HC Deb 03 August 1965 vol 717 cc1423-39

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Rafton Pounder (Belfast, South)

We have discussed at some length and for some time the question of roads, which is a very important matter, but I hope that the House will permit me now to move to a different subject, the need for a giant dry dock in Belfast. I realise that a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to raise other important subjects in the course of the next few hours, and being conscious of this I do not intend to detain the House for a moment longer than is absolutely necessary for me to deploy my case.

I hope, however, that the House will bear with me for a few moments if I preface my remarks by seeking to eliminate one or two misconceptions which seem to have arisen in connection with this project. Perhaps the most undesirable and damaging misconception which has arisen concerns the length of time which has allegedly elapsed since this project was first mooted.

It has been contended repeatedly and erroneously by the Northern Ireland Labour Party that my colleagues, both here and at Stormont, have dragged their feet on this project. Nothing could be further from the truth. For several years the former management of Harland and Wolff appeared to be disinterested in the idea of a great new dry dock, and while this mood prevailed it was clearly quite unrealistic to proceed with a project whose value those persons who were in the best position to judge, and who were going to operate the dock, appeared to question. Clearly there was no sense in investing a huge sum of money in this project while the shipbuilders of Belfast were lukewarm about the idea.

However, early in 1963 the management of Harland and Wolff changed their view, and no time was lost either by the Northern Ireland Government or by my colleagues in this House in making the strongest representations to have the project proceeded with. Since March, 1963, this project has been pressed for relentlessly, and on 14th July, 1964, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Brooke), who was then the Home Secretary, announced during the course of a debate on Northern Ireland in this House that the proposed dimensions of the dry dock would be 150 ft. by 1,000 ft. The necessary soil surveys and so on were conducted, tenders were asked for, and they revealed a capital cost greater than that which had been expected, and a further period of six months anxiety ensued during which nothing further was heard, and this takes us literally up to today.

It was rumoured that the original estimate of the cost of constructing the dock would be in the region of £4 million, but when the tenders were studied in the spring of this year they revealed a cost considerably in excess of this reported figure. I must admit that I am very surprised indeed that anyone should seriously have estimated that the cost of this dock would be in the region of £4 million, bearing in mind, first, the type of soil on the site selected for construction, and, secondly, the very costly equipment which is essential for any dock, and perhaps when the hon. Gentleman winds up the debate he will be able to give us, if not the actual tender figures, then some approximation, which will be of tremendous help, bearing in mind the figure of £4 million which was so widely bandied about some months ago.

Make no mistake, there is a real need for a large new dry dock in Belfast. It is, however, perfectly correct to say that there is a dry dock of sorts already in existence, the Thompson Dock, but this dock is satisfactory only for smallish repair, reconditioning and conversion jobs—smallish, that is, by current day standards. The Thompson Dock was constructed in the early years of this century, in about 1911. It was built at a time when it was assumed that the trend in shipbuilding design would be for long, narrow ships. The advent of the diesel and turbine engines, with the consequent use of fuel oil in place of coal bunkering, resulted in a revolution in ship design, and in particular in engine layout. The fore and aft principle was superseded, and in consequence the Thompson Dock, which I think is about 1,000 ft. long, is far too narrow. Clearly, therefore, it is important that this new dock should be able to take full account of the anticipated increase in ship dimensions, and also of possible fundamental changes in marine design which might take place consequent on the advent of marine nuclear propulsion on a commercial scale.

Despite the current stop which has been placed upon the development of a nuclear powered merchant ship, there is no reason to assume that the day will not come when marine nuclear propulsion is a viable commercial proposal. That being so, it would surely be shortsighted not to take account of this development when considering the dimensions of the new dry dock, and while there is no reason to assume that the basic engine room design of a nuclear powered ship would necessarily be very different from that of a conventional ship, nevertheless I would be glad if the hon. Gentleman could give us some indication of how much emphasis has been placed on this very likely future development in marine construction when considering the dimensions of the dock. Stripped of all technical jargon, and simplified into layman's language, nuclear power basically requires just a different type of boiler.

