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Commons Chamber

Volume 33: debated on Wednesday 1 December 1982

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 1 December 1982

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions


Electrical Multiple Units


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what is the average age of electrical multiple units running on the third rail system on British Rail lines.

Just under 20 years.

Is the Minister aware that many of those units, especially the ones on the Brighton line, are dilapidated and urgently need refurbishing? Is he further aware that the Swindon railway workshops were promised a 10-year rolling programme to refurbish the EMUs on the Brighton line but are now unable to do so because of restrictions on the external financing limit? Will he do the commuters on the Brighton line a favour by extending the external financing limit so that we can get on with the work?

I note with sympathy the hon. Gentleman's point about Swindon. He will appreciate that it is for British Rail to decide on its refurbishment programme. Refurbishment is extremely beneficial to those vehicles and produces one that is as attractive as a new one to passengers.

The hon. Gentleman must understand that Government support to British Rail is now at the highest level ever. In those circumstances, it is for British Rail to make the best use of its resources for carrying out improvements of the type for which he asks.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the great problems of all commuters in the Southern region, especially those travelling on the mid-Kent and Maidstone lines? Is he aware that modernised rolling stock would make commuters' journeys more comfortable? May we be assured of some early progress?

I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend's point about commuters' problems. He will be encouraged to know that the programme of refurbishing vehicles that run on the third rail system applies with special benefit in Kent, where that system operates. I hope, therefore, that his constituents who are travellers will find their conditions of travel much improved by the refurbishing programme.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that he accepts that the running of commuter services is part of the social fabric of the country, that if British Rail does not do it nobody will, and that that would place an intolerable burden on the roads? On that basis, does he agree that the public purse has an obligation to keep the units as modern and as efficient as possible?

I accept all the terms of my hon. Friend's question. He is right to emphasise the importance of those matters to commuters. They are never out of our minds in the Department.

Is the Minister aware that a recently published report shows that while railway systems in most major industrial nations are expanding, ours is contracting?

Yes, but the hon. Gentleman must take account of the reasons for the financial problems of the British Railways Board. They are created by a loss of traffic and are aggravated by senseless and irresponsible strikes. Government support is at the highest level ever, but it is for British Rail to settle the problems of industrial disputes and move towards modern working practices that will make good use of investment.

British Rail


asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he anticipates he will next meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss the public service obligation.

I meet the chairman of the British Railways Board frequently to discuss this and other issues.

When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman of British Rail, will he raise with him the threatened withdrawal of the Manchester to London rail sleeper service? Is he aware that it was that service that attracted some trouser-related notoriety? Can he assure the chairman of British Rail that there are hon. Members who are prepared to make the supreme sacrifice of seeing successive Chancellors of the Exchequer go trouserless if the service is retained?

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will be grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's attention to his sartorial needs and concerns. With regard to the provision of sleeper services, it is mainly a matter for British Rail and its marketing division to provide services for which there is a demand. I shall see that the matter is drawn to the attention of the chairman of British Rail.

In view of the need to improve the public service obligation, is my right hon. Friend yet able to say when he will approve investment for the electrification of the east coast main line scheme?

Not yet. The success of the east coast main line investment rests on making the inter-city business profitable. That has been recognised by British Rail, and was made clear by the Government as long ago as 1981. I am still awaiting the board's revised proposals on how that profitability is to be achieved. Until I have received those, it is not possible to reach a decision.

Instead of the Government pursuing a policy of having yet heavier juggernauts on the roads, why does not the right hon. Gentleman try to get more traffic on to the railways? Do we not need a co-ordinated transport policy that encourages traffic on the railways rather than on our overcrowded roads?

As the hon. Gentleman will recall from our debates last week, the Government have agreed to raise to a maximum of 60 per cent. the grants for encouraging the movement of road freight on to rail through rail facilities at warehouses. The Government recognise that, but neither British Rail freight nor the interests of the nation would demand that there should be artificial protection for the rail freight industry. On the contrary, British Rail management wants to compete on fair terms, but to do so it must have efficiency, the removal of restrictive practices and high efficiency operations on the railways.

Order. If Front Bench speakers wish to ask questions, will they please indicate their intention earlier so that I can maintain a proper balance?

Will my right hon. Friend urge the chairman to announce that British Rail has every intention of keeping in operation the Waterloo to Exeter service, which is the longest service run by Southern Region? There is some fear in Dorset and Devon that this service might be closed. That would be a major worry to people living in those counties. I believe that there is no truth in the rumour, but it would help if a statement were made by the chairman of British Rail.

Nothing of that kind has been raised either with myself or with the Government, but I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the chairman of British Rail.

While the Minister has fairly recently revised the PSO for last year to take care of what he calls "transitional finance", when will he announce the PSO for 1983–84?


asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to meet the chairman of the British Railways Board to discuss investment in British Rail.

I meet the chairman frequently to discuss various matters of mutual interest.

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the chairman how he expects British Rail to maintain an efficient and modern railway system when the Government are renewing only half the necessary requirements for basic assets? The right hon. Gentleman is also plundering public property by selling off British Transport hotels, including the Liverpool Ade1phi. When will he stop this asset stripping and make a positive contribution to the future of British Rail?

The hon. Gentleman talks about asset stripping, but hotels overall are a drain on British Rail's finances. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome anything that checked the drain on finances and enabled British Rail to increase its investment and improve the rail system.

As to the hon. Gentleman's earlier strictures, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has said, the social obligation payment to British Rail now stands at its highest level ever. The external financing limit for next year has been announced. That is broadly the same in real terms and is considerably up in cash terms. This year and last, about £240 million went straight down the drain because of strikes, and that could have gone towards better support for British Rail. There is no constraint through the investment ceiling on what British Rail invests. The constraint is that sums that should be going towards investment and equipment, which I should like to see on a greater scale, have in the past been drained away on costs. The sooner we improve that, the better it will be for the future of British Rail.

Order. We are still on question No. 3, when by this time we are usually on question No. 5. I remind the House that long questions and answers delay our business.

When my right hon. Friend last saw the chairman of British Rail, did the chairman express any views about whether it was reasonable for British Rail to continue to run a network of 11,000 miles of permanent way? In view of the comments of Mr. Lance Ibbotson, does my right hon. Friend think that it is time to reappraise how large a rail network we require?

I have long taken the view that we need to appraise whether the considerable sums paid by the taxpayer to British Rail are securing the social service—over and above the commercial service—that is required. It was in the light of that view that we set up the Serpell committee to look at both this and longer-term questions. That committee will be reporting fairly soon.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the Serpell committee would be reporting fairly soon. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the report is published in full as soon as possible and that there will be a proper opportunity for debate in the House land elsewhere before the Government make up their mind? Frankly, the right hon. Gentleman's record on consultation is quite appalling.

I certainly hope that the conclusions of the Serpell report can be published, but I must take a view on the basis of the report, which I have not yet seen. As to a debate, I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's views to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that previous Governments allowed British Rail to finance by leasing using private sector finance—for example, for its locomotive programme? Is it not time that both British Rail and the Government adopted a far more determined approach to the harnessing of private sector resources and initiatives in developing British Rail investment?

I should like to encourage those initiatives wherever possible. My hon. Friend is aware that with regard to freight wagons, the arrangements combine private capital and operations on the railway. The chairman of British Rail has recently expressed interest in the idea of harnessing private investment for the Victoria-Gatwick link, and I have no doubt that there are other possibilities. That is one way of bringing more investment and capital in to improve our railways, a way to which we should not close our minds.

M1 (Accidents)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport how many road accidents have been caused as a result of roadworks on the M1 during the last year for which records are available.

The accident report form supplied by the police gives no information as to the causes of accidents, although the presence or absence of certain unfavourable circumstances is noted.

During 1981 there were 172 personal injury accidents on the M1, outside the Metropolitan area, in which road works were reported to be present. In 13 such accidents the roadworks were hit.

Will the Minister accept, from one of those who hit the road works, that while roadworks are in progress on the M1 the motorway is far more dangerous than normal and that during the present season of fog and ice people should cease behaving like homicidal maniacs, thereby risking their own lives and others on the roads, not least the lives of hon. Members going to and from their constituencies?

I accept what the hon. and learned Gentleman says about the increased danger on the roads at this time of year. Motorists would do well to observe the speed limits. However, since we started the longer crossovers and the shorter length of road under repair, the accident rate on all the sections has fallen dramatically. That is good news. But too high a speed in bad road conditions will cause accidents.

I have frequently come across these roadworks, but have not hit them. Does the Minister accept that this is a matter of widespread concern among the travelling public? If there are no figures on the relationship between accidents and road works on motorways, is it not time that such figures were compiled? Is it possible for the Minister to give her original figures as a proportion of the total number of accidents, so that we can judge the contribution that road works make to the accident figures?

I frequently ask for more statistics so that we can see whether there is any casual relationship, but hon. Members would be wrong to draw the conclusion that accidents are necessarily more prevalent at road works. Accidents arise from a combination of factors. Often the most important factor is that drivers fail to reduce speed when conditions demand that they should.

Are the speed limits displayed near road works legally enforceable? If so, is my hon. Friend aware of any prosecutions for exceeding those limits?

I am not aware of any prosecutions, but I shall look into the matter further.

British Rail


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what is the proposed level of Government subsidy for British Rail in each of the next three years.

I am at present discussing the appropriate level for 1983 with the Railways Board. Decisions on later years will be taken in the light of the review of railway finances under Sir David Serpell, whose report I expect to receive shortly.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Whatever conclusions he may reach, the sums involved will be very large. Will he ensure that there is no possibility of public money being wasted in the way that has occurred on the St. Pancras to Bedford line, where £150 million worth of rolling stock has lain idle for nearly a year due to union manning disputes?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. It is a matter of great concern. We all welcome the prospect of more investment in new equipment and rolling stock for British Rail, but it is essential that when the investment takes place the equipment is worked with proper manning levels and without restrictive practices. Until there is a change in the present situation, it is difficult to win public confidence and support for further improvement of the British Rail system and the investment that we all want.

What conclusions does the Minister draw from the fact that on the London-Midland line, which serves the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) and me, revenues have dramatically increased since the belated introduction of high-speed trains between London and Sheffield? Does the Minister agree that such investment raises both morale and revenue, and that that is what we need, rather than carping and sniping at British Rail?

Yes, I agree with that. The HST programme has been particularly successful, although in some senses internationally underrated. The 125 mph high speed diesel trains are a remarkable railway achievement.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm yet again that in terms of finance there are two railways—the one that British Rail is able and willing to run profitably, and the social railway that the nation demands? Does he agree that there are far too many questions about the British Rail subsidy and far too few about the subsidy for the M1 motorway, the cost of repairs, police, accidents and time lost? Is it not time that a fairer comparison was made?

Yes. I hope that the results of the Serpell committee inquiry will help to disentangle which parts of the railway are run for social reasons and which parts are or should be run commercially.

Does the Secretary of State recall that during the industrial dispute earlier this year both he and the chairman of British Rail constantly said that if the railway unions accepted the productivity package it would result in investment in the railways? How many investment schemes has he approved since the productivity agreements were reached?

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that final agreement has not yet been secured. It is the subject of current negotiations. I am anxious that British Rail should be able to move forward on all the agreements that were signed in 1981 but have not yet been delivered. Those agreements are a precondition for the successful working of existing investment, let alone new investment.

Public Transport Fares


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what has been the percentage increase in public transport fares since May 1979.

Public transport fares increased by about 16 per cent. in real terms between May 1979 and October 1982.

How much of that increase is due to cuts in Government transport subsidy and cuts imposed by the Government on local authority transport subsidies? Is it not a classic example of Tory double standards when Ministers refuse to provide an adequate transport subsidy for the general public but approve a 100 per cent. transport subsidy for themselves so that they can travel around for nothing in the luxury of chauffeur-driven limousines?

The hon. Gentleman completely misrepresents the facts. I point out to him very firmly that since May 1979 revenue support to public transport has risen in cash and in real terms. I hope that he will go away and think seriously about that, as it shows what rubbish his question was.

Leaving aside all political implications, does my hon. Friend appreciate the social consequences of the increase in fares? Is he aware that the price of a season ticket to London from Folkestone has risen fourfold since I have had the honour to be in the House? Does he realise that, as people used to commute from Folkestone to London, the increases mean that house prices in Folkestone have fallen while those in London have risen? Should that not be considered before further price increases are approved?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise the importance for the quality of life generally of efficient public transport. The way to get public transport fares under control is through higher productivity, worthwhile investment and responsible wage settlements. Throwing money away on irresponsible current subsidies makes it impossible to finance the investment that could cut costs and make the services more attractive.

Is the Minister aware of the enormous increase in fares on the section of the Central line that runs through Essex, especially the Epping and Ongar section, because of the refusal of the Conservative-controlled Essex county council—unlike the Labour-controlled GLC—to claim transport supplementary grant to provide a subsidy for that line? Is he aware that all services on that line are to disappear, except for those in the rush hour? Will that not prove to be a recipe for the eventual closure of the line? Will he do something about it?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is for Essex county council to decide what support should be given to that line. The fact that fares in London have risen 40 per cent. more than the retail prices index makes one think very seriously about the policies of the GLC.

When challenged about public transport fares, will my hon. Friend never fail to mention the need for efficient and economical operation? Is he aware that today London Transport announced that it suspects that it is losing £30 million through fraud? Would not the elimination of that fraud contribute to lower fares than the 40 per cent. increase to which he has referred?

I know that the director of London Transport is very concerned at the loss of revenue through fraud and is considering various measures to decrease that loss.

Driver And Vehicle Licensing Centre


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what improvements he expects to be brought about by the introduction of a new computer system at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre in Swansea.

It is planned to bring the new system into operation over the next three years. It is designed to provide a more rapid service to the public and will enable us to make significant manpower savings.

I am delighted to hear that reply. Is my hon. Friend aware that I have had to write to her Department in Swansea in the past three weeks about two cases of delay in the issuing of driving licences? Will she assure us that during the interim period while the new computer comes into operation steps will be taken to ensure the reduction of the delays that have taken place recently?

I understand that there have been problems in a small minority of cases, about some of which my hon. Friend has written to me. Our current aim is to handle 90 per cent. of transactions within 10 days. When we have an on-line rather than a batch processing system we shall be able to deal with far more inquiries instantaneously. I assure my hon. Friend that we are providing for the continuation of the old system until the new system is fully operational, with the help of private computer consultants.

How many people are now employed at Swansea, particularly in dealing with vehicle excise duty? Are the Government taking steps towards a fundamental reform of the car licensing and VED systems?

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea and the local vehicle licensing offices now employ 5,500 people. That is 1,500 fewer posts than when the Government took office, despite a 4 per cent. increase in work load. We are continually reviewing the way in which jobs are carried through to make the service more efficient. The VED system was examined in 1979 by the then Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), and the Government decided not to abolish vehicle excise duty because of the effect on rural motorists and business users.

Heavy Lorries (Testing)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what are the outstanding issues to be resolved before heavy goods vehicles testing can be transferred to the Lloyd's Register Vehicle Testing Authority.

Much progress has been made in our discussions with Lloyd's Register of Shipping. There are still a number of issues to be resolved and detailed discussions are continuing on such matters as the conditions for occupation of the test stations by LRVTA, terms and conditions of employment for staff, and arrangements for LRVTA's relationship with the Department after transfer.

Does the Under-Secretary of State recall that when what is now the Transport Act 1982 was passing through the House hon. Members who objected to the proposal to transfer HGV testing stations to the private sector were given increasingly firm assurances that the passing of the Bill would enable the transfer to be made, virtually immediately, to Lloyd's? As the gravest doubts are cast on those assurances by the hon. Lady's answer to me, may we have a categorical assurance that if this transfer is not successfully negotiated there will be no transfer of the HGV testing to the private sector, and that in no circumstances will HGV testing be broken up and handed over to a series of private firms?

I remind the House that I never expected the transfer to proceed immediately. The Act that permits the transfer received Royal Assent only a few weeks ago. Discussions are continuing well towards agreement. I hope that agreement will be reached, because the Government's declared aim has been to transfer all 91 stations together. At present we are not considering any other solution.

British Rail


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what will be the maximum investment expenditure possible by British Rail operating within the external financing limit announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the current year and next year.

The British Rail investment ceiling is £462 million in 1982–83 and £497 million in 1983£84.

How much of that figure is available to British Rail for investment, because, increasingly, British Rail says that it is unable to meet the investment programme by reason of the constraints placed upon it by the Government?

As my answer will have shown the hon. Gentleman, the investment ceiling is not one of those constraints. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question must lie in British Rail containing its operating costs and in generating the funds available for investment up to the substantial ceiling that I have outlined.

I was delighted that my right hon. Friend visited my constituency on Saturday of last week, although, sadly, I had to be with my regiment in Preston. What percentage of the resources that my right hon. Friend has announced today will be available to British Rail to assist with the commencement of a Channel tunnel, which is vital not only to the United Kingdom and industry in the North-West—which would benefit greatly from a rail-only tunnel—but to the construction industry?

I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend's constituency recently, but I cannot—

The right hon. Gentleman was probably even more delighted that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) was not there.

I had a very pleasant time.

However, I cannot answer that question. There are later questions concerning the Channel tunnel. At the moment financial viability is being examined by a group of banks. They have not yet reached a conclusion, but, when they do, I shall be in a position to advise my hon. Friend further.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that British Rail has put forward proposals for investment in a modified form of the advanced passenger train to run between Glasgow and London? When will the right hon. Gentleman be able to announce the go-ahead for the modified form of the APT, so that it can at last run between Glasgow and London carrying fare-paying passengers?

May I assure my right hon. Friend that, should he visit Folkestone, he will be able to see the site of the Channel tunnel—and I promise not to be in Preston when he comes?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that invitation. It is nice to be in demand.

Will the Secretary of State deny any speculation that the new advanced passenger train will run, not to Glasgow, but only as far as Liverpool and Manchester?

The precise arrangements for the use of the train are a matter for British Rail. These are matters that should be announced by and referred to the chairman of British Rail.

Traffic Management Schemes


asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will list his powers in relation to traffic management schemes proposed by the Greater London Council which affect trunk routes.

My powers in relation to traffic management schemes affecting trunk roads in Greater London are derived from section 6(2) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967, which enables my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or, with his consent, the Greater London Council, to make traffic regulation orders relating to trunk roads.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the GLC is trying to impose on Enfield town a contra-flow bus scheme at a cost of £90,000? Is he further aware that this proposal is opposed by the council and by all organisations in Enfield? Will he examine the powers of the GLC in this regard and consider whether he can overrule them?

Church Street is not a trunk road and it does not come within the provisions that I specified. My right hon. Friend was not consulted when the GLC introduced the proposal for the scheme. I understand that the proposal is on an experimental basis, limited in time. If the GLC wishes to proceed with a permanent order, it must be advertised locally and nationally and the public must be given a right to object.

Should the Transport Act 1967 be reinforced to limit juggernaut movements in central London?

