Orders of the Day — Aerospace

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:22 pm on 24th February 1983.

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Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett , Stockport North 8:22 pm, 24th February 1983

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally) on having the good fortune to be able to press the Minister on the subject of the aerospace industry and to raise in particular the problems that affect Greater Manchester. I, too, should like to take this opportunity to press the Government to take a series of decisions that are vital to British Aerospace, to the whole of the greater Manchester area and to our constituencies.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that the British Aerospace division in Manchester is divided between two sites—Chadderton to the north-east of Manchester and Woodford in the south-east. They are a substantial distance apart. One area is given over to machining and small fabrication, and the other to final fabrication and a great deal of design work. In some ways it is sad that the two factories are so far apart, because it means that one has to look at them as two separate units when considering their overheads. However, although they are two separate units in terms of overheads, they are interdependent in terms of machinery, equipment, the runway and other facilities.

Unfortunately, over the years the viability of Woodford has gradually been reduced. It has continually slimmed down the number of people working there. The overheads in terms of the payroll and administrative costs have reached such a point that, although the work at Woodford has been reduced, its viability is in doubt. There is real concern there and at Chadderton that, unless the right decisions are taken quickly by the Government, the viability of the whole operation in Manchester will be in doubt.

I stress that the operation has a key role to play in terms of the lead that it gives in technology to the whole of the Greater Manchester area. When one goes round other factories in the Greater Manchester area, it is surprising to learn how many people serve their apprenticeships or worked for some years in the aerospace industry at one of those factories. They took their skills with them and gained by them. Many would be only too pleased to have the opportunity to return to the aerospace industry where they could continue to use those skills.

There was a long-standing tradition in the Greater Manchester area that people moved from one firm to another. Unfortunately, because of the recession, most people now do not move from one firm to another, but move out of the industry and out of engineering. The industry has always played a key role in the Greater Manchester area. It is important to the area that it should continue to do so, not just for the jobs, but for the spin-off that it provides to the whole area.

The specific problem at the moment for the people of Woodford is that, whereas 10 months ago they were working frantically on orders for the Falkland Islands campaign, there is now a shortage of work. Work is short on the design side for projects that would go on to the shop floor in 12 months time or further ahead. The people there have lobbied Members of Parliament, and through them Government Departments, extremely effectively. I pay tribute to the way in which Derek Woods, from the management side, and Bob Burns, from the union side, have taken great trouble to ensure that all Members representing the north-west have been well briefed. There have been many deputations to Ministers, all with the united purpose of ensuring that there is continuity of work at Woodford, which ensures the continuity of British Aerospace in the Greater Manchester area.

In some ways the things for which we are asking are fairly small. It is important to put them into the context of the viability of the factory. As the Government demonstrated during the Falklands crisis, that factory is an essential part of the national effort. Unless the relatively small Government decisions are taken quickly, the viability of the factory will be put at stake. There is a danger of redundancies. All the evidence in the Stockport and Greater Manchester area is that when redundancies take place it is extremely difficult to rebuild the skilled, dedicated labour force in the factories.

The length of production of the HS748, the continual updating and modification and the way in which the factory found new alternative uses for it were remarkable. Many countries, including third world countries, would be only too pleased to purchase more of that aircraft, but cannot do so because of the general financial difficulties that have been imposed upon them. There are difficulties in getting credit. Although the future of the aircraft does not stretch into infinity, if general world liquidity were to improve there would be many more orders for the 748. It would be helpful if the Egyptian contract could be secured, because that would ensure that the line continued for a little longer.

The aeroplane has a specialist coastguarder role and other countries have shown a great deal of interest in it. The key question is always the same: if it is such a good plane, why have the British Government not ordered it? An order from the Government would open the door for a stream of orders for the 748 in its coastguarder role.

We have been told for nearly 12 months that the Government have been considering the position. It has been suggested that someone else could purchase or set up a facility, which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would then hire. All the possibilities have been considered. The real answer is for the Government to give a clear commitment to buy some of these aircraft. That would ensure good prospects for the 748. Other points to consider include a little more money for the updating, the possibility of a new engine and the design work that would accompany that, which would prove helpful.

The Nimrod has been mentioned, with the possibility that more of the refurbishing and refitting could return to Woodford instead of being carried out by the RAF. That would be helpful. An important question is whether the line could be restarted. An order or orders from the Government could lead to export orders.

A factor that is important for British Aerospace—although it would not directly involve Woodford—is the development of the airbus, particularly the A320, and the desirability of getting design work. As a result of the way in which British Aerospace is able to move work around, some of the design work, either from that project or from one of the others, could come back to Woodford. That would ease the problem of the lack of continuity of design work in that area.

It is unfortunate that the French have sometimes shown a little more enthusiasm and drive than we have. Hon. Members know that in the end the French got more of the work in the package. The British Aerospace industry wants to get more than the wings. If we could have more drive and enthusiasm from the Government for the A320, there would be a good chance of our getting more work than just the wings. That would be extremely helpful in ensuring the security of work at Woodford and Chadderton for the next 10 to 15 years.

I plead with the Government to look at the number of key decisions which it is in their power to make. Satisfactory decisions would make all the difference, and ensure that the factory does not have to talk about redundancies, but can, instead, become enthusiastic about carrying forward new technology and proving that the British Aerospace industry is a world beater.