HC Deb 09 December 1986 vol 107 cc164-6
3. Mr. Hicks

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is the present position regarding his proposals to introduce commercial management into the royal dockyards; and if he will make a statement.

8. Mr. Wallace

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what recent consultations have taken place with the relevant trade unions concerning the Government's plan for commercial management of the dockyards.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger)

As I announced on 4 December, we have begun the final stages of consultation over the future management arrangements for the royal dockyards. To this end, we have released details for the contract which could be signed with our preferred contractor, Babcock Thorn, and responded in full to the trade union paper which I received on 24 November. I have placed a copy of my paper in the Library.

I have asked the unions to let me have their views on the way ahead for Rosyth before Christmas so that I can come to a final judgment early in the new year, if necessary after another meeting with the trade unions. Contract negotiations are continuing with the three bidders for Devonport, and I hope to be able to announce the preferred contractor there shortly to enable consultation for that dockyard to be completed early in the new year.

Mr. Hicks

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is prepared genuinely to consider the possibility of the alternative options for Devonport, such as either a trading fund or a Government-owned plc, in his consultations with the trade unions, so that the consulations will not be confined to details relating to his predecessor's preferred option of agency management?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said. I assure him that I intend the consultation process to be as full as it possibly can be. Of course, it is open to the unions to raise with me any aspect of the matter at any point in the consultations.

Mr. Wallace

Does the Secretary of State not accept that, by making an announcement with regard to Babcock Thorn, he has acted with the utmost insensitivity and doubtful legality? If, by doing that, he has excluded some of the options for Rosyth, which the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) has mentioned, what substance does he think will be given to any future consulations that he has with trade unionists from Rosyth?

Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman has got this matter wrong. The other side of the coin, when we have maximum consultation, is that all those concerned require maximum information in order to give their views and to be properly consulted. I would rightly have been criticised if I had seen the consultation process as continuing without giving the unions an opportunity to comment on what is, I think, our preferred solution. I have made it clear to them that I have not taken a final decision and that all their views will be taken into account before I do.

Mr. Gordon Brown

What is the point of promising to consult the work force of Rosyth when Babcock Thorn, the preferred contractor, says that it has already agreed what amounts to a 1,000-page contract with the Ministry of Defence? Will the Secretary of State tell us the truth? How many compulsory redundancies have been discussed with Babcok Thorn? Will he deny the extraordinary statement by Babcok Thorn this morning that not just HMS Conqueror but all hunter-killer work is to be moved from Rosyth, with hundreds more jobs at risk?

Mr. Younger

Again, I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has properly read the statements that have been made. He expects his friends in the trade unions concerned to consult me. If I do not give them information as to what the preferred course might be, I do not know how they could consult about somthing when they would not know what they were consulting about. The hon. Gentleman would be the first to take me to task if I had not done that. He would have accused me of keeping them in the dark.

Redundancies are common to any solution, including no change. Redundancies are caused by the fact that the work load that is in prospect for the dockyards, and indeed the possible contractorisation of these yards, offer a new prospect for these yards by getting outside civilian work to add to their work load. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.

Dr. Owen

Is the Secretary of State, by saying that he hopes to announce the third contractor shortly for Devonport dockyard, merely saying that he is no longer open to persuasion about a Government-owned plc or a trading fund, that there is no genuine consultation and that the consultation has been a sham throughout the last few years?

Mr. Younger

I am surprised at the right hon. Gentleman's question, because what he and his hon. Friends are now suggesting is that the consultation process would be better if I were to withold some of the relevant information from the trade unions before I consult them. That is not a sensible proposition. It surprises me that the right hon. Gentleman should espouse that idea.

Mr. O'Neill

The House is aware that the Secretary of State has not denied the substance of the Babcock Thorn statement. What is more, it is now common knowledge that the man who is to run the dockyard for Babcock and Thorn has been replaced by Babcock Power in Scotland. Is not this whole strategy and the failure to make any honest commitment to the House or confirm the numbers of redundancies evidence that the contractorisation strategy is in ruins and that the Navy is once again being made to pay for defence cuts?

Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman is going a bit over the top. I have not seen the statement that was made by Babcock today, so I cannot comment upon whatever it is. With regard to the submarine refit programme, I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing new and nothing surprising in the announcement about HMS Conqueror. It was a perfectly normal adjustment of programme to make sure that the work goes to the most appropriate place in the dockyard system where there is the capacity to deal with it. The question of jobs, one way or another, is not affected plus or minus by the contractorisation process. What it is affected by is the work load, and that is common to all solutions.