I should need to consider carefully an answer to that question. If I may, I shall write to my hon. Friend.

Rural Transport


asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he is satisfied that the rural areas of the country have a sufficient level of bus transport.

It is for county councils, with their local knowledge, to decide how the particular needs of their areas should best be met. Where conventional buses are no longer viable, innovatory forms of transport can be a great help, and my Department is doing what it can to make people generally aware of all the possibilities.

Is my hon. Friend further aware that, apart from peak hours, one cannot find a bus in the countryside. There seem to be fewer and fewer buses. I appreciate that few people travel outside peak times. Does this not show that it would almost pay if some of these subsidies were to go on taxi fares, which would cost less than it costs to run buses outside peak hours?

I sympathise with those in rural areas who cannot get the bus services that they wish. That is why we have encouraged the development of community transport and shared taxi systems, which are already running well in many parts of the country, and in which I expect to see a growth in the months ahead.

Is not the low level of transport in rural areas, and generally, due to a lack of investment in transport by the Government, and is not the biggest restrictive practice in transport precisely that lack of proper investment by the Government? When this matter is examined on a world scale, is not the United Kingdom among the lowest on the international list? Is not the real reason for that the lack of proper rural transport?

The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. Bus revenue support in 1982–83 was £260 million-about 20 per cent. higher than in the previous year. Rural services have not suddenly started to decline. They have been declining for many years. The Transport Act 1980 opened up new opportunities for rural areas, which have been taken up gladly in many parts of the country.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in many rural areas, such as the one that I represent, fares on public transport are greater than those on private transport on the same routes? While that situation continues it is hardly surprising that many rural communities are not served by bus services, which are becoming increasingly unviable. Will my hon. Friend encourage bus companies to experiment with cut-price fare schemes? If they cut their fares by 50 per cent., they may be surprised to find that use more than doubles and that such systems become feasible.

My hon. Friend's proposals are attractive. Few bus companies can afford to run widely flung services in areas where there is insufficient demand for them to run with a sensible pricing system.

We shall examine the results of any such experiment with great care. We believe that the money that we pay in subsidy, however it is paid, must be put to the best use for people who need to travel.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis) asked the Minister whether she was satisfied with rural transport. I am not surprised that the Minister did not answer the question. The hon. Lady must be aware that National Bus Company mileage fell by 8 per cent. between 1980 and 1981 and that the number of passengers carried fell by 8·3 per cent. in the same year. There was a 9 per cent. loss of jobs in the National Bus Company. Between 1980 and 1981, 43 million miles of stage carriage routes were lost. That has arisen largely—

Order. This is the time not for argument but for questions. The hon. Member has not asked a question. He may ask one now.

I seem to remember prefacing my remarks by asking the Minister whether she was aware—

Order. Front Benchers as well as Back Benchers must be fair to the House.

Is the Minister aware that that dismal performance on rural road transport has stemmed largely from the provisions of the Transport Act 1980? Until something is done about that Act, that spiral of decline will continue.

The hon. Gentleman quotes many statistics. He should have listened to what I said. Rural services have been declining for many years. The 1980 Act made it easier for the small private operator to work routes which were uneconomic for the large operators.

Public Transport


asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will introduce proposals to stimulate the greater use of public transport.

Tighter control of operating costs combined with capital investment to improve passenger facilities is the key to stimulating greater use of public transport. The measures currently before the House will promote efficiency and will help to ensure that resources remain available for valuable investment and are not drained away into unreasonably high and wasteful operating subsidies.

What response has been given to Staffordshire county council, which has said that the Government's financial support is inadequate to maintain a minimum level of public transport in that county? Does the Minister accept that the provision of public transport is an essential social service for the young and old and many other sections of the community?

The last time that the hon. Gentleman raised that matter I explained that with regard to transport Staffordshire county council was treated favourably when compared with other councils.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the best stimulus to increased use of public transport is an improvement in quality? My constituents are still travelling in cattle-truck conditions on London Transport. The first step should be to take London Transport out of the hands of the Greater London Council, which has made such a mess of it.

Would not one way to stimulate use be to provide different forms of public transport? For example, the Minister could increase British Rail's investment programme to enable it to switch from DMUs to rail buses, which are produced in my constituency. At the end of next year the current orders run out. May we look forward to a continuity in orders by the Government increasing British Rail's external financing limit?

There is some good sense in the hon. Gentleman's point. We are in favour of having fares as low as possible and public transport to being as good as possible. The essential requirements are a sensible level of subsidy, which we are providing, sensible levels of service, tailored to needs, and efficient operation to prevent subsidies being wasted. By following those principles the resources can be created to improve the services.

There would be much greater use of public transport by my constituents if some means could be found to ensure greater uniformity of concessionary fares arrangements between London and Essex.

I know that that point troubles my hon. Friend. A decision about subsidies is essentially one for Essex county council.

Does the Minister acknowledge that the continuous pursuit of a cheap fares policy by the South Yorkshire metropolitan authority has been accompanied by a higher level of investment in bus services than has occurred in authorities where high fares policies have been pursued? How will the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State increase investment in public transport by cutting the transport supplementary grant?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the claim of the South Yorkshire metropolitan authority to have increased passengers by 7 per cent. has been accompanied by an admission that its subsidy has risen by no less than 600 per cent. One has to judge whether that enormous cost has yielded an adequate benefit. One of the industry's great problems is to ensure that investment is related to achieving an effective return in improved services.

Heavy Lorries


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representation he has received from the public about heavier lorries since his announcement of 4 November.

I have received some 35 letters from the public since my announcement on 4 November.

Is my right hon. Friend sincerely convinced, after the generous vote of the House last Thursday for heavier lorry weights, that the heavy lorry operators will accept the overriding need for additional restrictions on the movement and parking of such lorries?

The Government's view is that there should not merely be acceptance by the hauliers, but that the existing powers, which my hon. Friend played no small part in providing, should be used more vigorously. The Government are determined to see that they are so used. We have said that our decisions on the transport supplementary grant will be influenced by the vigour with which various county councils make use of the restrictions on the movement of heavy lorries.

Has the Secretary of State received a request from Gwent county council to meet a deputation about the difficulties on the Severn bridge, which will be aggravated by the order authorising. the use of heavier lorries? Will the Minister assure the House that the work of repairing and strengthening that vital bridge will be carried out on a 24-hour basis?

I am not aware of having received such a request. The subject of repairs to the Severn bridge has received close consideration and the matter is proceeding. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I are reviewing the longer-term needs of the Severn bridge.

Is not part of the reason for the much greater acceptance of the Government's proposals on heavy lorries the undertaking to build more bypasses? Will my right hon. Friend carefully review the decision not to build a bypass on the A13 through the Rainham, Essex, part of my constituency?

The Government have decided substantially to increase the bypass programme, but that is not the only reason for the support for our much more comprehensive package of lorry controls. We need to tackle all aspects of the matter—the quality of the vehicles, where they go, where they are routed, bypasses and enforcement. The overall package has rightly been welcomed, because those aspects have been neglected for many years.

Is the Minister aware that when the Labour Opposition mounted an attack on heavy lorries last Thursday, with a vote to try to stop their introduction—

—we were heavily defeated because, among others, the Gang of Four and the leader of the Liberal Party were missing? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that some of us are wondering whether there is a Japanese lorry invasion on the horizon?

The heavy defeat was partly because common sense is on the side of fuller loads on quieter and more efficient lorries and because a good many of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends in the trade union movement realised that a vote against the regulations was a vote against jobs, about which the hon. Gentleman waxes eloquent, and rightly stayed away.

Civil Service

Office Systems


asked the Minister for the Civil Service to what extent British equipment is being used for the modernisation of Civil Service office systems.

British equipment is being used as widely as possible, given the need to ensure technical efficiency and cost-effectiveness. The Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency placed contracts for the supply of computer and computer-related equipment totalling £160 million in the three calendar years 1979 to 1981, of which about 76 per cent. was of British manufacture.

Will my hon. Friend assure me that he is maintaining close liaison with his hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Information Technology about the Civil Service office of the future? Will he also reassure us that he bears in mind that it is imperative that everyone is aware that when foreign machines are purchased British jobs are lost?

Can the Minister give us an absolute assurance that when senior civil servants involved in equipment purchasing retire they do not join firms with which they have negotiated?

There are well-established procedures for people retiring from the public service, setting out the jobs that they are permitted to take, and the procedures will be fully followed.

In considering the modernisation of Civil Service office systems, will my hon. Friend give due weight to the need to disperse as many civil servants as possible to the regions and consider with sympathy and urgency the need for the Patent Office to be located in Manchester, which is an ideal location for the new office within the EC?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice and assistance. In response to my supplementary question my hon. Friend referred to a later question on the Order Paper. That question was not reached. I seek your advice and assistance in putting what I describe as a bona fide question. Should not my hon. Friend have responded to the question instead of seeking to hide behind what was clearly not another question on the Order Paper in his endeavour to avoid giving an answer?

Order. I never attribute motives to Ministers. I always assume the best. In any case, it is not my responsibility.

Financial Management Initiative


asked the Minister for the Civil Service to what extent, in formulating the financial management initiative, he took into account the Minis system developed in the Department of the Environment.

Very fully indeed. The working document with which the initiative was launched referred to Minis as one of the departmental reviews that had pointed the way. The Government expect Departments to establish management systems that include the ground covered by Minis.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that it will be necessary for all Departments when replying to the FMI to adopt the form and degree of detail of the information displayed in the Minis format in the Department of the Environment?

The recent White Paper made it clear that all Departments had to respond to the FMI by early next year. The Management and Personnel Office and the Treasury will be reporting to the House.

