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Merseyside Shipyards

Volume 928: debated on Thursday 17 March 1977

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asked the Prime Minister if, as part of his visits to industry, he will visit the Merseyside shipyards.

I went to Cammell Laird's shipyard at Birkenhead on 3rd September last year, during my visit to Merseyside. I have no plans at present for a further visit.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the long history of uncertainty facing the ship repair industry has been worsened by its exclusion from the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill? Is he aware that Western Shiprepairers, which 12 months ago employed 1,000 people, is now employing 700, and that further redundancies are pending in the next week? The disappointment of the Merseyside workers is turning to anger as a result of the high unemployment level obtaining there.

Yes, I am aware of that situation, and I am glad to say that at the moment the temporary employment subsidy is assisting about 300 of the workers in that repair yard. As to the future of the yard, I understand that some of the ship repair companies have already approached British Shipbuilders about the possibility of being taken over. If the shareholders of Western Shiprepairers wish the company to be acquired they should approach British Shipbuilders, which would be free and willing to negotiate its acquisition.

Is the Prime Minister aware that if he does visit Merseyside he will find that the failure of the Government is measured not only by the failure in the shipyards but by the 11 per cent. unemployment there—and about three times that in the construction industry—and also by the 3,000 workers who in the last three weeks have been told that they will be sacked from Plesseys, Lucas and English Electric? When all this can happen it shows the pretty rotten state of the Government's policy.

That is not a fair description of the situation. The right hon. Gentleman knows the cause of some of the redundancies both in shipbuilding and, to a lesser extent, in Plesseys. Part of the cause in shipbuilding is due to gross overcapacity throughout the world. We have set aside £65 million for the support of those yards. That is additional public expenditure. I hope that the Opposition do not wish to vote against that tonight when they are so anxious to vote. We have taken other steps to ensure that, so far as possible, British shipping is built in British yards. With regard to Plesseys, this is a serious situation, which has been caused by a change in policy. This is now being examined by Professor Posner. I hope that within 90 days we shall get a report and that we shall be able to see what steps can be taken.

I believe that the country understands, even if the House does not, that the changes in technology that are taking place in our industrial situation mean that we shall have a very difficult period of adjustment ahead. The whole future of this country depends upon our industrial performance. Every Opposition Member really knows that.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the people of Merseyside deeply appreciate the measures that the Government have taken to alleviate unemployment there, even though it is still intolerably high? In that context, will my right hon. Friend indicate when he expects to receive the report from the NEB on the investment needs of the area? Will he publish that report and, even more important, will he immediately and urgently put into effect its recommendations for the regeneration of investment and jobs on Merseyside?

The report will be made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry. I shall convey to my right hon. Friend what my hon. Friend has said. It will be for my right hon. Friend to decide about publication, but there is no reason why we should seek to hide anything from the House on this matter. Merseyside is in a most serious and difficult situation. The solution depends not only on our own efforts in overcoming inflation but on a higher rate of world trade, and a regeneration of world trade. That is why the London conference will be important, as well as other efforts to get industrial confidence reflated without giving way to inflation.