HC Deb 25 February 1988 vol 128 cc433-4
11. Mr. Nicholas Brown

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has now made any public subsidy available in relation to the AOR1 contract at Harland and Wolff.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Viggers)

No, Sir.

Mr. Brown

In view of the Minister's predictable answer, will he assure the House that the Government are not in breach of the EEC sixth directive on shipbuilding, which must apply to Harland and Wolff as it does to other merchant shipyards? In the light of press speculation in Monday's Belfast Telegraph, can he make a statement to the House on the future of Harland and Wolff?

Mr. Viggers

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Harland and Wolff must comply with the EC sixth directive. I saw the speculative story to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The position has not changed in recent weeks. The future of the yard will depend upon its ability to win orders—this, too, has not changed in recent weeks — within the constraints of the EC sixth directive, which limits Government subsidy on merchant shipping orders to 28 per cent.

Mr. Maginnis

Does the Minister agree that there is a difference between orders for merchant ships and orders for ships for the Royal Navy, the first category being eligible for subsidy, whereas the second is not? Will he tell the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) that it is time he realised that if the AOR2 had been allocated on merit, perhaps Swan Hunter would not have received the contract and it would have gone properly to Harland and Wolff, as the AOR1 did?

Mr. Viggers

The hon. Gentleman has made his own point to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). The hon. Gentleman is right about shipbuilding orders. The EC sixth directive relates to merchant shipbuilding orders. I am pleased that Harland and Wolff has now virtually completed the ATS vessel, which should be delivered shortly to the Ministry of Defence. Of course, the AOR1 is also under construction in the yard.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Will the Minister tell the House that it is the view of the Northern Ireland Office that Harland and Wolff has been making determined efforts to better its lot in the shipbuilding industry? What is his Department doing to ensure that the speculation in recent newspaper reports will not come about.

Mr. Viggers

We congratulate Harland and Wolff on the efforts that it has made to improve its performance, but its future will depend on its ability to win further shipbuilding orders within the constraints to which I have referred.

Mr. Jim Marshall

May I press the Minister further on the future of Harland and Wolff? He will be aware that in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday of this week there was an article which said that closure was an option being considered by the Government. Will the Minister take the opportunity to deny that closure is on the cards? As the Minister knows, the economic future of Belfast and of Northern Ireland will be disastrous if the shipyard is closed. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. May I ask hon. Members not to carry on private conversations?

Mr. Viggers

I have already said in my response to the initial question that the position has not changed in recent weeks. The future of the yard must depend on management's ability to win orders. That is not the Government's responsibility. It is the responsibility of management, and we support it in its search.