HC Deb 09 July 1962 vol 662 cc945-50
9. Mr, Lee

asked the Minister of Aviation whether he will state Her Majesty's Government's policy on the future of Short Brothers and Harland, Belfast.

10. Mr. McMaster

asked the Minister of Aviation what steps Her Majesty's Government plan to take in order to ensure a reasonable continuity of research and development work and of production orders with the firm of Short Brothers and Harland in Belfast.

19. Mr. Rankin

asked the Minister of Aviation whether he proposes to place a further order with Messrs. Short Brothers and Harland for the Belfast freighter, in view of military needs.

25 and 32. Mr. H. Butler

asked the Minister of Aviation (1) what steps he is taking to place further orders for Belfast freighters or other aircraft with Messrs Short Brothers and Harland, Limited;

(2) if he will give details of his policy towards Short Brothers and Harland.

30. Mr. J. Silverman

asked the Minister of Aviation what plans he has for placing further orders with Short Brothers and Harland, Belfast.

31. Mr. Diamond

asked the Minister of Aviation what is Her Majesty's Government's policy with regard to the future of Short Brothers and Harland.

Mr. Woodhouse

Short Brothers and Harland are at present working on an order for 10 Belfast aircraft due for delivery to the Royal Air Force in 1964–65. The Government recognise, of course, the importance of Shorts to the economy of Northern Ireland, and this is a factor which will be given due weight in the placing of future orders for aircraft requirements.

Mr. Lee

Is the the hon. Gentleman aware that there is now the very gravest apprehension about the future of Short Brothers? Some of us feel that the firm has been neglected quite disgracefully. An order for ten Belfasts is an uneconomic proposition. The floor programme there will speedily dry up unless repeat orders are given quickly. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that some of us are beginning to look with suspicion at the neglect of Short Brothers? The firm led the world in vertical take-off aircraft. It was messed about with the Britannic and now it is being messed about with its successor, the Belfast freighter.

Mr. Woodhouse

I am aware of the apprehension which has been expressed, and I am particularly anxious not to say anything which would encourage that apprehension. I do not think it is true to say that Short Bros. has been neglected. The firm is a part of the aircraft industry of the United Kingdom and, when my right hon. Friend's predecessor announced the new policy in February, 1960, special reservations were introduced in that policy to take care of exceptional cases, such as Shorts, and they have been applied to the case of Shorts.

Mr. McMaster

Has the attention of my hon. Friend been drawn to the recent statement by the Chairman of Shorts that, unless further work is given soon, he will be faced with an immediate redundancy, thus breaking up a very valuable development team? Further, unless orders are placed soon for these aircraft, which are capable of being adapted for use both for tactical and strategic purposes, it may not be possible to have the planes delivered as quickly as the Army needs them in the future.

Mr. Woodhouse

I have the point raised in the last part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question very much in mind. As the House knows, Short Bros. has presented a project for consideration for the requirement for a tactical freighter. That will be carefully considered along with other submissions. I have also had my attention drawn to the press conference given by the Chairman of Shorts a short time ago. I have not seen an exact transcript of the whole of what he said. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] Because no such transcript exists. I understand that he pointed out that, unless new orders were coming along, it was only a matter of time before the factory would be without work. This is true of Shorts as of any other firm. Nevertheless, the position at present is that the work which Shorts has in hand will carry the firm well into next summer, irrespective of future orders.

As regards redundancy, it has been made clear to the House before now that some, contraction of the numbers employed in the aircraft industry of the United Kingdom as a whole is to be expected, and Shorts is a part of that industry.

Mr. Rankin

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that what he has told us does not harmonise with what the Chairman of Short Bros. has told us? Will he inquire a little more closely into that aspect of his statement, which I do not dispute; I accept it as he gives it? However, would he inquire a little more closely into that, because we are told that there is a steady filtering away from Short Bros. of design staff? In view of what the hon. Gentleman said latterly, we surely do not want to lose such a valuable investment to the aircraft industry?

Mr. Woodhouse

It is true that a rundown in numbers of any sector of the aircraft industry takes place initially among the design staff. I have no reason to think that anything I have said today is inconsistent with what the Chairman of Shorts said at his Press conference, though, if the hon. Gentleman can demonstrate such an inconsistency I will carefully look into it.

