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Ship Repairs (Thames)

Volume 976: debated on Friday 21 December 1979

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12.1 pm

I am pleased to be able to draw the attention of the House to the present and future position of ship repair in the Thames. Perhaps I should not say "pleased", because in a few weeks the comprehensive service of ship repair along the River Thames will end.

At present, only one firm provides such a service—River Thames Ship repairers Ltd. When that firm was acquired by British Shipbuilders a few years ago its employees numbered 1,600. At the beginning of this year those employees numbered 800 and today there are about 62. In a few weeks' time there will be virtually no employees left. That brings to the end perhaps a thousand years or more of the comprehensive organisation of skills and management along the River Thames. Those facilities were capable of building ships of any size or of giving a comprehensive repair service in dry docks.

That sad state of affairs can teach us all some lessons, and perhaps it indicates that we should be concerned about some of the de-industrialisation problems that now beset our nation. Those mechanisms have either not been properly identified or have not been properly publicised. My remarks this morning will largely be of a non-partisan character, although I think that the Minister will understand the few partisan references that I make and will reply to them.

I am concerned that we all—especially those hon. Members representing London constituencies—learn the lessons of the past and apply them to the serious problems that face the nation now. The port of London has many problems. The House will know that the Government's support of the Port of London Authority was consequent upon a good number of changes in the function of that port, and upon technical changes in shipping.

We tend to forget that London is still the biggest port in the United Kingdom and that the United Kingdom is still a major maritime nation. I am not sure that the City of London, which lies adjacent to these activities, takes that sufficiently into account.

At present, there are two dry docks in the Port of London of 750 feet in length, one of 500 feet and a number of smaller dry docks providing services for dry-docking. There are workshops alongside, together with the necessary machinery and headquarters for the management and skills required for repairs.

The port of London has a long history. The naval dockyards were at Deptford and Woolwich, and London was the pre- mier shipbuilding town in the nineteenth century, producing, among other vessels, HMS "Warrior", fortunately still afloat and a marvel of nineteenth century ingenuity. As late as 1912 a dreadnought called the "Thunderer" was launched in my constituency. The Thames ironworks was the father of West Ham football team. That team was called "the Hammers" in a double sense, and the club still bears the emblem of a hammer today.

Ship repair is an exacting task. In many ways it is more difficult than shipbuilding. Each job is a one-off job, requiring different skills and management tasks. Ship repairs entail bidding against competition anywhere in North-West Europe and, as a ship is by nature mobile, competition is found all over the world. Unhappily, the nineteenth century customs of shipbuilding and dock work, and some of the customs of management and men, have over spilled into the twentieth century. However, unlike dockwork—that is happily now reaching the end of its controversial stage—ship repair became decasualised only recently. Men had the habit of going from job to job and from firm to firm in order to get what they could. There was an inbuilt mechanism of money on the nail. The ship was there, the shipowner wanted the repair, and at that time there was an available supply of management and men.

The ship repair industry in London was publicly acquired in 1977. The firms of R. and H. Green and Silley Weir Ltd. and the London Graving Dock Company Ltd. were combined. They had workshops adjacent to dry docks that were owned by the Port of London Authority. The division of facilities must be borne in mind when looking to the future. Having been acquired by the nation, the skills of these men and the physical assets of London became a national and local asset. They should have been treated as such, and efforts have been made in that direction. Hon Members representing the port of London areas, in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald)—where the River Thames shipbuilders have a large plant—have been very active in that respect.

The first that we knew of the cessation of the River Thames Shiprepairers was a scant press notice. The notice was terse, to say the least. So terse was it that it did not even refer to a plant that was to be left in the West India Dock, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar. Unlike the situation at Tilbury, sufficient men with sufficient skills have volunteered to stay to do the work that would arise. Pressure has been put on British Shipbuilders by Governments of both complexions, and it has taken certain steps to achieve viability in areas where viability did not formerly exist.

