Bombardier: Job Losses (East Belfast): 1st March 2016

Anna Soubry
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Now I can really get stuck into what I want to say. I was waiting for that moment.

I visited Bombardier yesterday with my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East and the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace). I make no apologies for singing the praises not only of Bombardier but of the huge, fabulous building in which it makes the wings and of the highly skilled, dedicated workforce.

It was an absolute joy and pleasure to meet not just the management but the workforce and to see how they work with what I was about to describe as pieces of fabric. I do not want anyone to think that the wings are made out of fabric. Those composites are laid, piece upon piece, and the shape emerges. The wings are beautifully constructed. Resin is applied and they are baked and worked on. It really was the most wonderful experience to see an aeroplane wing being constructed. Those huge pieces of equipment are so important to every aeroplane. It was wonderful to see them grow ​from strips of carbon fibre into the finished product, which is then put on a ship, after which there is nothing more to be done except join them to the fuselage. The entire construction is created in Belfast, and it was a wonderful experience that I will not forget. It was a great day, but in very difficult and concerning times.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East has made clear, Bombardier does not ask any more of us. It has made it clear that we have done everything we can, and that includes the Northern Ireland Government. The workforce need support. For employees in Northern Ireland, where economic development, education, employment and training are devolved matters, the UK Government have supported the Northern Ireland aerospace sector and will of course continue to do so. The Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland will offer support to those affected by this announcement with a redundancy support package and possible retraining. As we know, there are potentially two tranches of people who are going to be made redundant, and that support will in some ways at least ease the burden on them and on Belfast and its surrounding areas.

In the immediate term, to assist those workers affected by Bombardier’s decision, the industry-led talent retention solution is available across the UK, including in Northern Ireland. The programme is designed to help any skilled Bombardier employees who lose their jobs to secure re-employment quickly within the advanced manufacturing and engineering sectors. As we know, these are highly skilled workers.

Bombardier has said that there is nothing the Government can do to reverse its restructuring decision, because that decision unfortunately reflects the firm’s order book, but we will of course continue to work closely with it. Bombardier is a major contributor to the UK economy. That is why we will continue to explore ways to support its drive for greater competitiveness, building on the success of the supply chains for the 21st century programme.

Bombardier plays a leading role in the work of the aerospace growth partnership—the AGP—which brings industry together with the Government to tackle barriers to growth, to boost exports and to secure high-value jobs for the long term. This spans work on technology, supply-chain productivity, competitiveness and skills. The AGP published a UK-wide strategy in March 2013 which is being implemented in Northern Ireland through a strategy launched in 2014 by the Northern Ireland Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. We will continue to work closely together on this.

In March 2013, the Government and industry committed £2.1 billion for new aerospace research and development to help to ensure that the UK could develop the product and manufacturing processes needed to position the sector for long-term growth. The 2015 spending review protected and extended this funding by an additional £900 million over six years to 2025-26, which the industry has committed to match. Therefore, the total joint commitment is now £3.9 billion for aerospace research from 2013 to 2026. Bombardier has already been contracted to receive £9.5 million for six projects looking into engine nacelle—engine housing—and wing technology, which of course it does so brilliantly.
Lady Hermon
Given that the Chancellor was keen to praise the deal the British Government achieved with the Chinese Government—this new trading arrangement we are going to have with China—can the Minister reassure workers employed by Bombardier that the Government will make this issue a priority during trade missions to China, India and elsewhere? Will she say something not only about the investment made in the past, but about where exactly this Government’s priority will lie as they take forward their new arrangements with China and with India?

Anna Soubry
The hon. Lady snuck India in there as well, so she gives me a number of points to answer. I can tell her that this Government absolutely recognise the huge importance of the aerospace sector, which is why we have put in as much money as we have, matched of course by the sector itself. It is important that we understand how vital it is that we continue to trade with China, but we are also hugely alert to the fact that China is slowly beginning to develop its own aerospace industry. In the past, it has bought its aeroplanes from other countries, but it is no great surprise that the Chinese are looking to the great success of our aerospace industry. The fear is that they will seek to replicate it—I shall put it in that way. The hon. Lady can be assured that we will always make it clear that United Kingdom industry, especially manufacturing, is incredibly important to the success of this Government, because it is so important to the success of our economy. If we do not have a good economy, we cannot have the sort of taxes we need to make sure we have the sort of services we need. Let us be in no doubt that aerospace is incredibly important to us, which, as I say, is why we have done the work and made the investment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East made a good point about UKTI, and we will continue to promote Northern Ireland in all the work we do in promoting the United Kingdom. We will work to support the company’s export campaigns, and UK Export Finance also stands ready to support C Series aircraft sales. He will remember that we specifically talked about whether or not we could do some more work in making the point that the wings had been made in the United Kingdom, in Belfast. We should seize upon that, use that great technology and the huge respect those wings rightly have, and do—I was going to say a much better job, but I would rightly be reprimanded for that—some real work on making the point that they are made in Belfast. There is some more work we can do there with UKTI, and I am committed to taking that up.

While we are on the C Series passenger jet programme, let me say that it is a beautiful aircraft. I was given a model of one, although I almost did not need one because we can see that it is such a lovely aircraft. The company has reaffirmed its commitment to the C Series passenger jet programme and Belfast’s critical role in its delivery. As we know, on 17 February Air Canada signed a letter of intent for up to 75 C Series aircraft, which is a positive development for the programme. Along with the Northern Ireland Executive, we are fully committed to Bombardier’s C Series aircraft programme. We have jointly supported the wing development by committing £113.37 million of repayable launch investment, and we stand ready to provide export promotion and finance to support it. We will continue to work with ​Bombardier to support its sales campaigns, and, as I say, there is an awful lot more we can do by way of UKTI to take full advantage of this.

