HC Deb 08 February 1979 vol 962 cc557-60

Mr. Penhaligon (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will make a statement about the proposed closure of Falmouth docks.

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

This is a matter for British Shipbuilders and they have informed us that they intend to announce later this afternoon the cessation of ship repairing at Falmouth.

In the light of that, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be taking the necessary steps to make the Falmouth employment office area a special development area.

Mr. Penhaligon

The south-west of Cornwall will be pleased to hear the latter part of the Minister's reply, but is he aware what the loss of 1,400 jobs in the Falmouth travel-to-work area will mean? Is he aware that for a long time the docks have been the economic backbone of a significant part of Cornwall? Can he tell us what alternatives have been considered? The harbour is one of the nation's great natural resources—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question—and he has asked three already.

Mr. Kaufman

I fully acknowledge that this is a serious blow for that part of the country. That is why the Government have immediately decided to take steps to assist the area. I must tell the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) that if his vote had been successful and the Act to nationalise the shipbuilding and aircraft industries had not been carried, the ship repair company at Falmouth, which was a loss-maker when it was nationalised, would have been closed long ago, and the workers who are being displaced now would not have had the benefit of the Government's special shipbuilding redundancy payments.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Absolute rubbish.

Mr. Mudd

Since Falmouth is my constituency, will the Minister answer two questions, both based on fact? Why did he not make clear that the docks are being closed with the approval of the Government, at the request of British Shipbuilders? Why did he also not make clear that Falmouth docks were not nationalised as a consequence of the Act but were voluntarily bought by British Shipbuilders from the private owners, ostensibly because British Shipbuilders thought that the docks could reach a break-even point in their economics?

Mr. Kaufman

There had been losses by the ship repair yard for many years. When it was taken over, the loss in the last full year of private ownership was £1,262,000. British Shipbuilders took it over voluntarily in an effort to assist on the basis that they believed that it could be turned round to viability, despite the years of losses under private enterprise. However, as a result of the recession and a continuing record of low productivity, it is British Shipbuilders' considered commercial judgment that there is no prospect of commercial viability in sight. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) must tell us whether he wishes the Government to use public expenditure to subsidise the docks.

Mr. Litterick

Will the Minister confirm that the Conservative Party has repeatedly declared that it will not give public financial assistance to private enterprises that are making losses? Will he also confirm that the Conservative Party has also said that it will close any public enterprise that is making a loss?

Mr. Kaufman

The right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) says that repeatedly. British Shipbuilders took on the firm, knowing that it was a loss-maker, and endeavoured to turn it round. In the very difficult circumstances of the world ship repair market, they have found that impossible. Unlike what might have happened under private enterprise, however, British Shipbuilders have decided to look after the 120 apprentices who are employed at Falmouth.

Mr. du Cann

What plans are being made for the possible reactivation of Falmouth docks, which are, as the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) rightly said, an important national asset, in the event that the long-term plans for the development of oil resources off the Cornwall coast should materialise?

Mr. Kaufman

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman because he has raised a practical and important question. The fact that the cessation of ship repairing is to take place does not mean that British Shipbuilders are to close Falmouth docks totally. They will retain them with a small work force for some residual activities on a care and maintenance basis. If circumstances change, in the way that the right hon. Gentleman hopes, it may be possible for British Shipbuilders to re-examine the position.

Mr. Stoddart

Is the Minister aware that, although it is a matter of regret that Falmouth docks should be closing, I congratulate him on the immediate action that he has taken to make Falmouth a special development area? Will he do everything else he can to help employment in that part of the South-West which is a general area of high unemployment and low wages?

Mr. Kaufman

Certainly. A deputation from Cornwall county council is coming to London on 19 February to meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and these matters will be considered at that meeting. I should like to assure my hon. Friend that the Government are considering urgently the scope for other measures to help Falmouth, including the provision of more advance factories, for which land is being sought.

Mr. Norman Lamont

Have not British Shipbuilders got other closures in mind? Since those most likely to be affected have a right to know, will the Minister of State tell us when he will release the corporate plan, which he has had for two months, with his proposals for 12,000 redundancies?

Mr. Kaufman

I have no proposals for 12,000 redundancies. The Government are carefully considering the corporate plan—which, as is well known, contains a number of options—because they refuse to be rushed precipitately by the Opposition into the kind of activity that they most like—getting rid of jobs indiscriminately.

Mr. Nott

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Leaving aside entirely the fact that, as a matter of courtesy, a Member who raises a point about another Member's constituency normally informs that Member, may I ask whether you are open to receiving application for private notice questions of this kind if redundancies are likely to occur in another Member's constituency? I have constituents who sometimes become redundant in the constituency of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), but I do not seek to put down a private notice question about it. If I did, I should certainly have the courtesy of referring to the hon. Gentleman before doing so. Would you, Mr. Speaker, please say whether in future you will accept applications for private notice questions concerning another Member's constituency? If so, I have a number to put to you about the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Mr. Penhaligon rose—


Mr. Penhaligon, further to that point of order.

Mr. Penhaligon

It is a fact that about a quarter of the employees at these docks live in my constituency.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not want an explanation about the question. I thought that the hon. Gentleman wanted to refer to the point of order.

I should tell the House that when I looked at this application I was conscious that the constituency Member had already made an application under Standing Order No. 9 for an emergency debate on this matter and had thus shown his deep concern for his constituents. I was well aware that the hon. Member had taken many steps to deal with it. I do not want to give my reasons to the House, but I decided on balance to allow this private notice question, which is apparently of great important to the South-West.

The normal courtesy of letting each other know is generally observed if a Member seeks to raise a matter concerning another Member's constituency. That is a matter for hon. Members, but it is normally the way that we conduct our affairs.

Mr. Mudd

On a totally new point of order, Mr. Speaker, may I say that I recognise that feelings are running very high on this matter regarding alleged trespass in other Members' constituencies? However, I refer to the Minister's reply, which I found highly subjective and dubiously distorted. Therefore, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment.