Orders of the Day — Shipbuilding (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:03 am on 26th July 1982.

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Photo of Hon. Adam Butler Hon. Adam Butler , Bosworth 1:03 am, 26th July 1982

The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) said that the "Atlantic Conveyor" was just the right type of ship for Harland and Wolff. However, although one has the impression that the "Atlantic Conveyor" was a sizable vessel, it was below the minimum size that Harland and Wolff has set out to build. Nevertherless, bearing that in mind, there is no reason why it should not tender for it. I understand that its price for such a vessel was very much in line with that of British Shipbuilders. My hon. Friend the Minister has made clear and confirmed the substantial difference in the tender price between British Shipbuilders and the competition from the Far East. The House heard what my hon. Friend had to say on that.

To revert to the theme of my remarks, hon. Members chose to hear what they wanted to hear and did not take in the whole of my speech. That frequently happens to ministerial speeches. I spoke with extreme realism, and in no sense did I give a message of despair. In no sense was my speech an obituary for the yard. I reject absolutely that it is ministerial intent to close the yard, and what the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) said, when he accused the Government of abandoning Harland and Wolff, of pulling out the plug and of standing back from Harland and Wolff, is nonsense.

As I reminded the House earlier, in this year alone the Government have put £47–5 million behind the company. Last year we put £46 million behind the company, and the previous year, £42–5 million. Those figures do not include such things as standard capital grants, shipbuilders' relief and the cost of owner's credit, and so on, although they were included in the total figure of £270 million. This year's figure of £47–5 million represents about £7,000 per employee at Harland and Wolff. That can hardly be seen as abandoning Harland and Wolff to its fate. It represents substantial Government support.

Nevertheless, we must be realistic. If the company is unable to obtain orders with that level of support, and to get orders with 18 or 20 per cent. support as well as the credit arrangements available, there must be a question mark over it. However, the question mark is not as big as many hon. Members have said, because of a matter to which I have drawn special attention and which has often been highlighted. I refer to the scope for improved performance.

Ministers may have repeated the message time and again, but if the taxpayer is to put such sums into the company, the least that he is entitled to expect is that the management and work force will do everything that they can to help themselves. That is the message that I gave from the Dispatch Box tonight. We know, just as the work force and the management know, that there is room for improved efficiency and for cutting waste and overheads. They probably do not need consultants to tell them, but consultants help to pinpoint the areas of improvement. there is scope for enormous productivity improvements in that yard.

That is the message that I gave tonight. Given those improvements and the continuing Government support, the yard can carry on, but if those improvements are not made the company will not obtain the orders that are there to be had. The Government do not intend to close the yard. The only thing that will close it is lack of orders. I wanted to put the message across firmly, but in a balanced way, so that the yard listens not just to the sad voices that came from certain parts of the Chamber, but to the Government's realistic appraisal of the position.