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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 leaders of the Trades Union Congress.

At the National Economic Development Council on 5 March.

When the right hon. Gentleman does meet them, I hope that he will be able to inform them that he has seen the folly of running the industrial strategy on a basis that even his own colleagues are describing as out-of-date 0-level economics. I hope that he will be able to say to the TUC that he is now willing to approach these matters afresh and to have an industrial strategy based on co-operation and Government action rather than covert confrontation and inaction.

Order. When the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) said "I hope" I assumed that he was really saying "Will the Minister".

When my right hon Friend next meets the leaders of the TUC, will he point out to them the utterly lunatic and self-defeating nature of the proposed one-day general strike?

I hope that such a one-day general strike will not be thought to have any value and, therefore, will not occur.

Does the right hon. Gentleman, as Secretary of State for Industry, accept any responsibility whatever for maintaining a steel industry and an industrial base upon which Britain depends, and has depended historically, in peace and war? Will he indicate clearly whether he thinks that that is his responsibility, or whether he has totally abdicated responsibility for the security of our industry?

I do not think it is my responsibility to recommend to my colleagues that taxpayers should be asked to pay money towards higher earnings for steel workers who are in a position to earn more for themselves. It is in the interests of the steel workers that the industry should get back to work as quickly as possible.

Steel Industry (Productivity)


asked the Secretary of State for Industry what is the current level of productivity in the British steel industry.

The latest available information indicates that productivity in the first 10 months of 1979 remained low compared with other major European countries.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. As the British Steel Corporation has made it clear that by improving productivity steel workers may earn substantial pay increases, does my hon. Friend not think that it is now time, as the steel strike enters its third month, for the BSC's offer to be put to steel workers in a ballot?

My hon. Friend is right to draw the attention of the House to the crucial argument about productivity. The issue of a ballot is for the BSC management to decide in consultation with the trade unions. We would welcome a move in that direction.

Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that British steel workers are already the cheapest in Europe? When heavy redundancies are proposed in areas such as South Wales and other steel-making areas, the Government must appreciate that steel workers and the communities in which they live are not prepared to go back to the 1930s. Is that where the Secretary of State is trying to drive them?

The Government are fully aware of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. It is because of that that we have recently provided £48 million, which we hope will help to overcome the short-term problems. However, that will not overcome the problems of getting the industry right, and that process must go ahead.

Is my hon. Friend aware that demand for a ballot is growing in the public sector, reinforced by what has happened in the private sector, and that steel workers would like the opportunity of making plain their views? However much they may admire the moderation of Mr. Sirs, is my hon. Friend aware that they are not impressed by his competence?

I note what my hon. Friend says. This is an issue that must be settled between the management and the trade unions. The move towards a ballot is one that I am sure the House will wish to support.

Since the Minister is making comparisons with our European competitors, will he take two things into account? The first is that the sector working party which his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State commended said there was no real basis for a comparison of productivity with European competitors. Secondly, our European competitors are receiving subsidies, for example, on coking coal and also from the contributions that Britain has made to the European Coal and Steel Community which amount to over £60 million more than we have received from it.

I note the right hon. Gentleman's comments about what we have received from the Community. The Government will seek every opportunity to take advantage of whatever is made available and studies are in hand on that matter. On the question of comparisons, he should remember that the key statistic which was agreed by both the management and trade unions which were taking part in the exercise to which he refers showed that in man hours taken to produce one tonne of steel, the figure for BSC, regretfully, was between 70 per cent. and 100 per cent. greater than that of our major European competitors.

But that was only one factor out of many, as the hon. Gentleman knows. What was said at that time, as the hon. Gentleman also well knows, was that labour productivity in any event was only one out of a number of factors to be taken into consideration. However, I am not talking—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question".] I am not asking about the justice of contributions I am referring to the fact that there are subsidies to our competitors which affect our productivity. What will he and his colleagues do about that?

The right hon. Gentleman tends to flog a dead horse on this matter. The German industry has to pay for coking coal at world prices. The balance by which industries are supported differs from one country to another and no one can deny that our steel industry has been given massive support over recent years.

Inner Cities


asked the Secretary of State for Industry what contribution the Government's measures to encourage small businesses will make to the economic revival of inner cities.