Are not many of the savings that the Government claim achieved at the expense of efficiency? Is the breakdown of DHSS services, such as that in Birmingham, with a reduced staff facing an extra 80,000 claims, not just the tip of the iceberg? Are not frustrated and overstretched officers throughout the country facing rapidly increasing work loads while the Government pursue their shibboleth of arbitrary staff cuts regardless of work load and the effect on the quality of services to the most needy in our society?

That is not a reasonable statement of the position. The numbers are being reduced from the 732,000 when we came to office to 630,000 by 1 April 1984. We are down to 655,000 and are on target to achieve the reduction. Adjustments are being made to the numbers of civil servants to take account of different work loads. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in deploring the call for a one-day strike in the DHSS and regretting the action, which will hurt the general public.

Is not the action the result of sheer frustration, to which the Government have responded inadequately by offering temporary replacements of staff, who will take three months to train, to deal with a long-term increase in work?

The right hon. Gentleman is badly informed. The NEC of the CPSA, one of the main unions involved, on 17 November recommended a full return to work on the basis of proposals made to the Government. I have the union circular here. The right hon. Gentleman should join me in regretting that the work force did not respond to the call from the union executive and deploring action that will hurt the general public.

As the Ministry of Defence employs far more civil servants than any other Government Department, has not the Minis system more applicability and potential benefit there than in any other sector? Has the system been introduced there, and if not, why not?

The Ministry of Defence already has elaborate management control systems. Although Minis is relevant, I do not necessarily believe that transplanting it from the Department of the Environment to the Ministry of Defence would be appropriate. The reports coming forward will come to the House next year and will fully set out what has been done in all Departments.

Unions (Meeting)


asked the Minister for the Civil Service what matters he plans to discuss at the next meeting with the Civil Service unions.


asked the Minister for the Civil Service what subjects he expects to discuss at his next meeting with representatives of the trade unions in the Civil Service.

Plans for my next meeting with the Civil Service unions have not yet been made.

When the Minister next meets the unions will he assure them that in the next wage bargaining lower paid civil servants will not suffer the same shabby treatment as that meted out to the Health Service workers?

I do not believe that the Health Service workers have been treated shabbily, so I can give no such assurance.

Will the Minister discuss the possibility of giving civil servants greater freedom of speech? For example, would it not have been to great public advantage had we known earlier the views of Mr. Andrew Britton, the former under-secretary at the Treasury, who yesterday stated that the Government's monetarist policies had done virtually nothing for the economy's underlying problems and accused them of persisting with an economic strategy that had no firm intellectual base?

I regard that as a partial precis of what Mr. Britton said yesterday. At any rate, it is a long-established custom that civil servants should not indulge in controversial comments about Government policies of the day. I suspect that if that were allowed to happen, under any Government, the whole quality of government and, indeed, the position of this House would be prejudiced.

In view of recent events. is the Minister satisfied with the personal vetting arrangements for civil servants? When he next meets the unions, will he have discussions with them about the matter?

As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, matters of this kind are the subject of a review by the Security Commission. I do not think that it is for me to comment today.

Is my hon. Friend aware that officers and members of the IPCS are worried about terms for obliging people to take early retirement and the contradiction that exists for those who wish to carry on?

There are difficulties within the Civil Service for those civil servants who would like to continue serving after the age of 60 when they have no right as such. Those personal requirements are necessarily in conflict sometimes with wider managerial considerations and taking into the Civil Service people who would otherwise not have jobs.

Social Security Offices

3.32 pm

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely

"the projected one-day stoppage in social security offices on Friday 3 December in support of the dispute in the Birmingham local offices on manning levels".

I realise, Mr. Speaker, that I cannot deploy all the arguments in the case, but a statement of some facts about this serious situation is essential. I have to satisfy you, Mr. Speaker, of the specific nature of the matter.

The dispute in the Birmingham local offices on manning levels and therefore on working conditions has continued for 11 weeks without the Department of Health and Social Security being able to resolve it. A 21 per cent. increase in supplementary benefit claims alone in the last year has been accompanied by a 2½ per cent. cut in staff levels. So intolerable did conditions become that most of the local offices in Birmingham became affected. As a consequence, Friday's national stoppage is in support of the Birmingham staff.

The matter is important because many thousands of people on low incomes will be affected by the stoppage in every part of the land and in every constituency, including yours, Mr. Speaker, and mine. The hardship will add to that already being felt in Birmingham where £1 million has been paid to claimants from emergency centres. Already there have been assaults on staff in the emergency centres and tenants in a local authority area are not having their rents paid during the dispute. If the one-day stoppage escalates, the hardship and misery throughout Britain where half the population receive one or another social security benefit is bound to worsen. The importance of the matter is easily demonstrated.

The matter is urgent because slightly less than two days remain in which to try to avert the immediate action and to give the Government an opportunity to try to solve the underlying cause of the national stoppage in Birmingham. This application, in my view, satisfies the three conditions of the Standing Order. This House has a duty to make its voice heard to prevent the possible collapse of a vital social service. If it does not fulfil this duty, democracy itself will be weakened.

The hon. Gentleman gave me notice before noon today that he would seek leave, under Standing Order No. 9, to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing

"the projected one-day stoppage in social security offices on Friday 3 December in support of the dispute in the Birmingham local offices on manning levels".
The House listened with concern to the arguments advanced by the hon. Gentleman, who drew our attention to a serious matter. As he and the House know, I do not decide whether this matter should be discussed. I merely decide whether it must be discussed tonight or tomorrow night in an emergecy debate.

As the House knows, under Standing Order No. 9, I am directed to take into account the several factors set out in the order but to give no reasons for my decision. After listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, I fear that I must rule that his submission does not fall within the provisions of the Standing Order. I cannot therefore submit his application to the House.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for not having given you notice of this point of order. As it arises out of what has just happened, it would have been impossible to do so. Many hon. Members will take the view that our proceedings depend very much on practice and precedent. Is it not the case that the moving of a motion under Standing Order No. 9 has normally been regarded as a defence for Back Benchers who lack the normal opportunities through the usual channels that are open to the Front Bench to arrange debates? It is only during the last 18 months that the practice has grown of Front-Bench Members requesting debates under the Standing Order No. 9 procedure.

Will you, Mr. Speaker, consider this matter to see whether my submission is correct? If it is correct, there may be a case, I submit, for referring the matter to the Procedure Committee.

Order. Equal rights belong to Front-Bench and Back-Bench Members in such applications.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, do not need reminding, but there are perhaps hon. Members who do not recollect that the issue of Standing Order No. 9 went before the Procedure Committee which made a recommendation to the House. The House voted overwhelmingly that the Standing Order No. 9 procedure should be retained. It ill becomes Tory Members to carp about Standing Order No. 9 applications when they were raising one every day during the lorry drivers' strike.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is correct. The House declined to accept the recommendation of the Select Committee on Procedure. Both sides of the House have used the machinery well. They know how it should be used.

Ballot For Notices Of Motions For Friday 17 December

Members successful in the ballot were:

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Mr. Alan Williams

Mr. David Trippier

Bills Presented

Diseases Of Fish

Mr. John Corrie, supported by Sir Peter Mills, Sir Timothy Kitson, Mr. Albert McQuarrie, Mr. David Myles, Mr. W. Benyon, Mr. John Golding, Mr. John Home Robertson, Mr. Donald Stewart, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Russell Johnston and Mr. Robert Maclennan, presented a Bill to make further provision for preventing the spread of disease among fish, including shellfish and fish bred or reared in the course of fish farming: And the same was read the First time, and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 January and to be printed. [Bill 18.]

Parliamentary Control Of Expenditure (Reform)

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas, supported by Mr. Joel Barnett, Mr. Edward du Cann, Mr. Richard Wainwright, Mr. John Roper, Mr. Terence Higgins, Sir John Biggs-Davison, Mrs. Renée Short, Mr. Peter Tapsell, Mr. John Garrett, Mr. Peter Hordern and Mr. Robert Maclennan, presented a Bill to strengthen Parliamentary control and supervision of expenditure of public money by making new provision as to the duties and powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General; by establishing a Public Accounts Commission and a National Audit Office; to make provision as to the post and duties of accounting officer; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time, and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 28 January and to be printed. [Bill. 19.]


Mr. Raymond Whitney, supported by Mr. J. Grimond, Sir Angus Maude, Sir John Langford-Holt, Mr. Jack Dunnett, Mr. John Horam, Mr. Marcus Fox, Sir Anthony Meyer, Mr. Clement Freud, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Miss Janet Fookes and Mr. Nicholas Lyell, presented a Bill to amend the law of England and Wales and of Scotland as to the days on which and the times when shops and other places at which a retail trade or business is carried on may be open or used for the serving of customers: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 4 February and to be printed. [Bill 20.]

Disablement (Prohibition Of Unjustifiable Discrimination)

Mr. Donald Stewart, supported by Mr. Jack Ashley, Mr. Gordon Wilson, Mr. David. Penhaligon, Mr. Ian Campbell, Mr. Michael Ancram, Mr. Alex Pollock, Mr. Alfred Morris and Mr. Dafydd Wigley, presented a Bill to provide that discrimination of an unjustifiable nature against disabled people shall be illegal; to establish a regulatory commission; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 11 February and to be printed. [Bill. 21.]

Right Of Reply In The Media

Mr. Frank Allaun, supported by Sir Derek Walker-Smith, Mr. Arthur Davidson, Sir Nigel Fisher, Mr. Phillip Whitehead, Mr. Patrick Cormack, Mr. Michael Meacher, Mr. Sydney Chapman, Mr. John Tilley, Mr. Alan Haselhurst, Mr. Norman Atkinson, and Mr. W. Benyon, presented a Bill to give members of the public, companies and organisations the right to reply to allegations made against them or to misreporting or misrepresentations concerning them in the press, or on radio or television; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 18 February 1983 and to be printed [Bill 22].

