§ 7. Dr. Godman
To ask the President of the Board of Trade what is the approximate number of men and women currently employed in (a) merchant shipbuilding yards and (b) oil and gas fabrication yards; and what were the equivalent figures in 1987. 
§ The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Energy (Mr. Richard Page)
On the latest available figures—for 1993–39,900 men and 3,800 women were employed in shipbuilding, ship repair and boatbuilding, compared with 53,000 men and 4,400 women in 1987. Comparable figures between the two years for shipbuilding alone are not available.
Statistics are not collected for oil and gas fabrication yards on their own, but the Offshore Contractors Association estimates that up to 10,000 men and women are employed by such yards.
§ Dr. Godman
Is the Minister in a position to estimate how many of those employees are apprentices? In the distant past when I was an apprentice shipwright, the employment ratio was one apprentice for every six tradesmen. What is the Minister's Department doing to ensure that those skills are maintained by a healthy number of apprenticeships being served by young men and women, or is it standing idly by and allowing those skills to run down?
§ Mr. Page
The hon. Gentleman and I can claim some brotherhood on this matter because I also served an industrial apprenticeship. I am fully aware of the value of an apprentice education and of its value to the nation. I must point out, however, that this is a matter for the Department for Education and Employment, with which we are in communication. We want more modern apprenticeships to give that core technology and skills base and to move it forward. At the moment, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the figures, but I can tell him that in the period about which he asked, although the number of employees decreased, efficiency in British yards increased from some 247,000 tonnes to some 288,000 tonnes, so there has been an improvement.
§ Mr. Batiste
Although all of us would like more young people to obtain relevant industrial qualifications, what assessment has my hon. Friend made of the impact of the minimum wage on the recruitment and training of young people? Such a policy, as advocated by the Labour party, would be disastrous for the employment and qualification prospects of our young people.
§ Mr. Page
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Companies are locating and investing in this country because we have the right environment and economic background in which they can develop and grow. There is no doubt whatever that a minimum wage would be disastrous for employment prospects. It is not a coincidence that unemployment is falling in the United Kingdom but rising in the European Union, where there are such restrictions. One question that I should like to ask the Labour party is: what will be the minimum wage?[Interruption.]
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I think that the Minister was answering the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste).
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
Does the Minister share my concern that fewer merchant ships are flying the British flag and that a significant number of them are no longer crewed by British merchant sailors? Will he welcome the fact, as revealed in a recent periodical, that Belfast is poised to become the Aberdeen of the next decade because of its role in oil and gas exploration?
§ Mr. Page
The hon. Gentleman has given me a very good lead-in, enabling me to pay tribute to the recent successes of Harland and Wolff. I hope that those successes increase, and provide many jobs in Northern Ireland. As for the question of flagging out, that is indeed up to the individual companies involved; it is not a matter for the British Government.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
Has my hon. Friend any idea of the number of new orders that have been won by British shipyards for merchant vessels, and the number of jobs involved? Has he taken action against our European partners and others in regard to the provision of state aids that have been featherbedding their shipbuilders rather than allowing the productivity of the British worker to win new orders?
§ Mr. Page
There is an agreement by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to abolish any direct support schemes, which should come into effect on 15 July, assuming that Japan and the United States ratify it. If they do not, the Government and the European Union will have to re-examine the position.
There is no doubt that there is overcapacity in the world and very hard pressure on prices, but British shipping is doing quite well. In contrast, in Bremen Vulkan in Germany some 23,000 people are threatened with some form of bankruptcy, and hence with unemployment. Here in the United Kingdom, good news is coming through from Swan Hunter; Appledore continues to maintain a full order book; Kvaerner Govan has a contract worth some £61.5 million to build a vessel to support the launch of a western communications satellite by Ukrainian rockets from a sea platform—it should be exciting when that starts—and Ferguson Shipbuilders, in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, has recently won an order worth some £19.3 million to build a fisheries research vessel for the Scottish Office. There is quite good news for British shipping at the moment.