HC Deb 04 May 1972 vol 836 cc579-82
18. Mr. Duffy

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he is now in a position to make a statement on further Government support for Harland and Wolff's shipyard in Belfast.

Mr. Whitelaw

The Northern Ireland Government undertook in July, 1971, to assist Harland and Wolff Limited by providing a grant to clear losses on existing fixed-price contracts. The assessor appointed for this purpose has calculated the amount required as just over £14 million. This figure is accepted by the Government and the company and will be paid this year.

The new management of the company have put forward a plan for reorganisation and expansion aimed at increasing the present steel throughput from 120,000 tons to 200,000 tons a year. This is a major project. It will place the yard on a par with other major world shipyards for the construction of very large tankers and enable its potential profitability to be improved. It will also provide a further 4,000 jobs.

The estimated total capital cost is nearly £35 million, including a margin for contingencies. The company will provide a substantial proportion of this from its own resources. The Government agree that this scheme should go ahead and will be discussing with the company the terms and conditions on which assistance to enable it to do so will be given.

I see this project as providing a major economic boost to Northern Ireland and I am confident that it will assist in the general revival of the whole economy.

Mr. Duffy

I applaud the right hon. Gentleman for his most generous and constructive proposals, which will be warmly welcomed on all sides. May I ask, first, when the right hon. Gentleman expects that Harland and Wolff will achieve viability? Second, what equity and control will the Government receive for this vast injection of public funds? Third, will the right hon. Gentleman take advantage of this expansion to bring about a better balanced work force as between the two communities? Finally, will he impress upon the shop stewards at Harland and Wolff when he next meets them that in return for this generosity on the part of the British taxpayer they should show a more positive response and give wholehearted support to the right hon. Gentleman's policies?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the last point first, I hope very soon to visit Harland and Wolff and, naturally, I should like to have discussions with those concerned while there. The chairman and managing director of the company have given me firm assurances that they will operate a balanced work force policy, and I know that they intend to do so. I shall give them every encouragement to that end. On the other two points, much of this is bound up in the discussions which will be inevitable about the terms and conditions of this arrangement with the company.

Mr. Pounder

I thank my right hon. Friend for his very generous announcement, which will be particularly welcomed by everyone who works in or is associated with Harland and Wolff in Belfast. I have two questions arising out of my right hon. Friend's remarks. First, do I understand that all of this £14 million is in the sense of capital to write off existing and anticipated losses and, secondly, that a capital project element with a total cost of £35 million is something that will be tackled as a separate venture at a future date?

Mr. Whitelaw

My hon. Friend is right on both those points.

Mr. Rose

I warmly welcome the right hon. Gentleman's announcement, but will he bear in mind that the overriding need in Northern Ireland is to overcome the regional imbalance between the areas west of the Bann and the Belfast area, where development has already taken place? When defining a balanced work force, will he make it quite clear that when British taxpayers' money is involved there must be no discrimination in the allocation of employment?

Mr. Whitelaw

When I was in Londonderry recently I made it perfectly clear that I wished to speed up as fast as possible the second river crossing of the Foyle, which is of great importance for Londonderry. As to the obtaining of more employment, no one tries harder than I. I can only say to all those concerned that the greatest inhibiting factor is, of course, violence, because violence makes it very difficult to attract new investment to the area. That must be said to all concerned. I note the hon. Gentleman's last point. I hope that the assurances of Lord Rochdale and Mr. Hoppe, who have both taken on the task with great public spirit, and who are doing a magnificent job, will be given every possible support.

Mr. Kilfedder

My right hon. Friend mentioned the need for a balanced work force. Why does he not extend the powers of the Commissioner for Complaints so that he can examine accusations of discrimination in all bodies which are grant-aided from public funds, including Roman Catholic voluntary schools, in which no investigation can take place, when in nearly every case employees and teachers belong to that religious persuasion?

Mr. Whitelaw

That is a different point. I hope that the House will accept that Lord Rochdale and Mr. Hoppe certainly are seeking to achieve a balanced work force at the firm in question.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

We support the policy the right hon. Gentleman has just announced, as part of the necessary encouragement of economic development in Northern Ireland, but is he aware that there are so many questions on coordination, financial accountability, and the whole matter of the relationship with shipbuilding in this country, that there is an urgent need for a debate, on this and the allied matter, because question and answer alone are not sufficient?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what the hon. Gentleman said. Fortunately, I have been translated from areas in which debates were a matter for me.