Reverting to my main theme, I do not pretend to be competent to discuss the technical requirements which must be embodied in the dock—matters such as flap gates, main pumps, auxiliary pumps, filling valves, keel blocks, heel blocks, bilge blocks, and so on. All these are matters for engineers, but there is one technical point on which I would presume to make a suggestion. Particular attention should be paid to the question of tanker cleaning and gas freeing facilities, bearing in mind that a great proportion of the largest ships afloat are oil tankers and that a proper tanker cleaning installation can handle up to 100 vessels a year, if necessary. When it is remembered that there is a large B.P. oil refinery in Belfast the case for including in the dry dock installation adequate tanker cleaning facilities is self-evident.

The four essential criteria when determining the location of a dry dock are that it should be built, firstly, where there is an adequate depth and expanse of water for manoeuvring ships into and out of the dock; secondly, where suitable ground conditions permit of an economical civil engineering design; thirdly, where there is a suitable sheltered area for the docks, quays, jetties and shops, and, fourthly, where there is an adequate skilled labour force.

On all of these and other points the case for Belfast is overwhelming. Also, it is desirable that there should be a background of ancillary industries to the shipbuilding and engineering industries within a reasonable distance and capable of servicing ships within a reasonable time and at an economic cost. Again, Belfast can offer these facilities. It is often forgotten that shipbuilders require to have dry-docking facilities at hand, as there is always a certain amount of risk of damage in the launching of ships. This risk is not likely to be minimised as ships become larger. In any event, a ship built on a berth requires to be dry-docked at some stage in its construction before going on trials.

When a new ship has to be dry-docked before trials outside the area in which it is built the shipbuilder has considerable extra expenses to bear, for which there is relatively little, if any, return. Two examples are the outworking allowances and expenses due to the fact that the furnishing trades must accompany the ship to dry dock. These are costs which the shipbuilder has to absorb, and the bill is considerable.

For these reasons large dry docks are normally built in shipbuilding areas and close to ship-repairing establishments. In this context it is worth noting that the great P and O liner "Canberra", which was built in Belfast about five years ago, had to be taken to Southampton for dry-docking. Recently Harland and Wolff secured an order for a mammoth tanker of 167,000 tons. What will happen when this and other comparable ships are to be dry-docked? Belfast has not got the facilities at present, until a new dock is built.

Let me illustrate the situation which arises. A super tanker sailing from Belfast to a port somewhere in the south of England—say, Falmouth—at an average speed of 16 knots will take about 30 hours to complete the journey. The cost of fuel, assuming a consumption of about 200 tons for the round trip, would be about £1,600, to which must be added victualling costs, labour charges and sundry expenses. This all adds up to a very sizeable bill, which could be reduced substantially, or virtually eliminated, if there was a local dock available.

The Rochdale Report anticipated a rise in dry cargo imports and exports of 100 per cent. between now and 1980. This may well mean that many additional bulk carriers and large cargo ships will require to be built. If so, Belfast can reasonably expect to build its share of these.

Turning to the very important employment factor, I cannot and will not pretend that a great new dry dock will create a shipbuilding Utopia in Belfast; nor, indeed, is it realistic to regard the dock as a great new source of employment for shipyard workers. Of course it will provide additional employment, but the number of additional jobs may not number more than a few hundred. It must not be forgotten that a new dry dock is absolutely essential for the survival of Belfast yard as a great shipbuilding centre.

The average occupancy of a dry dock is about 65 per cent. or about 240 days a year, and at ten days per vessel, on average, this represents 24 ships a year. There is no doubt that a sizeable dock would command this sort of turnover in Belfast. With a skilled labour force available, and modern facilities provided, Belfast would be able to compete in time and efficiency with any other shipbuilder or ship repairer in the country.

Having enunciated my case in some detail, I should now like to draw the threads together. Firstly, I cannot emphasise too strongly that the advent of supertankers, bulk carriers and large cargo ships make the need for a giant dry dock vital to a major shipbuilding centre such as Belfast. Equally, there is no doubt that super-tankers of even larger dimensions than those presently being constructed will be on the stocks in the coming years. The 200,000 ton tanker may well be commonplace within the next decade. It is, however, pure speculation to try to anticipate how large tankers ultimately will become. The one thing that is certain is that the supertanker is here to stay.

Secondly, if Belfast is to maintain her position in world shipbuilding, a giant dry dock of realistic dimensions is absolutely essential. On this there can surely be no argument. The projected size of 150 ft. by 1,000 ft., capable of docking a tanker of 150,000 gross tons is clearly inadequate. Such a dock would be obsolete within a relatively short time. We must think in terms of a dry dock capable of handling tankers in the region of 200,000 tons dead weight. It is unrealistic to think in terms of building a dock now which would be capable of extension at a later date. A dry dock is not a concertina in cement capable of being easily expanded. The cost of any such extension would be immense. We must build what we require now, not some time hence.

It should be remembered that a dry dock once built lasts for 50 to 100 years and that a very long-term view has to be taken in its planning. Although ship-repairing, like shipbuilding, has known more prosperous days, those dry docks which have become redundant have done so because of age and lack of size to suit modern vessels. The potential users of a large dry dock are increasing in numbers steadily and many of the large ships constructed some years ago are now approaching the major survey periods when greater amounts of work on them are necessary. The existing dry dock facilities in the United Kingdom capable of carrying out work of this nature are inadequate.

Let us think big, and act big. The time for getting on with the construction of this Belfast dry dock is already overdue. This is not a prestige project, but it is a vital shipbuilding necessity for Belfast.

11.06 p.m.

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) has been advancing to the House. I sincerely hope that the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will be in a position to answer the arguments. As hon. Members will well know, for the last five or six years, since I first came to the House, I have repeatedly referred to this project for a new dry dock in Belfast and I have had the backing of senior members of the management of Harland and Wolff in my constituency in making this plea.

As recently as 26th May, in an Adjournment debate dealing with shipping and shipbuilding, I asked for an early decision on the project and regretted that the Minister responsible, as reported in col. 810 of HANSARD, only said that nothing had yet been finalised and therefore he could not give a decision on that occasion. More recently, on 8th July, I asked the Home Secretary whether he could report progress and he gave a little more encouragement when he said that tenders had been received and a statement would be made as soon as possible.

There is no doubt that what my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South has said is true. The facilities at Harland and Wolff lack this new large dry dock. As the Joint Under-Secretary knows, many millions of pounds have been spent by Harland and Wolff in modernising its yard during the last five or six years. New prefabrication and heavy craneage facilities have been provided but there is no doubt that the existing dry docks are not up to the standard of the rest of the facilities in the yard. Harland and Wolff is the largest single shipbuilding yard in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend referred to the Thompson Dock. When that was laid down over 50 years ago, our predecessors showed remarkable foresight. They laid down a dry dock which was capable of taking vessels of 50,000 to 60,000 tons deadweight. That was because the vessels in those days were longer and narrower. There are a small number of vessels of this weight which will be accommodated by this dry dock, because of the difference in shape.

When one thinks of 50 years ago and vessels of that size, one realises the foresight of those responsible when the Thompson Dock was laid down. In the last half century, this dock has served its purpose very well and brought many orders to the shipyards of Harland and Wolff, both in peace and war.

I would therefore ask the Government to look ahead, to have the same foresight in dealing with this problem as our predecessors had, to look not just to the 1970s but right to the end of the century, if they can, and decide whether the estimate originally based on a dock 1,000 ft. long by about 150 feet wide would be adequate by modern standards. We see in the Press every day that ships, particularly bulk carriers and tankers, are getting larger. It was recently stated that the Japanese are expecting to be building vessels of 200,000 tons and probably even more by the 1970s.

