asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he is yet in a position to make a statement about the progress of the Government's quest for an alternative operator for the Invergordon aluminium smelter.
A number of companies have expressed interest in the smelter, subject to various conditions—in particular, the terms of a new power contract. Discussions on these matters are in progress between my Department, the electricity boards and the companies concerned.
First, has the Secretary of State had discussions with the British Aluminium Company about the plant and site, which may be dismantled at the end of June? What will happen if the discussions with other companies have not been completed by then?
We are keeping in close touch with the British Aluminium Company, which at present owns the smelter. We are aware that its undertaking to keep the plant in a usable condition runs until 30 June, and we have that very much in mind in the negotiations.
Does the Minister realise the degree of unrest in the area at the Government's failure to get a new power contract on the road in time? Is he aware that it is five months since the plant closed and about 10 months since the Government became involved in this in one way or another? What steps does he intend to take to get the plant open and in a fit state rather than leave the matter to drag on for another month, with all the worry that will be caused in the area?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not just leaving it for another month. We are negotiating with the companies that have expressed interest and with other companies. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that arranging a new power contract is an extremely difficult and complex matter. We are determined not to have a new contract that will fall flat on its face as the old one did.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, but for the heroic efforts of the Scottish Office staff and of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Energy, and the exemplary efforts of the leader of the action group, there would have been no hope of reopening the plant?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the way in which those involved in the Invergordon area have done all in their power to keep open the prospects for the smelter is very much to be commended. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has, of course, been very much involved in that. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) that the Government have made every possible effort to find a means of reopening the smelter and will press on with this as hard as they can.
Is the Secretary of State aware that some of us are suspicious of the way in which the Government's mood changes from great optimism a couple of days before an election to great caution immediately thereafter? Will he say something more precise about keeping the opportunities open beyond the 30 June deadline? Is he aware that, although we wish the negotiations well, even at best there seems to be not the slightest chance of everything being completed by that date? Does he agree that there is no reason why the Government should not take on some additional commitment beyond that date?
The British Aluminium Company has accepted responsibility for keeping the plant in a reasonable condition until 30 June. Thereafter, we should have to consider the situation in the light of the circumstances then prevailing. If by that time a new operator is directly interested in the plant, it would be up to the new operator to take over that responsibility. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are very much aware of this and are bearing it carefully in mind in the negotiations.