HC Deb 22 March 1976 vol 908 cc105-56

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John Ellis.]

7.13 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

I want to begin with what may be the only compliment that I can pay. Perhaps it will be the only compliment of the entire debate. It is to express our appreciation of the care taken by the Service Ministers to ensure that we were in early possession of the news of their decision and, secondly, to express our appreciation of their joint visit to Northern Ireland to meet in person those affected by that decision. Although they went as bearers of said tidings, at least they displayed humanity in their treatment of those for whom the news meant gloom and disaster.

I should like to remind the House that we on the Ulster Bench were elected on a pledge to support firm measures to control the rise in public expenditure, a rise which we believed and still believe to be the major cause of inflation. We stand by that pledge. In the case that we present this evening, we do not in any way conflict with that stated position. Nor shall we put ourselves in the false position of demanding economies in general and expenditure in particular, for our case rests on far more solid ground. We hope to show and establish that, far from effecting savings, the proposed withdrawal of these defence tasks from Northern Ireland will result in greater total Government outlay.

I do not know how deeply the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his ministerial team have been involved in these decisions. Whatever the outcome, a measure of responsibility rests upon them to help to find positions for those displaced by the closures. They can be assured of our co-operation in this matter, but more realism will be required than has so far been shown by the Stormont Departments.

I should like to give an example. On Saturday I approached the head of a firm, Hugh Montgomery and Son of Glengormly, to ask whether he might be prepared to offer jobs to men from Adergrove and Antrim whose skills would be useful in his expanding business, which he is in process of linking to a continental consortium. His reply was "Yes", but, said he "Read this" He handed me a letter conveying the news of the rejection of a planning appeal, which may result in the dismissal of his existing staff and has certainly killed stone dead all prospect of proceeding with his proposed expansion.

All that he was asking for was for his firm to be allowed to stay where it is, as, indeed, other neighbouring concerns have been allowed to remain where they started their business. However, because some obscure planner drew a line on a map some nine years ago, my constituent is expected to uproot this flourishing business of his and to move it a matter of a mere 300 yards along the other side of the road. I hope that the Minister of State, who is renowned for his common sense, will see that common sense prevails in this particular case.

There is a difference of opinion on this Bench as to whether these proposed cuts represent part of an economic withdrawal from Northern Ireland. However charitable some of us may feel towards the Government, we must be forthright and say that the Government's own past propaganda is against them, because when the Convention was sitting the suggestion was continually put about that if only we would agree to a power-sharing Government and structure at Stormont, all would be well with the economic situation in Northern Ireland. That, of course, immediately prompted the question of what could be done that was not then being done by Her Majesty's Government.

I am afraid that that question has never really been answered squarely. It is a vital question and it is vital that an answer be given. Clearly, Stormont could have had no standing in the present matter of the defence cuts, but, because of the former attitude of the Government, they will now have to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that there is not even a trace of political motivation in the present decision.

With regard to the Royal Naval Armament Depot in Antrim, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy has assured us that he has looked very carefully into the possibilities of putting other work into Antrim, but so far without success. We are told that after 1st April 1978 the remaining overhaul work will be absorbed at Plymouth and that this will necessitate about 90 additional jobs in the Plymouth area. I understand that at present on the strength at the Antrim depot there are about 25 coppersmiths, but I am also told—I am open to correction—that at Plymouth the number is perhaps one or two. I should like the Under-Secretary to clear up that.

Although we welcome the assurance that first priority will be given to applicants from Antrim who are willing to move to Plymouth, we cannot escape the conclusion that at least 90 specialised jobs are being removed from Northern Ireland. No doubt this can be countered by the suggestion that those 90 jobs will be of a temporary nature. If that be so, does it make sense to invite workers from Antrim to transfer to Plymouth for what is bound to be a relatively short period?

I have noted the Minister's view that the reduced volume of work would not justify the retention of the Antrim depot, but may I put two suggestions to him? First, as the Mk 8 torpedo overhauls will probably taper off completely in about 1980, is it not possible to delay the closure of Antrim by a further two years? Secondly, is it not possible to reduce the overheads at the Antrim depot by sharing its facilities, and therefore the overheads, with other defence units?

Royal Air Force, Sydenham, is situated in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig). If he should catch the eye of the Chair, I have no doubt that he will deploy the case against the decision as it affects that establishment, because this is the second blow dealt to that establishment in the past few years. Following as it does the decision to close the Rolls-Royce factory at Dundonald and coupled with the disastrous news of the closure of 23 MU at Aldergrove, one can understand the feeling of utter despair which has seized the work force at Sydenham.

The Sydenham closure would be a little more bearable if 23 MU Aldergrove were retained. Co-operation between the two establishments has in recent years been very good. An example was when it was decided to merge the apprentice training schemes of Aldergrove and Sydenham. A report on the combined effort issued last autumn must now make very bitter reading for the young men who staked all on a career with the Royal Air Force. Referring to the joint training scheme it said: It is from these young men that the future management of units like 23 MU and RAF Sydenham will be drawn. The Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Air Force has given me an undertaking, for which I am grateful, that he will look carefully at the apprentice courses to see whether it will be desirable to extend the scope to equip the trainees to take advantage of wider opportunities in engineering.

I turn to what is in many ways the central problem—that of No. 23 Maintenance Unit, Aldergrove. For me this is more than a mere constituency interest. The maintenance unit was built on my grandfather's farm, which in the ordinary course of events I should have inherited. Most of the staff employed there, and now likely to be unemployed, are not just constituents but neighbours and in many cases personal friends.

I suppose that over the past few years we have all lived with the knowledge, or perhaps the fear, that when the Phantom aircraft came to the end of its useful life, it might be very difficult for 23 MU to acquire a share in servicing and maintaining later types of aircraft, which in any case would probably be greatly restricted in number. But never, even in our worst nightmares, did we imagine that all the skill and techniques which had been acquired and built up at Aldergrove to process this notoriously difficult and complex aircraft would be totally wasted and destroyed.

This brings me to the question of the economics of the proposal to remove the Phantom from Northern Ireland and place it at St. Athan. First, what will be the cost of training personnel for the art of coping with the complicated American Phantom aircraft, and how long will that process take? Secondly, who will service and repair the intricate flight control system of the Phantoms? I understand that in the past St. Athan has coped with aircraft like the Vulcan, but in those cases the avionic equipment was removed and sent back to the makers or to other specialised firms. Will such a time-wasting, expensive procedure be followed in the case of the Phantom, bearing in mind that all of that process could be completed, and has in the past been completed, on the one unit more or less under the one roof at Aldergrove?

The Minister probably knows that 23 MU has approximately 500,000 square feet available for aircraft servicing. It has a modern surface finish hanger of 43,000 square feet which, I understand, is one of only two in the whole of the United Kingdom. Are we certain that this kind of hanger space will be available at St. Athan?

If we assume that at any given time about 25 MRCAs will be needing major servicing at St. Athan and probably at the same time 10 Phantoms and possibly four Buccaneer aircraft, is there any assurance that this number of aircraft could be floor-loaded by St. Athan? If not, what will be the cost of providing the additional hanger space? Where will the personnel be found at St. Athan? Again, what will be the cost?

Even accepting that it is desirable to retain the service and civilian mix which we presently have at St. Athan, how does one make sense of the economics of the present proposal, which means paying a Royal Air Force junior technician £4,745 per annum for doing exactly the same work as a civilian craftsman at Aldergrove who is paid £3,696—a difference of over £1,000 per man? On the question of overall costs, I suppose the annual cost of 23 MU would be just under £5 million, rather less than the cost of two Phantom aircraft, but we should be very foolish indeed if we were to imagine that the closure of the maintenance unit would save anything like that amount.

On two occasions I have been privileged to be allowed to inspect the computer system which controls the entire operations at the maintenance unit at Aldergrove. It controls the planning, the progress of aircraft servicing, and the monitoring of unit costs. This complicated process which was built up at Aldergrove made that unit one of the most effective, if not the most effective unit, from the point of view of cost in the whole of the Royal Air Force. How long will it take to establish such a system at St. Athan, bearing in mind that there will be the complication of coping with two entirely different sophisticated first-line Royal Air Force aircraft at one and the same time? Again, what is the cost?

I understand that there is also a very large question mark over the suitability of the runways at St. Athan. Again, will there be considerable delay before the airfield can accept either the Phantom or the MRCA? Most important of all, we must question the wisdom of servicing these two front-line aircraft at one unit, because in a war situation the nation might pay very dearly for this experiment in centralisation. There might be justification for taking such a strategic risk in centralisation if large savings were likely to be achieved, but I must warn the Secretary of State that the savings may exist only on paper and the reality may be very different.

In fairness to the Ministers, I should give reasons for my distrust of the judgment of those who plan and project on their behalf. I cannot do better than to take another Aldergrove example. In 1973, when the A26 was closed to safeguard aircraft using the north-south runway, I was assured by the previous Administration that the alternative route, the Crosshill Road, would be reconstructed and resurfaced to replace the closed route. On 25th April 1975 the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wrote to me to explain that the Crosshill Road was being improved to accommodate traffic in the area and that the work would be completed by the end of May. The Minister and his advisers were perhaps a little optimistic, because the work is only now being completed. The last 100 yards or so are now being made ready.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wrote to me last Friday, 19th March 1976, to tell me that the security forces had been giving further thought to improving the security of the military complex at Aldergrove. He wrote: As you will know, the Cosshill Road runs through it"— that, is the military complex— so it is to be closed. I concede that it is inconsiderate of the Crosshill Road to run through the complex. I make that concession despite the fact that the road existed some 260 years before the military complex arrived on the scene.

Surely we are entitled to ask who put the complex there in the first place. It might be said that it was sited in the good old days before car bombs and other such devices, but that is not so. The Alexandra Barracks and the consequent civilian housing and married quarters were installed to accommodate the Royal Corps of Military Police which was brought in to cope with the present security situation in Northern Ireland.

