Orders of the Day — Shipbuilding (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:43 am on 26th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Michael Brown Mr Michael Brown , Brigg and Scunthorpe 12:43 am, 26th July 1982

I wish briefly to emphasise one or two points that have been made. I have a constituency interest in this matter as my constituency supplies steel and is thus indirectly bound up with the fortunes of Harland and Wolff.

After the sombre speech of the Minister earlier, no one can doubt the seriousness of the situation at Harland and Wolff. If anything disastrous happened to that firm, it would be a tragedy for the economy of Northern Ireland, not just for the 6,000 to 7,000 people employed by the company, as the multiplier effect would cause thousands more people in Northern Ireland to lose their jobs as a result.

My hon. Friend the Minister is right to urge that everything should be done by Harland and Wolff to ensure that delivery of products is made on time and that the firm is as efficient as possible. No one can deny that the United Kingdom shipbuilding industry is not competing in the world market place in the way that the Minister and I would wish, but every country in the Far East that is involved in shipbuilding has absolutely no regard whatever for competitive pricing. Under no circumstances do they aim to make a profit. We must therefore recognise that if Harland and Wolff is to survive—I sincerely hope that it does because of the dire consequences that would result in Northern Ireland if it did not—it will not be against the backcloth of profitability. It could never make a profit and still compete against the Far Eastern countries that subsidise in a vulgar way, to the extent that they are grabbing orders without any regard to profitability.

In urging efficiency and the fact that the customer should be supplied with the product on time, I hope that the Minister wiI1 have regard to the fact that it is completely impossible for Harland and Wolff or any other British shipbuilding firm profitably to compete with Far Eastern countries whose Governments are intent on destroying what remains of the shipbuilding industry, not only in the United Kingdom but in Western Europe as a whole.

Earlier this year, some of my colleagues were fortunate enough to attend a meeting with the chairman of Harland and Wolff who, like the Minister, underlined the seriousness of tie situation. I welcome the fact that management consultants are at present in Harland and Wolff. From talking to the chairman, I believe that there is room for improvement in the company. It will be completely impossible for Harland and Wolff to compete effectively, and we have a duty to the people of Northern Ireland to recognise that fact. Harland and Wolff is one of our great traditional industries, and to this day is one of our largest employers. The devastation that would be caused to the Northern Ireland economy and to the social fabric of the Province if anything untoward happened is absolutely unthinkable.

A number of hon. Members have drawn attention to the need to encourage the Government and Harland and Wolff to consider the possibility of diversifying the product base. There is no doubt in my mind that we are putting a mill stone around Harland and Wolff so long as we encourage it to produce only a certain type of ship for which there is massive world overcapacity.

I sincerely hope that the Government and the Department of Industry will give every encouragement to the British Steel Corporation to place any shipping order with Harland and Wolff. I know that BSC wants to act commercially and that it is considering the purchase of a ship from the cheapest source. However, I hope that BSC will not dream of looking anywhere other than British Shipbuilders or Harland and Wolff. Indeed, the type of ship required by BSC could be ideally built at Harland and Wolff.

I wish to draw attention to the fact that men aged 57 and under will receive minimum payments lower than those of men over 62. As slightly younger people, likely to be made redundant at Harland and Wolff, will need more help than those approaching retirement age, the Government should consider some change in the balance of assistance.