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Aircraft And Shipbuilding Industries Bill

Volume 927: debated on Wednesday 2 March 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

In the light of the findings of the Examiners in the House of Lords that the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill is hybrid, the Government have considered what action should be taken.

The Government have decided that, in view of the grave industrial consequences of further delay to the Bill, they intend to deal with the situation created by the Examiners' findings on hybridity by proposing amendments for the deletion of the 12 ship repairing companies listed in Schedule 2 of the Bill.

Consultations have taken place with the Opposition through the usual channels and the Opposition have agreed that the Bill should now proceed to Royal Assent as a Public Bill in its present form, apart from the deletion of the 12 listed ship repairing companies. It has been agreed the Bill should receive its Second Reading in another place on Tuesday 8th March, with Committee and remaining stages on 10th March. The Bill will then return to this House for agreement to the necessary amendments. It has been further agreed that the Bill should proceed to Royal Assent forthwith. I hope that the House will be content to proceed on this basis.

Ship repairing will remain one of the duties of British Shipbuilders. Several of the listed shipbuilding companies have ship repairing operations, and three of the 12 ship repairing companies now listed in Schedule 2 are already publicly owned and will be transferred to the Corporation. The Government understand that other privately-owned ship-repairing companies wish to be acquired by the Corporation, which will be free and willing to negotiate their acquisition.

The Government intend that vesting of the aircraft companies will be next month, if that can be achieved, and of shipbuilding companies in the late spring. A statement on this will be made as soon as possible.

Is the Minister aware that although we deplore the Bill and think that it is thoroughly bad for the country and the industries concerned, and although we have fought it every inch of the way, we welcome the Government's belated acceptance of the implications of the rules of procedure and of natural justice?

Will the Minister agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) performed a valuable service in the protection of the rights of the citizen in identifying the hybridity which the Government then dodged and wriggled to deny but which has now been confirmed by a Committee containing two officials of this House and two officials of another place?

Will the Secretary of State agree that had the Government chosen to accept months ago what they are now accepting—the elimination of ship repairing from the Bill—we could not have stopped them from having the Bill last autumn? The delay of many months has been entirely the result of the pique of Ministers.

Will the Minister accept that we on this side are pledged to seek to return the nationalised companies to the private sector when we have the opportunity?

If hon. Members look at the Examiners' report objectively they will find that no credit is due to the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) because the Examiners rejected most of the grounds upon which he said that the Bill was hybrid. On close examination of the report it will be found that the Examiners used such phrases as that they had to consider "arid and trivial points" and "grotesque questions".

But I do not want to go over the ground too much because the Bill has been before Parliament for three Sessions now and, quite clearly, the damage that was being caused to the industries was severe. That is why we found it reasonable to come to this arrangement.

In our view, the Examiners' findings leave the general position of hybridity in an unsatisfactory and uncertain state. The implications of the report for future legislation will have to be considered extremely carefully by the Government, and we shall do that as a matter of urgency.

Having regard to the widespread economic damage that has been caused by the politically—motivated campaign—particularly the campaign conducted in another place—is the Minister aware that his decision will be regarded by most hon. Members on this side as unavoidable in the circumstances and that it will be welcomed, particularly by hon. Members who have shipbuilding and aircraft interests?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. There is no doubt that extremely severe damage to the industry would have resulted from further delay, not only in shipbuilding, but particularly in the aircraft industry. British Aerospace could not have entered into the collaborative arrangements that are absolutely essential if that industry is to survive.

Bearing in mind the ready co-operation of Opposition parties over the main parts of the Bill, will the Minister give an assurance that those of the 12 listed ship repairing companies that positively wish to remain private enterprises will not be subjected, at any time, to any form of industrial discrimination or financial pressure from the nationalised sector or the Government?

I do not really understand that question. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that some of the ship repairing companies that are not to be nationalised—because they are included in the schedule to the Bill containing the list of the 12 companies which are to be excluded—ought to receive Government aid, that is something we shall look at extremely carefully.

Is the Minister aware that the Government are to be warmly commended for taking this realistic step to resolve what had developed into a complex problem? Is he satisfied that there are viable boards to run the industries, particularly shipbuilding?

My right hon. Friend will be aware that over the last two months we have been rebuilding British Shipbuilders and its Organising Committee. I am confident that we have the men there to run the industry successfully, and I am sure that the managements of those companies that are to be taken into public ownership are ready to co-operate with us.

Will the Secretary of State congratulate the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), on his success in persuading the Cabinet to take this obvious step while the Secretary of State was away ill?

Has the Secretary of State noted that the facts concerning the Westminster Dredging Company that were denied on behalf of the Government in another place by Lord Peart were admitted as the truth by the Government's own witness at the hearing before the Examiners? Had Government Ministers admitted the true facts last year—which they could have discovered just as easily as Mr. Bailey—nine months would not have had to pass before we arrived at the point at which we have arrived today.

