says, it is certainly close to the hearts of many hon. Members as well as of people in the country at large.

As my hon. Friend knows, and as he rehearsed so clearly in his powerful speech, it is now more than 41 years since the sovereign launched Britannia at John Brown and Co Ltd., Clydebank. In the decades since then, the royal yacht has travelled the world, covering over 1 million miles and visiting more than 600 ports in some 135 different countries. She has been a powerful and graceful symbol of the dignity of the sovereign and the royal family, and therefore a potent image for Great Britain.

Throughout that period, Britannia made a visible and significant contribution to the country and to our image abroad, in her roles as a royal residence and as an

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