Housing (Houses In Multiple Occupation)

Mr. Jim Marshall, supported by Mr. Frank Dobson, Mr. A. W. Stallard, Mr. Joseph Dean, Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. William Pitt. Mr. Charles Irving, Mr. David Knox, Mr. Alfred Dubs, and Mr. Donald Anderson, presented a Bill to consolidate and amend the powers of local authorities as regards houses occupied by persons who do not form a single household; to define categories of such houses, to empower the Secretary of State to specify standards to apply to such houses; to confer duties on local authorities to enforce standards in such houses; to repeal existing provisions relating to such houses; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 25 February and to be printed [Bill 23].

Copyright (Amendment)

Sir John Eden, supported by Mr. Michael Shersby, Mr. Phillip Whitehead, Mr. Clement Freud, Mr. John Grant, Sir Paul Bryan, Mr. Ivan Lawrence, Mr. Tim Brinton, Mr. Neil Thorne, Mr. K. Harvey Proctor, and Mr. Andrew Faulds, presented a Bill to amend section 21 of the Copyright Act 1956 so as to provide new penalties for offences relating to infringing copies of sound recordings and cinematograph films; and to provide for the issue and execution of search warrants in relation to such offences: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 January and to be printed [Bill 24].


Mr. Nicholas Lyell, on behalf of Sir Angus Maude, supported by Dr. Keith Hampson, Mr. Greville Janner, Mr. Stanley Cohen, Sir John Biggs-Davison and Mr. Keith Best, presented a Bill to enable the property of certain small charities to be expended without regard to restrictions distinguishing between capital and income; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 28 January and to be printed [Bill 25].

Lead-Free Petrol

Mr. William Hamilton, supported by Mr. J. W. Rooker, Mr. Albert McQuarrie, Mrs. Ann Taylor, Mr. Donald Stewart, Miss Joan Lestor, Mr. Stephen Ross, Mr. Norman Hogg, Miss Janet Fookes, Mr. Terry Davis, Mrs. Sheila Faith and Mr. Martin Stevens, presented a Bill to eliminate lead from petrol within a specified period: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 January and to be printed [Bill 26].

Trade Union Democracy

Mr. John Roper, supported by Mr. Roy Jenkins, Dr. David Owen, Mrs. Shirley Williams, Mr. William Rodgers, Mr. Tom Bradley, Mr. R. C. Mitchell, Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth, Mr. Tom McNally, Mr. Tom Ellis, Mr. John Horam and Mr. Ronald W. Brown, presented a Bill to make provision for election of the principal executive committees and principal officers of trade unions by postal ballots and to amend the Employment Acts 1980 and 1982, and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time: and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 January and to be printed [Bill 27].

Matrimonial Proceedings

Mr. Neil Thorne, on behalf of Mr. Martin Stevens, supported by Mr. Leo Abse, Mr. Keith Best, Mr. Sydney Chapman, Mrs. Sheila Faith, Miss Janet Fookes, Mr. Toby Jessel, Miss Joan Lestor, Mr. John Parker, Mr. David Stoddart and Mr. John Wheeler, presented a Bill to make further provision as to the exercise by courts in England and Wales of powers to grant financial relief in matrimonial proceedings; to amend section 15 of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time: and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 4 February and to be printed [Bill 28].

Resale Of Gas And Electricity

Mr. Donald Anderson, supported by Mr. Alfred Dubs, Mr. John Blackburn, Mr. John Wheeler, Mr. Raymond Powell, Mr. Ian Grist, Mr. Hugh Dykes, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. A. W. Stallard, Mr. Douglas Hogg, Mr. Jim Marshall and Mr. D. E. Thomas, presented a Bill for restricting the payment required for the resale of gas and electricity supplied by the British Gas Corporation or Area Electricity Boards: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 18 February and to be printed [Bill 29].

Licensing (Occasional Permissions)

Mr. David Atkinson, supported by Mr. Graham Bright, Mr. Ronald W. Brown, Mr. Sydney Chapman, Mr. Tony Durant, Mr. Arthur Lewis, Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse, Mr. John Ryman and Mr. Dafydd Wigley, presented a Bill to empower licensing justices in England and Wales to grant to representatives of organisations not carried on for private gain occasional permission authorising the sale of intoxicating liquor at functions connected with the activities of such organisations: And the same was read the First time: and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 11 February and to be printed [Bill 30].

Representation Of The People (University Constituencies)

Viscount Cranborne, supported by Mr. Harry Greenway, Mr. Julian Amery, Mr. Stephen Hastings, Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd and Mr. David Atkinson, presented a Bill to provide for the election of Members of the House of Commons by university constituencies in the United Kingdom: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 4 February 1983 and to be printed [Bill 31].

Level Crossings

Mr. Albert Roberts, on behalf of Mr. Bernard Conlan, supported by Mr. Walter Johnson, presented a Bill to make further provision about level crossings: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 January and to be printed [Bill 32].

Passenger Vehicles (Experimental Areas)

Mr. Richard Luce, supported by Mr. Tim Rathbone, Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson, Mr. Terence Higgins, Mr. Peter Fry, Mr. Robert Banks, Sir Peter Mills, Mr. Stephen Ross, Mr. Neville Sandelson and Mr. John Corrie, presented a Bill to make further provision in respect of the designation of experimental areas and the granting of authorisations under sections 47 and 48 of the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981 and in respect of the use of vehicles in pursuance of such authorisations: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 25 February and to be printed [Bill 33.]

Juries (Disqualification)

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson, supported by Sir Victor Goodhew, Mr. Richard Luce, Sir David Price, Mr. John Farr and Mr. John Hunt, presented a Bill to make further provision for the disqualification for jury service of persons convicted of criminal offences: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 25 February and to be printed [Bill 34.]

Child Care (Access)

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk, supported by Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Stan Newens, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. William Pitt, Mr. Jim Marshall, Mrs. Renée Short and Mr. Frank Allaun, presented a Bill to allow parents, guardians and relatives to apply to the court for an order giving them access to their children in local authority care; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 January and to be printed [Bill 35.]

Road Traffic (Driving Licences)

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson, supported by Mr. Nick Budgen, Mr. Tony Marlow, Mr. Matthew Parris, Sir John Biggs-Davison and Mr. William Ross, presented a Bill to make provision about the granting, without tests of competence to drive, of driving licences to certain persons who are resident in Great Britain and are or have been authorised to drive under the law in force in places outside Great Britain, and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 January and to be printed [Bill 36.]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Thompson.]

3.43 pm

As the House well knows, the steel industry throughout the world and in the United Kingdom currently faces appalling difficulties, and extremely difficult decisions are required. The purpose of this debate is to enable the House to express its views before the Government make their decisions on the matter.

I want to cover three aspects: first, the international and market situation as it affects steel; secondly, the European Community regime; thirdly, the position of the British steel industry, particularly the British Steel Corporation. I shall bring the House up to date on the latest developments.

First, I shall deal with the international and market situation. I make no apology for discussing this subject in some detail, because it is extremely important that the House should realise the hostile reality that confronts the industry. It is important to realise that the crisis facing the country is not confined to the United Kingdom. In the United States, the industry has lost 180,000 jobs, and about 40 per cent. of the jobs have gone since 1979. Output in 1982 is expected to be about 38 per cent. below that of 1981. In the EC, production this year is expected to be the lowest for 30 years. Even in Japan, production is expected to be the lowest since 1972.

We face an international problem, and the reasons for it are complicated. It is due in part to the world recession, the worst for 50 years, and in part it is due to the fact that we face technical change and the substitution for steel by other materials such as plastics and ceramics. In the motor car industry, for example, to cut fuel consumption, motor manufacturers throughout the world are seeking to reduce the weight of cars, and that means reducing the amount of steel used. I read in the Financial Times only a few days ago that the share of aluminium in the beverage can market, in the space of only three years, has shot up from about 12 per cent. to 50 per cent. of the market. That has serious implications for the tinplate market.

Moreover, there is the fast growth in capacity of steel making countries. In 1950, 32 countries produced steel. Today, 76 countries produce steel. That both reduces our exports and increases the pressures on us from imports, a subject that I shall return to later.

It would be a mistake to think that the development of capacity has been confined to the developing countries. It has increased considerably in the recent past in the industrialised world, and especially in the 1970s in Europe and the United Kingdom. World-wide capacity in the steel industry is now about 1,000 million tonnes, while world demand this year will fall below 700 million tonnes.

In Europe, there is an installed capacity of 200 million tonnes, and yet production has fallen from 156 million tonnes in 1974 to 128 million tonnes in 1980, and the current forecast is that by 1985 it will be only 121 million tonnes. It is important for us all to face the implications of that situation. We cannot isolate ourselves from those trends or avoid their consequences, however distasteful or alarming we find them. We cannot simply spend large sums of money on increasing or maintaining capacity in the hope that what is now a world glut will mysteriously change in a few years to world shortage.

I shall say a word now about the European Community steel policy and the action that is being taken there.

Before the Minister leaves that argument, saying that the situation is due mainly to world recession, will he bear in mind that one of the reasons why the steel industry has lost much of its demand in this country is the 30,000 company failures and liquidations that have occurred in this country since his Government came to office? If the Minister wants to help the steel industry, he should look at its interdependence on all the other industries that it supplies. Will he therefore give a guarantee that there will be no further pit closures, because pits use a lot of steel? That would be good news for the pits, good news for jobs, and good news for the steel industry.