Mr. Butler

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the designers and technical people are very worried about this position because there is no alternative employment for them in Northern Ireland, with 9 per cent. unemployed and possibly more now, and that there is a great possibility of this integrated team breaking up entirely with great loss to the British aircraft industry?

Mr. Woodhouse

Yes, Sir. I am indeed aware of that anxiety, and I shall, of course, take that into consideration in considering our future placing of orders, but I cannot place orders for aircraft for which the Services have no requirement.

Mr. Silverman

Can the hon. Gentleman give a categorical assurance on behalf of the Government that it is the intention to keep this organisation together and that sufficient orders will be placed to do that?

Mr. Woodhouse

I cannot give any categorical undertaking about future orders for reasons that I have already made clear. As I think the House knows, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland is coming over next week to discuss all these matters with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary including the aircraft industry among others, and in anticipation of these discussions I do not think it would be possible for me to give any categorical undertaking.

Mr. Diamond

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that what he has said adds to the anxiety felt by everyone connected with Northern Ireland and the aircraft industry? If there are orders sufficient for a year, surely the time is now overdue when his right hon. Friend and his Department should consider placing further orders? What is to happen to this organisation? Is it his desire, as in the case of Gloucester, to preside over the liquidation of the aviation industry?

Mr. Woodhouse

It is not my desire or that of my right hon. Friend to preside over the liquidation of the aviation industry. We have over the last two years taken measures essential to enable the aviation industry to withstand the very great difficulties that otherwise it would have been facing. This applies as much to Shorts of Belfast as to any other factory.

Mrs. McLaughlin

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that not only is the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland coming over here for important discussions next week, but there is also to be a delegation from the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions and the works committee of Shorts; and that they are extremely worried about this matter? Can he reaffirm that this aircraft, the Belfast, and the development of it is the right type of machine that we shall require for the future, because somehow it seems to have become a matter of political wrangle? Are the Government satisfied as the majority shareholders of this firm that they are carrying out their duties to the firm in Northern Ireland and the 7½ thousand men who have worked there?

Mr. Woodhouse

I am very glad indeed to give that assurance. The qualities of the Belfast are fully recognised by the fact that it has been ordered by the Royal Air Force, and there is no reason why its merits should enter into a political wrangle.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government have a very especial responsibility in this matter, that they own something like 70 per cent. of the equity, that Shorts over a year ago tendered for operational requirement 351, which the Government are still considering, and that at least two Cabinet Ministers have been to Shorts this spring? When are we to get something done about it?

Mr. Woodhouse

I am very well aware of the Government's responsibility as the major shareholder in the firm. Concerning the requirement of the O.R. 351, Shorts are not the only firm that has put in a project for this requirement. We have others to consider from two of the major aircraft groups in this country. It is an extremely important problem with far-reaching consequences, and we must give it mature consideration before we take a decision.

29. Mr. Diamond

asked the Minister of Aviation what representations he has received from the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and Members of Parliament of Northern Ireland with regard to the possible closing down of Messrs. Short and Harland Ltd. on account of the loss of United Kingdom Government orders.

Mr. Woodhouse

My right hon. Friend is in frequent touch with Northern Ireland Ministers about matters concerning the aircraft industry in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Diamond

How can the Parliamentary Secretary regard that as an adequate answer in view of the crisis affecting Short Brothers and Harland and the unemployment in Northern Ireland? Is he not prepared to say more than that to allay this anxiety? Will he do something to stir up the Ministry of Aviation?

Mr. Woodhouse

I am indeed conscious of the anxiety in Northern Ireland, but I am not prepared to disclose the confidential discussions which are going on between my own Department and Departments of the Northern Ireland Government.

Mr. Stratton Mills

While ignoring the rather obvious political odour of this Question, would the Parliamentary Secretary recall the Motion I proposed in the House on 30th March, which was unanimously passed and which said that exceptional measures might be taken to alleviate unemployment in Northern Ireland? In looking at the future of Short Brothers and Harland, is it the intention of my hon. Friend to bear that Motion in mind?

Mr. Woodhouse

I recall my hon. Friend's Motion, and I was present during the debate. It has, in the context of the aircraft industry, always been the policy of Her Majesty's Government to make exceptional provisions for the industry in Northern Ireland, and that will continue.

Mr. Lee

Will the Parliamentary Secretary give a categorical assurance that there are no negotiations taking place or contemplated to sell Short Brothers and Harland to American interests?

Mr. Woodhouse

Yes, I can give that assurance.

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