No one but a madman would have placed living quarters within literally a stone's throw of a public road, yet that blunder was made. It was made by the same people in the Ministry of Defence who have now decreed that one road having been closed and an enormous amount of public money having been spent on its replacement, the road should be closed with all the attendant waste of public money.

With great respect, I ask the Secretary of State for Defence and his Ministers to be wise in their own interests, to do their own sums and to think long and carefully before they sign the death warrant for these defence establishments for reasons of economy, which I am afraid is the ground most suspect of all.

7.34 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. Brynmor John)

It is right that hon. Members should draw attention to the consequences of some of the decisions which we have had to announce regarding Northern Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the White Paper. I say straight away that they were decisions which gave no one great pleasure. As I think the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) conceded, it is an extremely unpleasant task to have to announce redundancies affecting large numbers of people. My fellow Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Judd), and I found last Wednesday a very sad day.

It will be no part of my submissions to deny the effects that our decisions will have on the workers concerned, but it is right to point out that we did not announce immediate closure of the units. In fact, the closure date is 1st April 1978. I hope to be able to show that the decision, however reluctantly taken, was inevitable given our economic circumstances. It was equally inevitable that as it was a Government decision we had to announce it as such.

I must reject any decision that Northern Ireland has been singled out for any special treatment. It is the Government's judgment that to enable the country to emerge from a very deep recession and to create conditions necessary to be able to take permanent advantage of the upswing in the world economy, it is necessary to restrict the growth of public expenditure by several thousand million pounds in the years from 1977–80. If that is achieved, Northern Ireland has a great deal to gain from the added industrial investment that will come. The defence share of this necessary curtailment is £534 million in the three years. The Defence White Paper 1976 itemises that saving. The hon. Gentleman did not mention this factor but for the sake of completeness I feel that I must mention it—namely, that it is tempting to consider this measure in isolation and to judge the effect upon Northern Ireland in an unfair manner.

Mr. Ian Gilmour (Chesham and Amersham)

The Under-Secretary of State says that the Defence White Paper itemises the savings as £534 million. I should be most grateful to be told where the White Paper itemises the savings.

Mr. John

It itemises certain of the measures necessary to contribute towards that saving. Although tempting, it is unjust to single out in isolation this measure because in reality there have been a number of other measures over the past two and a half years. Measures have been taken by Governments of both major parties which have had an effect upon the amount of money spent upon defence.

In December 1973, and in the Budgets of 1974 and 1975, sums were sliced off the Defence Estimates. None of those measures affected Northern Ireland. Additionally, we undertook a thorough, comprehensive review of defence. We reviewed our commitments and the resources we devoted to them. The results were published in March of last year. Over 1983–84 we cut planned expenditure by £4,800 million at 1974 prices. This meant a reduction in the uniformed forces of 38,000 people, and in civilian strength by 30,000 people, of whom 15,000 were employed in the United Kingdom. Again, none of those measures had any direct effect on Northern Ireland.

As regards the RAF, our decisions meant a cut of 18,000 in uniformed personnel and the closure of 12 stations. Aldergrove and Sydenham were not included, but one matter that affected the two stations, in common with other stations of Support Command and civilian industry, was that the amount of aircraft servicing and engineering servicing was reduced by 35 per cent. That is mainly the result of the reduction in the Transport Force. It is therefore fair to regard this measure as part of a series of measures rather than as an isolated act.

The Defence Review settled the level of front-line forces which were needed to carry out our commitments. NATO recognised the economic imperatives which led us to make the Defence Review decisions, and the force contributions flowing from those decisions. Therefore, in considering any new cuts we had to recognise that there had been no changes in the military tasks which would justify a reassessment of our front-line contributions to NATO.

When seeking the required savings it was necessary to do so very largely within Support Command. We had to decide to utilise existing facilities to the maximum and, in redistributing the remaining work, to avoid heavy capital expenditure. Those requirements dictated that we could not keep open all the stations in Support Command. The question we then had to ask was which stations to close. If we had decided to run them below capacity we would have nullified any expenditure economies.

St. Athan already services a wide number of operational aircraft, including the Buccaneer. It will be servicing Jaguar engines and the MRCA. The apparent dilemma which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and apparent congestion, do not take into account that the MRCA will not come into service immediately and, therefore, will not be available immediately. We have considered those matters and we are satisfied that the work load can be carried out by the existing facilities. St. Athan has 45 per cent. of the total engineering manpower of Support Command and facilities which would be prohibitively expensive to reprovide elsewhere.

Mr. Molyneaux

In view of the fact that the Phantom is not yet at an end in operational terms, there will be a period of overlap and front-line aircraft will be serviced at St. Athan.

Mr. John

The hon. Gentleman leaves out of account the fact that the MRCA is coming into operation and replacing existing types of aircraft. Therefore, they will not continue to be serviced at St. Athan.

Kemble has a continuing aircraft storage task which could not be moved elsewhere either in time or in point of cost. To discharge that task it must retain some engineering capacity.

The third station is Abingdon at which Nos. 60 and 71 MUs are to be combined. This is a Service-manned station, so that we may retain the in-service repair facility which would be necessary in hostilities.

The Royal Naval Armament Depot at Antrim has been devoted almost exclusively to the conversion and overhauls of the Mark 8 torpedo. Therefore, the sort of work he sought for that depot would be impossible to find. The Mark 8 torpedo has been in service for a long time and its future was limited. In the light of the need for further economies it was decided that any further modification work on it was unjustified. With that decision, and with the overhaul task being too small to justify a separate station, Antrim had to close.

It was these facts which rendered the closure of these units inevitable, thus saving over £7 million in the target years and £3½ million annually thereafter. It also avoided our needing to lay out some millions of pounds on capital expenditure. We have tried to seek work for transfer to the stations, but that effort has been unsuccessful. I must stress that the decision now taken by the Government to the effect that closures will take place in two years' time is a firm decision. But within a decision on principle we are determined to do all we can to ease the burden imposed on the work force.

Let me outline briefly what this means. First, we recognise that we have a special responsibility towards apprentices whose apprenticeships will be incomplete at 1st April 1978. All of these at the three stations will be offered a continuation of their apprenticeship on the mainland and everyone who wishes to accept that offer will be guaranteed that this will take place. Though I can understand the reluctance of anyone to leave their homes, I would say that in this and in other cases they are merely being asked to go to another part of the United Kingdom to complete a skill which they are in course of acquiring.

The hon. Gentleman properly mentioned the importance of a broadening of experience. I do not want to prejudge the situation, but it might not be possible to broaden the situation in the way suggested in regard to existing apprenticeships. However, in certain cases they may be able to transfer to a more relevant craft. As soon as I have definite information, I shall let the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends know the situation.

Secondly, the jobs that fall vacant in defence establishments in Northern Ireland and elsewhere will be offered first to those who are displaced by our closures and redundancies. This will be true of mobile staff and some in the non-mobile category who might wish to work elsewhere. In taking advantage of such an offer, they will be given as much help as possible. As an example the 90 extra jobs generated at Plymouth by the residual torpedo task will be offered to workers at Antrim.

The hon. Gentleman tried to suggest that because 90 extra jobs would be generated at Plymouth, they could easily have been kept at Antrim. But this servicing is a declining task and can be absorbed into other tasks at Plymouth, whereas the work cannot be so absorbed at Antrim.

Finally, I wish to re-emphasise that this is a closure two years hence and allows us to make an orderly rundown. In regard to Antrim there will be no job loss until August or September 1977. In the case of Aldergrove and Sydenham the work load fluctuates rather more than in other stations and it presents a problem, but with that caveat we have invited the workers in the stations to discuss with us the rundown to minimise the hardship caused. We have signified our willingness to have detailed talks on these points as soon as possible.

Our concern with the blow the news would cause was the reason why my hon. Friend and I went out to give these decisions to the workpeople personally last Wednesday. There are some hon. Members who speak glibly about phoney cuts and who believe that defence cuts are painless. I wish that they could have sat with us in these talks to learn the reality of just how painful these decisions can be.

But the talks we had there were not the end. We are ready to discuss further any of the details of the rundown and any possible additional measures to ease it. I hope that the men and women who so sensibly and forcibly put their case to us last Wednesday will take us up on that offer.

Nevertheless, however sad its consequences may be, the Ministry of Defence has been charged with providing for the defence of this country with maximum economy. We are now discharging this remit by these and the other difficult decisions. Having willed the ends, the House must be taken to have willed the means.

The resources we release will go towards industrial regeneration, in which my right hon. Friends at the Northern Ireland Office are determined that Northern Ireland will share fully. It will continue to be our fight as a Government to ensure that this comes about.

I think it may be said categorically that the health of Northern Ireland depends vitally on the success of our struggle to bring about that industrial regeneration.

7.48 p.m.

Mr. William Craig (Belfast, East)

There is an old saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. I hope that later this evening we may find that the good intentions are replaced by positive commitments to make things better.

In my constituency there is a great deal of anger on this matter, and anger has a habit of generating heat. The workers to whom I have spoken over the weekend are capable of shedding a great deal of light on the problem, and I hope that they will have an opportunity to do so. They feel that because the ramifications of the cuts are so extensive, they should have an opportunity to talk to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Defence. I hope that he will bear that plea in mind.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) that in the interests of the national economy we need to bring about substantial cuts in public expenditure. Every time we are faced with this problem there is a tendency for us to look over our shoulder to the electorate to see how much the people will be hurt. I have a feeling that these sort of defence cuts are made too often without regard to the fact that the electorate may not realise how important defence expenditure is to their personal and national well-being. I have heard hon. Members asking across the Floor of the House "What would you cut?" Everyone shies away from such questions and people have got into the habit of believing that they are getting something for nothing. I understand that changes are likely on the Government Front Bench in the near future. I hope that they will help us to look more realistically at the sort of cuts that will have to be made.

The present proposals for further defence expenditure cuts worry me enormously, not just because of the disastrous effect they will have in my constituency but because I believe that defence arrangements are not something that can be turned on and off like a water tap. There is no doubt that the problems of defence are not decreasing. The use of the magic word detente is not changing the reality of the situation. There have to be cuts, and I suppose that we have to learn to live with them.

What I am concerned with this evening is the application of those cuts. It is generally conceded that while the cuts are primarily aimed at effecting savings there are nevertheless a variety of considerations to be taken into account. Of all those considerations those which must rank as being most important are those with special social consequences. These special considerations must be judged within a framework of reason. When it comes to such special social consequences I do not think that there is any other part of the United Kingdom which has such a serious problem as Northern Ireland. In saying that, I am not ignorant of the many problems facing other parts of the United Kingdom. I can see the anxiety all over the kingdom at the growing level of unemployment. But the Northern Ireland situation is in many ways much more depressing. There is an aspect of hopelessness about it that will not be found elsewhere.

I say that having due regard to the announcements that have been made from the Northern Ireland Office recently. There is to be a major review of our economic position. A new survey is to be made, reportedly aimed at changing the Province's industrial base. It will review the amounts of public money paid annually in the form of subvention. I was interested to note that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said: The basic aim must be to ensure that the full potential of public and private enterprise is organised in such a way as to bring about the maximum benefit in terms of industrial activity and employment over the next few years. While we are talking about defence we must not be under any illusion that we are not also talking about industrial activity. This is particularly important for Northern Ireland in its present plight. I know how difficult it is to cope with these problems, having regard to the violence the political uncertainty of Northern Ireland and its future form of government.

I know that many in the House will be tempted to say "You have had your chance to do something about it and failed to make any substantial breakthrough". That is hardly a fair way to approach the problem. We have a very difficult task ahead of us. The violence and continuing uncertainty is accompanied by a marked reluctance among people to invest in new industrial activity in Northern Ireland or in the expansion of existing industrial enterprises. The result is a growing hesitation among the customers of Northern Ireland's industries to place fresh orders. There is also a reluctance to extend to businesses in Northern Ireland the type of credit facilities that can be obtained in other parts of the United Kingdom.

We have about 50,000 unemployed and before long it will reach the terrifying figure of 20 per cent. of the insured population. People will be unemployed at a time when there is no hope of a speedy change. There is a growing fear in Northern Ireland that, as the United Kingdom generally picks itself up out of the recession, Northern Ireland may be passed by. In my view that fear is soundly based. This being the case there is a more onerous duty on the Government and on publicly owned industries in Northern Ireland to give a positive lead and set an example.

Rolls-Royce is a publicly-owned company which has paid little regard to the needs of Northern Ireland. It just decided to close down. Apart from providing employment, such a prestigious company is in such a position to give confidence to others. Some Northern Ireland Ministers are trotting around the United States trying to persuade people to invest. Their job will not be helped if British firms such as Rolls-Royce get up and go. The Government say that that is not their responsibility but that it is a decision of the management of the company. To a certain extent that is true. The Government, however, have the power to induce managements to see that it could be worth while remaining.

Defence contracts are in a different category altogether. The Government cannot throw the burden of blame on to a board of management. Sydenham has a history of many years as a productive and efficient unit. It came as a great surprise to me to find, not that it was to be reduced in terms of its activity, but that it was to be closed down in two years. We have worried about it for some time. On 5th February I wrote to the Under-Secretary expressing my concern. On 19th February he wrote to me saying that no decision had been taken about Northern Ireland installations. One can imagine the bombshell effect that that had upon me and my constituents.

It is not correct to say that RAF Sydenham has not experienced the effect of earlier cutbacks. There was the loss of the Buccaneer contract after 13 years' work on that aircraft which could not be bettered in any other station in the United Kingdom. The contract was suddenly whisked away because of the consequences of the redeployment of assets resulting from defence cutbacks. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) has first-hand knowledge of this matter. In his day as Minister, when there was the possibility of cutting back on the Buccaneer contract, he said that it should be postponed until further work could be obtained for RAF Sydenham.

It is strange that people are arguing a preference for St. Athan based on the fact that it is handling the Buccaneer contract which was in Belfast for 13 years. If someone could show good reason for not carrying out the work in Belfast, our disappointment would be modified, but station commander after station commander has paid tribute to the efficiency and productivity of the workers at RAF Sydenham. It was commonplace to see on the orders of the day reference to the exceptional productivity of RAF Sydenham. If it is said that RAF Sydenham is no longer a viable unit, it is because of Government policy and not because of the management or work force.

RAF Sydenham is unique in one major respect, namely, its facilities for mechanical component work. Those facilities are unequalled in any other RAF station in the United Kingdom. It can back up that facility by tapping a labour force second to none.

The awful thing about the decision to close RAF Sydenham is not only that it is a good unit which has a long and proud tradition with the RAF and the Royal Navy but that it is in an area where there is little alternative employment for some of the best men in the United Kingdom who work in this industry. It may be said that they can find alternative work at Shorts.

Will the proposed cuts, phased as they are, save money? How much will it cost to provide new facilities to take over the work that has been performed at RAF Sydenham and RAF Aldergrove? How much new training will be needed to supplement the labour forces at other stations? What will be the cost in Northern Ireland of the security benefits which will have to be paid to skilled men who, because of the peculiar situation in Northern Ireland, are likely to be unemployed for a very long time? When all these considerations are added up, the cost will be enormous. I have heard the cost of redundancy payments and security benefit put as high as £3 million or £4 million——[AN. HON. MEMBER: "In the first year."]—in the first year. I am in no position to say how long the benefit payments will continue after that, but it strikes me that the alleged saving will cost the taxpayer a lot of money.

Shorts is also in my constituency. We are told that the Belfast aircraft is to be scrapped. It is difficult to say what the effects on Shorts will be, but the Northern Ireland Office continually refers to Shorts as perhaps one of the avenues open to Government to provide alternative employment for the people displaced at Rolls-Royce and perhaps from RAF Aldergrove and RAF Sydenham. The Belfast cancellation will be costly in terms not only of jobs but of the effect it will have on the economic capacity of Shorts when the Government, and the Ministry of Defence in particular, are dragging their feet on many other questions. The Belfast freighters were due to come in for a major overhaul. That work, which would have provided many jobs, will be lost.

There is a good deal of procrastination about what will happen to other work possibilities in Shorts. I understand that an agreement was negotiated for the major overhaul of 15 PR9 Canberras, but the impression among the management and work force at Shorts is that people are trying to slip out of that contract. Shorts had a viable proposition to produce a military version of the SD330. I understand that the Government are interested and are prepared to help Shorts to find a market, but they have not come up with any money to help to meet the capital cost of developing a military version.

Shorts are more than interested in NATO's new aircraft known as the Aroack, which could give Shorts 15 years' work in producing the engine pod and pylon. If cuts must be made—and I am not sure that they must be made—I should have expected a much more positive commitment about work in other spheres.

Shorts and RAF Sydenham have one facility in common, and that is the airfield—a very fine airfield. What will happen to it if RAF Sydenham is closed? Who will be responsible for it? Shorts would like a positive assurance on that.

Every hon. Member is concerned about the increasing problem of unemployment, but I can say without fear of contradiction that no hon. Members have a greater problem than the Members representing Northern Ireland. There are no more difficult economic circumstances than those prevailing there. But it is not simply a matter of economics, important as that may be. Economic decline—and "decline" is the word, not "disintegration"—will markedly affect political progress.

Despite recent disappointments, there is still a chance of worthwhile political progress in Northern Ireland if we can instil hope that the economy will be able to weather the present storm and that jobs will be there for people. If we cannot do that, political hopes will go out of the window.

Plenty of people are jumping on the bandwagon and arguing that there will be economic withdrawal in such a way that it is the forerunner of political withdrawal. I do not believe there is a shred of truth in that and I shall keep saying so as often as possible. However, I should be misleading the House if I did not say that, despite all our reassurances, many people do not believe us. If Ministers had talked to the trade unionists we spoke to at the weekend, they would realise the truth of that statement. Actions speak louder than words. We expect publicly-owned industries and contracts at the disposal of the Government to be used to spearhead new hope in Northern Ireland.

I hope that the fears and anxieties expressed by hon. Members from Northern Ireland tonight will not be treated as a political exercise and that Ministers will not think that hon. Members are simply going through the motions to satisfy their constituents. We are setting our minds to a problem which is causing us very grave concern. There must be a response from the Government. I appeal to Ministers to listen to us and to open all possible doors to the trade unionists who are vitally concerned. Do not let protocol stand in the way.

Northern Ireland will bear its share of the cuts. In war and peace we have always been prepared to make our share of sacrifices as well as claim our share of the benefits. Nothing has changed, but we have an abnormally difficult climate in which to work and we need positive help rather than sympathy from the Government.

8.13 p.m.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

The occasions when representatives of Northern Ireland have spoken with one voice have been too rare in the past. Tonight is such an occasion and it has been caused by the devastating news given to workers in Northern Ireland on Thursday.

We now have an unemployment rate of 11 per cent. The number of unemployed will rise to 53,000. No other part of the United Kingdom would tolerate these figures wthout elected representatives expressing grave concern and using all possible pressure to try to force the Government to change the policies which had led to such a situation.

We in Northern Ireland recognise that the United Kingdom is in the middle of a deep economic recession, but we believe that it is the Government's duty to ascertain which regions are suffering unbearably and to ease the burden in those areas by spreading out the despair throughout the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has stressed on many occasions, particularly last week, the dire economic future faced by Northern Ireland. There has been no development of potential future investment.

