Orders of the Day — Iron and Steel Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th January 1967.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Barber Mr Anthony Barber , Altrincham and Sale 12:00 am, 26th January 1967

I would have responded to the right hon. Gentleman if he and his predecessors over the past year or 18 months had pointed out when the industry was in private hands the sort of difficulties which were likely to face it in future. We heard not a bleep about this from them until the Bill came forward.

I was saying that there are two reasons why I do not wish to be unduly long. First of all, I know that there are other hon. Members on both sides of the House waiting to take part in the debate, and secondly, although I would have liked to have put forward a number of alternative proposals for dealing with the industry, on the Third Reading of a Bill I am precluded by the rules of order from doing so.

I have six objections to the Bill. The first is that whatever may be the case for nationalising a public utility or a service industry, as the President of the Board of Trade said, nationalisation is quite unsuitable for a manufacturing industry. One can search the entire industrial free world, but nowhere will one find a country in the 'sixties setting out, as this Bill does, to nationalise 90 per cent. of its iron and steel industry. Indeed, it is the case that 90 per cent. of all the steel produced in the non-Communist world is produced by private enterprise. It is left to a British Socialist Government, for internal party political reasons, to revert in 1967 to the doctrines of half a century ago.

We have been told by the Government that this Bill is based on the assumption that; "greater competition is not the answer." Yet both France and Italy have chosen to organise their steel industries on a competitive basis. The German steel industry is now being rationalised on the basis of four quite separate sales syndicates. The Benson Report, to which the right hon. Gentleman continues to pay tribute, recommended the creation of multi-production groups subject to United Kingdom competition over the whole range of their output. But the Government, in passing this Bill, are oblivious of the recent experience of our European friends, and blind to the advice of any but the Left Wing of the Labour Party. It was the Prime Minister who used to pretend during the last election campaign that a Labour Government would listen to the voice of industry. I therefore conclude my remarks on this first objection to the Bill by quoting the considered view of the Confederation of British Industry on the proposals in the Bill: A national steel organisation would stifle enterprise, create inefficiency and eliminate diversity". So much for all the election poppycock about consultation with industry.

The second objection to the Bill is that it will inevitably make British industry as a whole less competitive in the markets of the world. It is a fact that about 40 per cent. of all Britain's steel output is exported, 20 per cent. directly and another 20 per cent. indirectly, in the form of goods such as motor cars, machinery and so on. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that exports of steel and of goods made from steel have spearheaded Britain's post-war export drive.

At a time when, as the Minister has told us again today, there is excess steel capacity throughout the world, the nationalisation proposals in the Bill will inevitably make Britain less competitive. Whatever may be the political and social arguments for and against nationalisation, our whole experience of State enterprises is either that prices increase excessively, or that profitability is depressed. I believe that it is a tragedy that, at a time when by their economic measures they have deliberately put 600,000 men and women on the dole and we are suffering the greatest package of deflationary gloom in our post-war history, the Government should embark on a proposal which will have the inevitable consequence of making Britain less competitive.

This leads me to my third objection to the Bill—the lunacy of proceeding with the nationalisation of steel at a time when Britain is in the midst of a dire economic crisis and living on borrowed money. It was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who sad: What people abroad believe about us is as important as the truth, especially in relation to the strength of sterling. He was right. It was a leading New York newspaper which wrote: If Wilson announces that he's dropping re-nationalisation of the steel industry, that will be a tougher blow to the Labour Party than the wage freeze, but will do more than anything else to restore confidence abroad. There are many other quotations from The Times and elsewhere which I could bring to the notice of the House.