The Government are pursuing a number of policies designed to help small firms, wherever they may be located. Special assistance is available in certain inner city areas through local authorities under the urban programme.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he tell the House what has happened to the proposal for enterprise zones in which bureaucracy and red tape were to be cut to a minimum and the enterprising people were to be able to devote all their energies to being enterprising?

The matter of specific enterprise zones is still under study. So far as the general concept is concerned, we wish to convert the whole country into one.

Has the hon. Gentleman examined the success of the Industrial Co-ownership Organisation and the Cooperative Development Agency? Is there anything that he can do to help his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and myself, who are trying to recreate the inner city industrial area of Park Roy al in my constituency and his by encouraging small business development on the principle of those two bodies?

The Government are continuing to give the co-operative development authority assistance. If the hon. Gentleman has a specific constituency interest, I should be happy to hear from him on it.

In recognition of the importance of small businesses in the regeneration of our inner city areas, is my hon. Friend prepared to consult with his colleagues in the Department of the Environment to see if it is possible to abolish the rate charges on empty properties in these areas? They are a significant hindrance to attracting business in those areas.

l shall draw my hon. Friend's suggestion to the attention of my colleagues in the Department of the Environment.

Are not all these matters peripheral to the real difficulties that are facing small businesses, which are highly over-valued sterling, a minimum lending rate of 17 per cent. and VAT at 15 per cent.—all conscious decisions of this Government?

The level of sterling is not a conscious decision of the Government but is a matter of the operation of market forces. The MLR is a consequence of the over-high Government spending programmes which we inherited from our predecessors.

National Girobank


asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will meet the unions and representatives of those employed in Giro, in order to discuss Giro's future role in the reorganisation of the Post Office.

Ministers in the Department of Industry have already had consultations with the unions concerned, including those in the National Girobank, about our proposals for the reorganisation of the Post Office. My right hon. Friend expects that further consultations will take place as appropriate.

Will the Minister ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to visit Bootle and Giro to see for himself what is happening there to allay some of the fears and anxieties of the work force? That work force wish to know where they will be placed in the new reorganised Post Office corporation—whether with the telecommunications section or the Post Office section. They also wish to know whether the present status of a bank will be maintained and whether the privileges in legislation that were given in 1977—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Too long."] This is very important to the workers at Giro. They also want to know whether future expansion of Giro will take place on Merseyside.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have noted the invitation to visit Bootle. In September, we announced that the Post Office would be split into two corporations, one for telecommunications and one for post and Girobank. That position remains unchanged. Provided that Girobank continues to compete on equal terms with those offering equivalent facilities, there is no reason to doubt its future.

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the substantial question about the desirability of loading Girobank into the Post Office with all the appalling consequences upon industrial relations which the Post Office will face? Is there not something to be said for the obvious solution of hiving off Girobank to the private sector?

I note what my hon. Friend says. At the present time, the relationship between Girobank and the Post Office is interlaced within the Post Office counter service facility.

Will the Minister look into the Government banking services and see if more efficient use can be made of Girobank by Government Departments? For instance, will he look at how often Government Departments put out their banking business to tender, with particular reference to the role of the Paymaster General's office? Will he see if some rationalisation could be of benefit both to Girobank and Government Departments?

I believe that I have heard the hon. Gentleman on this subject before. It is up to Girobank to compete on equal terms with others who provide similar facilities.

Manufacturing Industry


asked the Secretary of State for Industry what further measures he will introduce to increase the rate of investment in manufacturing industry.

The Government will maintain their policy of establishing the right economic framework for investment and enterprise.

Is the Minister aware that according to the latest CBI industrial trend survey, 42 per cent. of firms said that they would be spending less in the next 12 months on investment on new plant and machinery than in the last 12 months? What will the Minister do about that? When will the results of the so-called incentives policy come through to fruition?

We believe that the results are coming through already. The hon. Gentleman and the House know that we are facing a period of world-wide economic stagnation. One way to attack that, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said in answer to a previous question, is to try to get down the public sector demands on the economy so that there are more funds available for private investment, thereby reducing interest rates, which are another difficulty.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just levels of investment that are important—indeed, firms can suffer from too much investment as BSC has shown over the last 15 years—but many other matters should be taken into account, such as levels of manning and productivity?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The first priority is to use the investment properly. Secondly, we must ensure that there is a profitable return on that investment and any future investment.

With reference to investment in the public sector, will the Minister explain, in view of his assurances during the last debate on the ship building industry, why the national environmental research council's order is being placed abroad and not with British Shipbuilders?