I take great personal offence at one aspect of the present situation. The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) said it was good of two Ministers to go to Northern Ireland on Thursday, to meet workers and to tell them that their jobs were to be lost. I do not think Ministers deserve any credit for bringing such awful news to Northern Ireland.

The Government should have persisted with their expressed policy of control of consulting the trade unions on every aspect of life and work, including wages, conditions, employment and unemployment. The least they should have done was to discuss with the trade union movement in Northern Ireland what was likely to happen to these three establishments. Ministers have said that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has acted with great responsibility throughout the troubles in trying to ensure that they did not enter into industries and on to the shop floors. The fact that the Congress was not consulted or told what was to happen to some of the most skilled workers in the trade union movement in Northern Ireland must be condemned. The Government stand condemned for the callous and brutal way in which the White Paper decisions were made known to the work force.

The Minister of State is on the record as saying that not a single United States dollar of new investment has come to Northern Ireland since 1973. I hope that this is not an admission of defeat. The reasons for this lack of investment cannot be laid at the door of the Government alone. We in Northern Ireland must accept some responsibility. We have not been entirely innocent in the problems which beset Northern Ireland.

Some hon. Members from Northern Ireland may think that this is a political remark, but I have to say that the UWC strike in 1974 will not have given much confidence to American or other investors. While we accept that we are responsible, to some extent, for our own problems, the decision of the Ministry of Defence will only aggravate the problem. Potential investors will be inclined to ask why they should invest in Northern Ireland when the Government are withdrawing an industrial base. That must be the logical effect.

Some figures were quoted recently in the Northern Ireland Standing Committee from the booklet published by the Northern Ireland Office on social and economic trends in Northern Ireland. One of those figures, which is still relevant, is that 4 per cent. of all claimants for supplementary benefits within the United Kingdom live in Northern Ireland, and 15 per cent. of all moneys paid by the United Kingdom Government by way of supplementary benefit is received by the people of Northern Ireland. Some hon. Members have referred to that figure in a disparaging way, the implication being that Northern Ireland, only a small part of the United Kingdom, receives a great deal from the Treasury by way of social security benefits. The decision taken by the Ministry of Defence will do nothing to reduce that figure. If a survey is taken next year perhaps more than 4 per cent, of all claimants and more than 15 per cent. of all moneys will be related to Northern Ireland because of that decision.

I wonder whether the economies will achieve the results shown in the White Paper. Since the end of last week, when these disastrous cuts were announced, the trade unions have gone into the problems which will arise and the cost to the Exchequer and the people of Northern Ireland in social and human terms. The trade union movement is to be congratulated on putting so much energy into bringing to light the terrible cost of the decision. In the first year it is estimated that the total cost to the social security services in Northern Ireland will be £3 million, added to which is the cost of the transfer of all these establishments to other parts of the United Kingdom, which is estimated at £25 million. Perhaps at the end of next year, or the year after that, the Ministry of Defence will ask us to look at the reductions which have been achieved by the closure of these establishments.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Stanley Orme)

Figures have been quoted in the House, quite rightly. To the best of our knowledge the assessment is that £3.5 million a year will be saved on a permanent basis by the closing of these establishments. We estimate that the cost of unemployment benefit, at the most, will be £1.5 million a year. There will obviously be a large net saving over the years. How long people will stay on unemployment benefit is a factor which has to be considered.

Mr. Fitt

The very fact that my right hon. Friend is able to intervene shows that he had discussions with the Ministry of Defence before the closures were announced. I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend expressed his total opposition to the closures.

Mr. Orme

I should put on record—the Secretary of State has done the same—that there is no division between Northern Ireland and Ministry of Defence Ministers. This is a collective decision of Government for which we all accept responsibility.

Mr. Fitt

The fact that there is no division does not necessarily paint the full picture. I hope that there was a division even though it has been overcome. I am sure that it is recognised by the Government that before major decisions are taken the fullest consultation should take place with the trade union movement. That did not happen on this occasion. The trade union movement has a right to feel aggrieved that a decision of such economic importance, which will bring such disastrous consequences to many people, was not announced until the end of last week.

The trade unions and the Labour movement are united in their attempts to cut public expenditure as much as possible in the interests of the economy as a whole. Some trade unions have expressed opposition to the high cost of defence. It is no justification for a Minister to say, "You want cuts in defence but you do not want them in Northern Ireland". The Labour Government have a social conscience and there are social reasons why they should do whatever is possible to create employment and to maintain existing employment in Northern Ireland. There is no contradiction there. Decisions taken by the Government are not taken purely for economic reasons. They are taken after consideration of all other aspects of life and the social consequences of those decisions.

Yesterday I read a Press report that the Northern Ireland Office had underspent £20 million. That £20 million will go back to the Treasury because it was not spent within the financial year. Is that right? If it is, I see no justification for it because that £20 million could have been spent in Northern Ireland in trying to erase some of the poverty and despair. We have been told that the population of Northern Ireland is 2½ per cent of the population of the United Kingdom. But Northern Ireland has had to bear the brunt of a 20 per cent. cut in civilian personnel.

What has happened in Northern Ireland has not happened in other parts of the United Kingdom. In England, Scotland and Wales, there have been no closures as such. There has been a cutback and a certain number of men have been threatened with the loss of their jobs. But three defence establishments in Northern Ireland are threatened with total closure.

Mr. John

In the Defence Review, we announced the closure of 12 stations, all on the mainland.

Mr. Fitt

As I see it, 20 per cent. of the total personnel to be displaced will be in Northern Ireland.

Mr. John

The point I tried to make, and which I reiterate, is that 30,000 civilians were displaced by the Defence Review last year but none was in Northern Ireland. It was only when the reduction of a further 10,000 came about that the 2,000 people in Northern Ireland were affected. That is a truer percentage than the one which my hon. Friend is quoting.

Mr. Fitt

We could bandy figures about all evening, but in 1967 and 1968, when the closure of RAF Sydenham was first threatened, about 37,000 people were signing the unemployment register in Northern Ireland. The then Labour Government decided that they could not close the station because of the high level of unemployment in Northern Ireland. Now, Northern Ireland has 51,000 unemployed but the present Labour Government can afford to ignore that awful figure.

Those of my colleagues with constituency interests in these closures will, I hope, seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I merely want to impress on the Government now that, at the moment, there does not seem to be any possibility of attracting investment to Northern Ireland, which in turn means that there is no possibility of creating any new industry there.

The right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) reminded us that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. I remind the House of another adage—"Live, old horse, and you'll get grass". There are horses in Northern Ireland who have been living for 20 years on the dole and they cannot see any grass at all.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will now regard it as a very urgent necessity, in the new strategy he has announced to the people of Northern Ireland, to try to retain whatever jobs we have there now. There have been dire and gloomy forecasts, particularly from trade unionists, that before the end of the year the figure of unemployment in Northern Ireland could be 60,000. No civilised society can be asked to accept such a high figure of unemployment.

If we are to see an end to the present troubles, even though many of them are political and have nothing to do with employment, it is necessary for the Government to use all their skill, in collusion with and with the support of the trade unions movement and of all Northern Ireland's representatives in this House, to do all they can to cut back unemployment in Northern Ireland.

8.33 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. It is the first time I have spoken on Northern Ireland since I had the privilege of being a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. I still have a deep interest in Northern Ireland. It is rather a love-hate relationship, with the love getting the upper hand most of the time, although there are times when some things said make the relationship more of hatred. Let us hope that the love predominates. We do care and we are interested.

I am opposed to, and deeply disturbed by, the defence cuts in the country as a whole. We need to be on the alert and to be prepared more than ever to meet any of the possible forces which could assail us. It is not only an economic argument but a matter of defence. The first duty of any Government is to protect the people.

I could argue about cuts and who is responsible for the economic mess in this country but I should be ruled out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. But the fact remains that we have to get our priorities right, and I believe that defence is one of those priorities.

I join with hon. Members here in being bitterly opposed to the defence cuts proposed in Northern Ireland—and now confirmed—at Aldegrove, Sydenham and Antrim. During my stay over there I visited most of these establishments. At Aldegrove there was a factory where the men were not only very skilled but also very efficient. They were doing an essential and profitable job for this country, with an export potential, in that they refurbished other aircraft.

One of the best ways of overcoming the terrorists and the problems in Northern Ireland is to provide, within reason, as much employment there as possible. That is a fundamental reason, but the Government seem to have overlooked it. Normally I do not disagree with the Minister of State in regard to Northern Ireland, but I should have liked to see a far greater effort to make sure that the cuts did not come to Northern Ireland. We ought to try to provide full employment, or get as near to it as is possible. When a man has a regular job he is unlikely to engage in terrorist activity. I believe that the Government's action will simply add fuel to the problems and troubles in Northern Ireland. That is why I feel so strongly about it.

I accept that if cuts are not allowed to bear so harshly on Northern Ireland as on other areas, it involves a certain degree of preference. Nevertheless, I believe that in the long run it is cheaper, better and more profitable to do this. It is, of course, difficult to explain to the other parts of the United Kingdom why certain special aid should be given to the Province, but Northern Ireland has a very real and special problem. That is what makes it different from other areas of the United Kingdom.

The principle already exists. The Government need not be shy, therefore, in making special provision for Northern Ireland. It has been done for years. When I had the privilege of being a Minister concerned with Northern Ireland, the principle was applied in agriculture.

It was not easy to explain during the difficult times which faced agriculture some years ago. It was not easy to explain to my constituents, or to other United Kingdom farmers, why remoteness grants were given to Northern Ireland, and special measures taken, in order to keep the meat plants going. We also helped in egg production, when there was a glut of eggs. A special provision was made to help Northern Ireland in the difficult circumstances then prevailing there. Extra agricultural subsidies were given. That was done because of the problem of unemployment and the effect that unemployment would have on further terrorist campaigns. None of these special measures was available to farmers in other parts of the United Kingdom.

