HC Deb 26 May 1988 vol 134 cc502-3
1. Mr. Callaghan

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he last met representatives of Harland and Wolff; and if he will make a statement.

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

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last met the chairman of Harland and Wolff on 30 March. I most recently met the chairman on 10 May, when we discussed progress and the company's forward plans.

Mr. Callaghan

I thank the Minister for that answer. What discussions has he had with representatives of the Harland and Wolff shipyard about the Ultimate Dream cruise liner project? What is his thinking on the matter, given its crucial significance to the future of the yard and Northern Ireland manufacturing bases?

Mr. Viggers

I accept that it is an extremely important project for Harland and Wolff and for Northern Ireland generally. It is, however, at a conceptual design stage and has not been comprehensively costed. When we receive the costings we shall give the project careful and sympathetic consideration. It is too early to say what the Government's decision will be.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Can the Minister think of any other shipbuilding nation that levels abuse and insults at its potential customers? Does the Minister have any remarks for those—sad to say, some of his colleagues are among them—who try to equate the shipowner Ravi Tikkoo with John De Lorean? Has he or his Department taken any steps to assure that shipowner that his proposal will be given a fair run?

Mr. Viggers

I am baffled by the hon. Gentleman's remarks. The relationship between the Government and Harland and Wolff is cordial. I am not aware of any comment derogatory to Mr. Tikkoo being made by the Government or any of my colleagues. From everything that I have heard, he has an outstanding business reputation.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the opportunity to raise further issues relating to Harland and Wolff in the Adjournment debate tomorrow, and I look forward to his contribution.

Mr. Beggs

Will the Minister confirm, for those who doubt the ability of Harland and Wolff to cope with such a major order, if it is fortunate enough to obtain it, that it is willing and has the expertise and co-operation between management and work force and that redundancies have slimmed down the yard to make it one of the most efficient in the United Kingdom? Will he reiterate his Department's willingness to give such support as may be required to ensure the continuance of shipbuilding in Belfast for the benefit of Northern Ireland and many companies on the mainland, which have written to those of us who have an interest in the matter seeking our support to ensure that their work forces are maintained in employment on the mainland?

Mr. Viggers

I welcome the recent flexibility in the work force at Harland and Wolff. While we have been left in no doubt about the project from the representations made by union leaders, politicians and others in Northern Ireland, it would be premature to comment, as we have not received the detailed costings and do not know what subsidy, if any, will be required if the ship is to proceed.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

I am sure that we all wish Harland and Wolff well in its search for work in the difficult merchant shipbuilding market. That market is not difficult only for Harland and Wolff, as I am sure the Minister appreciates. Can he assure the House that the Government will not put subsidies into Harland and Wolff in excess of what is allowable under the sixth EC directive? Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that there is no question of taking merchant yards in mainland Britain out of shipbuilding or of negotiating with our European partners for additional subsidies for Harland and Wolff?

Mr. Viggers

The hon. Gentleman has been an assiduous questioner on this subject. I reiterate that the sixth EC directive, limiting merchant shipbuilding subsidy to 28 per cent., applies to Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom Government comply with that. On the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question, it would not be inconsistent with Government policy to do as he says.

Mr. Jim Marshall

Does the Minister accept the perceived wisdom in the shipping industry that shipbuilding is due for an upturn in the 1990s and that Harland and Wolff is ideally placed to take advantage of it? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Harland and Wolff must survive into the 1990s, so Government aid to the yard will continue to be necessary?

Mr. Viggers

There has been speculation and informed comment that there might be an upturn in the world shipbuilding market in the early 1990s and thereafter. There was similar comment throughout the 1980s and, in each case, there was speculation that the upturn might come in two years' time. We shall study the position carefully, but will look primarily at the costings of the ship to ascertain whether any subsidy is required of us. We do not even know whether one will be required or its size. When we have the facts we shall make a decision, based on the best interests of all the people in Northern Ireland.