The hon. Gentleman should put down a separate question on that point. It does not arise on the question on the order paper.

Is it not also a question of the under-use of existing manufacturing capacity? Would it not help if manufacturers had a reasonable prospect in the forthcoming Budget of a better return on investment?

It is true that the present return on investment is disastrously low in real terms. One of the features of recent years has been that the profits that business has retained—or that it has been allowed to retain—have been too low.

Given the real return on capital, the prohibitively high interest rates and the reduction in public expenditure, where does the Minister expect that new investment to come from? Bearing in mind the consequences of Government policy in areas such as South Wales, when will the Government reassess regional development policies in those areas?

My hon. Friend has already mentioned that the Government are prepared to put £48 million into South Wales in order to cope with some of the consequences of running down the steel industry. Otherwise, the money has to come from resources that are available to the economy as a whole. That is why we place such emphasis on reducing the demands of the public sector on those resources.

Post Office


asked the Secretary of State for Industry when he expects to complete his review of the Post Office's mail service monopoly powers.

My right hon Friend has received the reports which he asked for by the end of last year and is considering them. He will make an announcement as soon as possible.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister comment on his basic willingness to open the post and telephone services of the present monopoly to competition from private enterprise? Will he consider that proposal in the light of the Rayner recommendations and the special problems that sub-post offices may face?

As regards telecommunications, my right hon. Friend has made the Government's position clear in principle. We hope to liberalise the monopoly. We have an open mind about the postal side. That is the purpose of the reports that we have asked for. I assure my hon. Friend that the postal monopoly is not inviolate.

I do not expect any change in the monopoly to affect the position of the sub-post office network. If the network is likely to be affected, we shall take that consideration into account.

Does not the Minister understand that there is a connection between the derogation of the monopoly in the London area and the fate of post offices in other parts of the country? Conservative Members should understand that. If the hon. Gentleman cannot understand that, does he realise that many of those from sub-post offices who came to lobby the House last Wednesday were not reassured by his remarks during the debate on the previous evening?

This question does not directly arise from the monopoly. I attended the lobby in Westminster Central Hall. The question of monopoly was not raised. Judging by the reception given at the end of my remarks, and those of my right hon. Friend, the sub-post masters and sub-post mistresses were satisfied.

South Yorkshire


asked the Secretary of State for Industry what plans he has to assist the creation of new jobs in South Yorkshire.

The Government's policies are designed to encourage industrial expansion and employment. South Yorkshire, with the exception of the Sheffield travel-to-work-area (TTWA), is to remain an assisted area, while we have made Mexborough and Rotherham TTWAs development areas.

The Minister has not said anything about providing jobs. Is he not aware that we have made Mexborough a development area? However, the Manvers Main coking plant is threatened with closure. That will mean the loss of 580 jobs. The present rate of unemployment is about 11 per cent. When will jobs be provided? What is the good of giving an area development status, if it does not provide jobs or reduce unemployment?

It is not the Government's job to provide employment. It is our job to create the circumstances and the climate in which industry can provide them.

Is the Minister aware that rather than provide jobs, the obtuse attitude of the Government towards the steel industry will destroy jobs in Sheffield? If the Government persist with that policy, there will be an urgent need for development assistance.

If the hon. Gentleman is drawing attention to damage being done to future jobs in the steel industry as a result of the continuance of the strike, we all understand the direct relationship between an ongoing dispute—called by the steel union—and the future security of jobs.

Industrial Progress


asked the Secretary of State for Industry whether he is satisfied with industrial progress.

Of course we are not satisfied with industrial progress. Whilst the Government have made a good start on getting the right climate for economic growth, it will take time for their policies to be fully implemented and to take effect.

In view of the appalling industrial problems that face all parts of the country, including the Northern region, and in view of growing evidence that the Government's policies are irrelevant, is it not time for the Government to change their policies, or to resign?

The hon. Gentleman has fallen back on a standard party political line today. He usually takes a serious interest in these matters. He must recognise that there is a time Ian between the creation of the right economic policies and the new investment that we expect.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although many of the heavy engineering industries are declining, parts of the communications industry—from large computers to microprocessors —are growing and expanding? In some cases we lead the world. Will he press his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to accede to the request on the Order Paper for an early debate? The industry will provide many job opportunities. It will also provide growth and wealth for the future.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend's general analysis. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will no doubt wish to consider that question very carefully.