The hon. Gentleman is given to hyperbole and he exaggerates the truth. He has said on many occasions that the Bill was riddled with hybridity and, on the basis of a close examination of the Examiners' report, he knows that that is not the case. We want to see the industries taken into public ownership as quickly as possible.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I trust that all hon. Members on this side will welcome the Government's acceptance of the reality of the situation, albeit with bitterness because of the objections that were raised and the fact that many of us still believe that there was no basic argument on the question of hybridity.

Would he agree that when Mr. Bailey and Bristol Channel Ship Repairers approach the Government next year—as they undoubtedly will—for financial aid from the Department of Industry, they should be asked to go to the new shipbuilding corporation and to consider becoming part of the nationalised industry?

Under the terms of the 1972 Industry Act, if a company comes to the Government and asks for assistance we have to consider the application. If Bristol Channel Ship Repairers or any other company which is not to be taken into public ownership came to us with a proposition, we should look at it—but only in relation to the overall corporate strategy of British Shipbuilders.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, having made one concession in an area of controversy, he has set a precedent, and will he therefore give a commitment, bearing in mind the rôle of minority parties in the House, that the Government will review another area of controversy—the establishment of a Scottish shipbuilding company?

We indicated during the passage of the Bill that we should want to look at the overall organisation of British Shipbuilders. Not only merchant shipping, but warship and marine engine companies are being taken into public ownership and certain divisions of the industry may have to have some capability in countries other than England and Wales.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my hon. Friends and I welcome his statement and regret only that it was not made six or nine months ago when we were advocating this course? In order to ensure the trading situation of the companies that are not to be nationalised, can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the Government have no intention of bringing in a separate Bill to nationalise any of these firms?

Order. According to the Minister's statement, this matter will come before the House within a few weeks. I propose to call two more hon. Members from each side.

Will my right hon. Friend do his utmost to mitigate the damage caused by the action of hon. Members opposite by encouraging investment in the main ship repair yards, many of which are already in public ownership, and stimulate work towards achieving better worker relations in these yards?

We intend that there should be a viable shipbuilding industry with a long-term future. It would be unthinkable to allow that industry to be eliminated, and that was one of the reasons that we put forward time and again in justification of public ownership. Apart from the intervention fund that was announced a few days ago and was established so that we could obtain orders for British Shipbuilders—my hon. Friend is clearly right to say that if we are to have a viable shipbuilding industry, there must be an investment programme in the major yards.

Would it not be appropriate and seemly for the Secretary of State to make some expression of regret for the delay which has resulted from his curt and contemptuous refusal last summer to heed the clear warnings of this side of the House about the undoubted hybridity of the Bill?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes the same mistake as his hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton. He also used exaggerated language in all our debates and talked not just of the Bill being riddled with hybridity—which the Examiners' report shows is not the case—but about an open and shut case. That is not true either. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to be fair—which I very much doubt—he will agree that he claimed that there was hybridity not only in the ship repair section of the Bill but in other sections.

Is my right hon. Friend telling the House that his statement was edited and endorsed by the Tory Front Bench or are we, as they say on the Clyde, gradatione vincimus that is, conquering step by step?

My statement had been discussed and agreed with members of the Opposition.

Will the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the Bill is hybrid and that one cannot exaggerate or minimise the truth of that statement? The Bill is hybrid—not a little bit or a great deal, just hybrid. Why has he delayed six or nine months in making a statement that he must have known was inevitable? Is the Government Chief Whip going to whip Government supporters through the Lobbies to take ship repairing out of the Bill? Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that Christopher Bailey has shown, as has Freddie Laker, that if a person is prepared to fight, he can save his company from the Government?

My statement has been discussed between the two Front Benches and agreed. The Bill has been before the Examiners in another place and they have decided that there is hybridity in the ship repairing section. We accept the position and are removing that section. That is a simple statement of fact.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Should the House not now investigate how much money was spent in the attempted bribery of hon. Members in order to achieve, apparently successfully, a change in Government policy?

If the hon. Gentleman has proof of any bribery, he knows the course that he ought to adopt.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) was not even listening to what you just said. In the circumstances, I suggest that he should do you and the House the courtesy of doing so.

The hon. Gentleman will read in Hansard what I said. If he has any proof of bribery, he ought to bring it forward.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was careful in my choice of words. I said "attempted bribery" and I can prove that if you wish it.

Order. I am always willing to look at any matters that hon. Members wish to bring before me.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) has said that attempted bribery has caused the Government to change their policy. That is clearly an allegation that members of his Government have been influenced by bribery. Would it not now be appropriate for the hon. Member to withdraw his allegation against his own colleagues on the Front Bench?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the remarks that have been made, the most appropriate course of action would be to establish a board of examiners in the form of a Select Committee to investigate the activities of Bristol Channel Ship Repairers Limited throughout the last two years.

We would be better advised to hear the application under Standing Order No. 9.