HC Deb 23 February 1984 vol 54 cc959-61
4. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the future of the aircraft industry in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Butler

There are two companies in Northern Ireland which are involved in aircraft manufacture. They are Short Brothers Ltd., which is publicly owned, and Lear Fan Ltd., in which the Government have a small shareholding. Shorts, which is the largest manufacturing employer in Northern Ireland, is continuing to develop its business in aerostructures, missiles and aircraft, and has good expectations of expanding its business profitably. The Lear Fan aircraft is at the leading edge of technology and its prospects depend on its attaining airworthiness certification.

Mr. Dubs

Do the Government intend to privatise Shorts?

Mr. Butler

We have no immediate intention so to do, but there is no reason why, given certain safeguards, Shorts should not be returned to the private sector.

Mr. Colvin

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government intend to privatise Shorts there would be no shortage of buyers? Will he take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work force and management of Short Brothers Ltd. which has led the field in increased productivity and has a large number of contracts with overseas manufacturers? In particular, will he pay tribute to the leadership of Sir Philip Foreman, who has done so well in increasing productivity?

Mr. Butler

I echo what my hon. Friend says about the performance of the management and work force. Before privatisation, Shorts must demonstrate a record of profitability. It has just broken into operating profit, and I hope that it will now go further.

Mr. Nicholson

Will the Minister join me in denouncing the serious act of wanton destruction in Armagh city in the early hours of Monday morning, which put the jobs of 200 people in my constituency at serious risk? Will he give an assurance that he will do everything in his power to—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not certain that this has anything to do with the aircraft industry.

Mr. Butler

It is possible that Bairnswear was producing knitwear for the employees of those firms. This is an important matter and I join the hon. Gentleman in denouncing what occurred. Those who aspire to serve the interests of Ireland do total damage to it by destroying jobs for people in Armagh and creating a worse image of the Province.

Mr. Robert Atkins

As one who travels on a Shorts 330 some weekends to my constituency — [HON. MEMBERS: "A private one?"] Yes, a private airline—may I add my tribute to the work done by Shorts? Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the Defence Department of the United States is giving the Sherpa a fair crack of the whip in the competition for that aeroplane, which the United States Government require for their armed forces?

Mr. Butler

I hope that the airline which my hon. Friend flies will soon be buying 360s. The answer to his question is yes, we believe that the case has been made thoroughly and it is being reviewed now both by the United States air force and by the United States Administration. Naturally we hope it will succeed, because it will mean an expansion of Shorts business as well as 500 or 600 new, much-needed jobs.

Mr. Archer

Is the hon. Gentlemn aware that his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) will be viewed within the context of the whole strategy of the Government of divesting the public in the next four years of any asset which shows itself to be profitable, irrespective of the interests of the work force, the local community or the general economy? If the voice is the voice of the hon. Gentleman, is the hand not the hand of the Prime Minister?

Mr. Butler

Having led in this House on the British Aerospace Bill, as it was then, I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it is my hand and my policy, which I share with my right hon. Friend. The right hon. and learned Gentleman gets the story completely wrong. If and when privatisation were to come about, it would be to the advantage of the work force. I would hope, for instance, that they would be able to participate in the shareholding in the company, which they cannot do at the moment. Of course, it would be necessary, among other things, to have safeguards to ensure that the business remained in Northern Ireland.