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6.49 pm

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport): It was interesting to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant). May I correct him on one matter? He said that the Scud missiles were not armed. I should think that quite a few people in Israel were wondering what went bang and killed a large number of people in that country.

Mr. Fabricant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jamieson: I think that the hon. Gentleman has had long enough.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this Navy debate. You will not be surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I want to mention the dockyard, the contracts and Trident, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire). As usual, I intend to discuss matters that concern naval personnel, because there are many naval personnel, families and wives in my constituency and because the happiness and contentment of the families are essential to the effectiveness of those on the front line.

Plymouth has a long, proud association with the Navy, in a military setting and in a civilian one. We have the royal naval dockyard, the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy. Until recently, we had the Royal Air Force.

We have the 29th Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, which this year celebrates its centenary in the Citadel in Plymouth. With the leave of the House, I wish to read a resolution that came before Plymouth city council this week:

I am pleased to say that the resolution received cross-party--indeed, unanimous--support at the meeting of Plymouth city council on 29 January 1996. I hope that the Royal Artillery commandos will serve in Plymouth for another 100 years.

I congratulate the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in connection with Manadon college. He knows that I have made many representations to him, as have

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other hon. Members from the Plymouth area from other parties, and I am pleased that we managed to set up the working party that considered the future use of Manadon college.

We nearly succeeded in persuading the university of Plymouth to take the college over. Sadly, that plan has fallen through, but I hope that some other single user will take over the 100 acre site, with all its wonderful facilities. We should be careful not to strip out the remaining assets. Much of the valuable equipment is probably worth millions of pounds as it stands on site, but if it is sold for scrap or auctioned, it will fetch an amount much less than its real value to a future user.

Nearly two and a half years ago, I sat in the Chamber--in almost the position in which I sit today--with myhon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West, and we heard the announcement about the Trident refit contract. I was proud to listen to my hon. Friend, who made an excellent speech tonight. Many of us would suppose that my hon. Friend and I would have competed over those matters, but I am sure that she will confirm that we have never done so, and nor have the trade unions, the wider work force or the people of the two areas. We have been united in the wish to do the best for people who work in our dockyards and for the Royal Navy. We are united in something else: we believe that there is a purpose in having two dockyards in the country to carry out work for the Royal Navy. I praise my hon. Friend, who has been a consistent and dogged advocate of her area.

Two and a half years have elapsed since we sat in the Chamber in June 1993, when the previous Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), made the announcement, but the contract has not been signed. In his opening remarks, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said, yet again, that it would happen in a few weeks. It is rather like Billy Bunter's postal order--it is just about to arrive but it never seems to do so. For more than two years, hon. Members have been told that the announcement would be made in a few weeks. I hope that, when the Minister of State for the Armed Forces replies to the debate, he will confirm that it will be a few weeks and tell us the date--the end of February or the end of March, perhaps--by which the contract will be signed.

In Devonport, the period of uncertainty has been further muddied by the spectre of privatisation. The costs incurred leading up to privatisation were £7.2 million. They included consultants' fees, estate agents' fees and lawyers' fees for telling Babcock International Group and Devonport Management Ltd. what they already knew about the site that they were occupying, because they were the only bidders for the two dockyard contracts. As millions of pounds have gone to City accountants, they have undermined the security of the people who have given long, loyal service in the dockyards. That uncertainty and delay have almost certainly delayed the first Trident refit contract, which was intended to start in 1999 but is unlikely to do so before the year 2000.

We had hoped that in 1999 at least the future of people currently working in the dockyard would be secure. Instead, because of the uncertainty, partly because of the lateness in the arrival and signing of the contract and partly because of privatisation, we have short-termism, further lay-offs and further redundancies in the work force. That undermines the dockyard's effectiveness to carry out future work.

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In the short term, there has not been the allocation of ships that is necessary to ensure that the work force are maintained at a strategic level to do that work in future.

The Gulf war and the Falklands war were mentioned. At the time of both those wars, I saw my constituents working 24 hours a day to refit ships. I saw the Canberra come in. Men and women worked hour after hour to get ships ready to travel to the Falklands. We could not achieve that now. Those skills have gone--the people have gone and the capacity in the yard has gone. If we make further cuts, our capacity to do other types of work will go. It is vital that we maintain the basis of the work force to meet the strategic requirements of the Royal Navy and the country.