I believe that exactly the same principle should be applied in the present situation in Northern Ireland. I always found it difficult to justify these measures to my constituents in the South-West of England, but they were accepted, with grumbles. Our major consideration at the moment must be to keep people fully employed in Northern Ireland, off the streets and away from terrorist activities. The Government must think again on this issue, otherwise a very real mistake will have been made.

It would be very nice for me, as a West Country Member, with a constituency all round Plymouth, to ask, for example, for employment to be found for another 90 people in my area. But it would be extremely foolish to think like that, because I should not be looking at the United Kingdom as a whole and at what is best for the United Kingdom. Although it might mean gaining another 90 jobs in the Plymouth area, I ask hon. Members to think of the damage that this could do in Northern Ireland and how its consequences could prolong the agony and the difficulties of Northern Ireland. I am prepared to go to my constituents and to defend what I have said tonight because I believe that most sensible people will look at the situation in that way. But the Government should do so as well.

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and that should be said time and time again. We have exceptional problems mere and, because or them, we have to take unusual, difficult and exceptional steps for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is a serious drain on United Kingdom resources. But for Heaven's sake do not let us make the position worse. Let us use every means to overcome the problems.

It is no good going only part of the way to clear up the difficulties there. An all-out effort must be made, and this means sacrifices in other parts of the United Kingdom. It means sacrifices in terms of employment. It means men who serve in the British Army going there and sacrificing their lives, if necessary. Even if in only a small way, these cuts will put back the solution to the problems of Northern Ireland.

1 ask hon. Members to think for a moment of the effects of these cuts on skilled men—because they are skilled men. I wonder what they must be feeling tonight. The loss of a skilled team over there is a severe blow to Northern Ireland. I am well aware of all that has been done by former Ministers and by Ministers in the present Administration to build up these skilled teams and to have them ready for when the expansion day came. This decision puts the whole plan into reverse.

Then there is the effect on existing firms and on the prospects of attracting other firms to Northern Ireland. It weakens the policy of bringing firms into Northern Ireland which are needed there so desperately. What are they to think if the Government retreat? That is what the Government are doing. This is no example to give private enterprise firms from abroad. They will say "But look at what the Government are doing over there." What an example to set! The Government must think again about this.

What about the reaction of the man in the street over in Northern Ireland? It is obvious now that we have settled down to a period of direct rule. What a fine way to start off direct rule again! The man in the street must be asking "Are the Government intending to pull out?" I can see no other way in which he can be thinking.

I hope, therefore, that the Government will not take the line that this is a firm decision. They need in the meantime to try to find alternative work there for the skilled men involved. That is essential. It is a shame for the Government to come to this House saying "It is finished." The Minister and others should be redoubling their efforts to find alternative work for these men if the work cannot be kept going in the military sense.

We have heard a good deal about the savings involved in this decision. In my view, they are not all that great, especially if we set against them the additional troubles and difficulties and their cost. I do not think that there is very much in it at all.

hope that I have succeeded in proving to the Minister and to the Government that Northern Ireland is a special case. It has to be dealt with on that basis, and further sacrifices have to be made. If any cuts have to be made—and I do not like saying this because I know the effect that such a policy could have on my own area—it is right that Northern Ireland should be treated as a special case. I hope that the Government will think again before it is too late.

8.45 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

This debate tonight is one of great solemnity, which should have a sobering effect upon all hon. Members. We are not accusing Ministers of heartlessness. We do not say that they delight in telling people in Northern Ireland that they will lose their jobs. We do not accuse the Minister of State of feeling delight at telling people that they will be permanently unemployed. We are saying that in these circumstances the impact of these cuts should be carefully reconsidered.

It was made clear to us when the leader of our group, my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux), my hon. Friend the Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) and others met the Minister that this decision was made at the highest level of Government, not merely by him as a junior Minister. We believe that the reasonable request of Northern Ireland trade unionists, supported by all the Northern Ireland Members, for a meeting with the Secretary of State for Defence should be granted. I trust that the Minister of State will tell us tonight that that request will be favourably received, that those who made the decision will have the opportunity of hearing at first hand the case from Northern Ireland, to explain why they are sticking by their decision or, if the evidence so convinces them, that they are prepared to reconsider.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) dealt with the matter that affected his constituency. Since the closures at Aldergrove and Antrim affect my constituency—they are on the border between North Antrim and South Antrim—I should like to deal specifically with those closures. The announcement that the three establishments that provide support services are to be closed was a disastrous blow not only to the Northern Ireland economy but to the morale of the people there. It is not correct to argue, as Ministers have argued, that similar events are taking place on the mainland. We are not losing some of our establishments: we are losing them all. We are not suffering a cut-back in employment: we are suffering the total annihilation of these jobs. The people employed in them will all be on the dole. At Sydenham and Aldergrove there will be a rapid close-down, starting almost immediately, and while it may be 12 to 18 months before the bite is felt in Antrim, towards the end of the two-year period the pace will quicken.

Mr. John

It is precisely the phasing of the rundown that I said was still open to negotiation between the trade unions and the management. I said that we should be inviting the unions for detailed talks. The hon. Member should not pretend that there will be a rapid immediate rundown in these stations. That is what the talks will be about, and I hope that he will concede that that is what I told him.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I accept what the Minister says about that, but I remind him that when the matter was discussed with my colleagues those were the dates given to us. The Minister said that he would be happy to have further talks with the trade unions about them, but the fact is that those establishments will be run down in that way.

The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills), who has served in Northern Ireland, said that no matter what opinions various hon. Members might hold, and no matter that the right hon. Gentleman says that there is no economic disengagement by Britain, the man in the street thinks differently. No action has been taken to prove the contrary. I remind the Government that these accusations originated not on these Benches but from the trade unionists, from the Minister's own political friends in Northern Ireland.

Let us look at the economy of Northern Ireland. The computer industry has gone. In the telephone industry there is a shaky situation at Standard Telephones and Cables, with the close-down of the plant at Larne. Rolls-Royce has been axed, and now there is the cut in Services support. As we see these hard facts staring us in the face, the man in the street has a right to say "Surely something must be happening to cause a disengagement by the Government from our economy."

It has been rightly argued from these Benches that in the private sector the Government cannot do very much, although it has also been argued that they could give better incentives. But when we come to those industries in which the Government have a real say, or have control, the people of Northern Ireland have a right to tell them "Give us a tangible demonstration that you have your priorities right for the economy of Northern Ireland." It has been said that the Rolls-Royce board took the decision, but the trade unions have argued to the contrary that the Government could have influenced that decision.

The closures we are discussing are the result of a decision by the Government themselves, as they admit. This is one area where they could have done something vital. They could have said "We shall not close these establishments".

I should like to mention the situation in the Royal Navy armaments depot at Antrim. I think that it has been accepted that Antrim did an excellent job. Even the Ministers who announced the closures freely admitted that the depot was doing a job second to none. It seems to be believed that the Mk 8 torpedo is obsolete. Perhaps the Minister could tell us for how long it will be of use. Is it not a fact that there will be no phasing out until the 1990s, that it is exported, and that certain foreign Governments have ordered some numbers of it? Is it not wrong to state that because the torpedo is obsolete, the factory should be closed?

Is it true that the output from Antrim is sent to the Faslane naval base? Antrim is closer to Faslane than Plymouth is and transportation costs are markedly less, so how can the move be justified? Is it a fact that of the 90 jobs that we have heard about 50 are jobs for craftsmen and 40 are miscellaneous? What facilities in the way of housing and so on will be offered to these workers in Plymouth? What real possibility is there of these people being employed in Plymouth in a way which would make it easy for them to leave Northern Ireland?

How many apprentices are employed in Antrim? Why did recruiting go on, if the Government intended to close down the depot, right up until the last minute before the White Paper was published? Trade unionists in Northern Ireland are alarmed about what has happened and about the lack of necessary consultation. They have asked Northern Ireland Members to put certain questions to the Minister. If he cannot answer them all tonight, perhaps he will write to us.

Are there any plans for further modifications of the Victor Tanker and if so where will that work be allocated? Is it intended to place the airframe modification work for the Phantom at Hawker Siddeley Aviation, Hull? Is it right that HSA already has substantial work on Harrier component manufacture, BAC 111 component manufacture and European airbus wings? Will the work force there be increased, and if so by what figure?

Will the refurbishing work on 80 Canberras be placed at BAC Preston? Does BAC Preston already have substantial orders for manufacturing Jaguar aircraft and South American Government contracts for Canberra work and the manufacture of the 385 MRCA for the RAF?

Is it correct that demodification work will be required on the Royal Navy Phantom together with RAF modifications? If so, where will that work be placed? Where will the modification of the Sioux gunpods at present undertaken by RAF Aldergrove be undertaken in future? Will the runways at RAF St. Athan require major modifications to remove a slope on the runway to accommodate the Phantom and the MRCA? If so, what will that modification cost?

Have the senior engineering staff been consulted on the proposed closure? The work force has reason to believe that it may not agree with the decision. Even if the RAF engineering support wing at Aldergrove is, as projected, totally closed, there will nevertheless continue to be overheads, including security costs and so on. What are those costs likely to be?

The Minister intervened earlier to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South was talking about keeping open the naval depot at Antrim. In fact my hon. Friend was arguing that beside that depot there is also the Royal Engineers depot. My hon. Friend was asking whether it would be possible for the overheads to be carried by both establishments so that these 80 jobs could be preserved with a cut-back in overheads. That is what he was arguing. Surely it is reasonable to argue in that way. I should like the Minister to take that matter on board and to consider it, because that could be a way out for the saving of these jobs at the Royal Naval Armament Depot in Antrim.

There is one question that the people of Northern Ireland are asking, and that is whether there will ultimately be any real savings. The Minister of State mentioned a figure, and various figures have been thrown out in the debate. What will the redundancy figure be—before we start with health and social services benefits? Is it not a fact that because many of these men are skilled in a particular craft, they will find it almost impossible to be re-employed? Is it not a fact that some of them will never be re-employed?