I cannot comment on pit closures, and nor should the hon. Gentleman expect me to. I am not seeking to put the blame on the world recession. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to me, he would have realised that my remarks were not simply about the world recession but about structural changes, with which all hon. Members should come to grips.

Faced with the vast over capacity of steel, to which I have just referred, and with prices being driven down to uneconomic levels, the Community has introduced mandatory production quotas and action for phased price increases since 1980.

If anybody had told me a few years ago that, as a Minister in a Conservative Government, I should have to preside over a cartel arrangement, I would not have believed him and I certainly would not have been flattered. I cannot pretend that I find the arrangement comfortable. However, I must tell the House that these short-term measures have given the industry a breathing space—an interval in which steel makers and Governments in Europe can tackle the problems of over capacity. In the long-term the policy will make sense only if that problem is solved.

In the short-term, the measures have had the strong support of the British steel industry. Severe as the problems that we face are, without these measures they would have been undoubtedly worse. That is why we have had the industry's backing. Until the spring of this year those arrangements helped to bring some much needed stability to the market. However, in March and April the steel market was hit by the deepening recession and the regime in Europe began to be increasingly less effective.

The Government have been to the fore in pressing for further action. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House on 22 November how the informal meeting of Community Ministers in Elsinore had laid the foundations for a whole series of measures to tighten up the quota and price rules. These include the improved policing of the Community's price rules, the stopping of investment aid or national Government aid to companies which infringe the pricing provisions, and provisions to prevent companies delaying the payment of fines by appealing to the European court. Hon. Members have expressed some scepticism about those measures, but I emphasise that when agreement has been reached it is intended that they will be implemented with effect from 1 January. In addition, from the end of this year, in common with other member States, the British Government will take over responsibility for policing the rules on pricing practices by steel stockholders and dealers in Britain. Legislation giving the Government power to enforce the rules came into operation today. I have today answered a written question setting out the detailed rules that will apply to the stockholders. This is a measure of some significance because 40 per cent. of all United Kingdom deliveries go through steel stockholders.

The short-term measures will not solve the crisis overnight.

Many people have described the mandatory production targets as the mandatory reduction of production targets. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the British steel industry's capacity, compared with that in the European steel industry, particularly in Belgium and Italy, will not be further reduced at the expense of our industry simply to protect Italy or Belgium?

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he is seeking. I shall deal with that aspect in a few minutes because I know that it is of great concern to hon. Members.

The short-term measures cannot solve the problem by themselves and they are no substitution for restructuring. However, in the short-term they will help to restore discipline to the market and solve another problem of great concern to hon. Members—the level of steel imports into Britain.

I understand and share the anxiety about imports. However, in deciding what action needs to be taken we must deal in facts and not with some of the myths that have been widespread. Even with the recent rise in imports from all sources, they still account for under 27 per cent. of the United Kingdom's steel market this year. In France the figure is 43 per cent. and in Germany imports take 35 per cent. of the market. Britain has a lower proportion of its market taken by imports than other European countries.

Our problem is not so much imports as exports. We import much less than France or Germany, but we also export much less. That is why we have an adverse balance of trade in steel with those countries.

Does my hon. Friend agree that those averages can be misleading? In some specific areas imports have risen dramatically. For example, if my hon. Friend looks at the figures in recent months for reinforcing bar imports, he will see that they have risen from a fairly low percentage to over half the United Kingdom's production. There is a need for urgent action there. Many companies cannot simply wait to see whether Continental producers will respond to the mandatory quotas. If my hon. Friend has found it possible to swallow cartelistic production quotas, would it not be possible for him and other EEC Ministers to swallow voluntary import quotas between member States?

My hon. Friend must not expect me to swallow too much at one go. What he says is right. The figures I have quoted are for steel imports as a whole. There are areas in which import penetration is much greater than the figures that I have quoted. However, that is not nècessarily evidence that other people are cheating by infringing the rules. Nevertheless, I agree with my hon. Friend's point about the need to see that production quotas are rigorously enforced. That is the best way to deal with those areas where penetration of imports is above average.

I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman, although I have given way three times already.

The Minister is drawing a red herring across European imports. Historically, their situation is entirely different from ours. The tremendous increase in imports in the United Kingdom has no comparison in France and Germany.

The chairman of BSC, Mr. MacGregor, outght to know, and he said recently:

"Imports are an exaggerated factor. By far the biggest problem is the decline in world demand and the collapse in the market."

Let me deal with the right hon. Gentleman's point. I shall deal first with imports from outside the EEC and then move to imports from within the EEC.

Imports from countries outside the EEC have taken 8.8 per cent. of the United Kingdom market this year. That is little higher than the level of recent years. I emphasise that to shut those out would only invite retaliation. We should not forget that in many of the Third world markets we are net steel exporters. We could end up by being the net loser. We have the advantage of the Community's voluntary restraint arrangements, which, in the Government's opinion, are working reasonably well. Where they do not, firm action has been taken. Anti-dumping duties have been imposed on steel imports from Spain and Brazil. Quotas have been set up against steel imports from Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. Last month anti-dumping investigations were opened against imports of coil from Brazil, Canada, Argentina and Venezuela.

For the future, the Community has recently agreed measures that will tighten the voluntary restraint agreements in 1983. The aim is to reduce the amount that is imported into the Community to 12½ per cent. below the 1980 level. That tightening of the voluntary agreements should have a considerable impact.

EEC imports account for 17·7 per cent. of the United Kingdom market. Last year they accounted for 17·;6 per cent. It was 12 to 14 per cent. before 1980, which was the year of the strike. The strike cost BSC a considerable loss in market share and led many customers to double source from Europe. Since the strike, we have lost a significant slice of the market to imports from Europe.

Apart from becoming more competitive, the solution to the problem is to restore price stability and to ensure that the price and quota rules are observed throughout the Community. That is why the steps that I have described are being taken. I re-emphasise that these measures cannot be a substitute for fundamental restructuring to bring supply into line with demand. The Community's steel aid decision is essential to achieve the necessary capacity cuts and the gradual phasing out of the plethora of State subsidies to the steel industies of Europe.

The United Kingdom has made a considerable contribution to reductions in capacity in Europe. We look now to our partners to bear comparable cuts in capacity to those that we have made. I assure the House that any further cuts in capacity in the United Kingdom will come only from an analysis of our own position and only if we judge them to be necessary. No further cuts in capacity will come at the behest of the European Commission or of any other member State.

I talked about the need to distinguish facts from myths when talking about imports. It is also important to be clear when comparing cuts in capacity in the United Kingdom with those made by other member States. It may seem that the United Kingdom has made all the sacrifices since 1979 while others have done nothing. However, the picture looks different if we measure it from 1974. From that date the percentage fall in United Kingdom production is similar to that in the Community as a whole. France, West Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and ourselves have all sustained losses of about a half in this period. In France and West Germany it has fallen by slightly less than in the United Kingdom, but in Belgium and Luxembourg it has fallen by slightly more.

Labour Members prefer not to make the comparison from 1974. They like to imagine that the problem arose only in 1979. The tragedy is the way in which the Labour Administration, between 1974 and 1979, under the Beswick review, delayed closures that were inevitable and necessary. When the closures came after 1979 they were greater and more severe than they need have been if the Labour Administration had had the guts to act when they had responsibility.

There is one other fact about closures which needs to be made clear. Closures in the United Kingdom since 1979 have arisen not because of the Community but because of a lack of competitiveness. For example, in 1979 the United Kingdom had a work force that was 20,000 greater than in France but it produced significantly less. Again in 1979, West Germany had a work force about 50 per cent. greater than ours and it managed to produce well over twice as much steel as we did. These figures drive home the point that the previous Administration's failure to act led to overmanning and a lack of competitiveness which did grave damage to the steel industry and the prospects of those who worked in it.

The Minister of State has referred to competitiveness—

May I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker? I should like to know to which Labour Member the Minister intended to give way.

Does the Minister agree that since 1974 the British steel industry has shed more manpower than the steel industries of France, West Germany and Italy put together? Does he dispute that?

Not since 1974, no. I was talking about the reduction in capacity since 1979. The reduction in capacity since 1974 has been much in line with that in other member States. Since 1979 the reduction in labour has been greater in the United Kingdom than elsewhere for the reasons that I have outlined.

The Minister referred to competitiveness. A component that he has not mentioned is the exchange rate. I have received from the senior management of BSC a copy of the corporation's economic and industrial outlook and its current assumptions on closures and redundancies. I refer to a document which I understand the Scottish Office has not yet received. It assumes that

"There will be no significant change in the level of sterling",
"Imports of steel will continue to take an increased share of domestic demand",
and that there will be
"increased import penetration in vehicles".
It contains a catalogue of grossly pessimistic assumptions. These are the assumptions that BSC is now using for the closures that the Government have left to its discretion. Will the Government allow BSC to continue to make these assumptions and will these assumptions be applied to the big five?

I shall deal with the BSC review and the considerations that are being taken into account. I do not know to which document the hon. Gentleman is referring, but the BSC's projections for steel demand and for the future development of the economy are not markedly different from those made by other forecasters, and not very different in terms of steel demand from those made by the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and the TUC. The hon. Gentleman wishes to make them entirely different assumptions, but they are not forecasts that are wildly different from those made by many other commentators.

There is one other—

myth on which comment is necessary. It is that the United Kingdom will be better off settling its own problems outside the European straitjacket.