It is easy to say that we must balance the books, but there is one sure way of doing that if it cannot be done in any other way, and that is to close down the operation. That is what has happened, but the organisation that has closed down the operation does not have to take account of any indirect effects upon the viability and importance of the port of London as a whole, or of the economic and industrial impact on East London.

My hon. Friend will recall that he and I visited River Thames Shiprepairers at the Albert Dock a few months ago. We discussed with the management the implications of its statement of 18 May. One of the things that we find most disturbing is the sudden change of plan. We were aware then that it was planning to halve the ship repairing capacity on the Thames. However, there was no proposal totally to deny the Thames such a facility. It was proposed to concentrate on the River Thames Shiprepairers facilities in Tilbury and to retain a small but useful facility in the West India Dock. I do not understand this dramatic change of plan in less than six months. None of us has been informed of any adverse developments in the discussions that were taking place.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the major implications for the ship repairing industry as a whole on the Thames, but as dockland Members we also have to consider the implications of a closure of this kind—it will involve nearly 1,000 jobs—on our effort to revive employment and industry in dockland areas. It is, after all, one of the seven partnership areas formed by the last Government between central and local government—areas of special need for employment and upon which every effort was supposed to be made—certainly during my day as chairman of the dockland partnership—to introduce new work and retain existing jobs.

I hope, therefore, that the point will come over very strongly that we are dealing here not only with the end of the ship repairing industry but with a further blow to the prospect for employment in our already hard-pressed areas.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for endorsing and underlining, from his wide experience, the points that I have made. I pay tribute to the efforts that he made about six months ago, when all London port members were trying to ensure that there would be a continuation of a comprehensive ship repair facility. We wanted to see the important, very specialised and historic skills involved retained in a core of facility, however small that might be. I think that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock will wish me to mention the name of the former director of the firm, Mr. James Ekins, who in his time made considerable efforts in that direction.

The problem at that time, however, was in resolving difficulties arising from working practices. Alas, for reasons that have sometimes not been clear, it was not possible to do so in the economic climate of those times. On occasion it was hard to find out where the difficulties lay.

It would be wrong for me to omit a factor in the situation—it may be anecdotal or it may be rumour—that British Shipbuilders, in wishing to achieve overall viability or a minimum loss in ship repairing, would be glad to see activities on the Thames diminished or changed so that its interests on the Tyne and at Southampton could reduce their losses, or perhaps even become viable. Such suspicions are not provable, but I would put on record that they were undoubtedly an element in the atmosphere in which the negotiations were conducted and, possibly, in the choice of some workers in the industry to accept payment to become redundant.

Six months ago there was a plan to cut down facilities and leave the extensive plant in my constituency in the Royal Albert Dock which had suffered extensive closure under Harland and Wolff about 10 years ago. That was controversial enough. But the plan was also to concentrate the skills in the West India Dock and at Tilbury. In order to do that, there had to be a large number of redundancies. Quite properly, redundancy payments were available. The problem for the management and some of the employees was whether to go to Tilbury many miles away and forgo the cash payment or to stay with the firm, the long-term future of which was uncertain.

It would take too long to go into all the factors involved in the national scene, but the fact that skilled men over the age of 40 could receive relatively large amounts of redundancy payment undoubtedly played some part in the difficulties that arose. Of course, it was difficult for those who were under 40, because they were covered by nothing more than normal notice. So rapid was the closure of plant in the West India Dock that one of my constituents who came to see me last Saturday told me that he had been paid off only the day before. He was under 40 and did not have the option of redundancy pay that was open to his older colleagues.

So we are told that the need to negotiate more flexible working practices—a feature of the period when Mr. Ekins was director—and the possibility of redundancy payments together conspired in various ways to deprive River Thames ship repairers of sufficient numbers of skilled workers. It was on that basis that British Shipbuilders decided that there was no future for any of the operations, and that resulted in the terse press notice that we received on 7 December after having read the news that morning in the press.

