HC Deb 15 March 2000 vol 346 cc285-6
3. Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

If he will make a statement on levels of employment in Northern Ireland. [113217]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

Latest estimates derived from the labour force survey show that there were approximately 691,000 persons employed in Northern Ireland in the period November 1999 to January 2000.

Mr. Colman

I thank the Minister for that information and congratulate him on his work in ensuring that unemployment has fallen steadily in Northern Ireland over the past three years. I commend the work of the Industrial Development Board, so ably chaired by Alan Gillespie. Does my hon. Friend share my amazement that the £400 million loan guarantee and the £38 million of intervention fund grants were described by Harland and Wolff management, in its tender for the Cunard liner, as too little, too late, and contrast that with the general welcome that has been given by both sides of the House to the £500 million loan guarantee given to British Aerospace, which will result in many jobs?

Mr. Ingram

I thank my hon. Friend for making a good point. The scale of the offer to Harland and Wolff was unprecedented. It involved two Departments: the Department of Trade and Industry and the Northern Ireland Office. It is a matter of regret that the yard did not obtain the contract; if it had, future employment could have been guaranteed to some extent.

I share my hon. Friend's amazement that the official Conservative spokesman on Northern Ireland has criticised the Government's actions. He represents a party that, in the 1980s, went out of its way to destroy the manufacturing sector throughout the United Kingdom and argued against any form of state intervention to support companies. We have shown our determination to save the yard and we shall continue to work to do so.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

In spite of the Minister's heavy load, he will be aware of the fears of Harland and Wolff's 1,700 employees and the many hundreds of others whose livelihood depends on continuous employment in the shipyard. Although the recent lack of success is disappointing, will he continue to work with management and trade unions to secure a future for Harland and Wolff and to save the shipyard from closure?

Mr. Ingram

I met senior management of Harland and Wolff last Friday, after the announcement was made. I have offered to meet them again to discuss what assistance we can offer the company in bidding for future contracts, because we value the yard and the type and quality of work it brings to Northern Ireland's economy. I am due to meet unions to discuss their concerns. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Has the Minister had an opportunity to speak to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the possibility of the Ministry of Defence revising its timetable for placing orders and seeking quotes from various yards within the United Kingdom in respect of MOD contracts?

Mr. Ingram

It is more appropriate that I first discuss in detail with the company the contracts for which it intends to bid. If it wants additional support from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and me in terms of making representations to other Departments, we stand ready to hear its requests and to make such representations.