It is perpetuated by those who have not learnt the lesson arising from the recent dispute with the United States over steel imports. The legal actions by United States steel makers put £50 million of United Kingdom exports at immediate risk and could have affected at least as much again. Worse still, partial closure of the United States market would have left even more spare steel washing around in Europe and world markets. This would have put even more pressure on price and market stability in the Community. It was the Community's combined strength which enabled us to secure a deal which, beyond any doubt, was far better for our steel industry and for United Kingdom jobs than anything we could conceivably have obtained by acting alone.

The private sector faces very much the same problems as those faced by the British Steel Corporation. For that reason, the measures that we have taken and the measures that we are taking at a European level have its support because they stand to help it too. We are pressing for alterations to that regime which, we hope, will be of specific help to it if they are achieved. We want to see the regime extended to special steels and we have pressed hard for that. We have received a constructive response from the Commission.

As part of the answer to the overall problem of excess capacity and the need to eliminate it, we have been encouraging the steel corporation, in conjunction with the private sector, to form 50-50 companies—the so-called Phoenix companies. We have made some progress in that respect and we hope to make more.

Because of our concern for the private sector, we have increased the amount of money that was originally allocated to the private sector steel scheme from £22 million to more than £34 million. I hope to be able to make some announcements to the House soon about aid to different sectors within the private sector and also some announcements about Government support for self-help levy schemes within the private sector.

The tragedy of the deterioration of the position within the British Steel Corporation is that it comes after a period of real improvement. I have already defended the demanning which has occurred at BSC, because it was necessary. That demanning was beginning to bear its fruit. The targets set for 1981–82, which were described at the time by Mr. MacGregor as optimistic, were by and large met. There were improvements in market share, in export sales, efficiency, costs and productivity. Despite the uncertainties on the horizon, the results for the first few months of this year were encouraging and showed that further progress was possible.

The British Steel Corporation's half-yearly results are being announced today and they spell out all too clearly the deterioration in the corporation's position. Losses after interest for this half year amount to £154 million, which is better than the £208 million loss last year but is way off the target before interest of break-even for 1982–83, which for this year is obviously no longer an attainable target.

Neither the Government nor the corporation can tolerate this haemorrhage and loss-making on this scale. Urgent cost-saving measures are being taken by the corporation to stem the losses. Further slimming is taking place and, as the House and hon. Members have learnt, there have been closures of some smaller plants. Those decisions are within the responsibility of the management of BSC and do not require the Government's authorisation.

However, the Government, together with the corporation, are undertaking a review of the British Steel Corporation's five major steel making works. I emphasise that no decisions have been made. Obviously we are taking into account—I know that this is a matter of concern to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Dr. Bray)—matters such as costs, competitiveness, trends in the market, trend in the steel-making industries and implications for other industries. We are examining the matter not on the basis of short-term factors but on the basis of longer-term trends.

When the Minister examines the future of individual works, will he take into account the enormous social consequences of major closures? Will he examine, for example, the impact of closure on North-East Wales and take that into account in any decisions he may make?

We shall be examining the impact on regional economies.

The House should also know that the corporation is currently producing steel at the rate of 10 million tonnes of liquid steel a year, which compares with a total plant capacity of about 21 million tonnes. There is obviously a large margin of spare capacity. I must also tell the House the chilling fact that it requires 1½ to 2 per cent. growth in industrial production merely for steel production to remain constant. That is the effect of the structural change that we have seen.

The Leader of the Opposition has committed the Labour Party to maintaining a BSC capacity of up to 25 million tonnes. That would be a charge of the economic light brigade. It would be dazzling, admirable in its way, wonderful to watch but doomed to disaster.

If anybody should know that, it should be the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot), who has had to explain certain economic realities to his constituents.

I conclude by assuring the House—

—that the Government will take great care over these decisions which affect a major industry and many others. It is indeed disappointing that after all the—

I shall not give way.

It is, indeed, disappointing that after all the sacrifices, after all the adjustment, and after all the demanning and pain, BSC should still face enormous problems, but the fact that that is disappointing is no reason for us not to face up to the realities. They will face us with their unpleasant consequences whether we like it or not. The fact that it is disappointing is no reason for us to be any less determined to tackle the problems. Viability was the target for BSC, viability must remain the target for BSC, and I believe it is still attainable.

4.15 pm

The Minister has not brought much hope to the steel industry and the British economy this afternoon.

The debate is taking place against the background of a crisis in the steel industry. We are concerned not only with the big five but with what is happening around us daily in the steel centres of the United Kingdom. What the Minister said about our competitors and world recession does not explain why the British economy is in a worse condition than that of any of our competitors. The Government must answer that point.

It is not a pleasant task, but I wish to spell out the major redundancies that have taken place, not over the past three years, but over the past few months up to and including this week. The figures are as follows: on 12 August, at Tipton, Ravenscraig and Hartlepool, 1,122; on 1 November at Sheffield, 1,100; on 4 November at Corby, 600; on 18 November at Round Oak, Dudley, 1,286; on 19 November at Craigneuk in Scotland, 427; on 30 November. only this week, at Sheffield, 1,709. Are those the small plants to which the Minister referred? I am talking about thousands of jobs. The total this month is 5,222.

The city of Sheffield is being decimated by what is happening. The people of Sheffield have a right to be worried about what is happening and to make their views known. In recent years Sheffield alone has lost about 20,000 jobs in the private and public sectors.

Rotherham has lost 794 jobs, Stockbridge and Tinsley Park have lost 815 jobs, and 100 jobs have been lost from the central services. That is the scale of the problem.

I was going to say something about the big five, but, if we are not careful, because of the reductions that are taking place—we had the forecast of a previous chairman of the British Steel Corporation—the British steel industry, if it is not helped, will no longer be viable and will cease to exist. The Government have been too complacent on this issue.

The problem stems from the lack of demand in the economy because of the monetarist policies being pursued by the Government and because of imports. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) referred to the lack of demand and to the need for growth in our economy. The Minister gave the figures for what is needed to stand still, but his Government are responsible for the fact that we are not even meeting the 1·5 per cent. growth rate.

From June 1981 to June 1982 there was an increase of one-third in total import tonnage. There was a doubling of the tonnage from non-EC countries. People often think that non-EC countries are necessarily Third world countries, but that is not so. I draw attention to countries such as Sweden, Bulgaria, Rumania, Canada, Japan, South Korea and South Africa. We do not export 1 tonne of steel to South Africa, yet steel flows into Britain from that country.

Imports flood in from the countries that I have listed, but most imports come from the EC. The EC provides 2 out of every 3 tonnes of steel imported into the United Kingdom. The Minister talks about myths. The figures that I have given for imports are not myths. They reflect what is happening to the steel industry. The Minister says that imports account for 27 per cent., of British steel consumption, but the trade unions think that the figure is 35 or 36 per cent. Whether the figure is 27 per cent. or 36 per cent., it is still far too high.

The United States of America put up a tariff barrier against the whole of Europe because it was exporting about 3 to 4 per cent. of American consumption. What a comparison! Because of the serious situation we make no apology for calling for an across-the-board freeze on imports while urgent negotiations are held to arrange new controls. We have a right—certainly under article 19 of GATT—to protect ourselves from third countries and to say to our EC partners "Enough is enough." They have exploited the situation.

Let us compare the number of jobs lost in the United Kingdom with the number lost in the EC in the past three or four years. As the Minister acknowledged, we have lost more than 100,000 jobs. Germany has lost 33,000 jobs, France 53,000 and Belgium 11,000 while Italy has lost only 200 jobs. We are at the top of the league. The Secretary of State came back from Elsinore and said that he had told those Ministers that we would not take an unfair share of any future cuts. He had been back in the country for only a few hours when the EC said that in any future cuts Britain would have to carry its full share. We are talking about reducing steel production within the EC by 50 million tonnes by 1985 from the present level of 170 million tonnes. That is a reduction of nearly one third. We might as well close every steel plant in Britain if we are to bear that proportion of the cuts.

The percentage rate of change for manpower reductions in 1981–82 is interesting. The rate for the United Kingdom is minus 14·1 per cent.; for West Germany, minus 5·1 per cent.; for France, minus 2·8 per cent. and Italy stands at minus 2·6 per cent. Indeed, Italy has increased its steel production while other countries have been making cuts. Our industry is being ravaged.

The right hon. Gentleman is going on about the sacrifices made in terms of jobs, and of course we all deplore that, but is he aware that the two South Wales producers have shed thousands of jobs to make themselves competitive? They are now competitive. When they were fully manned, they were not at all competitive.

The Government will receive proposals from the BSC that could forecast the closure of one or two of the five existing plants. If the number of our plants is reduced to three, we shall have nothing left with which to be competitive. We shall be dependent upon imports.

The Secretary of State told the House that he and the Government would be responsible for any major closures. I have already referred to Sheffield, Rotherham and other areas. Messages of concern have flooded in today from Sheffield. However, what about the thousands of steel workers at Ravenscraig, Scunthorpe, Port Talbot, Llanwern and Teesside? Families and whole communities are awaiting the Government's decision. If we take them the message that the Minister has given us this afternoon, it will not give them any hope.

This debate is taking place before any Government decision. In a sense, the Government are a listening post. I hope that some Conservative Members will have the courage to press home the point that we cannot afford to allow any of those plants to close. I know that my hon. Friends will stress that. We are not picking out one plant. We are not picking out Ravenscraig, as opposed to Llanwern, Teesside or Scunthorpe. In the interests of the British economy, we must maintain a viable steel industry.