That gives rise to a number of points. It may not have been possible for a smaller operation than had been envisaged to keep going. Naturally the corporation would have had to cover its overheads, including the lease of the workshop from the PLA, the employment of office staff, and so on. However, should the relatively small sums that would be involved in such an operation be allowed to cause the complete collapse of a comprehensive ship repairing service in the Thames? I put that to the Minister in the context of national policy and maritime policy. I question whether that mechanism was justified on a national basis, however much it may appear to have been justified by the state of the accounts of British Shipbuilders or in the light of pressures that I suspect the Government were putting on British Shipbuilders to achieve greater viability—greater pressures than the previous Government exerted. That is the philosophy of the Government, and British Shipbuilders understands that.

The other point that arises from what I might call account book attitudes is the general approach of the Government and the City to the nitty-gritty of industrial operations in general. In East London an important national industry has disappeared through lack of appreciation of detailed matters just as in West London the capital seems to have lost its bus industry when it had full order books. It appears that London is now unable to build buses or repair ships when demand for both services is certainly buoyant. The reason for our arrival at that position must be considered as a matter of national priority.

In London there are dry docks owned by the PLA. Next to them are workshops full of machinery. Some of them have had to be closed, and I reluctantly concede that those in my constituency may well have to be disposed of and the machinery sold off. But it is no longer possible to withdraw a propeller shaft from a ship in a London dry dock and take it into an adjacent machine shop for repair, for milling, or for turning on a lathe. That cannot be done with any of the machinery on the ship, either. Any so-called voyage repairs have to be made while the ship is afloat.

There is at least one small firm, with under 100 employees. I expect that small firms will now spring into existence, no doubt as a result of the small business philosophy of the Government. However, they will not have access to the machinery and facilities immediately adjacent to the dry docks owned by the PLA unles it makes them available or comes to an arrangement to lease them. However, no small firm can afford the overheads involved in leasing such equipment. Therefore, there is a vicious circle, which the Government have a responsibility to consider.

The Government insistence on account-book profitability and the liability of losses is likely to strip the nation of its national assets. We cannot consider the matter in isolation. These skills are still available in London. Ironically, the men who have taken redundancy will be available for employment, if they so wish, by a new firm. River Thames Shiprepairers Ltd. is going into liquidation. However, other small firms will not be able to use the facilities that are lying, idle and going rusty.

The Government must understand that the nineteenth century attitude of splitting spoils is one of the historic millstones around the neck of this industry. If that attitude is revived in the twentieth century we are unlikely to find a solution. In fact, we are likely to strip off industry after industry.

Formerly ship owners had to have repairs carried out in the port of London because the ship docked there. Today ships can sail away anywhere. It is difficult to define where spoils end and genuine profits start. Much of the Government's attitude encourages spoils rather than profits. Therefore, the spoils attitude cannot take account of today's circumstances.

I should like to ask one or two questions. If the Under-Secretary cannot reply now, I hope that he will cogitate on and consider them and answer later, although perhaps he will be able to answer some now.

Will the Minister consider the way in which redundancy payments are used when there is almost a national self-stripping of our assets, which I described, and which is being applied to ship repairs? This means that the skills and unquantifiable assets of firms are dispersed for good. We cannot quantify the value of a management team that has worked together for years, the value of experience that is locked up in the family tradition and the minds and hands of men who have perhaps worked in an industry all their lives. Once that tradition has gone, it is virtually impossible to get it back. I am not saying that it is impossible to recreate a viable ship repair industry on the Thames, but I do say that it will be very difficult. That is the first point, but it relates to a much wider canvas.

Secondly, will the Minister consider the future of ship repairs on the Thames as an issue and take it up with the PLA and potential port users? It would seem incredible and wrong that a Government should not take responsibility for considering the facilities for ship repair in Britain's biggest port, especially as Britain is an historic and current maritime nation.

The City knows all about money, banking, commerce, pension funds and developments of various kinds. However, it is extraordinary that it does not understand its own backyard. Future historians may well look back at this nation in 1979and marvel at the way in which we appear to put energies, skills and educational opportunities and assumptions into these matters of paper money, although in our own dockyard—the heart blood of the nation—there is something that resembles an almost medieval Mediterranean port, which is ignored either by deliberate choice or because of our educational and social structure.

