Orders of the Day — Shipbuilding Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:35 pm on 9th January 1985.

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Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 6:35 pm, 9th January 1985

The Bill has a short title and when I first saw it—my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan) had the same impression — it seemed to be innocuous and modest. However, as the Minister of State moved the Second Reading today, it became clear that the Bill has many implications. It was almost as though the Minister had opened a can of worms. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) said that it could be inferred that the Government wished to stop redundancy payments as that would shift the burden of labour before privatisation and thus make the shipyards more attractive financially to their friends. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will explain that to the House when he replies to the debate.

It was staggering to hear the Minister talk about a contracting industry and then to explain, right, that he could not give the House an overall costing of the scheme because it depended upon the number of people who were made redundant. I understand the logic of that, hut the Government must have some idea of the long-term size of the British shipbuilding capability, both merchant and naval. Can the Minister give us some idea of the manpower requirements that the Government envisage in the immediate and medium-term futures? The Minister must have those figures; or he certainly should have them.

When we talk about redundancies, we are talking about human beings. As so often in shipbuilding debates, we talk about orders and yards and tend to forget that in those yards there are individuals. I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) said about massive payouts not applying to shipbuilding. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) said that an average payment of £5,000 was not much compensation for losing one's job.

The problems that we have heard about today from Labour Members—most of those who have spoken in the debate are Labour Members — are similar. The problems of Tyneside are echoed on Wearside, on the Clyde and on Merseyside. There is shameful unemployment in those areas, which are economic blackspots. Redundancies of 2,000 or more have a tremendous effect on communities. When a shiprepair yard in my constituency was privatised, there were massive lay-offs. I now share a travel-to-work area with my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), and it gives me no pleasure to say that we experience the highest level of unemployment in England. When we hear of the further redundancies in shipbuilding on the Tyne — because many people from south Tyneside go across the river to Swan Hunter or they work in the Jarrow and Hebburn areas — we wonder how much longer our communities can survive.

I want to press the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East. Is it not about time that the Government realised that it is not just individuals who are affected, vitally important though they may be? Communities are also affected. Does the Minister appreciate the loss in rateable value to communities such as south Tyneside, north Tyneside, Glasgow and Sunderland resulting from shipbuilding closures? It runs into millions of pounds, and it makes the problems of the local authorities in those shipbuilding redundancy areas even more acute.

I know that there is the EEC scheme, but, just as the Government's shipbuilding redundancy scheme is far less generous than those operating in the mining and steel industries, so the EEC scheme is literally peanuts compared with what is offered to the coal and steel closure areas. When the Government are discussing shipbuilding redundancies, I urge them strongly to pay particular attention to the communities affected.

I realise that the men who work in the shipbuilding industry and who perhaps are contemplating accepting redundancy have made Herculean efforts to increase productivity. We have the Ark Royal being built on the Tyne, and it is months ahead of schedule. We had the Atlantic Conveyor launched recently only a few days after the rescheduled delivery date, and the managing director and the chairman of Cunard paid tribute to the quality of the work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend touched on a pertinent point when he reminded us that we are discussing a shipbuilding Bill concerned with redundancy at the very time when morale in the shipyards is at its lowest ebb ever. One has only to listen to people talking in the pubs and clubs of Tyneside to understand the extent of the desperation and despondency among them. That is one reason why people are queuing up to take redundancy. It is out of sheer desperation, and it is a tragedy for the country, because those skilled men are vitally needed in our nation. If we lose their skills we shall live to regret it.

We saw only two years ago during the Falklands crisis how men worked night and day to meet the Government's deadlines and managed to help the victory that we sought. But it was a very close run thing, and I doubt whether we could mount the same operation today. Even then we got through only by chartering Scandinavian vessels. At one time the Government were trying to buy a Danish vessel because there were not enough British vessels. That is how desperate the situation is, and that is why as a nation we cannot afford to allow these redundancies to go ahead and the shipbuilding industry to run down.

Does the Minister not appreciate that his proposals for privatisation are the raison d'etre for the demoralisation among members of management teams as well as the work force? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, because we see it in the private yards already. Those who work in the industry see privatisation as casualisation. When they hear talk about the market place, they see it as appearing on a Monday morning and two men being selected out of 50. They see those bad days coining back again, and it is impossible to build a life and a community based on that amount of uncertainty. That is one reason why there is so much demoralisation.

How can we get across to the Minister this point about the market? It is not the market place where labour is hired and fired. How can we get it across to him that there is no such thing as a free market in shipbuilding? Shipbuilding is concerned with strategy and with strategic decisions taken by the Government about the size of the industry. That is why I laid so much stress at the beginning of my remarks on trying to press the Government to say what they saw as the size of our shipbuilding industry. There is no such thing as a free market, and it is about time that the Government recognised that, as an island nation and a maritime power, we need not only British-owned ships to carry goods, but the facilities to build those ships.

I make one final plea. The Government are always exhorting the entrepreneurial nature of British industry. Some of the private yards in the ship repair industry have worked very hard to get jobs. A lot of the work comes from the Soviet Union, especially in the north-east of England where there is easy access from the Baltic and the north Arctic. I understand that currently the Government are negotiating with the Soviet Union with a view to excluding Soviet vessels from the river Tyne. I have had a partial assurance from them that this will not be pursued, but I hope that the Minister will bear it in mind, look into it, and realise how important it is for our shipbuilding industry that we retain that trade with the Soviet Union.