HC Deb 15 March 1977 vol 928 cc237-43

Lords Amendment: No. 1, in page 82, leave out lines 18 to 30.

4.20 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Industry (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker

With this amendment we are to discuss Lords Amendments Nos. 2 and 3.

Mr. Norman Lamont (Kingston upon Thames)

I do not wish to be very much longer than the Minister of State, but in expressing a general welcome for the amendments that he has proposed we wish to make quite clear that our attitude to this legislation has in no way changed. In no way do we think that the Bill will do anything to help the shipbuilding industry to face the problems of contraction. Neither will the Bill contribute anything to solving the problems of the aircraft industry. The aircraft industry is one of our most successful industries, and the Bill will do it nothing but harm.

Having said that, we have to examine our attitude to the Government's concessions in the light of the Parliament Act hanging over the Bill. It seems that the choice open to us is between further delay in seeing all the companies included in the Bill nationalised, including the 12 ship-repairing companies, or, alternatively, the quick passage of the Bill minus the 12 ship-repairing companies encompassed in the Lords amendments.

It is a sad choice with which to be faced, but I think that the likelihood of the Bill's becoming law through the Parliament Act means that we must accept the Lords Amendments. The Government have not removed all ship-repairing activities with their amendments. I regret that they have not made it 13 companies instead of 12. We regret that the Government were unable to see their way to excluding Vosper Thorny-croft's ship-repairing business.

Mr. Speaker

This is a very opportune moment for me to tell the House that we are able to discuss—as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) was about to discuss—only the companies included in the amendments. Regrets, fears and anxieties about any companies that are not included in the amendments would be completely out of order.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely there is a question of equity between those who are left out of the Bill and those who are not. Would not any consideration of the amendments require us to consider equity?

Mr. Speaker

I fear not. All that the House is called upon to do today is to agree or disagree with the Lords amendments. It is only the Lords amendments, not what ought to be in them, that we have to discuss.

Mr. Lamont

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you are aware, the consequence of the amendments will be that people who intended to petition against the legislation will no longer be able to do so. The amendments therefore have certain consequences for certain interests, in that some people will no longer be able to make the case that they expected to be able to make. Is it not possible to refer in any way to those people who feel that their rights will have been affected by the amendments?

Mr. Speaker

I fear not. I have to rule firmly on this. We must keep to the contents of the Lords amendments. We cannot widen the discussion.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I assume that it is in order to address ourselves to the implications of removing the ship-repairing industry from the Bill, in accordance with the Lords amendments. Surely that would be in order.

Mr. Speaker

What is in order is to discuss the contents of the Lords amendments. Nothing else is in order. We have had our wider discussions on the broader issues, and so has another place.

Mr. Lamont

Of course we accept your ruling, Mr. Speaker, and it is clear what we cannot discuss. We have made clear from the beginning that we think that ship repairing is and always was an industry particularly unsuited to nationalisation. It is an industry dependent on speed in doing its work and on service. Many of the companies that were to be nationalised had only a small number of employees, sometimes fewer than 100.

We welcome the fact that the Government have at last shown reasonableness and a little accommodation. If only we could have had these qualities earlier, the Government could have had their Bill earlier. We have now spent a very large part of Parliament's time on this legislation. The Bill was first introduced in 1974 and has spanned no fewer than three Sessions of Parliament.

Despite the concessions offered by the Opposition, the Government decided to press on with the Bill, to their own disadvantage and to the disadvantage of everybody else. They have been more concerned not to lose face than with the consequences for industry. That is why few measures have ever got into such a mess as this Bill.

The Government have blamed the Lords for the delay, yet sometimes it appeared that the Government themselves were not so unwilling to see a delay. At other times we wondered what was the reason for the rush, because the Government have not been able to decide where the headquarters of the new nationalised shipbuilding industry ought to be. If they cannot decide that, we wonder what right they have to complain about the delay.

The delay has not been the fault of the House of Lords, which is one institution which has emerged from the story with considerable credit. Had it not been for the House of Lords, there would have been no opportunity for the Examiners to determine that the Bill was a hybrid Bill, which the Government had denied. This was not just a diverting parliamentary ploy, as the Secretary of State for Industry once called it. It was an important matter of principle and practice. It was quite wrong that the Government should have tried to use their slim majority to set aside procedures that have been long established to protect the liberties of individuals.

We do not like the proposals in the Bill. We do not like nationalisation. Nevertheless, we wish to make clear that we wish the two corporations success and we hope that the Government's dealings with them will be dominated by a little less dogma than their handling of this Bill.

Mr. Thorne

I understand from Mr. Speaker's ruling that we are addressing ourselves to Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3, the first of which refers to taking out of the Bill the list of ship-repairing companies. As a consequence, ship repairing is removed from the Bill. I am one of those who prefer to see that happen rather than to see any further delay in the public ownership of the aircraft and shipbuilding industries. On that ground, I and many of my colleagues accept the situation with which we are faced. The sooner the job is done, the better.

