HC Deb 20 March 1991 vol 188 cc267-9
3. Mr. Leadbitter

To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he next plans to meet the European Commissioner, Sir Leon Brittan, to discuss shipbuilding within the United Kingdom and the EC.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Edward Leigh)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will meet Sir Leon Brittan on 22 March to discuss a number of issues. I shall be seeing him tomorrow to discuss shipbuilding issues in particular.

Mr. Leadbitter

I am glad that the Secretary of State is to see the Commissioner tomorrow to discuss various matters. Is the Minister aware that, as recently as 5 March this year, Lloyd's List published an account showing a dramatic 80 per cent. decline in British shipbuilding in the past decade? Is he aware that Denmark, Italy and Germany have increased their share of the world market in shipbuilding orders, whereas British shipbuilding's share has shrunk to 0.77 per cent? Bearing in mind today's calamitous news about shipbuilding in Barrow-in-Furness, what does the Minister propose to do to encourage our shipbuilding industry, which is one of the finest in the world, to expand? Or is he going to sit on his backside and let the industry decline further?

Mr. Leigh

The hon. Gentleman's latter point was the serious part of the question. I was sorry to hear the news from Barrow today which is, of course, the result of the company's need to restructure and improve its competitiveness in the face of changing defence requirements. I shall be visiting Barrow on Monday and I shall be able to see at first hand the nature and scale of the problems facing British Shipbuilders Enterprise Ltd. and their likely impact on the local community.

I repeat that I shall be seeing Sir Leon Brittan tomorrow and I shall discuss with him the aid that we are allowed by the Commmission to give to British shipbuilding. Given that British shipbuilding has restructured so successfully over the past 10 to 15 years—it is now more competitive than it has ever been and is well placed to take advantage of the recent upsurge in shipbuilding orders worldwide—it is clearly in the interests of British Shipbuilders that we phase out subsidies as soon as we can and I shall continue to urge the Commission to do just that.

Mr. Hill

Does my hon. Friend recall that some years ago—before he was a Minister—there was a European scrap and build scheme, aimed mainly at the safety factor of merchant shipping? In his discussions with Sir Leon Brittan, will he explore the possibility of any part of such a scheme being used to support some of Britain's shipbuilding potential? Rather than wasting vast sums on some social scheme or other, the European Community might introduce a scrap and build scheme to which all the nations could agree.

Mr. Leigh

That is an interesting suggestion. I shall certainly examine it carefully and, if appropriate, raise it with Sir Leon tomorrow. The Commission permits us to put a subsidy of 13 per cent. on large ships and we subsidise large ships to the maximum extent that we are allowed. I will pursue with Sir Leon any other ways in which we can help British Shipbuilders.

Ms. Quin

Will the Minister give a clear undertaking to discuss with Sir Leon——

Mr. Skinner

They have given money to Germany.

Mr. Holt

Shut up.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that it is better left to me. Ms. Quin.

Ms. Quin

Will the Minister give a clear undertaking that, when he meets Sir Leon Brittan, he will discuss the catastrophic job losses in Barrow? Will he confirm that, unless action is taken, the losses are likely to occur within two years rather than four years? Can he give the workers in Barrow any hope that some of them will retain jobs in the merchant shipbuilding sector, or does he propose simply to let the decline in that sector continue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) suggested?

Mr. Leigh

I have already said that I shall be raising a number of matters with Sir Leon Brittan tomorrow. I gave a full answer to the earlier question and I have nothing to add—except that we understand that the job losses will take place over four years. I repeat that they are the result of the restructuring deemed necessary by management in the face of changing defence requirements.