Thirdly, will the Minister consider the whole witches' brew that has contributed to what I regard as the rapid decline in basic national assets, of which ship repairing on the Thames is an example? If he requires a definition of a cure, I suggest that the ingredients are the maintenance of skills under new, competitive conditions. Our decline is one of the elements of the industrial pot that now confronts the nation.

The next ingredient is the system of industrial relations, which is based on a system of spoils. When that system disappears—as it did in terms of dock work, the ordinary port work of the Thames and ship repairs—what can we do to ensure that there is a new, more realistic system of industrial relations before the negotiations take place for asset stripping, redundancies and splitting up firms or closures? Unless we reform the industrial relations situation before that position arrives, we may end up doing ourselves mortal harm in industry after industry. We can learn some lessons from the ship repair position.

Will the Minister consider the international competitive position in terms of subsidies to EEC ports and ship repairing abroad? It is easy for British ship owners to send their ships to any port in the world for repairs. They move them around. If the Minister insists that British ship repair interests should be viable—and if repairs can be carried out more cheaply abroad, either through port subsidies or cheaper labour—there will be no British ship repairers left. I put it to the Minister that, even on the basis of defence capacity, that is not a wise policy. That is putting the matter at its lowest. I put it much higher.

I next refer to redundancy payments, which are quite proper, and which I support as a means of compensation for loss of jobs although leading to increased production in some cases. That was the origin of such payments. They are now being used, understandably, as a lubricant to industrial oblivion. That is what happened with River Thames Shiprepairers. I suggest that it is happening in other industries, of which I do not have expert knowledge. The use of the original system of redundancy payments is now leading us in an almost suicidal direction. There is the question of the Government's attitude to laissez-faire. The industrial habits, practices and attitudes of mind of the London ship repairers were based on the circumstances of the nineteenth century and indeed, up to fairly recently, applied to a port at which ships needing repairs had to dock. That situation has now disappeared. The Government's attitude is now one of strict account-book profitability. It is as inappropriate in British conditions today as the spoils system of profitability was fundamentally appropriate to the nineteenth century.

I hope that the Minister can draw the appropriate lessons from the sad story of ship repairing on the River Thames and that in due course we shall regain the capacity of Britain's biggest port.

12.29 pm

I also want to discuss ship repairing on the Thames, particularly in Tilbury. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), I am concerned at the suddenness of the announcement by British Shipbuilders that its subsidiary River Thames Shiprepairers was to be closed down almost entirely, with the consequent loss of jobs in Tilbury and neighbouring constituencies.

I know that negotiations were under way both to improve working practices in an attempt to find greater flexibility and to improve the levels of pay there. We all appreciate the difficulties of such negotiations, but we are concerned that the company should so abruptly try to close the firm and that, having read in our newspapers the announcement of the closure of River Thames Shiprepairers, we should get a short letter and press statement from British Shipbuilders telling us, as the constituency Members involved, the nature of its decision.

I should like the Minister to comment on the reasons for the difficulty in obtaining agreement over changing working practices and to discuss the comments which British Shipbuilders has made in a letter to constituency Members. The company said:
"We have tried hard since acquiring the company to make it viable and this has involved us in heavy costs. These continuing losses can no longer be supported and BS Shiprepairing on the river will have to cease."
Can the Minister tell us the costs involved in trying to make the company viable and what the continuing losses amount to?

I should like to raise two other issues, particularly as regards Tilbury. The aim was to concentrate RTS there and to ask for volunteers to work in Tilbury. The notional capacity of Tilbury was tied to a particular category of tradesmen. Fitters were chosen as the basis. It appears that RTS was unable to persuade enough fitters to go to Tilbury, but it need not have concentrated on that one category. Other categories, such as boilermakers, would have done just as well.

I can understand the unwillingness of older men to move from the East End down to Tilbury to start work but, after all, Tilbury docks has existed for a long time. Surely younger people could have been recruited and trained there. The fact that that was not done, that no effort was made to find new recruits and take on apprentices is a matter of concern. Unemployment, although it is by no means the highest in the country, is higher in Thurrock than the national average. Many youngsters leaving school would have appreciated the opportunity of apprenticeships or training facilities so that new people could have been brought in and the firm tided over a difficult period.

