HC Deb 10 June 1985 vol 80 cc623-5
3. Mr. Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make it his policy to encourage nationalised industries for which he is responsible to buy from British firms wherever possible.

7. Mr. Eastham

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he has issued any guidance to the British Railways Board concerning the nationality of companies tendering for new locomotive and carriage contracts.

Mr. Ridley

In line with the Government's purchasing policy, we would expect to see nationalised industries choosing to buy British, provided the products and prices are right. In the last few days the BR chairman has reaffirmed that that is indeed BR policy.

Mr. Evans

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that it would be a disaster if major British companies such as GEC and its Ruston diesel works in my constituency did not win the contract for the next generation of British Rail locomotives? Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear to the chairman of British Rail that it is essential that should there be any tenders from foreign companies for the next generation of locomotives, they must be subject to the most rigorous scrutiny to ensure that there are no hidden subsidies or unfair competition in those tenders?

Mr. Ridley

Two main locomotive orders are coming forward, one for the Electra class 91 electric locomotives and the other for the replacement of the freight diesel locomotives. There are now three contenders, as it were —three tenderers—for the first. British Rail has not yet gone out to tender on the second, although it is much the biggest programme. I assure the hon. Gentleman that BR is acutely aware of the desirability of getting competitive prices and standards of performance from British manufacturers, and I hope that it will succeed in doing so because we all have the same interests in mind.

Mr. Eastham

Is the Secretary of State aware that when Mr. Bob Reid, the chairman of British Rail, was interviewed recently about the locomotive orders he stated clearly that there are no inhibitions on placing orders abroad? Would it not be idiotic to see British Rail ordering those locomotives from France, America or Japan? Does the Minister believe that any of those countries would place orders in this country?

Mr. Ridley

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, many overseas markets are open to British Rail Engineering Ltd. If we are to be able to sell our railway stock overseas, we should be prepared to buy overseas. In relation to the hon. Gentleman's first point, I shall quote from Railnews, in which the chairman of British Rail said:

the Board's policy is to buy British whenever the product and the price is right; we buy 95 per cent, of our goods, supplies and services from British firms. So the chairman is aware of the sort of views that the hon. Gentleman expresses.

Mr. Adley

Is the problem not just the reliability of some British Rail engines, but the lack of extensive manufacturing runs available to British diesel engine manufacturers? Will my right hon. Friend study what was done by the Conservative Government in the 1930s when they gave assistance to private railway companies? Will he do likewise and place orders at Government expense with British manufacturers for some prototypes to enable British Rail to make detailed and extensive tests?

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend correctly mentions reliability. There are more complaints from hon. Members about punctuality on the railways than any other subject. If we are to improve punctuality, we must have reliable railway engines which do not break down. That is why it must be right for British Rail to ensure the reliability of the products that it is now seeking to buy. It is for British Rail to decide which prototypes it will purchase. It has been purchasing several prototype locomotives so that it can assess their performance.

Mr. Robert Hughes

The Secretary of State mentioned overseas orders available to British Rail. Is he not aware that foreign buyers will not buy British products if our railway system does not buy them? Why does he not put some investment into British Rail to help its workshops to develop new coaches and various things? Why does he not do something instead of whining all the time about the need for competitiveness?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. He will be aware that a number of foreign railways have purchased from British Rail Engineering Ltd. Mexico has recently ordered a number of International coaches. If we are to keep such markets open, we cannot declare a policy that our market will be closed. I am not remotely prepared to do that. If the engineering industry can sell to British Rail —winning competition on prices and standards—it can win orders overseas at the same time, because it will be in a superior position to do so.

Mr. Viggers

Does my right hon. Friend agree that attractive though protectionism may seem in individual cases, it is contrary to the European Community rules and would lead to disaster for us as a major trading and exporting nation? However, will he ensure that our European partners are as fair as we are?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with both my hon. Friend's points. A protectionist policy would not just be illegal under our obligations under the treaty of Rome, it would be disastrous because it would encourage our industry to lose its competitive edge and thus be unable to earn more orders in the world market and create more jobs.

Mr. Snape

Does the Secretary of State accept that under this Government we have already seen the closure of Horwich railway works, that we are shortly to see the closure of the Swindon railway works and that outside the inter-city network British Rail is falling apart? Is it not about time that the Government started defending British railway engineering expertise instead of giving aid and comfort to our competitors, and started to protect British workmen and an industry which this country gave to the world instead of seeking continually to undermine it?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman, as always, is wholly wrong. He should know that the high level of investment in British Rail for which he and his hon. Friends have been calling has been delivered by the Government. The result of that investment is that the products do not need so much maintenance and repair. That has been the cause of the lack of work for British Rail Engineering Limited. If the hon. Gentleman does not know that, he should ask the union that sponsors him to tell him.