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British Steel Corporation (Industry) Limited

Volume 975: debated on Monday 10 December 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will issue a direction to the British Steel Corporation, pursuant to section 4(5)(a) of the Iron and Steel Act 1975, to wind up British Steel Corporation (Industry) Limited.

The answer is, of course, as I had expected. If an hon. Member wishes to ask questions about the nationalised industries, he has to indulge in subterfuge, which is regrettable. But may I say that I hope—

Order. Let me point out two matters to the hon. Gentleman. First, he must ask a question. Secondly, he must keep his comments until a more appropriate time.

I was just about to put my question to my hon. Friend. Bearing in mind the mess that British Steel has made of its own industry, will my hon. Friend have talks with the chairman to make sure that he does not try to rearrange the deckchairs of the "Titanic" by attempting to lure industry away from Birmingham to the rest of the country? Will my hon. Friend stop him from spending tens of thousands of pounds trying to persuade Birmingham industry to go elsewhere, when industry in terms of British Steel has failed? In the Midlands, we are tired of British Steel taking our industry to cover its own mistakes.

I am well aware of my hon. Friend's concern to make sure that Birmingham and the West Midlands get their fair share of investment. However, I know he takes a balanced view of these matters, and I am sure that he will appreciate that this is a problem which is related to plant closures and that there are now no fewer than eight sites where BSC plant or land has been available as part of the closure arrangements. Having set the financial parameters for the British Steel Corporation, we must leave it to resolve the problems in the way that seems best to it.

Will the Government at least facilitate British Steel hiving off those plants that it no longer wishes to run to the private sector—if the private sector wishes to run them properly—while we still have an industry left with people to employ?

I appreciate, of course, what my hon. Friend suggests. However, these are matters where at present it may be a case of the least said, soonest mended.

Since the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) is so highly conversant with the private enterprise sector of the steel industry of the West Midlands, can we be sure that one of his colleagues will be raising the question shortly of Round Oak, the private enterprise company in the West Midlands which is in serious trouble?

Does not my hon. Friend agree that British Steel can save jobs only if its fully competitive? Is not it being impeded in its efforts to become competitive by its inability to obtain cheaper supplies of coking coal? Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the British Steel Corporation will be able to import these supplies of cheaper coking coal?

My hon. Friend raises yet another argument which suggests that non-intervention is the best policy at present.

Bearing in mind the problems of the British steel industry, the possibility of a national strike on 2 January and the troubles that steel-making at Sheffield is having due to the dismissal of a shop steward, does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time that we debated in this House what is happening to the steel industry?

Recognising the present difficulties of the British Steel Corporation, when my hon. Friend refers to non-intervention in the case of coking coal will he accept that we have examples of intervention in other Common Market countries in support of their steel industries? Is it not therefore a great shame that the British Steel Corporation cannot receive similar energy supplies to assist the survival of the industry?

My hon. Friend may want to think this through in the wider context. He will probably be one of the first to agree that it is better to move away from a war of subsidy than to go too fast down that path.

Cannot the hon. Gentleman understand that when he talks about non-intervention to his hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle), he is encouraging the import of German coking coal, for example, with 29 times the subsidy given to such coal in this country? If he does not want to subsidise British coking coal, why do not he and his right hon. and hon. Friends ensure that subsidised coking coal is not allowed to come into the country?

This argument has been thrashed out many times. The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the subsidy argument cannot be related to only one aspect of this issue. It has to be moved on to a much wider basis, and in the view of the Government this is a matter for agreement within the Community.