I further understand that at Blundell's, one of the small privately owned ship repairing firms, a number of men were likely to be made redundant. They could easily have filled the vacancies.

I am concerned because insufficient effort was made to get enough recruits to make the Tilbury ship repairing facilities viable. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South, I can understand why older people would not want to change their jobs but would prefer to take redundancy pay. After all, many of those currently working for RTS started work at 13, 14 or 15. Now in their late 50s, they have behind them a hard working life which depended on casual labour. The offer of several thousand pounds as redundancy pay must seem attractive after a lifetime of hard work.

But simply buying people off in that way, and ruining an important industry and an important Thames facility in the process, is characteristic, I fear, of this Government's attitude to industry—that of thinking in the short term, being prepared to sell off the seed corn for a quick profit, or to cut losses without a thought for the future, either in terms of providing jobs locally or in terms of providing the necessary facility there.

As my hon. Friend has rightly said, it is sheer madness that such a large port, particularly such a large containerised docks as Tilbury, should be without a proper ship repairing facility. It will do nothing to help the port of London's competitiveness with ports such as Rotterdam and Dunkirk. We are at a considerable disadvantage if we cannot offer ship repairing.

I am further concerned because there will now be no emergency repair facility. What does the Minister think can be offered to shipping companies in the way of a service—and a rather expensive service: the PLA's charges are high? What does he think can be offered as an attractive proposition if a ship knows that when it enters the Port of London Authority area its chances of getting a quick and essential repair at Tilbury are nil? Why does he think that we can allow the PLA, and Tilbury docks in particular, to continue in this manner without being able to offer a proper, necessary and full range of services?

What will happen to the dry docks and equipment available in Tilbury? I understand that some private companies have applied to re-enter the closed docks at Tilbury, including the ex-owner of one of the companies which was formerly there and which went bankrupt. That is why it was taken over by British Shipbuilders under the last Government. Will the dry docks and the equipment just lie fallow or will private firms be allowed to re-enter and try to make a going concern of ship repairing there, bearing in mind their apparent inability to do so in the past?

Those are my questions for the Minister. I agree entirely with the questions also put by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South. Our overriding anxiety is about the lack of a proper ship repairing facility in Tilbury and in other parts of the Port of London. The port will be unable to offer proper services; it will be denuded of something essential.

12.38 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for raising this important issue and for his usual courtesy in giving me advance notice of some of the points that he wished to raise. I appreciate the tenor of his speech and the fact that he said that he would feel obliged to include a little party political element. That is understandable, although I shall try not to follow him too far down that path. I am sure that he will accept that the whole House will be unhappy to see the closure of River Thames Ship-repairers. It is a tragedy for his constituency and for the whole country. It is distressing to see a long-standing business disappear from our industrial scene.

I appreciate also the way in which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) asked her questions and I shall try to deal with some of them. I know that the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), who intervened briefly, has to go to the Lancaster House conference. We appreciate his interest also.

Before I turn to the four questions of the hon. Member for Newham, South I should like to discuss the general ship repair situation, which must be viewed in a wider sense than purely the Thames area. Ship repair has been suffering from over-capacity. The average age of ships has declined, bringing about reduction in the need for repairs. The composition of the British fleets has changed towards fewer and larger vessels. Modern ships with better anti-corrosion finishing obviously need less attention. We have also seen over-capacity resulting in very sharp competition from all over Europe for work which can be done in Europe.

Simultaneously, there has been a worldwide expansion—in the Far East and South-East Asia and in countries bordering the Mediterranean. Therefore, we cannot divorce the ship repair problem from the general problem of our shipping industry. We are seeing a smaller, more modern shipping industry requiring less repair work which is tending naturally to shop around the world by the very nature of the competition that I have described.

When the hon. Gentleman spoke of the "spoil" system, he was being rather tactful, but I think that he recognises that there have been substantial industrial relations and productivity problems in a number of ship repairers—and not confined to RTS.