A report has been published of a visit which the Minister for shipping made to Japan, in which he refers to the type of docks he saw in Japan. He spoke of one yard which he visited a few months ago—the Nagasaki yard, part of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries—and said that there were six berths in that yard from 25,000 tons to 100,000 tons deadweight capacity. But only four will be used when the new building dock—which is to be 1,150 feet long, 150 feet longer than the one proposed for Belfast, and 185 feet wide or 35 wider than that proposed for Belfast, by 33 feet deep—was completed in May, 1965. This will have a capacity of up to 170,000 tons deadweight and will be served by two 300-ton Goliath cranes and four 80-ton luffing cranes.

For ship repairing, there was a similar sized dock under construction and another of 95,000 tons deadweight capacity. This yard is already building two new docks, both of them larger than that which is the subject of the debate. We must keep level with the facilities provided in Japan. We must think to the future. I am aware, as are all hon. Members, of the difficult conditions which the country is facing. We know the effects of the credit squeeze, and we spoke as recently as the debate yesterday of the effect of high interest rates. I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider this particularly in relation to our shipyards.

However, I ask him not to be deterred by the present financial situation, but to look at the export capacity of such a dry dock. In the last six or seven months, since the Government increased their E.C.G.D. provisions in respect of the ordering of ships in British shipyards, about 400,000 gross tons worth of orders, which would bring in more than £30 million, have been placed from abroad in British shipyards. In addition, there were 80 inquiries accounting for £120 million more. This is being earned by shipyards in orders and inquiries made since the beginning of this year.

A dry dock, rather larger than that which we have been discussing up to this evening, is vital not only to meet the requirements of the British shipbuilding industry but to meet export demands. I regret to say that the Government's approach to the problem does not appear to be very scientific. As recently as yesterday I received an Answer to a Question which I had put down to the Minister. I asked the President of the Board of Trade if he will seek power to enable him to ascertain the number, tonnage and cost of new ships ordered abroad by British shipping companies and oil companies; and if he will regularly publish the information so obtained. These are orders lost to this country. The Minister replied: Powers to collect information about orders placed by British companies exist under the Statistics of Trade Act, 1947. These powers are not used. Much information about orders placed abroad for new ships is already published in the Press."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd August, 1965; Vol. 717, c. 249.] I have since asked what was the effect on the balance of payments of such orders lost to Britain by British shipping companies, and the Minister has replied that he had made no estimate of the effect and that it would be difficult to produce reliable figures because the terms of these orders, including the prices paid, were not usually published. I received that Answer today. These two Answers from the Board of Trade within a day are contradictory. I feel that the Government should adopt a more enlightened attitude to our shipping problems than that reflected in those contradictory Answers.

I have asked in the past that British shipowners should be given the same type of credit facility as foreign owners get when they order in Britain. My hon. Friend referred to the order which the Norwegians placed for a 167,000-ton vessel in Harland and Wolff in the face of competition from Japan and every other country with a shipbuilding industry. The reply which I received a few months ago was that we already gave investment allowances to British shipping companies. That was not a very intelligent reply, because these allowances can be used anywhere in the world and I had asked that British shipping companies should be given the same facilities as foreigners have when they order in Britain. It was not a very good reply. These investment allowances have been increased in the recent Finance Bill but they are still available anywhere in the world.

We see the result today when the Shell Tanker Co., a British oil company, placed four large tanker orders similar to that placed in Belfast—three in Japan and one in Germany. My hon. Friend referred to the Canberra, built in Belfast. The P. and O. Company recently ordered new boats in Japan. I ask the Government to try to balance this type of assistance which they are giving to British ship-owners in investment allowances to build abroad by giving assistance to our shipbuilding yards which will counteract this loss of money to the balance of payments so that we can carry out these orders in Britain. This is the nub of the problem, and this is why I argue that the Government should invest—even if it is £1 million or £2 million more than was originally estimated—in the new dry dock in Belfast so that Belfast may remain not only the largest shipbuilding yard in Britain but one of the leading yards in the world.

