HC Deb 17 December 1991 vol 201 cc129-30
1. Mr. James Lamond

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what information he has on the number of jobs in the north-west region of England which are related to defence requirements.

7. Mr. Bill Michie

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his latest estimate of the impact upon jobs in the defence industry of his Department's plans for the future.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark)

Historical figures, broken down by region, for the number of jobs related to defence requirements are published in volume 2 of the 1991 "Statement on the Defence Estimates", a copy of which is in the Library.

The future level of employment in the defence industry is a matter for the commercial judgment of the companies concerned.

Mr. Lamond

That answer is in line with what we have had before, so it is not unexpected. If we are prepared to participate in a European bank for reconstruction and development to help countries in eastern Europe which are facing the same problems as Britain's defence industry workers, could we not at least set up a defence diversification agency to help the tens of thousands of workers in the north-west and throughout the United Kingdom who will be thrown on to the scrap heap?

Mr. Clark

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, which is shared by my Department, but I do not think that on reflection he would want the defence industry to be singled out for particular treatment from our other manufacturing industries. We are particularly concerned about the anxiety and deprivation that result when people lose their jobs as a result of the changing international climate. I am in constant touch with defence industry leaders through the National Defence Industries Council and the Defence Manufacturers Association, and my Department participates in the regional seminar staged by the DTI for small and medium-sized defence industries. An agency such as the hon. Gentleman suggests would do little more than we are already doing unless it were funded and empowered to make grants and loans which, as he will realise, is not a practical suggestion, because it would mean singling out a particular sector of British industry.

Mr. Bill Michie

Opposition Members will obviously be disappointed at the Minister's reply which is characterised by his usual laid-back approach to the matter. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that our competitors in Europe and elsewhere will ensure that whatever happens to future orders their defence industries will be compensated by alternative diversification? Once again, the Government seem not to give a damn what happens to our skills and to the jobs of the future. As always since the Government came into power, we are in the slow lane.

Mr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman's question is completely misleading. Among our so-called competitors, the United States and west German defence industries are suffering much heavier job losses than we are. The job losses in United Kingdom defence industries as a result of the change of emphasis in British procurement are as nothing compared with those that would be suffered under the Labour party's defence policy—if so dignified a term can be used for something so confused, contradictory and misleading. Such job losses would be horrific and far more widespread.

Mr. Dover

My right hon. Friend will no doubt be aware of the importance of British Aerospace as a major employer in the defence industry in the north-west. Will he accept its deep gratitude for the way in which his officials are explaining his Department's needs so as to ensure that the right commercial decisions are made about the markets to go for in future?

Mr. Clark

My hon. Friend makes an important point about markets. It ill behoves Opposition Members constantly, for ideological reasons, to decry my Department's sponsorship of the sale of arms to friendly countries wishing to defend themselves within the terms of, for example, article 51 of the United Nations charter.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Is not my hon. Friend delighted with the $450 million order—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is most unseemly.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

—that British Aerospace has just won for 20 RJ70s that is especially designed for the United States market and fills a niche that no one else could have filled?

Mr. Clark

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that good example of the special skills and capabilities that the British defence industry still has, and which I do not doubt will serve it well in future in both domestic and export markets.

Mr. O'Neill

The Minister has repeatedly said that he does not want to single out the defence industry for special consideration. He surely recollects the precedents set in the steel and coal industries, in which the Community was involved in Europewide initiatives to limit the impact of the decline in demand for the products of the companies concerned. If the Minister is not prepared to shoulder the burden on behalf of the British taxpayer, is the time not right for him to work with the European Community in establishing a Europewide diversification initiative?

Mr. Clark

I have not heard of such an initiative, but if one were to be promulgated by the Community, we would consider it carefully.

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