Jim Shannon
This is a very difficult subject to consider. One of the unfortunate casualties of the lay-offs is the apprenticeship scheme. I understand that the scheme will probably be cancelled because of the job losses. With that in mind, has the Minister had any discussions with the Minister for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland to look at other opportunities? Perhaps there could be help for those apprentices who have done some time already and would like to do more. I accept that it is not the Minister’s responsibility, but will she consider taking a look at that matter?

Anna Soubry
I am really very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I do not think I knew that, and it concerns me hugely, as I am sure it will concern everybody on the Opposition Benches. There is something particularly cruel about an apprentice losing their job, especially as we know that these are highly skilled jobs. I am more than happy to take that matter away. As the hon. Gentleman will see, I have three people sitting in the Box taking notes, so we will definitely take that away, and if there is anything I can do to help, I absolutely will do it.

Lady Hermon
There is something that the Minister can do. The Enterprise Bill comes back to the House next week. There is a clause in that Bill on apprenticeships, which was wrongly designated as exclusively English. When the Minister of State was winding up on Second Reading, he said that there would be a national advertising campaign for the apprenticeships that were mentioned in the Bill, but Northern Ireland was excluded. The Minister should look at that clause and ensure that it is altered before it goes through its final stages next week.

Anna Soubry
I certainly undertake to take a look at it, but I am not promising to be able to alter it. None the less, I will take away this apprenticeship query. I am sure that the Northern Ireland Executive and Bombardier will be well onto this matter, but if there is anything more that we can do, we will try to do it. The thought of youngsters finding their apprenticeships cut short concerns us all, so I absolutely give that undertaking.

As I come to a close, may I address some of the specific points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East? As we have a little time, let me say that I was very sad that I had to shorten my visit to Northern Ireland yesterday. Obviously, I had to come back for the steel debate. One day, I will go to the constituency of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). I keep promising to go, but I never end up there. I was very sorry that I had to cancel that side of the visit yesterday, but we will do it another time. I really wanted to go to Bombardier, because that visit is incredibly important to me.

My hon. Friend talked about London City airport. Apparently, as it is a planning decision, I cannot comment on it, which is a pity. However, I do know that the C Series is particularly suited to that type of airport: it is a quiet aircraft; it is the right size; it carries the right number of passengers, 100 to 150; and it is perfectly suited to those international city-to-city journeys. We had a conversation as to whether the C Series would be involved ​in a new route from City airport to John F Kennedy international airport. Of course I have no opinion on that whatsoever, but I know that my hon. Friend does.

Gavin Robinson
indicated assent.

Anna Soubry
It seems that the C Series is the sort of aircraft that is perfectly placed to provide that service to passengers. It may be that that is a very good set of arguments to be advanced, but, as I have said, I cannot possibly comment on it.

In relation to the meeting with the Minister for Defence Procurement, we will absolutely get that together. We are in the process of bringing everybody into the Ministry of Defence. We will not come to Northern Ireland, much as we want to, as we think we stand a better chance of getting everybody around the table if we hold the meeting in the MOD. We are definitely working on that. It will take a bit of time to get all the big players, and the right players, around that table, but that is an absolute promise that I have made. My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement is also keen to have that meeting; we are looking forward to it and we think we can do some good work there.
Dr Alasdair McDonnell
Will the Minister accept the point I made earlier to my colleague the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson)? Bombardier is the subject of this evening’s debate, and it is very important that we focus on it and do not detract from its importance, but the Northern Ireland economy is frail and fragile. Ministers in the Executive have done a wonderful job trying to promote the economy in every way possible, but we need a comprehensive plan including having her good self and her Department, as well as the broader UK Government, give us that bit of extra help. To put it quite simply, the likes of the apprenticeship provision are very important because we are not in a position to give our young people jobs. If the Minister is coming to visit, we will find places other than North Antrim to take her. I am a native of North Antrim, but there are 17 other constituencies and we would love to involve the Minister in helping us to build a more prosperous society.
Anna Soubry
I am more than happy to work with anyone, but I get the invitations and either say yes or no, so the hon. Gentleman will have to invite me. When people ask me to go to places, I am happy to go. There are places I am particularly keen to go, and it just so happens that Northern Ireland is one. I went over to meet the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and had a very pleasant day with him. I have to say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that he said he would only take up my time for a couple of hours—four hours later I had nearly missed the plane.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
Don’t worry, it happens to us all.

Anna Soubry
It is a great place. As for plans, I do not think that that is for me to say, but I am always happy to work with anybody and assist in any way I can. I know how important it is that we get the employment rate to where it should be in Northern Ireland, especially for the young people. When I went over there last year, one thing that everybody spoke to me about was the need to ​ensure that there was a real and genuine future for young people. That is why we get so worried about Bombardier: we know that it offers high-quality jobs involving real money and real skills, so it is imperative that we keep those high-value, highly skilled jobs in Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, I am sure that the House will join me in regretting the announcement of the job losses, but we are committed and determined to do all we can to ​support Bombardier in its future, to make it even more competitive and to support the C Series as much as we can for all the reasons I have explained, which are, if I may say so, obvious.

Question put and agreed to.