As the report on Japan, which I mentioned, pointed out, there are perhaps ways in which our shipyards could be improved. The management could perhaps be more progressive, just as I have said the Government could be more progressive in their approach to shipping; they could employ more graduate engineers in middle management. They could take more trouble to put their point of view across to the trade unions, particularly to the chaps on the workshop floors. Equally, the trade unions could be more progressive in their approach to demarcation and similar problems.

Having said that, I must ask the Government to consider why the trade unions or management should be more progressive unless the Government are prepared to give a lead and show a progressive attitude to British shipbuilders and show that they are prepared to support them. The people in the industry, all sides of it, must see that the Government accept that there is a future for the British shipyards. Only when the Government show a more progressive attitude can we expect management and trade unions to do likewise. Tonight the Government have an opportunity to show their sincerity and intention of assisting British shipbuilding.

People might ask, "Why should the Government put this money into the provision of a new dry dock? Should not Harland and Wolff put its own money into such a project"? The answer is that Harland and Wolff leases the dry dock from the Harbour Commissioners. This is, therefore, a question of public investment. It is, in turn, the duty of the Government to put public money into this investment so that it may be rented to Harland and Wolff for a reasonable return. The initiative rests with the Government.

For these reasons, not only do I join with my hon. Friend in hoping that the Government will help to ensure that Harland and Wolff survives, but I urge the Government to get on with the construction of a really large dry dock so that Harland and Wolff may prosper, flourish and expand. I hope, when the Government are making up their mind on this issue, that they will remember that only by showing confidence in Belfast—and by building this dry dock—can one of our oldest and most important industries survive, remembering that, as a maritime nation, it is on the prosperity of our shipyards that much of our wealth and earnings, visible and invisible, depend.

11.18 p.m.

Mr. R. Chichester-Clark (Londonderry)

I will not speak for more than a few moments because the subject has already been comprehensively covered by my hon. Friends. I do not know why my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) said that he was not technically qualified to pronounce on the technical aspects of this issue. He demonstrated his technical knowledge by his words and his speech, if not uncontroversial, was convincing, cogent and persuasive. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) also made a convincing speech and, as a result of his activities in the House for many years, his concern for the people of Belfast is appreciated on both sides of the House.

My hon. Friends were saying to the Government, "Will you for goodness sake get on with it or, if you do not intend to get on with it, let us know that you do not so intend?" As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East pointed out, the dry dock proposal has been dragging for a long time; since approval for it was given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Brooke) when he was Home Secretary in July, 1964. As I remember the sequence of events, on 1st August, 1963, during a debate on Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend announced that financial assistance would be made available for the provision of a new dry dock to be substantially larger than the new Thompson Dock and capable of enlargement in future years to be able to take the largest ships.

Following that statement, the Belfast Harbour Commissioners engaged a firm of consultants to make a detailed survey. The results of that survey were available last summer and it was after that that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead, when in office, announced that the Harbour Commissioners could proceed to call for tenders for the construction of a dry dock capable of taking vessels of about 150,000 tons deadweight; that is, a dock measuring 150 ft. by 1,000 ft. That was the sequence of events.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South asked about the tenders, and said that he did not expect to be told the size of those tenders. We do not expect that, either. What we have heard—and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us something about it—is that the lowest tender did disclose an unexpectedly high figure, and that, because of it, a great many further discussions have been taking place upon the financing of the project. We would like to know a bit more about the tenders. What has happened to them? When did they come in? How long have the discussions been going on, and how long will they last? It may be that the Under-Secretary of State will not be able to give us a definite conclusion as to the future of the project, but my hon. Friends have asked a number of questions on which we want straight answers. In my view, we are more likely to get them from the hon. Gentleman than we are from the other 108 or 109 Ministers in the Government. If I have the number wrong, who can blame me? There are so many. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that we believe that he takes a very sincere interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland, and if he is fighting an uphill battle in the Government, he is doing it as well as possible, and we will give him all the support that we can.