Will the Minister kindly tell us what industrial progress the Government have made during the past nine months

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's attempt to be helpful. We have reduced controls on prices, dividends and foreign exchange. We have begun a shift from public to private opportunities, in order to create growth. Those factors take time. However, the framework has been established.

Would not our industrial progress be greatly advanced if the hapless Mr. Len Murray and the rest of the TUC were persuaded that, whatever else we need to impress the outside world, a one-day strike on 14 May can only do harm?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. We all share the view that that strike will do no good to the industrial cause of this country.

Will the Minister look at the profits that banks make as a result of Government policies? Will he also ask the banks where they are investing that money? It is a windfall from the present Government.

I am willing to look at that issue, if the hon. Gentleman is willing to look at the return on capital that banks are now obtaining. In general banking terms, those returns are not excessive. As long as that money comes back into the system—as it will increasingly do—it will have been usefully earned and spent.

Steel Industry


asked the Secretary of State for Industry, what proposals he has received from the British Steel Corporation for hiving off its major non-steel making activities.

Surely the Minister accepts that the Government have some responsibility for the affairs of the corporation? Does he agree that if the subsidiary activities of the BSC are hived off, the financial situation will worsen? If it is proper for private corporations to indulge in miscellaneous activities, why is it wrong for a public corporation to do so?

The BSC may have to sell some of its assets because it must behave as a private sector company would behave in that position. If it needs to finance its own expenditure or losses, it may have to sell assets.

Perhaps BSC will decide that it does not wish to continue production at Consett, for example. Will my hon. Friend do his best to ensure that, where private enterprise is prepared to buy and continue production, BSC will not be allowed to hinder such a sale?

The statutory position is that we cannot tell BSC to sell Consett or any other steel works. I am happy to give the assurance that Ministers will not stand in the way of the disposal of Con-sett to the private sector.

Is the Minister aware of any discussions between the British Steel Corporation and the private sector about the disposal of BSC's special steels activities? Does he agree that would have serious implications for British industry, including our defence industry? May we have an assurance that such sales will not be allowed to proceed?


asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will make a statement on the steel dispute.

I have been keeping the House informed about the strike, and I shall be continuing to make statements as the need arises.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the longer the strike goes on and the longer it takes to start the furnaces after the strike, the greater will be the import penetration immediately after the strike? Does my right hon. Friend agree that much of that import penetration will be maintained? As from today, what longer-term market share will the British Steel Corporation lose as a result of the strike and can the Secretary of State translate that into the number of jobs lost?

I agree that the longer the strike continues the greater will be the import penetration. I cannot begin to guess what effect the strike, let alone a longer strike, will have on the market share of the British Steel Corporation. I hope that the steel workers are alive to the dangers.

Does not the Secretary of State's non-intervention policy increasingly appear to be self-wounding, short-sighted and stiff-necked? Have not the cash limits already been exceeded by the cost of the strike? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that he must intervene to safeguard the whole of the British economic base?

The cash limits for next year no doubt have been exceeded by the strike apart from other causes. That makes it essential for the British Steel Corporation to break even by all possible means. That includes disposals an attack on overheads and stocks and by every other means available to management as well as, of course, a further loss of jobs if that is necessary.

Is my right hon Friend aware that many BSC employees in my constituency, some of whom I saw on Saturday, do not wish to remain on strike and ask why they cannot be allowed to negotiate locally?

Many of us would prefer local negotiations to centralised negotiations. That is not a decision for Ministers. It is a decision for management and the unions which normally cooperate. I hope that my hon. Friend is right in thinking that many of the workers would prefer a different arrangement.

Since steel is central to all the core industries—shipbuilding, engineering, motor car and coal—is not the size of the the steel industry of vital importance? If that is so, why does the Secretary of State take as gospel the forecasts and objectives of the British Steel Corporation which has not exactly earned gold medals for forecasting in the past? Why does not the Secretary of State set up an independent inquiry into the proper size of the steel industry? In the meantime, why does he not abandon his rigid and disruptive rundown timetable?

