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British Steel

Volume 165: debated on Wednesday 17 January 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what representations he has received about his use of the golden share in British Steel.


To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what representations he has received about his use of the golden share in British Steel.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the golden share was introduced to protect vital national interests? In the Scottish context, that means the preservation of the Scottish steel industries. Is he aware that British Steel is starving Ravenscraig and its associated works of investment and that, without that investment, any paper guarantees given are worse than useless? Therefore, will he make representations to British Steel to ensure that investment is forthcoming in the Scottish steel industry?

The purpose of the golden share in British Steel was to protect an industry, which had been badly damaged by a long period of public ownership, for a limited time against unwelcome takeovers when it emerged into the private sector. The circumstances where it would have been appropriate to use that golden share have not arisen. The golden share is not available for the purposes suggested by the hon. Lady. It was made clear at the time, and I make it clear again, that the Government had no intention of using that golden share for any purpose other than that for which it was first introduced.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we are concerned that, in a privatised British Steel, the Scottish plants might be subject to unwelcome elimination? Although British Steel lied in the first instance, it has now confessed that, along with the Davy Corporation, it is storing a second-hand Japanese plate mill at Lackenby. Although the right hon. Gentleman might say that he has no responsibility as the golden share owner, does he accept that he has responsibility as the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry? Therefore, will he press upon British Steel that, should it go for a single-plate strategy, it should be at Motherwell and not at Lackenby?

I understand that the chairman of British Steel recently reaffirmed that the company statement of 3 December 1987 on the future of the Scottish plants still stands. There is no way in which I can intervene—it would be quite wrong of me to seek to do so—on where plate capacity is located or what happens to a particular plant.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the concept of the golden share is alien to the work of the stock market? It depresses the value of shareholders' investment and it could have extremely damaging effects on the pension funds that are largely invested in the companies concerned. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government have no plans to extend the use of the golden share and that, unlike the Labour party, they will never extend the golden share into the private sector?

I have come to agree with my hon. Friend even more strongly since the publication of the Labour party policy review, which states:

"The Golden Share already establishes the principle of separating voting rights from the other incidents of equity ownership".
That means that the Labour party thought it had a precedent for telling companies what to do and for overriding the interests of the share owners, without compensation, in the interests of pursuing policies that have been seen to fail in eastern Europe.

Will my right hon. Friend pass on the congratulations of my hon. Friends to the management of British Steel on making it profitable at long last? It is now one of the most profitable steel manufacturers in western Europe. Under no circumstances should it turn itself back into a charitable institution as suggested by the Scottish Nationalists, the hon. Members for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars).

I shall pass on the comments of my hon. Friend, who paid tribute to the management of British Steel for turning it into one of the most successful and profitable companies in the world since it was freed from the shackles of public ownership. I reaffirm that the Government have no intention of doing anything that might prevent that highly successful British company from conquering world markets.

Now that the Government have so recklessly handed over to Brussels the right to decide—to veto or approve—transfrontier mergers and takeover bids, will not the golden share now take on added importance as our one remaining defence against unwelcome takeover bids that are against the national interest?

Neither of the right hon. Gentleman's propositions is true. First, the Commission has power, and has been using it under articles 85 and 86, to clear or not clear mergers without reference to the United Kingdom authorities on monopolies and mergers. The total confusion about that matter has been brought to an end. Secondly, the golden share in British Steel has only a relatively short time to run, after which it expires. British Steel will defend and protect itself by the excellence of its economic performance—a concept unheard of by the right hon. Gentleman.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the privatisation of British Steel made all the shares golden shares, and they have been profitable? Compared to the other steel industries throughout the European Community, British Steel's record, once the dead hand of Government was taken away, has been one of enterprise. We can congratulate it on its excellent progress.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the only share in British Steel that is not golden is the one held by the Government.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the undertakings given by British Steel about the steel industry in Scotland have to be read carefully? Will he do as the Secretary of State for Scotland has recently done and ask British Steel to explain its plans in Scotland? Is he aware that the trade gap last year and the increased plans for motor car production in the United Kingdom point to a continuing need for steel in the future? It would help greatly if the Secretary of State asked British Steel to update its commitments in that sector.

The hon. Gentleman has seen a policy by which British Steel was nudged, asked, interfered with, intervened in, pushed, pressed and generally mucked about by Government over 20 years with disastrous results. That policy was replaced by one through which the Government privatised it and allowed it to get on with running its own business, and it has subsequently shown itself to be one of the most successful steel companies in the world. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to return to the policies of eastern Europe, which is what he is advocating.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that all respectable forecasts for world and European demand for steel in the 1990s confirm that there is a viable future for the steel industry in Scotland, England and Wales? Will he confirm that not only has he received representations about the golden share—he has received them from me—but that the trade Minister of the day in 1988 said that the purpose of the golden share—the Secretary of State has set up more golden shares than any other Minister—was to prevent takeovers and the rundown of British Steel capacity? Therefore, will he join me and his colleague the Secretary of State for Scotland in supporting the detailed plans for new investment in Scottish steel? Will he assure the House that normal regional grants will be available to prevent another great industry from being run down?

The point that I want to get across to the hon. Gentleman is that British Steel is now a highly successful corporation. I wish to allow it to take decisions about where to invest and how to plan its business. I believe, with great humility, that British Steel knows the answers to those questions much better than I do and, I suspect, than even the hon. Gentleman does. That is why he should join me in encouraging British Steel to do what it believes to be right, in its commercial interests. I should not for one moment go further than that. The British Steel special share is time limited.