That is the argument that the trade unions have been putting to us. I should like the Minister's comments on that matter. If that were so, I am afraid that the Minister's figure, while it may be the figure for health and social service benefits——

Mr. Orme

For unemployment.

Rev. Ian Paisley

—would not be the figure that would include the redundancy payments. The right hon. Gentleman is seeking to get jobs for Northern Ireland, and we wish him well in the work that he has to do in that regard. However, he will know very well that if he were trying to create 2,000 jobs in Northern Ireland, there would have to be an expenditure of about £25 million. Therefore, one can add that figure to the unemployment benefits and the redundancy payments that will have to be paid out. I would not put the transfer as high as does the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt)—£25 million. I do not know how much the transfer would be. However, even if one adds those figures together, one finds that a colossal sum will have to be spent.

In the interests of Northen Ireland, surely it would be better at this time to re-think the whole position. Why should be try to create new jobs at a cost of £25 million when we already have these esablishments there and a certain degree of work that could be put to them? There may be a cut-back in the total employment force, but it would be better to have a cut-back than to wipe out the whole force.

I ask the Minister seriously to consider the view that this debate is not a debate in which the philosophy of one political part of Northern Ireland says one thing while the other part says directly the opposite. In Northern Ireland we are often told "We wish that you people could agree." This is a matter on which we are absolutely agreed.

We ask the Minister to hear the united voice of Ulster tonight. This is a very important feature and I hope that he takes it on board. Will the Minister please tell us tonight that his right hon. Friend, who took the decision at the highest possible level, will meet the trade union representatives and hon. Members and that we can put our case to those who made the decision? We should then at least know that we had exhausted all the democratic avenues available.

As the Minister of State well knows, in Northern Ireland today a very serious situation is arising. Unless we can show that there is some validity in parliamentary work and unless we can prove that Parliament and debate mean something, the people of Northern Ireland could turn their backs upon democracy altogether. I do not want to talk about the Ulster Workers' strike, but I should like to make one brief comment. The danger in Northern Ireland has been the rejection of the democratic principle, as seen by the people of Northern Ireland, and that has the result of the people there wanting to adopt extra-constitutional methods to get their voices heard.

In view of the Minister's own experience, I ask him to do something in Northern Ireland. It is to hear the united voice of the elected representatives in this House and to help the trade unions, which are trying to retain this work. Doing so will prove to the people of Northern Ireland that at least the voice of their elected representatives, when they speak with one voice, is harkened to and heeded.

9.5 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

When the Under-Secretary of State for Defence announced the closure of the three civilian defence establishments in Northern Ireland he said: In the longer term we want to ensure that when the economy picks up we shall be in a position to maintain or improve our industrial capacity. I ask: improve whose industrial capacity? I do not believe that this decision will in any way contribute to the future industrial capacity of Northern Ireland. Indeed, the closure of the three defence establishments, coupled with the closure of Rolls-Royce at Dundonald and of ICL at Castlereigh, a decision which was deliberately taken by the Government and aided and abetted by the Northern Ireland Office, will destroy the skilled engineering base upon which Northern Ireland depends for future prosperity when there is an upsurge in the economy. As that engineering base will have been destroyed to a great extent, regrettably we shall not be able to benefit immediately from any improvement in the economy.

When opening the debate the Under-Secretary stated that the savings from the cuts would go towards industrial regeneration. No matter what contributions the Government may make to Northern Ireland as a result of these cuts, they will not offset the damage done by these closures. Figures may be bandied about across the Floor of the House, but no proper judgment can be made until hon. Members, the trade unions and those employed in these establishments are given all the figures so that they are able to examine them. I do not accept merely one or two figures. All the figures are needed before the people of Northern Ireland can say that this is a sane decision or a foolish one which will jeopardise Northern Ireland's economic future.

For instance, we need to know the cost of providing new jobs for about 2,000 people. That must be a colossal figure, far above any saving the Government will make from these closures. It should be borne in mind that the abandonment of these civil support services in Northern Ireland is madness in a part of the United Kingdom which is geographically divorced from the rest of the nation. We should pay more attention to the security of this country. The Government are indeed making a grave mistake.

We have heard many compliments paid to the people employed in these establishments. I join in praising them. The work study experts from the Ministry of Defence have consistently reported, for instance, that Royal Air Force, Sydenham is far and away ahead of other units in the United Kingdom in layout, facilities, throughput and quick turnround of aircraft which land there for urgent repair work. Sydenham is unique in having both seaport and airport facilities. Other maintenance units have to arrange long and costly road journeys for material and completed work. At Sydenham the ships can come to the wharfside and transport aircraft can land on the adjacent airfield. No other establishment in the United Kingdom has these facilities.

About 55 per cent. of the work at RAF Sydenham is on Phantom aircraft and their components. About 30 per cent. of the work is on Hunters and Sea Devons and 15 per cent. is on components for other aircraft. That work is doubly interesting when we realise that there are generally two to three times more supervisory grades at St. Athan and other such units in the United Kingdom than at Sydenham.

Royal Air Force Sydenham has an important rôle to play in NATO. During and after every NATO exercise, urgent calls are made to Sydenham for the station to carry out repairs to components, especially Phantom components. The work is carried out immediately by those employed at Sydenham. Within a few hours of the component being landed at Sydenham by aircraft it is on its way back to the grounded aircraft, whether in Germany or elsewhere. It is a remarkable commentary on the usefulness and importance of Sydenham that despite the transfer or theft of the Buccaneer aircraft from Sydenham to St. Athan, some Buccaneer modification work is still sent to Sydenham. Perhaps the Minister can explain why that is done.

All the machinery and all the plans for the work on the Buccaneers were sent to St. Athan, which was in future to undertake the work. The engineering staff at Sydenham had to look up their personal notebooks and rehash the drawings so as to do the work. They have done so, and done so well.

It is worth recalling the dismal story of the fate of the Buccaneers after component repair work was transferred from Sydenham to St. Athan in 1973. I understand that since then about 36 Buccaneers have been waiting for modification from Mark I to Mark II specification. I believe that not all the equipment for the Buccaneers that was removed from Sydenham has yet been unpacked at St. Athan. That is because the St. Athan staff cannot cope with its work load. It is a disgrace that vital defence work is being left unattended when the men who can do the job and who are anxious to do it—certainly they are skilled to do it—have had it removed from them. It seems that they are now to have the remainder of their work taken from them.

Sydenham is the only support unit in the United Kingdom, and perhaps in NATO, which regularly repairs Lox Pac oxygen pressure tanks for high altitude flying for the Phantoms. British Oxygen, which manufactures the equipment, sends employees to Sydenham to learn how to carry out the work. The German and Italian air forces have called on Sydenham for the same repair work. So high is its reputation that its services have been sought on occasions by the manufacturers of the Phantom in Cleveland, Ohio.

It seems that the Government have a case to answer. I believe that we must oppose the Government. We must vote against them to demonstrate that the people of Northern Ireland will not meekly accept this decision. The National Enterprise Board is closing down Rolls-Royce in Northern Ireland but the Northern Ireland Development Council, with neither the resources nor the teeth of the NEB, has been left to try to pick up some of the pieces. We have the ludicrous situation of one Government authority creating problems for another Government agency to try to solve. That is not government but misgovernment.

The Prime Minister accused the Northern Ireland people of being spongers, but I accuse the Government of following policies that put men and women out of work. Unemployment and other benefits for 2,000 unemployed will cost between £3½ million and £4 million a year. There are even greater sums involved. No doubt before long we shall hear Government Ministers indicating the increased financial burden borne by the United Kingdom for social benefits for the unemployed in Northern Ireland. The Ulster people will be lectured and criticised for a situation brought about by a deliberate decision of the Government. But the Ulster people will not accept responsibility for the situation. I do not want to hear accusations of spongeing against people who are without employment through no fault of their own.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has declared that the topic of cuts and the adverse effect on Northern Ireland was discussed in Cabinet. What he does not say is that he fought against those cuts. I have come to the conclusion that he did not do so in Cabinet. Had he the interests of the Northern Irish people at heart, he would have done so. We know that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is somewhere in the Palace of Westminster tonight. Perhaps he is spearheading the campaign mounted by the Foreign Secretary for leadership of the Labour Party. The Secretary of State should be spearheading the campaign to save jobs in Northern Ireland.

The consequences for Northern Ireland of these cuts on top of the closures of other factories in Northern Ireland is to destroy at a stroke the whole base on which the Northern Ireland light engineering industry has been erected. The long-term consequence will be that when the hoped-for revival of world trade takes place in 1977, the highly skilled human resources essential for speedy recovery in Northern Ireland will have been dispersed and run down to such an extent that recovery is bound to be slow.

The old Stormont Government were criticised when it was considered that there was too high a degree of unemployment in the Province, but certainly that Government were extremely active in trying to bring industry to Northern Ireland. It is true to say that 40,000 new jobs were created in the last five years of its existence and 163 new firms came to Northern Ireland. The present Administration, some of the members of which attacked the old Stormont because of the unemployment level, are associated with the closing down rather than with the opening up of new enterprises. They are now responsible for the creation of more unemployment, and they have much to answer for to the people of Northern Ireland.

9.18 p.m.

Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

There is at stake in this debate not only 2,000 jobs in Northern Ireland but the ability of people in Ulster to trust the word of the United Kingdom Government. It is our task to reiterate the words used by the Minister of State, Department of Industry, that Northern Ireland needs a broadly based economy. If ever there was an opportunity to bear out those words in reality, it is to be found here in the retention of the work involved in the defence sector in Northern Ireland.

We do not come to this House tonight to reiterate the harrowing and devastating words of the theme tune of another age, "Buddy, can you spare a dime?" We are asking not for charity, but for a fair share of the expenditure cake and related employment.

