Orders of the Day — Shipbuilding (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:25 am on 26th July 1982.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson , Belfast East 12:25 am, 26th July 1982

I am pleased to follow the official Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley). He has put his finger on the pulse of the issue.

I listened to the Minister of State open this debate and I heard his colleague open the previous debate. I noted a distinct change in emphasis and presentation. The brave face put on by the Minister in the previous debate was not put on by the Minister in this debate. The Minister spoke of the difficulties. He said that there was no immediate or easy solution. He mentioned the acute depression, said that things were gloomy and warned that costs would have to be cut or we would go under.

I shall have to go back to Belfast and underline the Minister's comments. His were not the words of a Minister trying to encourage a work force to greater productivity. His were not words to inject enthusiasm into any would be shipowner who wants to place an order with Harland and Wolff. His words were prejudicial to any such project. His were the words of a Minister flying a kite and warning that he was about to close a shipyard. Anyone who reads the Minister's speech will understand that that is his message. His chilled and measured tones were more suited to a grave-side oratory. He spoke as if he were delivering the obituary at a funeral.

I have a constituency interest, but Harland and Wolff has an impact on the Northern Ireland economy as a whole as well as on a small area of East Belfast. At one time Harland and Wolff employed 25,000 people. It now employs between 6,000 and 7,000. Many thousands in other trades are dependent on the shipyards for employment. The Minister's remarks tonight will cause great concern, not only in East Belfast, but in the surrounding area.

What action has the Minister taken to try to get new orders for the shipyard? He says that greater productivity is needed. Even if the shipyard men work for nothing, they would not be competitive in relation to the Koreans or Japanese. Surely the Minister realises that there is a war between Korean and British Shipbuilders. Unless we have sizeable subsidies, Korea will wipe British Shipbuilders and Harland and Wolff off the market and take the whole shipbuilding scene to itself.

It is more economic to pay subsidies to Harland and Wolff than to close the yard and pay redundancy and supplementary unemployment benefits. Unemployment and supplementary benefits cost about £5,000 a year per man. It is much more beneficial to give a man a job so that he can do something useful, especially in Northern Ireland. What has the Minister done to inject new orders? There is a flurry every two or three years as the last order is about to go down the slipway at Harland and Wolff. We then search for another job for the men. Why not use the time when there are jobs in the yard to get other orders.

Too often the men hold on to the job that they have because they know that as soon as it goes they will join the dole queues. That does not help the productivity that the Minister wants to increase. Having heard the Minister's speech, the shipyard trade unionists will perhaps understand more readily why the Secretary of State has been so coy about dealing with their requests made to him.

Is the Secretary of State not keen to put the facts to the shipyard men, and has he left it to the Minister to do his dirty work, as it appears he has done, tonight? If the Minister deals with that matter when he replies, I hope that he will also pass on to the Secretary of State the trade unionist's request for an all-party delegation to deal with what the Minister acknowledges is a serious situation. The trade unionists and a delegation of all the political parties in Northern Ireland should meet the Minister and the Secretary of State uregently, in the light of the Minister's speech.

I was disappointed to hear the Minister say that Harland and Wolff would not be in line for any naval contracts. I do not accept that it could not be made into a yard that could take on that type of work. I must accept that it cannot do so at the moment, but with a little adjustment it could do so and be competitive at it. The Minister will recall that only a year or two ago the Royal Navy gave some repair work to Harland and Wolff, which it was able to carry out in the specified time. If it cannot be given shipbuilding work, it could be given ship repair work. What approaches has the Minister made to the Secretary of State for Defence about the matter? I trust that he is making every effort to get what work is available for Northern Ireland.

The Minister seemed to scotch the idea of diversifying the work done by Harland and Wolff. He almost threw it out without any further consideration. His predecessor set up a team to consider diversification. I know that several possible projects were considered. Is the Minister telling the House that none of them is a possibility, That Harland and Wolff can only build bulk carriers, must wait until such orders come along and that it may not tender for anything else? If that is his message, he should make it clearly. The message that will go from the House tonight will not be about redundancy payments. It will be the Minister's ultimatum to Harland and Wolff that it must cut its costs or go under.