HC Deb 09 March 1989 vol 148 cc1017-9
3. Mr. Colvin

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what response has been received to the offer by Her Majesty's Government to sell Short Brothers Ltd.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tom King)

I advised the House last week that six preliminary proposals for the purchase of Shorts had been received, and that two—Bombardier Inc. and GEC/Fokker—were being asked to submit final proposals by 30 April. I also said that I was considering whether a further proposal should be included in the short-list. I can now inform the House that I met MBB yesterday and have agreed to add its name to the short-list.

Mr. Colvin

It would be wrong to ask my right hon. Friend to state a preference for any of those three bids, but will he note that of the three on the short-list MMB is busy with the takeover by Daimler-Benz? The GEC/Fokker consortium bid looks like a bit of a carve-up of the company, and only Bombardier can meet those requirements set out by the company for privatisation which have been endorsed by his Department. For the record, will my right hon. Friend refresh our memory on those requirements and give an undertaking that he will decide which bid is to be successful without any delay after the deadline date in order to remove the uncertainty hanging over the company.

Mr. King

To avoid any misunderstanding, it is MBB, not MMB, that is bidding—in case anyone thinks that the Milk Marketing Board is indulging in a rather unusual diversification.

My hon. Friend rightly said that I should not indulge in any advance speculation, and then he took the opportunity to do so. I do not intend to prejudge the matter. I invited each of those companies to put forward final proposals by 30 April because I judged each of them to be of substance and with an involvement in the industry to be able to make a substantial contribution to our objective—which is to see Shorts go into the private sector on a basis that offers the greatest benefit to the Northern Ireland economy and the best possible future for the people who work in the company.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The Secretary of State will recall that, when giving evidence to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, he paid particular attention to the importance of the three divisions of the company remaining intact. Do any or all of the three bidders envisage keeping together the company's three divisions, and do any or all of the three bidders intend to proceed with the FJX project?

Mr. King

Short Brothers plc does not yet know the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question and has not put forward any proposals. It wishes to go forward with the FJX. Everyone who has expressed an interest is absolutely aware that our preferred course is to return the company, as a single unit, to the private sector. These matters are being considered and as—the hon. Gentleman knows—each of the groups of companies that I described knows Short Brothers extremely well. Some are already partners with Shorts in different activities, and are well aware of the different divisions of Shorts and the way in which they contribute to the total enterprise.

Mr. John D. Taylor

Following the submission of the three proposals in April, how long does the Secretary of State require before he reaches his final decision?

Mr. King

I cannot give a specific answer, but I am anxious to reach the earliest possible decision and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will support me in that. It is clearly desirable to bring this period of uncertainty to an end and I am hopeful—from what I have already heard and discussions that I have had with the three groups concerned, and because there is also now an upturn in airliner activity and a considerable demand for aeroplanes—that there is a good opportunity for us to do so. I can certainly confirm that the Government are determined to do all that they can to bring the matter to a speedy and successful conclusion.

Mr. Jim Marshall

We appreciate that the Secretary of State has difficult decisions to make on this matter. However, I must press him further on the three bids. Will he give an assurance that, when considering the bids, he will favour the one that offers the best prospects for the survival of the three component parts of the present company when it is privatised?

Mr. King

I have made clear our preferred option, and that is the basis on which we invited bids. I must also make clear my determination to achieve the best possible outcome. This is one matter over which there is no doubt, and which nobody seriously challenges. I am grateful for the support of the Select Committee, composed of hon. Members from both sides of the House, on this. It is of the greatest importance to end public ownership of Shorts as soon as possible so that it can move into the private sector. Public ownership has not been a good friend of Short Brothers plc and the sooner it ends the better.