Whatever the British Steel Corporation's record in forecasting it cannot conceivably be as bad as the forecasts of successive Governments who over-expanded the industry. The decline in demand for British steel is related to BSC prices and, alas, quality and delivery at a time when world demand for steel is at a record level. The right hon. Gentleman refers to core industries. A number of those to which he referred, including the car and shipbuilding industries, have declined. Their lower demand for British Steel Corporation supplies is caused by their failure to become competitive. The issues are related.

Will my right hon. Friend, either now or later, refer to the private steel industry, where workers have been called out although there is no dispute? Will he explain how they are affected and what are the prospects for those companies and the people who work in them?

A number of those who work in the private steel sector are well aware of the dangers to the companies for which they work and to their future jobs if they come out on strike. I hope that they will make their own decisions.

Bearing in mind the understandable and justifiable rejection by the steel unions of the original 2 per cent. offer and recognising that the strike could have been ended six weeks ago if the Minister had intervened at the 8 per cent. level, does he agree that he should now intervene before the bidding reaches a higher level?

The right hon. Gentleman is mis-stating the original offer, which I understand was 2 per cent. plus a substantial increase through higher productivity of about 10 per cent. The original offer was about 12 per cent.

Petrochemical Complexes


asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he is satisfied with the United Kingdom content of plant and equipment in those petrochemical complexes at present under planning consideration.

Orders for a substantial amount of plant and equipment have still to be placed. The client companies are aware of the importance that my right hon. Friend attaches to British companies being given a full and fair opportunity to bid for these contracts and of the advantages of United Kingdom supply. United Kingdom suppliers have represented to us their intention to compete vigorously for the work.

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what he means by "substantial" in the context of his reply? Will he press the company to do an exercise similar to that done by Shell on the Auk platform to show, after the event, exactly what is the United Kingdom content of the projects at Moss Morran and Brae-foot Bay?

No purchasing decision for the Esso chemical installation has yet been reached. Shell completed most of its purchasing some time ago. The few remaining orders will be placed shortly. It is likely that 90 per cent. of the total expenditure on that plant will be on United Kingdom goods and services. About three-quarters of the contracts for materials and equipment will be placed in this country. The hon. Gentleman's second question was interesting and constructive. I shall certainly examine his idea.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an important issue for industry in West Central Scotland? Will he assure us that the Scottish Office will be fully involved in further consultations?

British Steel Corporation


asked the Secretary of State for Industry if, in the light of the subsidies paid on the abortive contract for limestone to Amey Roadstone Ltd., intended for Llanwern Steelworks, he will ensure that future subsidies to the British Steel Corporation are earmarked to specific projects approved by him as part of the overall investment plan.

No. My right hon. Friend approves BSC's general programme of investment, and details of major investment projects are submitted to the Department of Industry, but contracts relating to routine operational needs are a matter for the Corporation.

Is the Minister aware that if he investigated the contract he would be startled at his findings? Is not the industry badly mismanaged and is not that the cause of the substantial losses? Should not the management be suspended and a top level inquiry instituted, as repeatedly requested by the trade unions?

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has corresponded with the chairman of the British Steel Coporation. He has had an opportunity to examine the Amey Roadstone position and was invited to discuss the matter further during a visit to Llanwern. It is unwise to move away from the specific problems and come to general conclusions.

Post Office


asked the Secretary of State for Industry when next he expects to meet the chairman of the Post Office.

My right hon. Friend will meet Sir William Barlow as the need arises.

When the Minister meets the chairman will he tell him that it took 2,000 more men last year to handle 1 billion fewer letters and parcels than it took in 1973–74? Will he urge on the chairman that when confronted with the problems of declining productivity the Post Offic should not always seek the soft option of, for example, withdrawing Sunday collections or deliveries to individual flats?

The question of low productivity is one of the main problems of the Post Office at present. I believe that the union and the management are equally aware of this. Also, I believe that the public will not stand for any further reductions in services, nor will they welcome any increase in charges.

When the Minister next meets the chairman, will he congratulate the Post Office on making a profit of £300 million? On the question of reorganisation, in view of the fact that the telecommunications side is capital-intensive and the postal side is labour-intensive, will he keep both sides together in future, because any break-up would not be in the best interests of the nation?

The profits of the Post Office are necessary for the massive investments needs for the telecommunications side. On the question of the split between the postal side and telecommunications, my right hon. Friend has announced the Government's policy in principle on this matter following the recommendations of the Carter committee.