However, we should like some answers. Can we know, for instance, whether the present financial stringencies will interfere in any way with the project? I cannot tell, but I imagine not. I can only judge from a reply given to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) yesterday by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. My hon. Friend asked the Chancellor whether he would exempt Northern Ireland from the restrictions on public capital expenditure and from the operations of the proposed licensing control, and the reply, which seemed to be reasonably favourable, said: I would think it right that Northern Ireland should be exempt to the same extent as the development districts in Great Britain, and I understand that the Northern Ireland Government whose responsibility this is share this view."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd August, 1965; Vol. 717, c. 246.] He went on to talk about the licensing control. I imagine that the dry-dock project would be embraced in these exemptions, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give us some clear answer on that.

It is perfectly clear, as my hon. Friends have said already, that the recent order which Harland and Wolff have won for the 167,000 ton tanker demonstrates that the firm has the ability to attract orders for the largest ships, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree in every way with that. I am also sure that he would agree that the firm is capable of making a tremendous contribution to our balance of payments problem. But we must ask the Government tonight if they believe beyond all question that a new dock capable of handling such ships and bigger, therefore, than 150 ft. by 1,000 ft. should be provided, and do they believe that it should be done without further delay? Have they made up their mind? If not, will they get on with it, because at some time this dilly-dallying has to stop.

I appreciate that the Under-Secretary may not be able to give us all the answers that we would like to hear tonight, but may I ask him to go back to his Department and, if necessary, to other Departments and chase someone until he gets the green light to go ahead with the matter, or until someone puts him in the position of being able to say on this project whether it is "stop" or "go".

11.24 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Thomas)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) for that part of his speech which was a compliment to me. As for his side reference to my colleagues, although I am not Irish, I know an Irish compliment when I receive one. I am always grateful for a kind word, and I am deeply grateful in this case.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder), who opened the debate in a most informed speech, if I may say so, expressed some remarks at the beginning about the Ulster Labour Party, to which I will just refer in passing. He would not expect me to share in his views, because the members of the Ulster Labour Party, particularly their representatives in Stormont, are personal friends of mine, and I know that they play an honourable part in the life of Ulster. As happens on all great issues, there will be controversy between parties. I will only say that I understand the impatience of my friends over there—an impatience that has been reflected in this debate.

It must be a great comfort to those who love Ulster and who have its best interests at heart that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government of Northern Ireland, whose responsibility it is, have decided to exempt Northern Ireland from the restrictions on public capital expenditure and from the operations of the proposed licensing control, so that it will be treated as other development districts are treated. My right hon. Friend gave a categorical assurance to the House and to the country that we intend to be selective in the restrictions in order that the development districts, where assistance is needed most, shall not suffer unduly.

We have tonight had our attention drawn to the expected increase in ship dimensions. The hon. Member for Belfast, South asked me what consideration we have given to the provision of nuclear-powered ships. He maintained that the new dry dock is essential for the survival of the Belfast docks as a viable unit in our modern life. But he went on to ask—as did his hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East, who has played such a gallant part on behalf of Belfast, and the hon. Member for Londonderry—for a giant dry dock. From time to time, they have all made the House consider this question. They have all asked for a dry dock larger than that which the previous Administration decided but a year ago was adequate to meet the demands of Belfast.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South, seemed disturbed at the thought that if the decision taken a year ago to establish a dock of 150 ft. by 1,000 ft. was put into effect, any possible expansion would prove very costly. He reminded us, in the colourful language that Irishmen like to use, that a dry dock is not a concertina in cement, and that we must build now what will be required. He and his hon. Friends asked us to look ahead, to think big and to act big.

I realise that the new Belfast dry dock is a major item in the planning for a prosperous Ulster in the days to come. I understand the anxiety that we should be able to compete with the great shipyards of Japan. The hon. Gentleman referred in particular to the Nagasaki yards, which my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Board of Trade, visited in fairly recent months.