Once those vital skills are lost or those who have them do not practise them for a time, they are lost for ever; in the past few years, we have ceased taking young people into the dockyard to train them to carry out the work in future years. It is the first time this century that we have stopped training young people.

Privatisation has caused further problems. Has privatisation caused the price of the Trident contract to increase? Under privatisation, the contractor will be responsible for the whole contract, and costs of unforeseen changes will be met not by the Ministry of Defence but by the contractor. I wonder how much extra that will cost the taxpayer.

When, or if, the dockyards are privatised, it is intended that Brown and Root, which is essentially an American company, whose merits I shall not discuss, will have the majority shareholding in Devonport. Perhaps the most important question that we must ask tonight is, what guarantees will the Government give that Brown and Root could not be taken over by a hostile company, perhaps from a hostile country? The Minister must give that answer tonight before he makes any announcement about further plans for privatisation. South Western Electricity plc has been taken over by an American company, and the local people who own shares have had them compulsorily purchased by the Americans; so we have experience of those matters in the locality.

Mr. Arbuthnot: The Ministry of Defence will retain a special share that will give us the power to stop anything that would damage our security.

Mr. Jamieson: I am grateful to the Minister. I have asked that question many times before and that reassurance has never been given. Can he also tell us whether that golden share will guarantee the redundancy arrangements, pay and terms and conditions that the long-serving and loyal work force have enjoyed for many years? That is a question to which the people in my constituency, many of whom have given 20, 30 or more years of service, want a reply.

I received a letter today from one of my constituents, a man in his 50s, who has worked in the dockyard since he was an apprentice. He said that he did not choose to leave the Ministry of Defence, and he wants to know what will happen to the contract of employment that he signed many years ago.

Mr. Llew Smith: My hon. Friend mentioned the record of Brown and Root. Would he care to comment on its management of the nuclear plant in Texas and the repercussions of that management?

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Mr. Jamieson: I think that it would be more appropriate if the Minister commented on that matter.I hope that he will make a note so that later we might hear what investigations have taken place. There are some important questions to ask, because that company will be the employer of my constituents and, more important, it will provide vital services to our Royal Navy in one of its most sensitive contracts--the refitting of the Trident submarines.

I make no apology for returning to some of the themes about which I have spoken in previous years, partly because I have never had satisfactory answers to some of my questions, especially on issues of concern to service personnel and their families. I have pursued the matter of the service quarters, or more properly the empty married quarters, for nearly four years. All that has happened in that time is that the number of empty properties has gone up, despite the many promises that we have had from Ministers.

I tabled some questions for written answer in September 1992. The answers showed that there were 10,322 empty properties. The Ministry of Defence promised that urgent action was being taken to put that right. In September 1993, the number of empty properties had grown to 10,928, and that was followed by further reassurances that troops were coming home and the houses would be disposed of. In September 1994, there were 11,995 empty properties. The latest figure in December 1995, after all the efforts and energies of the Ministry of Defence had gone into disposing of those properties, showed that 14,098 properties were empty. That is nothing short of a national scandal.

The Joseph Rowntree report published in 1992, "Filling empty homes", put the cost of keeping a Government-owned dwelling empty at approximately £10,000 per home a year. That includes the rent loss, empty property rates, security costs, the cost of the dilapidation and the bed-and-breakfast costs of those who could live in that property but instead live in temporary accommodation. I make that £141 million a year of lost money. That is £16,093 an hour; so those 14,098 empty homes have cost nearly £50,000 during this debate.

I wish to remind the Minister of a comment that has been made about the situation. It was made not by me, or by any other Labour Member, or even by a troublesome Conservative Back Bencher, but by the Department of the Environment's task force report in July 1994 about the Ministry of Defence policy of leasing empty properties to local authorities. The report stated:

It continued:

The task force was slightly wrong about that because something has happened--there are now more empty properties than when it made that comment. The most damning comment made by the task force--by one Government Department about another--was:

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In its conclusions, the task force said:

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