HC Deb 06 May 1969 vol 783 cc274-8

3.55 p.m.

The Minister of Technology (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.

The Government have now had an opportunity to consider the request made by Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to the S.I.B. for further support and the recommendation of the S.I.B. on this request.

When the Government accepted the Geddes Committee recommendations for the reorganisation of the shipbuilding industry, and Parliament passed the Shipbuilding Industry Act, it was always intended that the objective was to create viable shipbuilding groups able to compete profitably for orders at home and abroad. The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders were established with the same objective.

We have always recognised that the inherited difficulties due to bad management, poor industrial relations, absenteeism, low productivity and inadequate capital investment in the past would pose serious problems in establishing U.C.S. on a viable basis. However, we have never accepted and do not now accept that there is a "safety net" under Upper Clyde Shipbuilders or any other shipbuilding group which entitles those working in these groups to expect that the Government will continue to underwrite losses irrespective of the circumstances.

The Government are, therefore, prepared to make a measure of further help available on condition that such help achieves the objectives which I have described.

I am, therefore, going to Glasgow tomorrow to discuss the situation with the management, the unions and those others most concerned.

In the last few days there has been a spate of publicly expressed demand for Government money. This will be an extremely difficult operation upon which the livelihood of so many thousands of people, and the reputation of the shipbuilding industry in Scotland and the community interests of the Clyde depends, and I hope that it can be conducted in reasonable privacy.

After completing these talks I shall be in a better position to inform the House on the situation as it develops.

Mr. Gordon Campbell

The House will be glad that the Minister has been able to make his promised statement so early and to know that he is making an urgent visit to Glasgow tomorrow. Will he agree that a special, concerted effort is needed by all concerned, including all those who work in this industry on the Upper Clyde? Will he also keep the House informed of developments?

Mr. Benn

Yes, I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. The solution of this problem lies with the Clyde, though the Government may be able to play some part in it. I will, of course, keep the House informed, but I would rather go there myself and have these talks before making a fuller and further statement.

Mr. Small

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that I have come straight from the Clyde having been there all day yesterday, and am grateful for the statement that he will be making a personal visit there? There is tremendous dismay in the yards in the matter of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilding, which has international significance in that contractors abroad also are expressing doubts about the future. I hope that the Minister has a successful day on the Clyde and goes slightly beyond the matter of bridging finance.

Mr. Benn

I am well aware of what my hon. Friend has said. He accompanied me on my last visit. This will be my third visit in three months, and it is an indication of the seriousness with which we ourselves take the position.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Will the Minister assure us that, when the discussions are completed and when the objectives on which aid is dependent are laid down, every person in the yard will know clearly what are the objectives and targets which have to be met? Will the Minister also say whether, as well as meeting representatives of the workpeople, he will bring into the discussion the 40,000 men who, through sub-contracts, depend indirectly on shipbuilding for their livelihood?

Mr. Benn

On my last visit I went to each yard and addressed meetings of the workers with the object of explaining to everybody that they have a part to play in the salvation of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.

I referred in my statement to other interested parties and I had in mind the component manufacturers and others.

Mr. Rankin

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I accept warmly every part of the statement which he has just made? Does he realise that in Clydeside we do not want safety nets? We have the men, we have the jobs, but our need is that of money. The shipbuilding body which has been set up is less than a year old. It needs help, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will see that help is forthcoming in sufficient quantity to enable it to do the job.

Mr. Benn

The Government recognised, and so did the House when it voted the money for the Shipbuilding Industry Board, that some public support was necessary to reorganise the industry into viable groups. But the solution of the problem does not lie merely or even principally in the readiness of my colleagues and I—and the Chancellor of the Exchequer—to release money. It is a problem which has psychological and other overtones that have to be taken into account, and I am anxious to discuss them with the people on the spot who face this very difficult position.

Miss Harvie Anderson

While recognising that it would be unwise to go into this matter much further today, would the Minister accept that, inevitably, there is anxiety about his use of the words "a measure of support"? The important thing for Clydeside is that the measure should produce a viable unit and, by so doing, restore confidence not only in Clyde shipbuilding but in shipbuilding throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Confidence in shipbuilding throughout the United Kingdom is high, and our order book now is very nearly the highest on record, if not the highest. A great deal is attributable to the reorganisation carried through by the Government.

I am aware of the anxiety, and it is for that reason that I am to go again to the Upper Clyde myself. But the ultimate success of the operation, including the maintenance of employment, depends upon the Upper Clyde being able to discharge orders profitably and not to be dependent upon Government support.

Mr. Albu

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that this situation, which has been going on for a long time, might have been very much better if, when the previous Conservative Administration promised to place the "Queen Elizabeth" with John Brown, they had insisted on an improvement in the management of that yard?

Mr. Benn

There is much past history. But I do not believe that, when we have a difficult job to do, it would serve much of a purpose to go back over past history, about which inevitably there would be a variety of explanations.

Mr. Wingfield Digby

While recognising the special problems of the Upper Clyde, will the right hon. Gentleman do nothing to prejudice S.I.B. help to other British shipbuilders and, in particular, put no pressure on the viable yards of the Lower Clyde to join the less viable yards of the Upper Clyde?

Mr. Benn

No one knows better than the hon. Gentleman the rôle of the S.I.B. in this matter. It is led by a distinguished industrialist, with trade unionists and other industrialists on the Board. My position is that I am called upon statutorily to approve its recommendations. All the considerations raised in the hon. Gentleman's question are very much in the minds of the Board and myself.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. A point of order. Mr. Thorpe.