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Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South): I am most grateful to Madam Speaker for granting me a timely opportunity to mention the fleet maintenance and repair organisation, the future of which vitally affects, not only my constituents, but those of my hon. Friends and neighbours, whose strong and assured support I thoroughly welcome.

The latest review into the planned market test of the FMRO plainly threatens its continued existence in carrying out docking and essential defects requirements, as well as being responsible for organising a great deal of unscheduled work on ships.

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North): I realise that my hon. Friend has only a short time. I interrupt him only to pick up the argument that he made to start with, which was that we are debating not a narrow issue, but one that widely affects the whole Portsmouth travel-to-work area and the economy of southern Hampshire. Only a firm assurance that the FMRO will continue as a single unit with a solid work load will remove the threat to the necessary morale of the economy in that part of the country, extending much wider than the constituencies in Portsmouth.

Mr. Martin: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for making those valuable points, which I am sure will be considered by my hon. Friend the Minister.

I concede at once that it is necessary always to consider whether public money is being spent properly or should be spent at all. That is the case with every Government Department, and the current public expenditure round is no exception.

In defence, the priority is, rightly, to spend for the maximum benefit of the front line, but it is my main purpose in this debate to show that the front line--in this case front-line surface ships of the Royal Navy and the people who serve in them--is indeed best served if the finest Royal Navy ship repair facility, the FMRO, is allowed to continue its work, made even better by the market-testing operation to which Ministers and Royal Navy personnel are already signed up, and which, unlike the position at Devonport, is attracting very healthy commercial interest from some very hard-headed business men.

In making such claims, I do not rely on the proud traditions and sentiments stirred by 500 years of Portsmouth dockyard's unparalleled contribution to shipbuilding, refitting and repair, although, as a Conservative, such considerations weigh with me, as I am sure that they do with my hon. Friend the Minister.

Today, I rely wholly and only on the present-day facts. The more that those facts are considered dispassionately on public expenditure grounds as well as grounds of front-line operational efficiency and effectiveness, including the well-being of sailors and their families, the more rational minds are driven to the conclusion that it would be madness to interfere with the present planned arrangements for the FMRO, and plain common sense to give it the opportunity that it deserves to serve the fleet on the new basis envisaged.

What are the powerful arguments for keeping a facility for maintenance and repair work at Portsmouth? First, plainly the review of the market-testing operation is being

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offered up as a cost-saving measure, probably also in an attempt to help the faltering privatisation plans and the position at Devonport. However, far from public money being saved, I have heard a reliable prediction that, if all the effects of messing about with the successes of Portsmouth to transplant elsewhere are taken into account, the cost would be at least £200 million.

Secondly, 58 per cent. of the surface fleet--42 ships, including the three carriers--is based in Portsmouth. The cycle of ships at sea these days places greater pressure on their operational capacity, requiring speedy access to an efficient and flexibly run repair and maintenance facility between refits.

A good example is the carriers, one of which, Invincible, soon to be replaced by Illustrious, is required to be on station in the Adriatic because of the continuing unstable position in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia. That requirement shows no sign of ending while front-line British troops are involved in that theatre, whether helping to keep the peace or implementing any peace settlement.

Although programmed ship projects comprise only 4.25 per cent. of the total naval ship repair programme, they are essential to operational effectiveness and availability of Portsmouth ships. Overhead costs are shared with maintenance of the operational base. It would, for instance, be potty to separate the utilities from the market-testing process. Any transfer of work elsewhere is therefore highly questionable in savings terms. Transferring DEDs work to Devonport would not make a significant impact on the position in Devonport, but it would mean everything to Portsmouth.

Thirdly, if more than half the surface ships are based in Portsmouth, it would be nonsense not to have facilities for their repair and maintenance on hand. If the facilities were to be removed elsewhere, base porting would probably follow, and the finest docking provision in Europe would be run down. As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, base porting is a vital part of the harmony rules for sailors serving on board, who are entitled to a certain number of weeks each year in their base port.

Many years have been spent and consistent policy decisions made, concentrating not only on ships but on administrative headquarters and training establishments for the Royal Navy in and around Portsmouth, not for the fun of it but because greater consideration for home and family life, for summer leave, school holidays, Christmas and so on is very much part of recruiting for, retaining in and running a modern Royal Navy. That should also be an important consideration for a modern Conservative Government. Any proposal that claims to make questionable financial savings while running counter to harmony rules should be rejected.

Fourthly, I shall discuss the likely commercial outcome of continuing with present plans for market testing, assuming that it is followed by a desperately needed long period of stability, at least seeing through the first few contracts under the new arrangements before any further review is even considered, let alone announced. In that context, the prime consideration is repair facilities for the Royal Navy.

Even granting that at present there is a national overcapacity of ship repair facilities--which I believe these days is debatable--instead of taking the negative "let's shut something down" line, let us admit that nowhere in Europe has greater potential to develop a

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ship docking and repair business on a sound international commercial basis, harnessing private sector companies and resulting in the cheapest possible service for repairing and maintaining ships of the Royal Navy, than Portsmouth dockyard. We can find evidence for that, not only in the private sector companies so keen to join the tendering process at Portsmouth, but in the lack of commercial investment in new ships in recent years, making more repairs needed, or likely to be needed, for those that are in use. In addition, all ferries are likely to need docking and repair facilities as new safety standards require reconstruction work. Is that to be done at Cherbourg rather than Portsmouth because we have not the nous or the nerve to compete in the market--under a Conservative Government, no less? With such opportunities, we would be mad to break up such a successful going concern as the FMRO, and for what?--to leave the docks to silent decay.

Speaking about a going concern, it is wholly relevant to the commercial potential of the FMRO to continue service to the Royal Navy, and wholly relevant to that consideration are the present Portsmouth work force, now numbering 1,450 people. I cannot speak highly enough of the massive co-operation of the trade unions and the whole work force in recent times in adjusting to new, flexible working and training arrangements, improvements in productivity and efficiency, co-operation with contractors, and mixed skills working, which has shown a dedication to meet the challenge of the market-test operation every bit as impressive as the examples that used to come out of Japan alone. Management and those on the shop floor have united in their determination in a way that even a casual visitor to the FMRO can feel in the air. That feeling is even more pronounced when one has the privilege of being shown round the facilities by a human dynamo such as Mr. Keith Crockford. One of the greatest disadvantages of the review of the market test process is that, as well as the risk of commercial bidders cooling off, the enthusiasm, energy and high morale of the FMRO staff may be undermined.

I am not exaggerating when I say that the staff believe, however wrongly, that the review will result in the closure of the FMRO. In that case, all the enthusiasm, energy, co-operation and the current reorganisation of buildings and workshops will have been for nothing. That must not be allowed to happen--it would be madness to allow it. Before any more harm is done, the decision must be taken--the sooner, the better. The damaging limbo must not last a day longer than necessary.

When I visited the FMRO last Friday, Captain John Crump, its chief executive, gave me an FMRO shield. Much as I treasure it, I am sure that he will give me another one if I pass mine to my hon. Friend the Minister on condition that he keeps it on his desk until a decision is quickly reached. As an additional reminder, I can tell my hon. Friend that the Greek historian Herodotus, with whom I am sure my hon. Friend is familiar, tells us that after the Athenians had embarrassed the Persian emperor Darius at Sardis, he commanded a slave to repeat to him three times at dinner each day, "Remember the Athenians." Over the coming days, until a decision is reached, I ask my hon. Friend to ask a civil servant to repeat to him three times each day while he tackles his health food snack, "Remember the FMRO."

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