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Iron And Steel Industry

Volume 81: debated on Wednesday 19 June 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next plans to meet the Scottish representatives of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation to discuss the current state of the iron and steel industry in Scotland and the economic implications thereof for Scotland.

A member of the Iron and Steel Trades Council was one of the STUC representatives whom I met on 7 June. Also, the ISTC was represented on the works committee at Ravenscraig, which my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for industry and education in Scotland met when he visited the works on 3 June.

What is the Secretary of State's response to this morning's press speculation, and reported remarks of Sir Robert Haslam, on the future of Ravenscraig? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the closure of Ravenscraig and, consequently, Gartcosh, would be a devastating blow to the Scottish economy? Is he prepared to give a lead to the Scottish ministerial team by saying that he is prepared to resign on this issue because he is not prepared to see Scotland becoming an industrial desert?

I appreciate the concern that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I, too, have seen the speculation in newspapers this morning. It is just that: it is speculation. The remarks made yesterday before the Select Committee were in that vein as well. The position, as I confirm again, is that there is no sign yet of the corporate plan being presented to the Government. When it is presented to the Government it will have to be carefully considered by Ministers before any decisions can be agreed to or otherwise. That is the position and, as I think the chairman confirmed in his evidence yesterday, that is likely to remain the position for some considerable time yet.

May I reassure my right hon. Friend that he will have the undivided support of Conservatives in any efforts that he makes to persuade the British Steel Corporation and his ministerial colleagues that Ravenscraig should not only continue but should enjoy new investment in coke ovens? May I further urge, if the newspaper reports are correct, that he and his ministerial colleagues plan and mount the type of skilful and successful campaign that they mounted in 1982, to ensure that Scotland retains its steel-making capacity?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the first part of his remarks. As to the second part, all of us have to wait to see what is in the corporate plan, and then we will have to formulate our responses very quickly.

The Secretary of State is very conscious of the fact that I am one of the hon. Members in whose constituencies Ravenscraig lies. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, there is a conference at the civic centre in Motherwell on Friday at which there will be representations from the STUC, all the councils, all the Churches, the ISTC and all the other trades unions. Depending upon the decision, which I am sure will be a unanimous one to fight for Ravenscraig, will the right hon. Gentleman give us a categorical assurance that at Cabinet level he will lead the fight for the retention of Ravenscraig?

I well appreciate the importance of the meeting, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman will be present. I am anxiously awaiting news of what will be in the corporate plan when it comes. I can give the assurance that, when it does, I shall be heavily involved in dealing with responses to it.

As the current uncertainty seems to stem largely from the advice of the European Commission that Britain should further reduce its steel-making capacity, can my right hon. Friend give us a clear assurance that the Government will not contemplate further reductions until the other member states of the Common Market have carried out their agreed obligations to reduce steel-making capacity? Is he aware that Members of Parliament who represent English constituencies are fully conscious of the superb battle that he has put up so far for Scotland's steel industry?

With regard to the European scene, as my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and his colleague have, on a number of occasions in Brussels, forcefully made the very points that my hon. Friend has just made. That is a matter on which the Government have taken a very strong stand.

Many hon. Members are concerned about the adjective "anxious" which the Secretary of State used to describe his views on the forthcoming plan. Only one question remains: will he put the future of Ravenscraig before his own job?

I think that my views on this subject have been widely known for long enough. I have given the assurance—and nobody with any sense could expect me to go further at this time—that I am waiting to see what the corporate plan says. Thereafter we shall all have to work out our responses to it.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the future of Ravenscraig is crucial to the future of Scottish industry, that the suggestion that it should be closed is something that should be considered as totally unacceptable within Scotland and that he should say so unequivocally? It is not just a matter of Ravenscraig and the jobs there, but of all the jobs dependent on it in British Rail, in the support industries and so forth. Will he acknowledge that without the steelworks Scotland cannot have a credible industrial base, and that he should say so and fight every inch of the way to ensure that the steelworks remains?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's continuing concern about the matter, but I suggest to him and to others that they should be careful not to close Ravenscraig before anyone has even proposed it.

When will the Government make the announcement about the new investment at Hunterston? Will it be made tomorrow before the meeting on Friday referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Mr. Hamilton)?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have been saying to the workers and management in all industries that we have to increase productivity if we are to maintain our markets? Is it not true that, by that standard alone, Ravenscraig has excelled and we should not let anyone outside Scotland be misled by the fact that the European Community has certain levels of production which it says must be maintained throughout Europe? Is my right hon. Friend aware that we in Scotland and Britain have made our contributions, and that Ravenscraig has shown that it is the plant of tomorrow and not of yesterday?

I agree with my hon. Friend. My right hon. Friends and I have made it clear on numerous occasions that we consider that when capacity in Europe is being discussed it must be clearly understood that it is not expected that this country should do all the reducing of capacity, but that there should be an agreed system between the European countries.

In view of the recent damaging reports, and of early reports emanating from the BSC, why can we not have from the Secretary of State a straightforward and unequivocal commitment that Ravenscraig will not be closed?

The right hon. Gentleman has been in the higher reaches of Government and he will know that in nationalised industries the principle that is rightly followed is that the industry runs its own concerns and refers to the Government for the major decisions. It would be wrong, in whichever direction the proposal goes, to preempt the decision on any part of the plan before one sees the plan as a whole. Everybody concerned must wait for BSC to produce its corporate plan, and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that there will then be a clear reaction.

As it is no secret that BSC is deeply hostile to keeping Ravenscraig open, will the Secretary of State not delay too much his attack on this matter, because if he holds back decisions could be taken on the corporate plan by other Ministers? It is urgently necessary that he puts his full weight behind Ravenscraig, and I assure him that he will have every support from my party on this matter.

I am grateful for that support from the hon. Gentleman. The views of all of us in Scotland on this matter are well known, but it is prudent to wait to see a target before one starts firing at it.

Is the Secretary of State not being a little disingenuous in suggesting that this is all speculation? It is known that options were presented to the Government in the middle of last year, and that those options included the closure of a major steel plant. Is it not a fact that Sir Robert Haslam said to the Select Committee yesterday that discussions were under way on those options? In those circumstances, if the right hon. Gentleman has not seen those options, it must be because the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has not shown them to him. Is it not essential that the Secretary of State for Scotland gets his oar in now and makes it clear that the future of Ravenscraig is non-negotiable and that it must continue to play a central role in the Scottish economy? Does the Secretary of State recall that the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, said on 3 June after visiting Ravenscraig that he did not think there was any uncertainty about the future of the plant? Is not the only way that the Secretary of State can end the uncertainty started by yesterday's events is to make it clear that there will not be a closure of one of BSC's three major strip mills under this or any other Government?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's first point, but he must appreciate that what was said yesterday, which was not surprising, was that there were a number of different options, which were all being considered. That is as it should be. The hon. Gentleman will also know, as was made clear yesterday, that discussions are always going on between the sponsoring Department and the nationalised industry. Preparations for a corporate plan form part of a process that does not stop. However, it is essential that the industry should first make its proposals about what it thinks is the best plan for the industry's future. It is then for the Government to consider whether they are prepared to approve or reject the proposals. That is the Government's role.