We ask simply that the Canberra works should be retained pro rata to the number of that aircraft remaining in service. We ask that the Phantom should be retained at its current level in Northern Ireland and that a quota of MRCA aircraft, which could provide additional employment, should be directed to Northern Ireland.

In the Minister's words there are a great number and variety of aircraft serviced at St. Athan. The work on the Phantom would be done alongside that on the MRCA. The point which my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) was making was that it will not be possible to meet the deadline with those two front-line aircraft serviced at St. Athan.

There has been much talk about cuts. These are not real cuts. They are a transference of work. The only cuts there are involve the decimation of the livelihoods and the future of the people of Northern Ireland. Let us not over-play the special situation in Northern Ireland. Of course there is a special employment situation. There is also a hard-working group of men with a great productivity record and good industrial relations who are part of the United Kingdom workforce.

These men have a right to employment. I ask for a categoric assurance that work on the Blowpipe missile currently undertaken by Short will remain there in spite of the movements indicated by transferring some of the work to Blackburn and other places on the mainland.

9.22 p.m.

Mr. Ian Gilmour (Chesham and Amersham)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) for cutting short his speech. I can assure him that, apart from his speech, mine will be the shortest in the debate.

This is a highly important subject and one which the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) and his hon. Friends were right to bring before the House. It is not at all surprising, as the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) and Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, that this is a subject on which the spokesmen of Northern Ireland should speak with one voice. I mean no disrespect to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force or to the Minister of State for the Northern Ireland Office when I say that it is surprising that neither of the Secretaries of State involved has bothered to come along to the debate. We are discussing something which has serious effects.

Mr. Orme

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that no discourtesy is meant to the House by either of my right hon. Friends. They both have very important previous engagements. If the right hon. Gentleman knew what they were I am sure that he would understand.

Mr. Gilmour

I accept that. But it is normal practice that engagements in this House take precedence over any other engagements. I do not take back what I said.

Even if we do not accept the predictions of the right hon. Member for Belfast East (Mr. Craig) that unemployment is liable to rise to 20 per cent., it is, nevertheless, true that unemployment in Northern Ireland is high. The measures announced in the defence White Paper raise that figure considerably. We are to debate the defence cuts next week so I will not talk generally about them, although they were much deplored by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) and the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder).

It was interesting that the Under-Secretary, evidently by a slip of the tongue, said that the defence cuts in the White Paper had been itemised. Until the Minister of State was good enough to itemise the savings of £3.5 million, no other figures had been given. Since the Under-Secretary evidently thought that the cuts had been itemised, perhaps I could ask him to see that this is done before the defence debate next week. I see that he shakes his head. I am not surprised.

Mr. John

The right hon. Gentleman is inaccurate. First, I repeated the figures given by my right hon. Friend, and plainly the right hon. Gentleman was either unaware of them or perhaps was not paying the attention for which he calls in others. Secondly, a number of other stations are listed in the Defence White Paper as being affected by the cuts. That is what I meant by itemisation.

Mr. Gilmour

All that I said was that the cuts had not been quantified in the White Paper, and that is true.

The stations which are to be closed are highly productive and efficient. That is not in dispute. As the right hon. Member for Belfast, East implied, the question of the closure of RAF Sydenham was a hardy annual when the Conservative Party was in office. Although the work done there was beyond criticism, there was a strong argument on purely defence grounds for closing it, but we always refused to close it because we thought that the wider effects in Northern Ireland were more important than the economies which would be effected by closing it.

Unless my memory deceives me, I do not think that we ever wanted to close Antrim or Aldergrove, but I may be wrong. It would never have occurred to us in a million years to close all three at the same time. It is extraordinary for the Government to do that. As the hon. Member for Belfast, West said, this is simply a matter of Government decision and has nothing to do with the quality of work done at any of the stations.

On purely defence grounds, there are good reasons for making the cuts, because there will be an economy and the defence budget is under extreme pressure, but I should like to hear from the Minister of State whether the Ministry of Defence still recognises any responsibility for regional employment policy. If there are to be cuts, and if they are far from bogus and far from painless, this is the logical outcome of them.

We are, of course, opposed to defence cuts and therefore these results would not have followed if we had been in office. In any event, even if they can be defended on defence grounds, they cannot be defended on Northern Ireland grounds. As the hon. Member for Belfast, West said, no other region has such a serious problem as Northern Ireland.

I must disagree with the hon. Member for Antrim, South because I do no think that one can oppose the cuts and at the same time say that if they were not made there would not be an increase in public expenditure. Those two things are incompatible. The cuts can be opposed only by saying that they will lead to an increase in public expenditure but that the increase should take place for other reasons. There is the caveat implied by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West. As a result of increasing unemployment and increasing political unrest, there may be an increase in terrorism which will lead to an increase in military and other public expenditure, but that is unlikely.

Therefore, in my view, the cuts cannot logically be opposed except on the ground that the public expenditure which would result from their maintenance is necessary on other grounds. The cuts are not only extremely untimely but seem to have been made in a hamfisted, if not cavalier, manner. I know that there are difficulties about consultations in these matters. Nevertheless, considerable resentment, rightly, seems to have been caused among trade unionists and other workers affected by the cuts because they were faced with a fait accompli.

I hope that the Minister of State will be able to dispel the impression of a negligent attitude having been adopted to the future of the Northern Ireland economy, because there is a serious problem here. There are fears of the economic withdrawal of this country from Northern Ireland. We hope that is not true. No doubt the Minister of State will be able to reassure us.

I hope that the Minister will also be able to give the absolute assurance asked for by the hon. Member for Antrim, North and other hon. Members that one or, preferably, both Secretaries of State will agree to meet the people involved to discuss the closures.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

We have had the benefit in this debate of the presence and intervention of one of the Defence Under-Secretaries. It was certainly appreciated that the two Defence Under-Secretaries themselves faced the brunt of having to announce these decisions in Northern Ireland.

Yet that is not good enough. This is a decision on defence grounds of major importance in Northern Ireland, and nothing less is satisfactory than that, at the united request of hon. Members representing constituencies in Northern Ireland, they and representatives of the workers concerned should have the opportunity to speak face to face with the Secretary of State for Defence, who is the responsible Minister. There should be no difficulty about this. It should be automatic; but I hope the Minister will be able to assure us that it will happen. Nothing could be more in the interests of the Government themselves than that they should be seen to be keeping nothing back from those who will be affected.

This debate is unprecedented in that it is the first occasion on the question of Supply when the subject has been chosen by hon. Members representing the greater part of the seats in Northern Ireland, though not, as is said on the Order Paper, by the United Ulster Unionist Council—I think there was some little confusion there. I hope that the precedent will not long remain unique.

Another characteristic of the debate, pointed out by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), is that hon. Members from Northern Ireland on both sides of the House have been at one. This is by no means exceptional, and it will become less exceptional. Maybe those looking for power-sharing will find it—and in the place where, in the proper democratic sense of the expression, it ought to be, namely, on the Floor of this House.

There is a striking map on page 74 of the Defence White Paper which shows the layout of the major support establishments in the United Kingdom. There are two circles in Northern Ireland—one for the Royal Naval Armament Depot, Antrim, and the other for the maintenance unit at Aldergrove, with which are linked the fortunes of RAF Sydenham. If these establishments are closed, there will be a vital change in this map: it will be blank in Northern Ireland. That is perhaps the clearest and most dramatic way of showing what this decision means for Northern Ireland.

It is no part of the case of any of the hon. Members representing Northern Ireland that this is evidence of a pull-out by the Government. Yet one must not underestimate the impact upon the public when they see the blank which will be created on the layout map of defence establishments if these decisions go through.

It is also no part of our case that economic considerations should take precedence over defence considerations. On the contrary, we believe defence to be the overriding interest, though we argue that the balance of decisions should be tempered by consideration of the economic and social consequences, and that insufficient has yet been said by the Government to prove that those factors have been adequately taken into account.

Again, it is no part of our case to deny that there should be the utmost economy in the application, and efficiency in the use, of whatever resources are to be devoted to defence. We are not arguing on that ground against these decisions, except that we say the case has not yet been made out that a growth in efficiency will result if they are implemented, or that the money concerned will be better spent if it is not spent in the establishments which are to be closed.

The case argued from these Benches and from the Benches opposite does not rest primarily on economic or even upon social grounds. It is a case which is strong upon defence grounds, and we are of course considering tonight the Defence White Paper. I return to the map in the White Paper and the blank which will be placed over Northern Ireland. I argue that this represents an unjustifiable paradox in terms of defence.

Anyone who reads the Defence White Paper will realise very well what a change there has been over the last decade in the whole outlook and balance of our defence preparations. Nothing is heard nowadays of that magic place "East of Suez"—just a few relics are to be found in the White Paper. Even in the Mediterranean, we are told, the days of the British presence are numbered: one ship is to remain in the Mediterranean, and that is the guard ship at Gibraltar. The whole trend and shift is towards the defence of Western Europe, and above all, of these islands and the East Atlantic

There is a change, too, in the philosophy of defence. If not gone altogether, at any rate greatly weakened is the old theology of NATO which maintained that the function of the forces in the event of major war was to play it out for a few days until the crucial decision could be taken as to the employment of nuclear weapons. A different picture is now implicit in the White Paper. It is the picture of a war which will have to be fought out, perhaps at length, in which for us the crucial function will be the maritime and air defence of these islands and, above all, in the interests of the Alliance, the keeping open of the vital sea lanes between Western Europe and the United States. The Defence White Paper states: The maritime forces of the United King dom are concentrated in the eastern Atlantic and Channel, through which areas Allied reinforcements, the majority of which are from the United States, must pass in time of tension or war, and where the threat to the maritime security of the Alliance is greatest. It is in that direction that the emphasis of our defence thinking and of our defence preparations is shifting. To match this we read in the Defence White Paper the striking and even alarming facts about the air-sea effort which the Soviet Union is putting forward so as to have it within its power to gain the domination of the Eastern Atlantic.