As the House was informed by the then Home Secretary on 14th July, 1964, the last Administration saw no reason why the Belfast Harbour Commissioners should not be authorised to invite tenders for the construction of a dry dock of 150 feet by 1,000 feet capable of accommodating vessels of 150,000 tons deadweight. The House was also informed then that the final decision to begin construction of a dock of this size could not be taken until the tenders were received, at which stage questions of size in relation to cost and other financial aspects would need to be looked at afresh.

As the hon. Member for Londonderry has reminded us, these tenders have now been received and I confirm to the House that they show a substantial increase over the cost as it was estimated last year. There is, of course, an additional factor to be taken into account and it is the factor to which attention has been given. The ever-increasing size of ships now under construction or projected gives good ground for the argument of the hon. Gentleman that the size of the dock ought to be greater, that it should be 160 feet by 1,100 feet rather than 150 feet by 1,000 feet. If this new, larger dry dock were given the go-ahead it would be capable of taking vessels of 160,000–170,000 tons deadweight, which would be equal to the Nagasaki shipyard.

To provide a dock of this size will, of course, mean that we shall have to add to the estimates which were available to the previous Administration. Against this sharp rise in costs in a year—not due to the Government, mind, but due to the changed estimate of the size of the ships—the local interests in Belfast have agreed to step up their contributions.

I am happy to be able to tell the House and to give the good news to Ulster that the Government for our part see no reason why the Northern Ireland Government should not now provide such measure of financial assistance as will enable the construction of the larger dock for which hon. Members have asked tonight—that is, of a size to accommodate vessels of up to 170,000 tons deadweight—to proceed on the basis of the present tenders.

I was asked about the financial aspects of the tenders. I am sorry that I cannot give more details. I know, however, that what I have said will be more than welcome news in Ulster and the important thing is that the green light is now showing to go ahead with what will be the largest dry dock in Europe and one of the largest in the world. This is looking ahead. This is thinking in a big way. This is acknowledging that a dock which has played a great and honourable part in peace and war will be able to play an equally great part in future in the industrial and commercial life of the country. Of course, it will, we hope, make a major contribution to the balance of payments.

The House will not expect me to go into the proposed financial arrangements whereby the cost of this very large dock will be shared among the Northern Ireland Government, the Belfast Harbour Commissioners and Harland and Wolff, who will be the main users. I join with hon. Members opposite in paying tribute to Harland and Wolff for the honourable part it has played in our shipbuilding and ship repairing.

The Government's views have been conveyed to the Northern Ireland Government on whom responsibility will rest for concluding the financial agreement. I am sure that the House will appreciate that in reaching this decision, which is a far-reaching decision of great consequence to Ulster, the Government cannot be sure that the venture will prove to be an unqualified economic success. The hon. Gentleman was optimistic. We must all be hopeful, but this is an act of faith in the future of Ulster. We cast our bread upon the waters. I do not want to weary the House with too many scriptural quotations, but I will say that I hope that the act of faith will be justified by works.

It is our confident hope that the provision of this very large dry-dock, equal to the largest in the world, will not only make a substantial contribution to the prosperity of Northern Ireland, but also add appreciably to the strength and efficiency of the shipbuilding and ship repairing of the United Kingdom as a whole.

I am very glad that it has been my good fortune to give this good news to the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. McMaster

This is good news for all in Belfast. Can the hon. Gentleman say when work is expected to commence?

Mr. Thomas

It depends on the pace at which events now move in Ulster. The ball is now in Ulster's court. I do not want to mix my metaphors too much and perhaps I had better say that the ship is now in Belfast's harbour. It is now a matter between the Commissioners, the Northern Ireland Government and Harland and Wolff. It remains for us only to express the hope that this new venture will mean a new era of greater prosperity for that part of the United Kingdom which has served mightily in the build up of the United Kingdom.

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