The general background is of an industry under great pressure. However, it must be said that some companies have continued to be profitable. It must also be said that this Government have sought to help by the Shipbuilding Act which has just received the Royal Assent and which extends the home credit scheme to conversions and alterations by owners in United Kingdom yards. In the broader parameter, I hope that there is scope still to see some resurgence in the ship repair industry in general.

I turn to the specific problems of RTS. The hon. Gentleman described how the company came into being following a statement by the then Secretary of State for Industry on 2 March 1977. It is right to say that RTS and Falmouth are the two main ship repairers within British Shipbuilders which have been the problem areas. They have a history of long-standing difficulties, and this probably influenced the private owners to sell at the time. British Shipbuilders hoped that these problems would be resolved. Over time it has become apparent that these problems have increased rather than decreased.

In an effort to find solutions, BS decided to explore the possibility of concentrating at Tilbury. At that time, I suppose it was made clear that the concentration at Tilbury would depend on two factors. The first was that the work force would accept improved working practices and flexibility. The second was that, given the balance of trade, sufficient men should volunteer to transfer from London to Tilbury.

Both the hon. Member for Thurrock and the hon. Member for Newham, South referred to what is a national problem which we find in all parts of our industry. There is considerable difficulty in having mobility of labour. There is no doubt that this has been a factor here. However, the background to this is that the acquisition by BS gave RTS a two-year grace period for the companies to persuade BS that repair work could be attracted back to the Thames and that there was a reasonable prospect of viability. After four consultations with the unions, BS concluded that the cost of restructuring at Tilbury could not be justified.

The hon. Member for Newham, South asked the Government to intervene on the ground that RTS was essential to the port of London. I fear that the Government cannot step in. This is a matter for BS and has to be looked at in the wider context of what BS regards as an appropriate ship-repairing capacity for the whole country. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, after a full review, BS feels that Vospers and the river Tyne offer the best prospects of a return to viability.

The hon. Member for Thurrock talked about destroying the seed corn. However, the size of the ship repairing industry has to be a matter for the skilled judgment of BS—plus, of course, the private sector, which still exists. On that score, it would not be right to end a debate of this kind without drawing one hopeful conclusion out of this. There are still some 20 private firms engaged in various forms of ship repair and general marine engineering along the Thames. I note that the eight largest of those employ more than 600 employees. Therefore, I hope very much that the future opportunities for those ship repairers, given the rationalisation that has taken place—hard though it is in the hon. Gentleman's constituency—will see some growth in those sectors and some absorption of the skills of the employees whose views the hon. Gentleman represents.

Perhaps I might again put this in a wider context of the viability of British Shipbuilders itself. The hon. Gentleman sought to imply that there was some kind of balance sheet approach which resulted in additional pressure on British Shipbuilders. I have to reject that. BS is tackling a very difficult job. It is given every support by the Government: an example is the way in which the intervention fund has been renewed as one of this Government's first acts, and the way in which it has been extended to ship repairing. In ways such as this we have shown our interest in the matter. British ship repair interests, however, sadly lost £16 million last year on a turnover of £68 million. That is a rate which cannot be sustained.

We have to consider some of the problems which underlie that. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the difficulties of the economic climate in the early years from 1977 onwards. I have to remind him that pay policy was not at all helpful. I am sure also that the hon. Lady recognises that the problem of mobility of labour was partly bedevilled by the fact that payment for skills was not made any easier at a time when pay policies applied.

In terms of the basic problem of what is to happen to these facilities, again I do not wish to strike a totally gloomy note. If there are those interested in acquiring facilities at RTS, perhaps it is useful to put on record that my understanding is that initial approaches on that matter should be made to British Shipbuilders, which thereafter will consult the PLA. If the hon. Gentleman has ideas which might facilitate that process, I am sure that BS and the Government will be pleased to see them implemented.