I am sure that I do not need to refer the House to the celebrated tribute which Winston Churchill paid to the indispensable function of Northern Ireland in the last war in keeping open the sea routes to these islands and making it possible for us to deny an enemy that command of the sea and of the air above it without which, if the enemy could have seized it, there would have been no future not only for the United Kingdom but for the Irish Republic. The fact is that more and more it is recognised that, in the defence of NATO, from the point of view of the alliance to which we belong, from the point of view of the alliance which for us is second in importance only to the survival of this nation itself, the island of Ireland is in the front line.

Defence now looks seawards; it looks Atlantic-wards; but what has happened, as so often in defence, is that the actual dispositions, the practical deductions, are lagging behind the facts of the real world and the propositions which in general terms Ministers are ready to voice. I venture to make the prediction that before very long we shall find a paradox in the decisions that the Government are attempting to defend tonight. Before very long we shall find a Government of the United Kingdom which will be concerned to shift Atlantic-wards the balance and deployment not only of the forces but of their supporting establishments; and in that shift the position of Northern Ireland will be seen to be specially vital.

So I say that, not merely because of its impact upon employment and upon morale in Northern Ireland, but within the framework of defence policy and thinking itself, what is being done is anomalous. The Under-Secretary of State repeated what was said in the White Paper—that, having to make economies and reductions in their defence budget over the next three years, the Government had decided to eliminate the establishments which are not directly and immediately in support of front-line units". There is a gross absurdity in this. What is the difference between establishments which are in direct support and establishments which are in ultimate support of the front-line units? It is not only the establishments which are in direct support which are therefore essential. The entire support to the front-line forces is equally essential; and it will seem to be an anomaly and absurdity that we should be actually trying to concentrate the fundamental support establishments in the most vulnerable parts of the United Kingdom.

So these are decisions which, if they are to be implemented—and I hope that there is still room for reconsideration—will be seen to be decisions out of date before they were reached. I am saying to the Government not only that they are doing something which will have a harsh impact upon Northern Ireland psychologically and economically—they know this, understand it and regret it—but that they are doing something which, from a defence point of view, is mistaken and will have to be reversed when the growing trends and the current changes in this nation's defence policy and outlook come to fruition.

There is, therefore, every reason way this debate should have taken place and why we should ask the Government not merely to give an assurance that the manner in which these decisions are carried out will be such as to have the minimum possible impact on Northern Ireland, but that the decisions themselves, in a context wider even than that of Northern Ireland as a whole, are to be looked at again. Otherwise a Minister will be coming to that Dispatch Box before many years are out to announce decisions which would not have been necessary nor so expensive nor so hasty if the present Government had not taken the already obsolete steps they are attempting to defend this evening.

9.45 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Stanley Orme)

This has been a serious, very detailed and critical debate of the Government's decisions. We welcome the fact that we have been able to have this debate so soon after the White Paper was published last Wednesday and to hear the views expressed from both sides of the Northern Ireland divide. I have taken note also of what was said by the Opposition spokesman on defence.

I have been pressed about a meeting with the Secretary of State for Defence. The House will be interested to know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at Stormont this afternoon met trade unionists who are involved in these defence establishments. I was present at the meeting.

I have conveyed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence the request for a meeting. He has advised me to tell the House that tomorrow he will meet the Northern Ireland Members to discuss this matter. If they then want to pursue further the matter of the trade unions, that is something for them to pursue with my right hon. Friend. But he will meet the Northern Ireland Members tomorrow in this House.

Mr. Powell

I am sure that the House is grateful to the Secretary of State for Defence for the message which has been conveyed. But may I ask—I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members concerned—for a little more flexibility, and that we might have the opportunity, when meeting the Secretary of State for Defence, of being accompanied by those who would certainly have something to contribute from the employees' point of view?

Mr. Orme

I shall convey the right hon. Gentleman's request to my right hon. Friend, but obviously this must be a matter for him. It might be a way of opening the discussion at the meeting tomorrow. What happens after that will be a matter for the hon. Members concerned and for my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Kilfedder

The right hon. Gentleman has already conveyed a message from the Secretary of State for Defence. Surely we can be given the assurance that the Secretary of State for Defence will receive us together with the trade unionists and shop stewards concerned? They are the people who are able to give the full facts to the Secretary of State.

Mr. Orme

I thought I had explained it very carefully. I ask the House to bear with me. I have carried out a request made during the debate, and an answer has been given during the debate. Hon Members can now pursue this further in their own right as Members of Parliament. My right hon. Friend will read the Official Report tomorrow and will know the strength of feeling associated with the overall request. I have reported to the House what has already been agreed concerning the meeting tomorrow, and I hope that we may proceed on that basis.

The right hon. Member for Down. South (Mr. Powell) related the cuts to defence strategy. This is not a matter for me to argue to the House. It is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and his other Ministers. But I can say quite clearly that the closing of three maintenance units in Northern Ireland has nothing whatever to do with the overall defence strategy of the United Kingdom. It is related purely to the public expenditure cuts which have been made and are being made at the blunt end of defence expenditure. They have fallen on maintenance units throughout the United Kingdom.

It was said during the debate that, because of the economic circumstances, this is a difficult time for hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies. I say with some humility that it is a difficult time for Ministers who have a responsibility for Northern Ireland. There are circumstances appertaining to the economy which are making it exceedingly difficult.

Of course, the timing of these defence cuts, as the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) knows only too well, comes in March of any year with the Defence White Paper, and this has coincided with economic circumstances in Northern Ireland and therefore has made the issues more difficult. But, as I said earlier, the fact is that this is a collective decision of Her Majesty's Government for which Northern Ireland Ministers bear their full share of responsibility, and I do not evade this issue in any way.

In the course of the debate, I have been asked a great many questions. To some of them, I shall reply by letter. But I hope that many of the others can be put to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence when right hon. and hon. Members meet him.

I wish, however, to deal with two or three of the matters raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) raised the torpedo question. These torpedoes will be in service for some time in the future, but they are being phased out and, frankly, there is no future for torpedo work on the basis of permanent work in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) raised the question of Blowpipe and Shorts' defence contracts. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that some very mischievous statements were made in Northern Ireland over the weekend in the sense that they were dealing with people's employment and the threat to that employment. There is no truth in those reports. The contracts which are with Shorts will remain there. We do not see any change in that situation, and I am pleased to have this opportunity to clear up that matter.

A great deal of the argument centred round the fact that these defence establishments provide work—skilled work in the main—for 2,000 people in Northern Ireland. That is true. However, I would argue that if this had not happened at the moment, it would certainly have happened in the not too distant future. I made that point during Question Time last Thursday. It would be a false economy to base hopes on defence expenditure which can be changed and can be cut. What we need is a much sounder economic base in Northern Ireland. I do not have the time to go into the details of what the Government want to do. But right hon. and hon. Members will have read the statement that I made last Friday, which was widely reported.

I want, however, to answer this point about economic withdrawal. I understand how people feel about this. If they do not look at the whole picture, they may feel that this is a matter of the Government withdrawing. But the subvention this year will be more than £400 million. British Governments of both parties have put £119 million into the shipyards. Before IEL closed, the British Government put into that one firm £12.5 million in an attempt to keep a computer industry in Northern Ireland. The money that has gone into Shorts, Ben Sherman, Hughes Bakery, Regna, and matters such as providing the dredger in Coleraine is an indication of Government expenditure.

If we look at investment, I agree that there has not been the new investment that we want. But there has been investment by firms which are already in Northern Ireland, and the House may be interested to know that this year industrial investment grants will be in excess of £30 million. That is a third of the total money expended, so that it must mean close on £100 million being spent this year in Northern Ireland on industrial investment. The total outlay of the Department of Commerce on this type of expenditure this year will run into several hundred million pounds. That compares with total Government expenditure already committed, which includes interventionist type of expenditure.

Of course an unemployment rate of 11.1 per cent. is unacceptable. The loss of another 2,000 jobs from defence establishments is an additional blow. But it is a false economy to think that the defence establishment can save employment. The answer is to have Government investment in the longer term which deals much more fundamentally with the problem.

There is a need for a fresh look at the Northern Ireland economy, and I have taken certain steps in that direction. First we shall look at electricity prices and the electricity industry. I have commissioned a study which will be chaired by the chairman of the Midlands Electricity Board. We are considering here a problem unique to Northern Ireland. The electricity industry there has to provide power for 1½ million people while coping with overheads which in Great Britain would be shared by 55 million people.

Because of the dearer electricity, the dearer fuel and the dearer transport, the Government have decided to set up an industrial strategy survey by which we can examine every aspect of the Northern Ireland economy. The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) asked what the Government were doing and whether we had a strategy. He has been a Minister for Northern Ireland and he recognises that even if there were no security or political problems, Northern Ireland, situated on the periphery of the United Kingdom, would need special attention and help to enable it to survive as an important part of the United Kingdom. We have therefore ordered a full-scale inquiry involving senior officials from Whitehall as well as people from Northern Ireland. It will operate under my chairmanship. We shall be examining where Government money should go and how it should be redirected.

Mr. Craig

What is the average cost of providing new jobs in Northern Ireland? The Minister of State said that it was a false economy to keep these establishments open, but the work being done there is carried out economically and efficiently. We have not been told what the savings are and still less what it will cost to provide 2,000 new jobs.

Mr. Orme

The House has been told that the savings are £3.5 million a year ad infinitum. It costs a great deal of money to create new jobs, but if they are to be created it must be on a much more permanent basis. That is the thinking behind the Government's proposals.

Political stability is vital for Northern Ireland. All hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have concentrated on this issue and I am sure that they recognise that we shall not create political stability——

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.