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Steel Industry

Volume 979: debated on Monday 25 February 1980

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asked the Secretary of State for Industry when next he expects to meet the chairman of the British Steel Corporation.

I have full confidence in the chairman of BSC. I have no meeting with him planned, but we meet from time to time.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the chairman and the management of BSC would welcome settlement of the strike by some form of independent arbitration? Is he further aware that the ordinary man in the street finds it difficult to understand why the leaders of the main steel trade unions should be so adamantly opposed to such arbitration? Should they not at least seek to ballot their members before remaining so opposed to arbitration?

The British Steel Corporation's management will speak for itself, but I think I saw in the papers that it had asked the steel unions to accept arbitration.

Is it not a fact that the only thing preventing settlement of the strike is the Secretary of State's own veto? Why does he not continue with his journeys around the country and get his colleagues to settle the strike as quickly as possible?

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that if the strike were ended in the way which has been suggested by Labour Members, it would mean even more import penetration because the cost of steel would run the business down even further?

My hon. Friend is exactly right, and, moreover, because our competitors are accelerating their efficiency beyond that of BSC, if BSC does not increase its productivity the reduction in the size of the industry will have to be even greater.

Since the Secretary of State has the utmost confidence in Sir Charles Villiers, can he tell us whether it is correct that Sir Charles warned him in September that there would be the likelihood of a general strike? If that is so, what weight did he attach to that at the time and what weight has he attached to it since?

Sir Charles mentioned that there might be a steel strike, but I am sure that he never mentioned a national strike.

Since Sir Charles Villiers is reported in the Financial Times as having said that he warned the Secretary of State that there might be a general strike as a result of this dispute, will the Secretary of State take steps to see Sir Charles again with a view to ending the dispute?

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity of his next meeting with Sir Charles to say how much the Government deplore the attack on the ISTC headquarters at Rotherham? Will he agree that destruction, intimidation and violence are totally unacceptable in industrial disputes from whichever direction, side or point of view they may come?


asked the Secretary of State for Industry when he plans to meet Trades Union Congress leaders to discuss the steel industry.

As the hon. Member for East Flint (Mr. Jones) may know, I am meeting members of the Wales Trades Union Congress at 4 o'clock this afternoon.

If the right hon. Gentleman were to listen to members of the TUC about the steel industry overall in this country, does he not agree that he would hear from them their deep concern about the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to re-examine the annual tonnage target of only 15 million tonnes for Britain? Is not this strategically wrong for Britain?

I do not think that the record of political judgments about the size of demand for steel is so good that any one would be impressed by any undertaking that I gave to do BSC's job for it.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the maintenance of a strong and expanding steel industry is of vital national importance, and a matter from which no Government can absent themselves? Also, does he not agree that import penetration, much of it subsidised, is undermining investment that the taxpayers have already put into the steel industry? Will he agree that capital reconstruction, which would lift the burden of historic debt, would allow the industry to expand in order to meet the needs that a fully employed British economy would require from its steel industry.

I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman is asking for a good deal more taxpayers' money in the assumptions behind all three of his questions. The sad fact is that the nationalisation of the steel industry has gravely damaged the steel service to this country.

When my right hon. Friend next meets the TUC to talk about the steel industry will he ask whether the unions believe, and if so why, that they have a greater understanding of what working people in the steel industry require than the workers at Sheerness and Hadfields?

Yes, but it is reasonable to understand, is it not, the nationalised steel industry having been built to what we now see was an over-optimistic size—particularly taking into account the low productivity of steel management and workers—the speed of rundown that is essential if the industry is to become competitive imposes strains? That is why the Government have offered very substantial sums of taxpayers' money for redundancy payments.