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Steel Imports

Volume 980: debated on Monday 3 March 1980

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asked the Secretary of State for Trade what tonnage of (a) bulk steel and (b) special steel was imported in the first six weeks of this year; and from which countries.

Statistics of overseas trade are compiled on a monthly basis. In January 24,000 tonnes of alloy steel and 233,000 tonnes of other steel were imported. Details by country are not yet available.

Does not the Minister realise that the importation of these steels at a time when massive closures in the steel industry are under way—53,000 men are to lose their jobs—is causing an attitude of embittered determination by the steelworkers to continue with the strike? Will he, together with his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, intervene and put more money on the table? If he had seen the massive demonstrations in Rotherham and Sheffield yesterday he would realise how intense is the strike and the determination of the steelworkers to achieve 20 per cent., with no strings attached.

The United Kingdom is, traditionally, a net exporter of steel. In 1979 the export of surplus steel amounted to 637,000 tonnes. The result of the present dispute, which I deplore as much as the hon. Gentleman does, is that imports are now bound to increase, and exports will suffer. The dispute has done no good for anybody working in the industry.

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the leaders of the unions in the steel industry that there is enough money on the table to justify a settlement of the strike? Will he make it clear also that if they do not settle the strike imports will increase and those selling the imports to Britain will achieve a firm market here, which will have disastrous consequences for the industry and the workers?

I am tempted to be drawn into a debate on the matter, but there are enough people trying to solve the steel dispute without my intervening in the responsibilities of the BSC and the unions involved. Much as I should like to debate the matter with my hon. Friend, it would not help the present position if I were to do so.

Is the Minister aware that many steel stockholders, especially importing stockholders, are demanding particularly aggressive terms from buying manufacturing industry? Is he aware that in some cases they are demanding a price which has risen by as much as 20 per cent. to 25 per cent., and are demanding also that contracts are signed for a year's supply? Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that the result will be heavy imports? Does he not feel that he should intervene and ask those stockholders to operate in the national interest, as everyone else is trying to do?

I am afraid that the shortage of supply of a product normally tends to raise its price. That is not an unusual thing to happen. There is no evidence that there has been, to use the hon. Gentleman's expression, any profiteering by the steel stockholders at the present time. If there is a shortage of a product, one would naturally expect its price to rise.

Leaving aside the industrial relations aspects, will not the only economic result of a continuance of the strike be to make British industry less competitive increase imports, and decrease the numbers working in the industry?

I fear that the result of the dispute will lead to lower exports in the immediate future, which will inevitably lead to higher imports. That cannot be avoided.