As I announced recently, the Government believe that there is a reasonable prospect of three, perhaps four, platform orders by the end of 1977 or early 1978. Our aim is to ensure that United Kingdom yards are given a full and fair opportunity to compete for these orders.
Is the Minister aware that the platform building industry is in real danger of disintegrating due to lack of orders? Bearing that in mind, will he ask the Secretary of State to make an early decision on the Williams and Mertz report about the proposed gas collection line, as this could assist the platform yards to diversify in their attempts to keep going?
We are seriously considering this proposal by Williams-Mertz. There is a second stage on which I hope the Government will soon be able to make a statement.
On the generality of the position, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will want to exaggerate it. Two yards in the Highlands Region are very well placed for orders.
Has my hon. Friend considered discussing with the ordering part of the industry the possibility of bringing the orders forward from the dates he has mentioned, since many yards are faced with a short-term unemployment position? Will he consider the possibility of discussing, perhaps with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a forward stock ordering scheme, so that once orders are placed they can be processed with the utmost possible speed?
On the first part, yes. It is my job daily to urge on the different companies which come to see us about these matters our anxiety to give confidence to the industry by their bringing forward the orders, or at least bringing forward the announcement of orders. That is almost as important. I do not think that having stock platforms is a realistic proposition. [Interruption.] I mean modules, not platforms. That might have been looked at more closely than has been done so far. I would prefer that we dealt with real orders rather than orders in stock. In respect of actual orders, I would point out that exactly a year ago there was no such thing as the Murchison field. Now there is a platform being ordered by Conoco for the Murchison field. Therefore, these matters can change quite rapidly.
Will the Minister comment on the announcement today about the prospects of a platform being set up in the yard at Portavadie, which is not yet operational, although it has cost a lot of Government money? Will he comment on the effect of initiating action in that yard and other yards, such as Ardyne and Kishorn, producing concrete platforms, where, if orders are not placed in future, there will be a drop in the labour force?
The hon. Gentleman knows as much as I do about this matter, namely, that some companies may prefer to have a particular design. If they prefer to go to Portavadie in order to acquire a different design from those constructed in other yards making concrete platforms, they are free to do so. Where the Government would be remiss would be in closing down Portavadie and excluding ourselves from orders in future and seeing them go to another country.
In view of the present unexpectedly high extraction rates from the North Sea oilfields, does my hon. Friend agree that it is now urgent for his Department, together with the Department of Industry, to move fast to conclude planning agreements not only with the rig building industry but also with all those industries connected with oil, such as the refining and the petrochemical industries?
I do not think that my hon. Friend lacks confidence in the ability of my right hon. Friend, who has such a profound view of planning agreements, or would suspect that he is not trying to push ahead as fast as he can. In my own personal experience of my right hon. Friend, he is moving as fast as he can.