HC Deb 21 May 1969 vol 784 cc403-8
1. Mr. Gordon Campbell

asked the Minister of Technology if he will make a statement on the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde.

5. Mr. Edward M. Taylor

asked the Minister of Technology whether he has now concluded his discussions with the Shipbuilding Industry Board on the position of the Clyde shipyards.

8. Mr. Rankin

asked the Minister of Technology if he will make a statement on the future of the shipbuilding industry on the Upper Clydeside.

22. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Minister of Technology if he will now make a statement on the future of the Upper Clyde shipyards.

40. Mr. Shinwell

asked the Minister of Technology what progress has been made in solving the problems that face the shipbuilding industry on the upper Clyde; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of Technology (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

The Shipbuilding Industry Board is awaiting proposals from Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Limited which are expected within the next few days.

Mr. Campbell

When will the Minister be able to make a statement? Will it be before the recess? In view of the Government's involvement in this consortium, is the right hon. Gentleman treating as urgent and important the need for a healthy and viable industry on the Clyde, and does he recognise that this is of great concern in Scotland?

Mr. Benn

As far as the latter part of the question is concerned, certainly. This is what the operation is all about. As regards the date of a further statement, I am to some extent in the hands of the U.C.S. and the S.I.B. which will want to look at it, but I shall keep the House as fully informed as I can.

Mr. Taylor

Is the Minister aware that workers on Clydeside are ready and willing to work themselves out of this crisis so long as they know the size and extent of the problem? Will he therefore ensure that when the plan comes forward the men are told the precise targets which have to be met if the yards are to be saved, so that they can meet them?

Mr. Benn

I am aware of the interest and concern of the people working in Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. It is a matter not just of telling the workers but of involving all those concerned in the problem of tackling this very serious situation.

Mr. Rankin

Will my right hon. Friend keep before him the fact that on Clydeside today there are plenty of men to build ships, and ships are waiting there to be built? Will he see to it that he does everything he can to assist in keeping those two together?

Mr. Benn

I am well aware of that point, but my hon. Friend will recognise that the operation of U.C.S., like every other company, is to build ships in such a way as to provide a return. When I look at the money which has been made available by loans, and also money in grants, coupled with the £.19½ million in loans which was made available to Cunard for building the QE2, and £1 million a year on R.E.P. made available to U.C.S., I have no doubt that the Government have indicated their interest in this matter in a substantial way.

Mr. Hamilton

Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that satisfactory guarantees have been given, or are likely to be given by U.C.S. as to productivity, a reduction of unofficial strikes, a reduction of absenteeism, and improvement in management before public money is involved?

Mr. Benn

My most recent visits have been very much concerned with that, particularly in view of the current losses confronting the group. This, I think, is now understood, and the responsibility rests upon management and the trade unions on the Clyde to tackle it in that spirit.

Mr. Shinwell

Is there not a danger that unless the S.I.B. makes recommendations of a substantial character very soon, some elements in the consortium may decide to hive off and associate themselves with other sections of the industry, and thus create a great deal of unemployment in the remaining shipyards of the consortium?

Mr. Benn

My right hon. Friend is not quite right about a consortium. It is a group, and we are dealing with the group as a group. My right hon. Friend is perfectly right in saying that time is of the essence here, and that is why the S.I.B. is anxious to receive the plans from U.C.S.

Mr. Galbraith

While fully agreeing with the Minister that eventually this organisation must make a profit, may I ask whether he thinks that as he was responsible for the shotgun marriage which created the U.C.S. he has some responsibility to see that there is a sufficient dowry to make the marriage workable?

Mr. Benn

I was responsible under the Shipbuilding Industry Act for approving the recommendation of the S.I.B. in this respect, but it is manifestly clear to anyone who looks at it that without the Board or the Shipbuilding Industry Act or the Industrial Expansion Act which provided money for the 0E2 there would have been a major tragedy on the Clyde much earlier than now, and it should be seen in that way. We have made substantial help available, but we have to look at this in terms of future prospects for the group.

Mr. Small

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply and I know that he monitors the Upper Clyde group. Does he recognise that it is an integral part of the British shipbuilding industry and that some of the historical factors should be taken into account in any allocation or recommendation of the S.I.B.?