I am grateful to the Minister for what he has just said. However, does he agree that the 800 men who are now employed in a number of small concerns do not form a coherent service of the sort that I described? Although he has the right to say that he will not intervene in the activities of BS, does he agree that the Government have some responsibility to ensure that the facilities which he mentioned, together with the skills of the 800 men to whom he referred, can be organised in such a way as to provide maximum assistance to Britain's biggest port?

I accept what the hon. Gentleman said. He raised a wide and difficult question, and I cannot off the top of my head give him a fair answer. We have to look at the facilities required for Britain's biggest port. My instinctive reaction must be that British Shipbuilders' concentration on the Tyne and at Vospers suggests that we are moving into an era where we look for greater mobility in ship repairing than has been the case in the past. Given the more limited activities, this may be part of the problem.

However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is no one among the private firms comparable with RTS. Nevertheless, who is to say that those companies are not capable of expansion if the market is there? That is why I urge the hon. Gentleman, if he feels that there are ways in which he can use his influence, to look at the matter in this way, and certainly I shall pass on what he said today.

I think that that covers the general question of what is to happen about the future of ship repair on the Thames. However, the hon. Gentleman raises a wide and important question when he refers to redundancy payments, and I am sure that the whole House will want to reflect on what he said.

I recall that in times past the hon. Gentleman has been amongst the most fervent to argue about the need for good levels of redundancy pay. If he is saying that we are reaching the position where redundancy pay is having a counter-productive effect in industrial terms, that is a matter which all hon. Members will need to reflect on carefully. But I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the redundancy payments which have been agreed already have been set at a very high rate, and they seem to have found wide acceptance with many of those who worked in RTS. The decline in national assets—the skills—is understood. It brings us to an area in which British Shipbuilders has a direct responsibility.

The hon. Gentleman and I have crossed swords on many occasions on the EEC argument. I hope that he, perhaps more than anyone, appreciates that, while there is no provision for a financial contribution from Community funds towards the cost of redundancy payments, there is an opportunity to seek assistance for retraining and the transfer of redundant employees. An application for such assistance under the social fund has already been submitted. We are by no means unhopeful that that will be of assistance to us. To the extent that there are further opportunities for retraining and transfer of redundant employees, we shall endeavour to help as much as possible.

I bring the House up to date with the present position on redundancy. The hon. Gentleman has been in touch with River Thames Shiprepairers, and he may be aware that, presently, some 86 per cent. of the hourly paid workers who have received notice of redundancy have volunteered to be made redundant, and of these some 80 per cent. should have left employment by the end of today. Therefore, the vast majority have volunteered for redundancy and the matter has moved forward quickly. It is important to put the question before us today in that perspective.

I turn to another aspect that concerns the hon. Gentleman. Without in any way seeking to be complacent, I believe that it is something that he would wish to feed into the argument, namely, the future of dockland as a whole. Like a number of my hon. Friends, I have had a recent opportunity to visit dockland and to see the problems that are manifest to anyone who looks at what is happening on the ground. The way forward, not only for ship repairing but for the whole industrial position, is an issue that must concern any Government. I take the opportunity of telling the hon. Gentleman and the House that, in the Local Government, Planning and Land Bill, which is shortly to be introduced to the House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Government will be taking powers to establish urban development corporations in the dockland areas of London and Merseyside.

The overall objective of the urban development corporations will be to secure the physical and economic regeneration of these disused and, in part, derelict areas. Subject to parliamentary approval, individual urban development corporations will be designated by order towards the end of 1980. The potential powers available to such corporations should be modelled on those available to new town development corporations.

It is part of the Government's hope that the formation of an urban development corporation in the London dockland will help to provide a viable future for the area and for those who live there. In that sense, the sort of restructuring arguments about what capacity is required within the part of dockland that concerns the hon. Gentleman is a matter that should come to the fore in the thinking of such corporations.

I have tried to speak on a slightly more hopeful note as we reach the season of good will and good cheer. I appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock have raised these matters. The hon. Gentleman said, and I agree with him, that there are lessons for all to learn in that sort of industrial tragedy. I hope that those lessons will be learnt, not only within industry, but within the House and on both sides of the House.