Orders of the Day — Shipbuilding (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:32 am on 26th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr James Molyneaux Mr James Molyneaux , South Antrim 12:32 am, 26th July 1982

Most right hon. and hon. Members will remember that when the shipbuilding industry was being nationalised by the Labour Government, we pressed strongly for the inclusion of Harland and Wolff, not because we were wildly enthusiastic about nationalisation—Harland and Wolff was already for practical purposes a Government-owned firm anyway—but because we saw great disadvantages in Harland and Wolff being left outside the larger structure.

The Minister said that Harland and Wolff has benefited because it has attracted a higher subsidy than other yards in Great Britain. That subsidy appears to have been attracted by bulk carriers—the only type of work that Harland and Wolff can be engaged in at the moment—not because it was isolated from or outside the rest of the United Kingdom.

I fear that Harland and Wolff will remain stuck with producing only one article unless that sense of isolation is removed. The Minister warned that there is a limited outlet for bulk carriers. We all know that. That is all the more reason why Harland and Wolff should be encouraged, perhaps even jogged a little, to look outside the mould in which it has become stuck.

The House is perpetuating that separateness by refusing to take the two redundancy payments orders together, as has been done previously. We pretend that there is nothing in common between shipbuilding in the two parts of the Kingdom. If Parliament behaves in that way, we can hardly complain if the two units grow apart or be surprised if the customers and potential customers regards the two as separate and distinct, and perhaps even as rival concerns. Is it any wonder that foreign shipping companies are perplexed when they are told that Britain's shipyards have been nationalised and made into one, when they have, in fact, been made into two?

We have been assured time and again that relations are excellent and co-operation is good between British Shipbuilders and Harland and Wolff, but may we have examples of where British Shipbuilders, in a spirit of unselfishness, has passed on to Harland and Wolff orders for building ships or manufacturing engines that British Shipbuilders could have done itself? In the absence of proof we have to assume that big brother is a greedy and at times selfish bully boy.

There was a curious incident around Easter time this year when a telex from a reputable source in Brazil alleged that British Shipbuilders' representatives there were doing their best to dissuade a ship owner from specifying Harland and Wolff engines in an order, apparently on the grounds, believe it or not, of the difficult political situation in Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State and the Secretary of State investigated the claim and concluded that they had to accept the denial of British Shipbuilders. The denial was made by Mr. John Parker, the deputy chief executive of British Shipbuilders. He is a person of the highest integrity, but he is hardly in a position to listen to all that was being whispered by his subordinates in South America.

It would be unfair to condemn those subordinates, because, even if the claim were true, they were doing no more than engaging in a commercial struggle with a rival concern, in much the same fashion as occurs in competition on free enterprise. The difference is that British Shipbuilders and Harland and Wolff are owned by the same Government, who have a responsibility to ensure that they do not lend support to one to the disadvantage of the other.

It has been said that much of the previous debate was taken up by demands that the Government should ensure that the contract for the replacement for the "Atlantic Conveyor" should go to a British shipyard. If that means a United Kingdom yard, that is all right by us. Harland and Wolff should be given a fair opportunity to tender, because that is precisely the type of vessel that it is equipped to build.

Many Harland and Wolff ships served in the task force and proved their worth and reliability. If Harland and Wolff had been encouraged to get out of the bulk carrier and tanker rut and to engage in defence contracts—I do not believe all those who say that the firm cannot do that—perhaps Belfast-built frigates and destroyers would have been less vulnerable than the ships that were lost in the South Atlantic battles.

I conclude with a reference to the curious relationship between the Government, perhaps in the role of employer, and the shipbuilding employees. The latter organised a meeting in Belfast as long ago as 27 March, to which they invited representatives of the political parties. As one who attended, I found it a very constructive meeting.

At that meeting it was agreed to request a meeting with the Secretary of State. I imagine that that request would have been on the Secretary of State's desk certainly within the week, as I received my copy four days later. The request had to be reiterated on 23 April, however, and it was not until 29 June that the Northern Ireland Office admitted that the letter—presumably the second letter—could not be traced. The replacement copy provided by the unions' sub-committee apparently did not reach the Northern Ireland Office until 11 June.

On 29 June, the Private Office set out the reasons why it was thought that it would be far more appropriate for the deputation to meet the Minister of State. The unions disagreed, not through any lack of respect for the Minister of State and his abilities but mainly because vital national decisions were involved and, understandably, they believed rightly or wrongly, that their views should be expressed across the Cabinet table.

In a letter to the Northern Ireland Office dated 6 July the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding sub-committee stated that it wished to put to the Secretary of State its views not just on Harland and Wolff but on the effect that any reduction or—God forbid—any closure of Harland and Wolff would have on the Northern Ireland economy in general. The secretary to the sub-committee concluded with the following sentence: I would therefore reiterate the importance of meeting the Secretary of State and would like to press him for his attendance at the proposed meeting and hope that our request on this occasion will be treated with the seriousness which it obviously deserves. On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I support that plea and that straightforward request, for this reason. Speaking in another place last Thursday, my noble Friend the Minister of State forecast that devolution might not rule for 20 to 30 years. That may even have been wildly optimistic. Certainly, responsibility for Harland and Wolff will continue to rest with the Secretary of State and his 10 successors.

With that time scale in mind, I urge the Secretary of State to respond to the very reasonable request of the unions that is set out in the correspondence to which I have referred and has the backing of every political party in Northern Ireland. If the situation at Harland and Wolff is as serious as the Minister has warned us that it is, that is surely all the more reason for face to face discussions between Ministers and the work force upon whom so much depends.