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Economic Prospects

Volume 132: debated on Thursday 28 April 1988

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To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has any plans to meet trades union representatives in Northern Ireland to discuss economic prospects; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Peter Viggers)

My right hon. Friend and I have no outstanding arrangements to meet trades union representatives, though we have met them on a number of occasions in the past to discuss economic prospects and other issues. We value these meetings.

Is the Minister aware that trade union leaders in Northern Ireland are concerned about the Government's prevarication over Kilroot phase 2, and does he accept their point that the economic logic of it is irrefutable? Is he aware that their feeling now is that the only reason for any further debate is the Government's desire to privatise Northern Ireland electricity, and that this represents the triumph of political expediency over the economic interests of Northern Ireland?

No, that is not the case, and the decision on the future generation of electricity in Northern Ireland will be taken in the interests of the consumer and of the economy as a whole. The results of an investment appraisal of the proposals for the next phase of generating capacity are currently being considered. Decisions will be taken as soon as possible, in the interests of the consumer and the economy as a whole.

When my hon. Friend is considering these matters, will he bear carefully in mind the great importance that is attached to the order placed with Harland and Wolff by Mr. Ravi Tikkoo for the Ultimate Dream? If this order is not to be built at Harland and Wolff, will not the opportunities now presented to Belfast be missed, which would be a matter of great regret?

The concept produced by Harland and Wolff is imaginative and ambitious, but I have to put my hon. Friend right. It is not an order but a conceptual design at this stage, and no detailed costings have been produced. When they are, we shall study them carefully.

Will the Minister give an undertaking that this project will be viewed sympathetically, rather than Parliamentary Private Secretaries going around rebuking Conservative Members who have supported the early-day motion asking that Government funds should be made available, as they will help not only Northern Ireland but the United Kingdom as a whole?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that Ors matter will be viewed sympathetically, and he will be the first to agree that the Government have been very supportive of Harland and Wolff over many years. In appraising this project we shall, when the time comes, have to take account of the resources that will be required to support the building of the ship and compare these with the resources that will be required and should be made available for use elsewhere in the Province.

If the question of shipbuilding arises in the Minister's talks with trade union leaders, will he assure them that the Government's aim is not to be neutral when it comes to getting the order for Harland and Wolff, but is positively to encourage that order to come to Northern Ireland, for the benefit not only of those in the Harland and Wolff shipyard but of the suppliers and sub-contractors in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman would not be fair if he accused the Government of not being supportive of Harland and Wolff. We have been extremely supportive and have fought hard to bring orders for the Harland and Wolff shipyard, including the AOR order for the Ministry of Defence. We shall be supportive, but we are bound by the EC sixth directive, and, as I said earlier, by the need to compare the resources that will be required for the building of the ship with the availability of resources which can be used elsewhere in the Province.

The Minister said that he would exercise virement within the Northern Ireland budget—in other words, robbing Peter to pay Paul if the project goes ahead. Will he give an undertaking that new resources will be found from outside the Northern Ireland budget to enable this project to go ahead and to ensure that there is fair employment for both parts of the community, and recognise that people throughout the United Kingdom will benefit if the order goes ahead?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the United Kingdom, and it is appropriate to bear in mind the needs of all shipbuilders in the United Kingdom, because the United Kingdom is one country. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Northern Ireland block is available for the development of resources within Northern Ireland, and it would not be appropriate to expect the United Kingdom Government to find resources over and above those of the Northern Ireland block for the support of one individual project.