British Shipbuilders

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:31 am on 18th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Donald Dixon Mr Donald Dixon , Jarrow 12:31 am, 18th July 1983

I should like first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) on his maiden speech. My hon. Friend spoke of the problems in his constituency and of his relations with the former hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North, Sir William Elliott. My hon. Friend referred to the people standing around waiting for jobs. I stood in the Naval yard, which is in his constituency and I have experienced those problems. I know the sufferings of those men who stood in all types of weather, waiting for the foreman to come out on the platform and say which men he required for a particular day. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that we will not go back to those days in the shipbuiding industry. The sooner the Minister gets that through his head the better, and the sooner Robert Atkinson and the rest of British Shipbuilders' board get that through their heads the better. Enough is enough.

We shall not vote against the order because, as I have said many times, nobody wants to shoot a one-legged Father Christmas. The men who work in the shipbuilding industry want to hear something positive from the Minister and the Government about their future. The Minister talks about investment in the industry but he starts from the wrong position. When the industry was in private hands, investment was deplorable. I worked in the industry when it was in private hands. A survey was carried out in 1970 on investment and assets per worker in the shipbuilding industry. In the British shipbuilding industry, assets per worker were £825; in West Germany the figure was more than £1,000; in Sweden, it was more than £1,200; in Italy, it was more than £1,800; in Japan, it was more than £2,800. Those are the conditions that prevail in private industry. When the Government are talking about investment they should start from there, and not from nationalisation.

The Minister posed a question. He asked whether we could carry on supporting the industry in the present way. The question that he should be asking is whether we can afford not to support the industry in that way. The answer is no. Everyone knows that we cannot afford to allow the British shipbuilding industry to go down.

We live on an island. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) pointed out that 90 per cent. of our trade by weight is carried by sea. Seven eighths of the world is covered by water. We require not the sort of nonsense we hear repeatedly from the Minister but a maritime policy. The Select Committee on Industry and Trade interviewed members of the British Shipbuilders' board, trade unionists and indeed the Minister himself. The committee recommended that Britain should have a maritime policy. It is imperative that we should have a maritime policy. The fact that the Minister is called the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry perhaps indicates that the Government intend to pursue such a policy. One hopes that is the case because such a policy is vital for our shipbuilding industry.

It is about time that British shipowners started building in British yards. When a question was asked in the European Parliament by the Member for South Tyne and Wear, Miss Joyce Quin, she was given the information that Belgian shipowners ordered 94·4 per cent. of ships in their own yards; that French owners ordered 91·8 per cent. in their yards; Italian owners, 99·4 per cent.; and United Kingdom owners, 47 per cent. It is time that our shipowners realised that we expect more from them when it comes to placing orders at home. Indeed, our owners have the worst record in Europe.

Let us consider the orders that have gone abroad since the Falklands dispute. The Atlantic Conveyor would not have been replaced in this country had it not been for public opinion and the patriotism of Lord Matthews; he must have read some of the articles in the Daily Express during the Falklands crisis. There should be an inquiry into why the Cunard Countess order went to Malta. If British Shipbuilders could not compete with Malta on that, we should know why because, frankly, I do not understand how that order came to leave this country.

The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) referred to the P and O liner, the order for which went to Finland. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) wrote to the Prime Minister asking why the order for that cruise liner—at £90 million, the largest order placed by P and O — went to Finland. The Prime Minister replied that Swan, Hunter or Harland and Wolff did not get the order because they did not have the necessary finishing trades.

It was nonsense to suggest that the finishing trades were not available in the Tyne and Wear area or at Harland and Wolff when national newspapers announced that the chances of a steel worker getting a job in the Tyne and Wear area were 71 to one; a painter, plumber, electrician or joiner, 45 to one; and an unskilled worker, 371 to one. For the Prime Minister to suggest that there were not sufficient finishing tradesmen in the area to complete that order was criminal.

We have said time and again that since the Conservatives came to power, British Shipbuilders have not had a proper deal. Indeed, the Prime Minister has the shipbuilding board terrified to put in for some orders in case the board is accused of overspending. The cash limits imposed by the Government are holding British Shipbuilders back, but I must not go into that in detail because my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) and others wish to speak. Many Members who are involved in the shipbuilding industry know Mr. Ken Douglas, who runs Austin and Pickersgill Ltd. He is a well known and much respected figure in the industry. He is a good manager and is not a political animal. We hear constantly about competition, productivity and the open market but in an article that appeared in The Guardian Mr. Douglas wrote: We are not competing against the Japanese shipbuilder or the Japanese shipyard worker, or the German or the Belgian or the Dutch or anything else. We are competing as a Government with Government terms offered elsewhere and it is a purely political thing. If Japan is giving a 50 per cent. subsidy, half the price of the ship, what kind of productivity levels would we have to reach to compete with that? If our men built the ship for nothing, we still can't win. Every country is subsidising its shipbuilding industry, including our colleagues in the EC. Sir Robert Atkinson asked recently how long Britain would continue to fight to the Marquess of Queensberry rules when everyone else was indulging in all-in wrestling.

The sooner that the Government support the industry during the world recession and at this time of unfair competition the sooner there will be a future for the industry. Morale in the industry is low and the workers have no confidence in the Government. If the Government want the industry, they should recognise its present state for what it is. It is about time that they realised what has happened and acted accordingly. If we ever have another Falklands dispute, there will be no shipbuilding industry and no one will be available to get the task force ready. The Prime Minister will not be able to ride again on the popularity bandwagon that she has been on since last year. The Government must act positively and provide long-term assistance that will lift the morale of the industry and give our people some sort of future.