Steel Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th February 1970.

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Photo of Mr Richard Marsh Mr Richard Marsh , Greenwich 12:00 am, 16th February 1970

I shall be very brief because in a three-hour debate, in all fairness, one hon. Member speaking for half an hour is enough.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) said something which I thought was very significant. When he spoke of the industry's decision to organise itself in product groupings he said, with that phoney emotion which is sometimes summoned when people are talking about nationalised industries: what possibly can the managers in the industry be thinking of the future? But what possibly can the managers in the industry be thinking of the future in the light of the Opposition's disgraceful irresponsibility in throwing in question the entire future of the steel industry and flatly refusing to give any indication of what they have in mind?

It is perfectly right and proper that there should be arguments between the two sides, although I personally think it is a pity that this industry has become a political football, but for an Opposition to call a debate and say: That this House deplores the consequences of nationalisation of steel by Her Majesty's Government and then flatly refuse to give any indication of what they intend to do is to cast that industry deliberately, not by accident, into total lack of security in the future.

Why do they do it? They do it because they nurse this troglodytical, doctrinaire opposition to anything which is publicly owned. The argument is that the industry in two and a half years has not solved the problems of the previous 50 years. The right hon. Gentleman said: Had nationalisation not occurred market forces would have changed the structure of the industry. How much longer did the market forces need? For years and years everybody was highly critical of the British steel industry, including many people within it. Then the present Government came into office in 1964, and their policy was to take into public ownership the steel industry. We all remember that debate in the 1964 Parliament when suddenly the industry was reprieved by a discussion between my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown) and an hon. