Orders of the Day — British Shipbuilders Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:18 pm on 23rd February 1983.

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Mr. Mitchell:

I am sure that a consultation process goes on, but the hon. Gentleman knows as well as the rest of us that not all trade unionists attend branch meetings. A relatively small proportion turns up to discuss things. There is therefore a case for consulting the workers in a different way. For example, the great majority of shipyard workers in the north-east may well have favoured public ownership in 1977, but that does not mean that the same necessarily applied in Southampton or elsewhere. However, I shall not labour that point.

The other reason why the Bill is thoroughly bad is, as I said on Second Reading, that it puts still greater power in the hands of Ministers. I dread to think of that power in the hands of some official Opposition Members who would like to be Ministers. I dread to think of such power in the hands of some extremely Left-wing potential Ministers. If it were in the hands, for example, of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), I hate to think what the end result might be. The Bill takes power from Parliament and gives it to the Executive. More and more enabling Bills are doing just that and more and more real power is being transferred from this place to secret Cabinet rooms.

As the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) said, instead of playing around with irrelevant Bills like this, Ministers should be working out a proper maritime strategy in consultation with Ministers from other Departments. The Falklands crisis clearly showed the need for a strong Merchant Navy sailing under the British flag. The number of ships sailing under the British flag falls every month. It also clearly showed that the Merchant Navy is the fourth service—the fourth arm of defence. A naval operation cannot be mounted without its assistance. The Government should be considering that and deciding what kind of Merchant Navy we need and the kind of ships required. They should be consulting shipowners about how ships can be adapted. They should be doing all that instead of playing around with this Bill.

The Government should also be dealing with the problem of competition and considering how Korea manages to undercut this country so severely. I strongly oppose the CEGB placing orders in Korea, but purely from the taxpayers' point of view the cost of the ship will be considerably less than if it were built here. There is a considerable price difference, mainly because Korea is doing in shipbuilding what Japan has already done in many other industries—heavily subsidising to dominate the market. Once it has dominated the market, things may change, but that is how those countries operate. We always seem to take the Simon Pure attitude that we should not subsidise because it is not playing the game. The fact remains that all our competitors are doing just that.

I was alarmed at the speech of the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), which showed all that is wrong with British industry today. The hon. Gentleman is still fighting the old class war.