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British Steel Corporation

Volume 981: debated on Monday 24 March 1980

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

I do not have a meeting arranged with Sir Charles Villiers at the moment, but we meet from time to time.

When my right hon. Friend meets the chairman of BSC will he draw to his attention the fact that there are many steel workers who now wish to settle along the lines of the offer made by the corporation? Can my right hon. Friend give us some assessment of the damage to job prospects and job security caused by this strike?

I fear that the strike will have jeopardised the size of the industry but I hope very much that when it gets back to work—we all hope that that will happen as soon as possible—it will quickly manage to recover its market share.

Does not the Secretary of State agree that British steel workers have put up a remarkable display of solidarity in supporting what they believe to be their just wage claim? What is more, does he not agree that they are not likely to forget in a hurry those people, including their elected representatives, who have done everything possible to undermine them in the dispute?

I have a high respect for the steel workers. I hope they will recognise that the sooner they get back to work, the better it will be for the future of their own jobs.

Although it is clear that the strike has not gained an additional penny for the steel workers but has lost them vast sums, will my right hon. Friend make it plain that once the strike is over he will be prepared to listen very carefully to anything that the corporation may say about the possibility of a more intelligently phased operation of slimming down the size of the industry?

I shall listen to anything that the corporation may say, but the limitation upon the money available to it from the taxpayer must remain firm.

May I remind the Secretary of State that the gap between BSC's offer and the union's claim is less than £50 million? Using the Minister's figures of some weeks ago, the loss of revenue to BSC at £10 million a week or so now totals £120 million. If we add to that the loss of revenue to British Rail and the National Coal Board, we are discussing a figure four times the amount of that gap. Therefore, was not it extremely stupid of the Prime Minister to say on Saturday that the Government could have avoided the steel strike but did not do so for the sake of the taxpayer?

No. The gap to which the right hon. Gentleman referred is far more about where the money to meet the earnings shall come from than about the size of the earnings. The issue is whether the taxpayer should be asked to meet some of the increase in earnings which, in the view of many people, myself included, should come from the productivity of the steel workers and not from the taxpayer.

But the £200 million of which I have spoken, and which the Secretary of State cannot possibly deny, will have to be found by the long-suffering taxpayer anyway.

The right hon. Gentleman did not ask me a question, but per- haps I may treat his remarks as if they were a question.

It does not follow that the loss imposed upon the Steel Corporation by the strike has to be met by the taxpayer. The Steel Corporation is required, as any private business would be, to take every step that it can, including cutting its overheads—

Alas, if the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) knew more about the steel industry—I withdraw that, because the hon. Gentleman was Chairman of the Select Committee. He should know, even when he comments from a sedentary position, that steel is a buyer's and not a seller's market. But I was saying that the Steel Corporation will be required, as any private business would be required, to break even by every legitimate means in its power—that is, including cutting overheads, buying better, reducing stock, disposing of non-essential assets and, if necessary, increased redundancies.