Mr. Benn

The House recognises, and did so when the Act was passed, that the inheritance, not just on the Upper Clyde but in the whole shipbuilding industry, was one of the problems which had to be overcome. It required a new type of management, a new approach by management and a new sense of responsibility by the workers involved. It would be a great mistake, because of the problems of this group, to forget the successes of other shipbuilding groups, all of which of course, have received, or are eligible to receive, substantial Government help.

23. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Minister of Technology how much public money has been invested in the Clyde shipyards since October 1964; and how much was so invested in the comparable period prior to that date.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology (Mr. Gerald Fowler)

The Government own 875,000 £1 shares in Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Ltd., and £940,000 of 7 per cent. loan stock in its Fairfield subsidiary. The Shipbuilding Industry Board has made grants of over £3 million and loans of over £4½ million to the same company. All these investments have been made since October, 1964. These sums do not take account of any payments to Clyde shipyards under the Local Employment or Industrial Development Acts.

Mr. Hamilton

How much of this was due to the Industrial Expansion Act, 1968, which the Opposition are pledged to repeal? Can my hon. Friend say what these figures represent in terms of total grants and loans given to all shipyards in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Fowler

In answer to the last part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, I must ask him to await the annual report of the Shipbuilding Industry Board. It is now familiar to the House that we cannot easily reveal the details of loans and grants made by the board in advance of its report.

The answer to the first part, about the Industrial Expansion Act, is that we should have been unable to give as much help to the industry as we are giving if we had not secured that Act, with the consent of Parliament.

Mrs. Ewing

What is the rate of interest on the loan and what terms of repayment have been arranged? How do these figures compare with loans made prior to 1964?

Mr. Fowler

I cannot, without notice, reveal the rate of interest on the loan. In any event, the details are very much a confidential matter in the transaction between the Shipbuilding Industry Board and the company concerned. I hope that hon. Members will not press me to give details in this matter—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]—because if they did they would only make a difficult matter even more difficult.

Mr. David Price

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that it has been the practice of the S.I.B., as we saw in its first annual report, to give just the details for which the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) has asked? Are we not entitled to assume that in its next annual report the S.I.B. will continue with what most of us regard as the admirable practice begun in its first report, of giving the very details for which the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) has asked?

Mr. Fowler

I appreciate that, but the hon. Gentleman must accept that there is a crucial difference between awaiting the annual report of the S.I.B., in which it accounts for its actions over the past year, and revealing in public the details of commercial transactions as they take place. To do that would make the position of a particular company in the commercial sense very difficult indeed, and that is why I cannot reveal the details.

25. Mr. Ridley

asked the Minister of Technology if he will seek to make arrangements whereby the shipyards constituting Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Limited can withdraw from that consortium.

Mr. Benn

Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Limited is not a consortium but itself owns all but one of the shipbuilding yards in the area. The question of these yards withdrawing from the company does not arise. In the case of the other yard, Upper Clyde Shipbuilders has a majority holding in the company owning it and the relationship between the companies is a matter for them.

Mr. Ridley

Does the right hon. Gentleman now rue the day when he pushed all these companies together? Has he yet realised that it is sometimes better to leave things to the free play of the market?

Mr. Benn

Had we left the shipbuilding industry to the free play of the market we should not now have a British shipbuilding industry with more orders on its books than there have been at any time. The hon. Gentleman is, therefore, totally wrong. If he is talking about help to the shipbuilding industry, I hope that he will also look at the other groups which have received help or are eligible for it and which, as a result, have been able to create for themselves a viable position which will benefit our balance of payments, create employment and provide a new lease of life for the shipbuilding industry.

Mr. Rankin

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if it had not been for the direct intervention of the Labour Government in 1964 there would, other than at Yarrows, have been no shipbuilding at all on Upper Clydeside?

Mr. Benn

I am very well aware of the problems facing the Upper Clyde. To give another example, if the Government had not taken action in respect of Furness in the North-East of England there would have been major unemployment, and a wonderfully equipped yard would have gone out of the industry at a time when its facilities were needed.