HC Deb 25 March 1965 vol 709 cc1136-41

11.24 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu)

You may not perhaps remember, Mr. Speaker, that an hour or two ago we were discussing some matters affecting Northern Ireland, and a number of points—

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

On a point of order. Having been here since the early afternoon yesterday—and as you will have heard from what the Under-Secretary has been saying, we appear now to be returning to the order of topics which we were discussing on the Consolidated Fund Bill—would I be correct in assuming that the debate will now follow its course and that hon. Members who have not been here all night will bide their time and come in later, after these topics have been discussed?

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps I should say something about this, lest the House be under an illusion. Purely for the convenience of the House, as far as it can be met—and for Ministers, too, who wish to seek to reply to sections of discussions—the Chair works out a sort of list of what it expects the angle at which its eye will fall will be. It is not safe to make any assumption as to where the eye will fall at any time, but I think that we were doing a nautical exercise in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mallalieu

Not only a nautical exercise in Northern Ireland, but all kinds of matters in defence which affect the question of employment, Mr. Speaker. I think that it would be for the convenience of the House if I deal with the points which have already been put. If any hon. Members still wish to address the House on constituency matters I will take the most careful note of them.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster), like the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark), made some reference to Short Bros. and Harland. As most hon. Members know, unless something is done by way of new work for this firm there will be a workload decline at the end of the year. I would like to say straight away that, whatever happens, there will be a considerable base-load of aircraft and guided weapons work still going on in the firm.

There is the production of Skyvans and some production still of Belfasts. So the company will, without any doubt, be able to honour its commitments. There is not the slightest danger that customers will be left high and dry without the industrial backing by way of the maintenance which they require. In the meantime, there is urgent need for new work for this firm, as has been pointed out many times before. The Ministry of Aviation is seeing whether any further aircraft contracts can be placed. Various Government Departments are now seeing what sub-contracting work could be put to the firm and, as the House knows, we are now preparing to send over a team of consultants to see what possible variations and expansions in the firm can take place into new projects.

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the critical time is not within the next 12 months, but 18 months from now, bearing in mind the work on the HS681? That is the period about which we are particularly worried because the other diversification work, of machine tools, and so on, could not possibly be done in time?

Mr. Mallalieu

My right hon. Friend the First Secretary and Secretary of State for Economic Affairs will visit the firm next week and find out exactly what the position is at first hand.

The position at Harland and Wolff is that the firm is fairly busy now, doing about average of the rest of the United Kingdom. I was asked what its prospects were for the future. At present, in terms of defence contracts, we have the assault ship "Fearless", which, perhaps, will be completed early in 1966, there is the type 12 Leander, which is building for the New Zealand Government, and we have the fleet replenishment ship "Regent", building now. If and when tenders are put out for either the new carrier CVAO1 or further frigates Harland and Wolff will be able to tender for them. By our experience of the company, and based on its performance in the past, it will have a good chance of getting them. They are first-class shipbuilders.

The burden of the speech of the hon. Member for Londonderry was his fear about the possible removal of the joint anti-submarine school. I can only repeat what I said in the debate on the Navy Estimates; that there are technical arguments still going on about the rights and wrongs of the proposal to move the school. No decision has yet been made on these technical arguments in the Ministry of Defence and the final decision will not be taken on those technical points alone. The social and economic aspects must be considered and very close consultations will be had with the Home Secretary, who has vested in him some responsibility for Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Ballakelly—that will not be affected at all. There will be some reduction if the J.A.S.S. does move, but that will be made good by a further squadron of Sunderlands and the level of activity at Ballykelly will remain fairly unchanged.

Reference was made to Aldergrove, which comes under R.A.F. Maintenance Command. Here, the picture in terms of employment is very much brighter. As the hon. Gentleman may know, since 1963 the numbers employed there have gone up from about 600 or so to just over 1,000—I think that the exact figure is 1,045. I am advised that this increase is likely to continue in the coming year.

I thought that the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), amusing and witty as it was in parts, was also a very serious one. He made some extremely valid points. The Service Departments, will, of course, if they possibly can, put work to Northern Ireland, but, as everyone knows, that is not a very secure base for an economy.

I hope, and I have been hoping for years, that private enterprise, which has not taken advantage of the inducements that have been offered by the Northern Ireland Government to set up factories there, will show itself more enterprising than it has in the past. But I am also absolutely certain that one of the solutions of the problems, not only of Northern Ireland but of development areas everywhere, will be these advance factories—State enterprise coming in to make new products.

I simply do not believe that in Northern Ireland there is not the skill, managerial and otherwise, waiting to be used, and which could go into these factories to make such things as machine tools, which we have at present to get from abroad—

Mr. Chichester-Clark

I cannot go along with the hon. Gentleman in his remarks about private enterprise not having taken advantage of the inducements offered by the Northern Ireland Government. I think that were he to consult his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, he might find that the Home Secretary was more in agreement with me than with him.

Mr. Mallalieu

Yes—I should correct myself and say that private enterprise has not come forward sufficiently to cut down the usual percentage of unemployment. I remember looking at these various areas where there was a high degree of unemployment: first, in 1945, before a Bill that was put through by the then Labour Government; later, in 1950, when another Bill came through; and then early in 1960. The unemployment percentages had hardly altered. They were still un- bearably high, in spite of all the inducements offered. However, I hope that there will be no sort of dogma, no doctrinnaire approach to this State-enterprise idea. We are not dealing with dogmas at all, but with a very human problem—the problem of getting people some work.

I think that I have, in the most broad and general terms—after this long interruption—dealt with the main points raised during the debate, but I can give one further assurance to Northern Ireland. It is that we on this side feel—and I think that we share this feeling with hon. Members opposite—that if men and women, regardless of religious or political opinions, are able and willing to work, it is an absolute scandal if work cannot be found for them to do. That is something that we on this side are pledged to remedy as best we can.

Mr. McMaster

Before the Minister sits down, I should like him to deal with one short point that I made, as it is of particular concern to many of my colleagues. That is the point about the R.E.M.E. workshops at Kinegar and the naval air station at Sydenham. The R.E.M.E. workshop, in particular, is under serious threat of redundancy.

Mr. Mallalieu

It is certain that R.E.M.E. workshops throughout the United Kingdom are running down somewhat, because it is found much more economic to buy new vehicles rather than try to maintain older vehicles beyond their economic life. That is happening. not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the United Kingdom.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing (Hendon, North)

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, would he enlarge a little? I listened to the debate on the Science and Technology Bill, and I think that this is the first we have heard of positive steps to build advance factories for the production of machine tools anywhere, and particularly in Northern Ireland. Is that a Government announcement?

Mr. Mallalieu

I am sorry—that was an example of the kind of thing that could be done, not only by this Government but by the Government of Northern Ireland. The electronic field has openings, and machine tools most certainly have, and those were the kind of things I was quoting as examples of what could be built with the engineering skill of Northern Ireland.