I wish to make two or three points which, I hope will be in order on the basis of Mr. Speaker's ruling. They arise from the deletion of the ship-repairing companies which will therefore not be nationalised. If any of these ship-repairing companies run into difficulties in future, they might apply to the Department of Industry for financial support for their undertakings. As a consequence, public funds will be made available to them. I hope that it will be possible for the Secretary of State for Industry to indicate that in that event we should reconsider our whole approach to providing public funds, particularly to firms that have indicated their opposition to public ownership. If these companies are to receive any public funds, ways should be found to provide public accountability in respect of those funds. Clearly, the best way of doing that is what was envisaged when the Bill was drawn up, namely, public ownership.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) said something about what would happen to the aircraft and shipbuilding industries after the Bill was passed. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recognises that a major building operation is required in both industries, and that there are major employment problems, particularly for the aircraft industry. Many of my constituents are workers in that industry, and it will be necessary, immediately following the establishment of the two corporations, for discussions to be held with the trade union movement to determine what urgent steps should be taken to prevent a likely contraction of the work force.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend can give that sort of undertaking if it is appropriate and in order—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

I have been considering the line being developed by the hon. Gentleman. It is not in order to pursue that line during discussion of the three Lords amendments.

Mr. Thorne

In view of that ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall draw my remarks to a close merely by welcoming the fact that at last the aircraft and shipbuilding industries will be taken into public ownership.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Two things need to be said at this final stage in the passage of the Bill. The first is that the Lords have done exactly what they said they would do and not what the Government accuse them of doing. The Lords said that they passed the amendments to remove ship repairing so as to take out the hybridity in the Bill. The Government denied that and accused the House of Lords of delaying the legislation. Had the House of Lords wanted to do more than remove the hybridity, it would have been at liberty to remove the ship-repairing activities of companies included under the shipbuilding provisions, but it did not.

The second point concerns an event which passed unnoticed in the Press at the time, though it should not have done so, because it is the reason we have these amendments before us today. We had similar amendments before us on Tuesday 7th December. They failed to pass by two votes on that occasion because three Liberal Members—the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) and the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston)—failed to vote with their colleagues for those amendments that day. Had those amendments been carried, the Bill would have left this House for the House of Lords with the hybrid element removed. The Lords would not then have had to—

Mr. Thorne

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the ruling from the Chair, is the matter now being raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) in order?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

As far as I have heard the hon. Member, he has been in order, and I am sure that he will stay in order.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I am grateful for that ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am explaining why it is desirable in my view that we should agree with the House of Lords in these amendments, which is the Question before the House.

The amendments are necessary because of the decision that the House took on Tuesday 7th December when three Liberal Members failed to vote with their colleagues and with the Conservatives, the SNP, the Welsh nationalists and the, for once appropriately called, United Ulster Unionists. In fact, the entire Opposition and some Members of the Government supported the amendments.

Because of that decision the House of Lords had to spend 27 days in hearings and devote to the Bill a lot of legislative time, a process which otherwise would not have been necessary. That being the case, we can now repair the omission by those three Liberal Members by adopting these amendments, which I therefore commend to the House.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

I intervene only briefly, but since this group of amendments affects many of my constituents directly, it is only right for me to seek certain assurances from my hon. Friend the Minister of State before we agree to the Lords amendments.

I am referring, of course, to the exclusion of the ship-repairing companies, many of which are in my constituency. A large number of my constituents—the largest single group of workers in my constituency—work for those companies. May I have an assurance that three companies which employ my constituents—Brigham and Cowan Ltd., the Mercantile Dry Dock Co. Ltd., and the Middle Docks and Engineering Company Ltd., all of which form part of North-East Coast Ship Repairers Limited and which are already in public ownership—will be taken into the new public holding company?

Mr. Kaufman

indicated assent.

Mr. Blenkinsop

May we therefore have an assurance that there will be no delay in these companies developing projects that are eagerly anticipated by the men in those yards who are anxious to make their full contribution to this activity?

Another ship-repair company is mentioned in this list. It is Swan Hunter Ship Repairers Tyne Limited, which has a yard in my constituency. That firm is of course related to the Swan Hunter shipbuilding company and I am not clear whether the repair company will be taken into the holding company.

Finally, I wish to make clear that my constituents regret that it has been necessary to accept the amendment, as they had hoped that the Bill would go forward in its original version.

Mr. Kaufman

May I assist my hon. Friend? The three subsidiaries of North-East Coast Ship Repairers will be transferred to the corporation. Swan Hunter Ship Repairers Tyne Limited will be excluded by the amendments. If that company, however, wishes to discuss with the Department of Industry the acquisition by British Shipbuilders of Swan Hunter Ship Repairers Tyne Limited on suitable terms, we shall be glad to discuss it with the company as we are already discussing the matter with three other companies that are excluded from the list and that have approached us with a view to being acquired.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I support the Lords in their amendments. The fact that the resultant Bill is a shabby compromise lacking any principle is no fault of the Opposition. There is nothing further that one can say without going beyond the rules of order.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 agreed to.