Orders of the Day — Shipbuilding (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:50 am on 26th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr James Dunn Mr James Dunn , Liverpool Kirkdale 12:50 am, 26th July 1982

I welcome the convert from Damascus. I do not know whether the arm of the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Brown) has been twisted. The Minister's speech was a message of despair. I appreciate tremendous problems that confront Harland and Wolff. These are not of its making.

The Minister has talked of expert advice that calls for improved efficiency, for reduced costs and for improved delivery times. These matters are obvious. If the Minister means what he stated, he should take account of the remarks of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) who referred to the improvements and achievements at Cammell Laird. A sophisticated warship was completed in four-fifths of the usual time. There was an emergency. An all-out drive was made to provide the ship at the time it was needed to defend the interests of the United Kingdom in a far-off place.

Those workers will not benefit from the improvements. They will find themselves in the same position as those employed at Harland and Wolff. We should not deceive people. The more efficient people sometimes are, the quicker they work themselves out of employment. I recall the expert advice given to the previous Government and their predecessors about the types of ship best suited to be built at Harland and Wolff. It can be seen how gravely we were misled. Some of my former colleagues may not share that view. To limit ourselves to bulk carriers and tankers was probably not the answer, although the so-called experts were loud in their pronouncements that this was the case.

It is a fact that the Japanese are now worried about the Koreans and the Koreans are worried about their competitors. We are talking about price competition. Our specialised shipbuilding industry cannot hope to compete in terms of cost with nations that have a large reserve of cheap labour, not always highly skilled but trained to carry out part of a prefabrication process. The hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Brown) expressed some anxiety about steel supplies to Harland and Wolff. Not only that firm but the entire shipbuilding world is involved. Other nations seem to find an answer to that. They protect their shipbuilding industries by imposing an additional charge upon imports of either raw materials or the finished product. Perhaps the time has come to examine that system more carefully, although I have grave reservations about it.

Although I welcome the improvement in redundancy payments, if they prove necessary—the Minister's message tonight makes that almost certain—perhaps he should return to the experts who are responsible for the present position, or move closer to the experts who advise him, and say "Take your finger out and if you cannot advise on what should be done about shipping, you must advise about diversification in steel fabrication or other areas that will meet a market demand?" If he cannot do that, perhaps he should take the advice of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) and devote his energy to providing retraining facilities and more job opportunities, and close his ears to all the experts who misled me and who may have misled him.