When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman will he give him an assurance that, if the Government decide to break the monopoly of the Post Office, private carriers will be expected to compete with the Post Office on a national basis, and not simply be allowed to hive off the most profitable parts?

Clearly this is one of the things that we must consider when we make our policy decision on the question of the Post Office monopoly.

Has the Minister of State or any of his colleagues discussed with the Post Office chairman the latest proposals of the accounting body to impose current cost accounting methods without the agreement of the Government?

This is not a matter that I have discussed personally with the chairman, but it is under discussion in my Department. It will be taken up as appropriate with the chairmen of the nationalised industries.



asked the Secretary of State for Industry whether he is satisfied with the level of productivity in manufacturing industry.

As my right hon. Friend already awards export industry with certificates to show that it has improved its export potential, would not it be a good idea to have a national award for local productivity agreements in individual factories so that some form of competitiveness could apply throughout the United Kingdom?

That is a very interesting suggestion. It underlines that productivity is the key issue and one of the basic fundamental questions behind the steel strike.

Is the Minister aware that the Secretary of State in a speech in Leeds over the weekend discussed "patchy management" as the cause of poor productivity? What is his team doing about patchy management and what positive steps are they taking to improve management?

We are providing greater incentives and tax reductions. That is one of the genuine ways in which I hope the hon. Member will join us in seeking to get better pay for a better job of work done.

Will my hon. Friend assure the Secretary of State that even those of us who belong to what the press call the compassionate wing of the Conservative Party are sadly but totally in support of his policy of obliging British industry to become competitive'? Is he aware that we sadly reject the idea that thousands of jobs can be saved at the cost of taxpayers' money which, in turn, will put many other jobs at peril?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will appreciate those remarks. They show that this great Party is united on this issue, as on all else.

Steel Industry


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.

Director Of Public Prosecutions


asked the Attorney-General on how many occasions the Director of Public Prosecutions has issued circulars to chief officers of police.

The Director has authority to issue circulars to chief officers of police only in respect of the offences which he requires to be reported to him and the form such reporting should take. Four such circulars have been issued by the present Director. He has no authority to issue instructions to chief officers of police in respect of any other matters.

Will the Attorney-General then explain how his instructions about jury vetting can be enforced to those chief officers of police who are not adhering to his guidelines at the moment?

In October 1975 when the guidelines were issued the Home Office also issued a circular to chief officers of police saying that all cases in which it was intended that a check should be made should be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. In March 1979 it came to the attention of the Home Office and the Law Officers that the Northamptonshire police were checking all jury panels against CRO records. This information was passed on to prosecuting counsel. My predecessor expressed grave concern at the failure to follow the guidelines that had been endorsed in the circular.

The Home Office investigated this matter and in June last year received assurances through the Association of Chief Police Officers that the guidelines were being adhered to by all forces. It was not known that in Northamptonshire the former practice had been continued until last week. The Home Office is inquiring into the latest allegations. May I say that I completely disapprove of and thoroughly deprecate what has happened in Northamptonshire.

As the Home Office is inquiring into this matter would it not be constitutionally more proper if circulars to the police were issued only by, or on behalf of, the Cabinet Minister responsible to this House, namely, the Home Secretary?

The circular in question which was based upon my predecessor's guidelines was issued by the Home Office.

Will the Attorney-General confirm that it is not the role of Cabinet Ministers, whether they be Lord Chancellors or Home Secretaries, to interfere with the role of chief constables in their decisions about whether to prosecute? If that is so, what was the purpose of the Home Secretary's well-advertised meeting recently with chief constables, and did he come away with a flea in his ear? Did the Attorney-General approve of, and was he consulted about, that meeting?

I regret that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has obviously not taken on board what I said in the course of my statement last week. That meeting was at the request of the chief officers of police who asked the Home Secretary to meet them.

I am sure that the Attorney-General does not believe that we in this House are as innocent as he pretends. There is a way of inspiring an invitation, as he well knows. I asked him to confirm that it is for chief constables to decide whether to prosecute. Does the Attorney-General approve of that?

