Orders of the Day — Shipbuilding (Great Britain)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:49 pm on 26th July 1982.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Industry) 10:49 pm, 26th July 1982

I shall not give way as I wish to make a brief speech and I have already given way twice.

Are not the workers in our shipyards worth something in return for the efforts that they have made both recently, and in the past few years? Do not those people and their families—the men who were lionised in the press during the Falklands crisis—have a future? Should they continue to make a contribution to our trade and defence effectiveness? We are a major maritime nation. Do we need a shipbuilding industry? The answer to those questions from the Opposition, and the Labour Party in particular, is an unequivocal "Yes". There is no such clear commitment from the Government, who cannot make up their minds whether we should maintain a major shipbuilding capability.

In the first quarter of the year more than 60 per cent. of all OECD orders went to the Far East. The General Council of British Shipping has drawn attention to that problem, as have others in other countries. The position will continue without more aggressive Government support. British Shipbuilders, the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions and the National Union of Seamen call upon the Government to have a maritime strategy, and we subscribe to that approach. How can we stand aside from this serious and deteriorating background? How were the Swedish Government able to intervene a few days ago to ensure that three container ships in the same consortium as Cunard are to be built in Swedish yards? Is there any doubt that the French vessel will be built in a French shipyard? If those vessels were for an American line they would be built in an American shipyard.

Taxpayers are making a significant contribution to enable Cunard to replace the "Atlantic Conveyor", and it seems incredible to most people that it will not be, and cannot be, built in a British shipyard. I shall return to the subject of the "Atlantic Conveyor" shortly. The Government have even created difficulties for British Shipbuilders over the sale of HMS "Invincible". If they had not reneged on their agreement with Australia there is a strong possibility that they would have ordered another vessel from British Shipbuilders. I say to the Government and the Navy "The Tyne workers can build another 'Invincible,' but the Navy cannot build another Swan Hunter." If Swan Hunter's yard and facilities are allowed to go they will almost certainly never be replaced.

Against a background of orders lost to the Far East and British shipping lines going abroad for their ships, how can the Minister say that redundancy is not likely to grow and threaten shipyard workers? If Cunard eventually places an order in the Far East, the country—this issue cuts right across party boundaries—will greet the decision with derision. How will British Shipbuilders survive as maritime shipbuilders against that background? Mixed yards like Swan Hunter are dependent upon both naval and merchant shipping orders for research and development, design, material ordering, and union co-operation. "Why co-operate when all that the future offers is to work oneself out of a job?" is what shipyard workers are asking. They feel that Lord Matthews and the Government do not give a damn about their future. The prize for working for Great Britain and the task force is a place in the dole queue. Praise in the Daily Express and other newspapers is empty rhetoric when workers are faced with that prospect. Patriotism does not pay the bills for these workers and praise does not fill the slipways. Only orders for ships do those things. The shipyard workers want actions and not words.

The Minister of State says that there is a ray of hope. We welcome that. We think that there is no reason why the Government should not be saying categorically after weeks of argument, vacillation and delay, that the order will be coming to Britain. Cunard will get at least £10 million worth of taxpayers' money and people of all shades of opinion believe that that money and the money for the order should be spent and invested in Britain. Cunard and the Government should work harder to bridge the gap. They owe that to our shipyard workers.

Among other things Lord Matthews is the proprietor of the Daily Express. Underneath the title of the newspaper the following appears: "The Voice of Britain". Bearing in mind all that has gone before, if this order goes abroad shipyard workers will conclude that the voice of Britain as expressed by Lord Matthews is a voice that speaks with a forked tongue.