HC Deb 12 January 1989 vol 144 cc986-7
9. Mr. Cryer

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the privatisation of Harland and Wolff and Short Brothers.

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

Negotiations are continuing with the principal parties interested in acquiring Harland and Wolff.

With regard to Shorts, an information memorandum was issued on 10 January to a selected number of prospective buyers and more detailed discussions will now take place with them.

Mr. Cryer

Can the Minister justify those lunatic, catastrophic and dogmatic proposals in the light of the uncertainty about employment, investment and securing jobs in the strife-torn Province? Is it not absurd that, for example, Harland and Wolff is having to turn orders away? Only recently it lost an order for dredgers, which went to Holland. Is that not a complete catastrophe for the retention and development of jobs in Northern Ireland? Why do the Government not abandon privatisation? Will the Minister turn round and tell the woman in blue next to him to stop it?

Mr. Speaker

Order. In the House of Commons we refer to one another by our parliamentary titles or constituencies.

Mr. Viggers

Apart from anything else, the hon. Gentleman is selling Northern Ireland seriously short in terms of employment. Unemployment has fallen from 134,000 to 108,000 over the past two years. We have recently been successful in winning inward investment. The Government believe that the best future for Harland and Wolff is not in the public sector, supported by subsidy, but in the private sector, operating on a commercial basis.

As to Shorts, the information memorandum issued on 10 January invites responses by 10 February. We are now confident that we shall move the company into the private sector with Government support and that is what we intend to do. We are confident that it will be best for both companies.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Given that a number of people in senior posts at Harland and Wolff are looking for other positions because of the uncertainty there, will the Minister say how long it will take to make a decision about the shipyard? The funeral is taking place today in Belfast of the parents of the senior public relations officer of Harland and Wolff, Dr. Maria Maloney. Will the Minister join me in expressing the House's sympathy to her?

Mr. Viggers

I join the hon. Gentleman in expressing our concern and grief over those affected by Sunday's accident. Northern Ireland has a population of 1.5 million people, few of whom have not been touched in some way by this terrible accident.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall move as briskly as we can to a solution of the present position at Harland and Wolff. We are aware that uncertainty is not good for the company, but it would not be good to set a timetable that might inhibit us from pursuing certain opportunities for continuing employment at the yard.