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is suggesting that the statement that I made on behalf of the Home Secretary is not true, let him produce the evidence.


asked the Attorney-General when next he expects to meet the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware, particularly in view of this timely appointment, of disturbing reports suggesting that inquiries into alleged police corruption under Operation Countryman are being obstructed as a result of disagreements between the DPP and senior police officers in charge of that operation? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is of great importance that Operation Countryman proceeds successfully and satisfactorily? Will my right hon. and learned Friend use his influence to resolve any differences that may be obstructing this affair?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this question, since these reports must obviously cause public anxiety. I have taken a close interest in the Countryman inquiry and there is no truth in the allegation that the DPP is blocking the investigation. He has provided a member of his staff at the inquiry headquarters at Godalming to assist with legal matters. On 1 March Mr. Peter Matthews, the chief constable of Surrey, will take over from the chief constable of Dorset, who has retired. I hope to be able to discuss the whole inquiry with Mr. Matthews very soon. The main difficulty as is often the case is the quality of the evidence which is available.

When he next sees the DPP will the Attorney-General ask the Director to explain the preposterous situation where not a single interview was ordered with any of the 300 directors of Shell and BP, named in the Bingham report annex, on evidence of criminal involvement? Will the Attorney General also take this opportunity to explain to the House why when he informed me on 9 November last year that 14,000 files had been obtained from Shell and BP he failed to say that those files had not been collected by the police and were never examined by anyone?

My statement made it quite clear that the files had not been obtained and that those were the ones that were offered as a result of the demand under the sanctions order. It is right that I unfortunately used the word "obtained" though, if I remember rightly I went on to say in the second half of the answer that it would seem—and the hon. and learned Gentleman has Hansard in front of him—that it included a great number of documents. We certainly did not have them. We were told, and I remember the phrase very clearly, that we would need a number of pantechnicons to be sent to collect them.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that there is still great disquiet about Operation Countryman? Though the House will accept that his Department and the DPP are not blocking the inquiry will the Attorney-General comment on the allegations that the Metropolitan Police are blocking the inquiry? Can the Attorney-General tell us when the doctrine enunciated by the DPP that there must be a 50 per cent. likelihood of a jury convicting was first enunciated in his Department and by whom?

The doctrine—the DPP said 51 per cent.—is another way of putting the proposition that there must be more than a likelihood that a reasonable and impartial jury, properly directed, will convict. That is the test. It does not matter whether we use the figure of 51 per cent. or the words I have just used. There is no truth at all—I have looked into the matter with the greatest care—in the allegation that any senior officer of the Metropolitan Police force, or the City Police, who are equally involved in this inquiry, have taken any kind of blocking action. Whether there are junior police officers who in the course of the inquiry, may be exercising their right not to answer questions I do not know. However, that is a right to which they are entitled.

Has the Attorney-General had a further opportunity of considering the suggestion I made on 28 January of appointing an official to act as a prosecution ombudsman who could set public anxieties at rest in relation to prosecution decisions by looking at files that are not always available for public discussion and reporting?

That is a matter that I said I would look at. I have not yet gone further with it.

Master Of The Rolls


asked the Attorney-General when the Lord Chancellor expects next to meet the Master of the Rolls.

On Monday 3 March next, at a meeting of the Supreme Court Rule Committee.

In view of the lack of respect for law and order and the damage done to industrial relations by Lord Denning's recent judgments—overruled even by the House of Lords—is it not time that someone told Lord Denning that he should retire instead of continuing to collect £30,000 a year of public money while launching unwarranted attacks on the trade union movement and the supremacy of Parliament?

Order. If the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) wishes to criticise the judge, he should put down a motion on the Order Paper and it would then be in order to debate it.

There is no truth of any kind in the suggestion that the learned and much respected judge has ever allowed any personal feelings to influence his decision. Many decisions of his have been upheld and have made im- portant contributions to the law of England.

On 3 March, will one of the topics under discussion be a change in the manner of the writ of summons?

I do not have the agenda but I hope very much that it will, in view of the views expressed by my hon. and learned Friend as well as by others.

When the Lord Chancellor and the Master of the Rolls meet, will not one of the subjects near the top of their agenda be the decision of the High Court this morning that the Secretary of State for Social Services bumblingly and incompetently sacked the Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham area health authority and placed commissioners in its place? Did the right hon. and learned Gentleman give that incompetent advice to his right hon. Friend? If so will he now advise his right hon. Friend to come to the House and state how he proposes to replace the illegally appointed commissioners with a properly appointed area health authority?

I have not seen the judgment. I have a brief report only of it. I understand that the learned judge said that the order was correct in every respect save for one—that it did not give a time in which the order should operate. The making of the order in every other respect was upheld by the judge.