Last Friday I went to Scunthorpe on a visit arranged long before the debate was scheduled. I went there to visit a BSC plant and to talk tip both the management and the trade unions. I found a highly efficient firm, with high productivity and high quality steel, fighting to obtain orders from overseas. In the last three years the work force has been reduced from 20,000 to 8,000. The trade unions and the management did not juxtapose their area to any other area, but merely said that a community such as Scunthorpe would be devasted if the plant closed. The same is true of any other area, whether it is in Scotland, Wales or on Teesside.

I talked to local authority people and found that they had great pride in the industry. There is pride in the steel industry and the people want to maintain it. They are not considering the problem from a purely selfish point of view. One of the men there asked me what would happen when the upturn came. He asked where steel would be found for defence and for the shipbuilding, engineering and construction industries. Such factors must be taken into account.

Mr. MacGregor told us that the bottom line was 14·4 million tonnes. On Monday the Secretary of State gave us a figure—which the Minister has reiterated—of 10 million tonnes for production this year. If the figure falls below 10 million tonnes, the industry will no longer be viable. The Minister could have all his productivity and competitiveness, but a shrinking industry such as that would be unable to stand up to international competition. That is the reality.

The Minister challenged the Opposition because at the Labour Party conference my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition talked about output of 20 million to 25 million tonnes. I remind the House that only a few years ago there was an argument in the House about whether the figure should be 38 million or 35 million tonnes. If we were to do away with imports and achieve growth in our economy, we would soon need 20 million tonnes. Consequently, that must be taken into account.

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Dr. Bray) referred the Minister to a letter that he had received from British Steel. I, too, have received that letter. The Government should publish the assumptions and their reply to the letter. Those assumptions are based on factors that cannot be allowed to stand. No doubt my hon. Friend will pursue the matter further and will mention the exchange rate in particular, because this is important.

The right hon. Gentleman said that it was only a question of getting some growth back into the economy. As he has acknowledged, BSC is producing 10 million liquid tonnes of steel a year. There is capacity for 21 million tonnes. Will the right hon. Gentleman do some sums in his head? What rate of growth would there have to be in the next five years to bring us near to capacity?

If the electorate will give us the opportunity to implement our policies, we shall turn round the assumption on growth. The Minister should not chastise us about growth. Who has destroyed it? What about the lack of demand? When one goes round steel communities one begins to feel the pressure there and to realise what they are looking forward to in hope, but sometimes with little hope.

The right hon. Gentleman takes an optimistic view of what would happen under a Labour Government. Is he suggesting that steel production could be doubled in the lifetime of a Labour Government?

I am not giving any figures. I am saying that we would not contemplate the closure of any of the big five. We would do everything to protect jobs. With the growth of investment in the areas that need it—Mr. MacGregor has called for investment in the railways and other areas, and so has the CBI—there would be a reversal of the present situation and jobs would be protected.

The Minister is saying that we cannot rectify within five years the damage that he has managed to do in three and a half years. It is as simple as that.

Much recovery will be needed to repair the damage that has been done in the past three and a half years. That is one of the difficulties.

My right hon. Friend knows the Sheffield scene. Will he confirm that the biggest single factor in the savage jobs cuts that were announced on Monday, which the Minister was determined to avoid mentioning, import penetration apart, is a lack of demand for engineering steels and car production? In other words, the cuts are directly attributable to Government policy.

Yes. I put it to the Minister and the Government that we do not back down in any way from our argument about demand. We are in favour of expansion of demand. We have spelt out the areas where that demand should come from. Through that demand we would create the jobs that are needed. It is evident to everyone that monetarism has failed miserably in our society.

On behalf of the Opposition I say that we come to the debate in a sad mood, because we are dealing with communities and the effect on them of any further large-scale redundancies. The figure of 3½ million unemployed is too high already. We should not add skilled people to it. Therefore, we demand action on imports both from the EC and third countries. We call for a reversal of the disastrous Government policies, so that demand is created in the economy. We call for the raising of the cash limits to prevent any further closures.

When the Secretary of State makes his statement, we shall demand a full-scale debate in the House. We shall want to put our case and examine carefully any Government proposals. The Government should take away pessimism and defend one of the basic industries of the United Kingdom. It is no good the Secretary saying that he hopes that this or that will happen. We call, even if belatedly—we know that there is little chance of the Government carrying it out—for action. We call for the defence of one of our basic industries. If the Government are not prepared to defend it, they should make way for someone who will.

4.36 pm

My reason for wishing to take part in the debate is that I share completely the anxiety expressed by the right hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme). I suspect that every hon. Member in the Chamber does; and every inhabitant of our country should. His facts were right. Leaving aside the party political points that he naturally felt obliged to make, I believe that his call for action is justified.

I have two interests to declare. I have declared both to the House on other occasions. I am chairman of a company producing engineering steels in Sheffield, and proud to be. Second, having had some experience of the industry, I am entirely clear that those who work in it are some of Britain's most skilled and competent sons. A healthy, prosperous industry is vital to our nation. This is my second interest, to help to bring that about.

Alas, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the industry is now in severe crisis. I say plainly that I abominate what is happening in the steel industry at present. Competent as my hon. Friend the Minister's speech was, I hope that he will recognise that we shall need to give the most careful and serious thought to what action can be taken.

I wish to say a word about how my friends in the steel industry see the situation. The industrial and economic environment within which the steel industry at present has to operate, if it continues, may eventually lead to its total demise. That is the risk. The hostility of that environment—"hostile" is the word that my hon. Friend used when he opened the debate—is such that only the British Steel Corporation, if it retains unlimited access to the public purse, is likely to survive. That point was borne out by the depressing figures for BSC's half-yearly results that my hon. Friend was good enough to quote to the House.

In the last quarter of 1981 and the first quarter of this year reasonable levels of steel making activity were achieved. Trading profits were earned in the private sector. It appeared that the industry was pulling out of the deep problems that followed the BSC steel strike in 1980 and led to the beginning of the phoenix II talks, which eventually aborted. Unfortunately, that was a false dawn. Today trading is just as bad as, if not worse than, it was in 1980–81. There has been an alarming fall-off in orders, and steel production is now running at less than 60 per cent. of current capacity levels. There is no sign of improvement.

In parallel with that, there has been, as the speeches and interventions so far have made clear, a flood of foreign steel into Britain. "A flood" is right. What is worse, the trend is up. It is true that we must make our industry more competitive. The whole House acknowledges that, but now enormous sacrifices have been made in Britain—our country—in terms of both capacity and employment, apparently for the benefit of the French, the Germans, the Brazilians, the Spanish, the Comecon countries and anyone else with Government subsidies, weak currencies and the wit to protect their home base from imports of foreign-finished and semi-finished goods.

My company is one of the survivors in the private sector. It is set in what is now—Opposition Members know this better than I can describe it—the industrial wasteland of Sheffield. That city once produced 90 per cent. of all British steel and 50 per cent. of all Western European steel. We have cut the company's production capacity by 60 per cent. and its labour force by 70 per cent. during the past two years in a bid to come to terms with the diminishing market. Elsewhere, Duport, Round Oak and London Works have all closed and Manchester Steel has been to the brink. All of that, it seems, is to no avail. Wherever the count begins and whatever base year for statistics is quoted, sacrifices on that scale are not evident in Europe. Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and especially Italy are content to fund their industry publicly, make minimum contributions to capacity cuts and, through a variety of underhand methods, sell their surplus steel to the United Kingdom.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, by 1985 there will be 50 million tonnes of surplus steel capacity in the EEC. I want to say as clearly as I can to him, with an understanding of all the heavy responsibilities that he bears, that the Government must ensure that any further capacity cuts are made in Continental Europe, not here.

I shall now speak about countries outside the EC. We may not mean to have, but we always seem to my friends in the steel industry to have, a laissez-faire attitude towards countries outside the EC—always a bit late and sluggish. The steel and other markets of Japan and South Korea are practically closed to our exports. Comecon countries buy only those steel qualities thay they cannot make. The attitude that was recently taken by the United States—once an important market—needs no further comment. Spain has built an effective barrier of customs duties and administrative obstacles. Licensing systems in Brazil and Southern Africa utterly protect their home industries. Not only do those countries sell their surplus steel to the diminishing United Kingdom market; they destabilise the price structure that Davignon has tried to build up in the past few years. Price cutting, therefore, is now rampant throughout Europe.

There is only one conclusion. It is obvious and it must be faced. Government must, sooner or later—I beg that it is sooner—take a tough and uncompromising line with those countries which trade unfairly, resolve their socio-economic difficulties at the expense of the United Kingdom and have effectively transferred their problems to us. More than 3 million British unemployed are testimony to the need to adopt a resolute stand sooner rather than later.

I am glad that there will be no Division tonight. The House is right to unite on the matter. I am not a protectionist, but I must make it absolutely clear that I believe I was not elected to see the British work force sacrificed as a matter of practice on the altar of the theoretical benefits of laissez-faire free trade. When free trade is unfair trade, there are no benefits in it.

Ironically, nowhere has the gross unfairness of State support been more evident than in the United Kingdom. The reality is that the public sector has been bankrupt for years. It has survived by massive injections of cash. If BSC was a complete monopoly, that would be bad enough, but there are large and important areas of overlap with the private sector where the two compete for business. As a result, modern and efficient private capacity has had to close.

Since the Government that I so strongly support came to power, BSC has received more than £2·7 billion in cash. That represents a subsidy of more than £88 per tonne of steel that is sold. Of that, £43 has funded BSC's losses. I could give a series of additional figures, but I shall not trouble the House with them. I hope that I have said enough to bring me logically to the questions that I should like to ask.

How can the private sector compete with those subsidies? How do those subsidies square with the Government's declared policy of encouraging a healthy private steel industry? I say that they do not and that it is time that the subsidies stopped.

Mr. Barry Jones