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Steel Industry

Volume 129: debated on Wednesday 9 March 1988

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To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what was (a) the number of employees in and (b) the output of the steel industry (i) when last nationalised and (ii) for the latest year for which figures are available.

The British Steel Corporation employed 251,000 people in 1968. At the end of 1987 it employed 51,500 people. Its liquid steel output in the first full year after nationalisation was 23·6 million tonnes. In 1986–87 its output was 11·3 million tonnes, although it will be higher this year. The reductions in part reflect the privatisation of certain BSC activities in recent years.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Now that quota arrangements in the EEC have failed to bring down output in certain countries that agreed to bring their output down, and now that our productivity in the steel industry is so good, is it not time that we pressed for quotas to be abolished and allowed a privatised steel industry to go in and clean up the market in Europe?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who will know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been leading the way in doing just what he asks in Europe, and we shall endeavour to keep up that campaign.

Has the Minister considered the fact that, had the industry not been taken into public ownership—with all the investment that stemmed from it—it is unlikely that we would have a steel industry left today?

Let me make it clear that most of the money that the Government have put in over the years has been to support uneconomic operations and maintain capacity that the market did not need. It is not, I emphasise, a debt; it is an accumulated deficit and it has gone for good.

Would my hon. Friend care to note that the excellent figures that he announced include those for Teesside steelworks, which has shown the best improvement in productivity of all and has become the most competitive steelworks in the country? The improvement would have been even greater if the Cleveland county council rate had not increased by 30p this year to cover the cost of an additional 2,000 employees engaged by Cleveland county council in the past two years, none of whom produces anything.

My hon. Friend makes his point in his usual cogent way. I would point out that productivity has increased from 13·2 man-hours to 6·2 man-hours since 1979–80. That is an indication of the vast improvement in productivity in British Steel in recent years.

Does the Minister agree that those figures represent a profound disturbance in the lives of tens of thousands of steelworkers and that we lack any authoritative survey of the social costs of the changes? Will he agree to consider initiating a scientific, objective study of the effects of those changes? A few people's lives were transformed for the better, but there have been enormous changes, including an increase in mental and physical ill-health and other problems among steelworkers' families. Will the Minister tell us that the social factors will be examined and included in the equation?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the numbers of people who have left the steel industry as a result of the slimming down of the industry, improvements in productivity and a variety of other factors. I pay tribute to those within the work force, led by the trade unions, who negotiated and understood that productivity agreements and the slimming down that took place were necessary. Health and worries about unemployment are not matters for me.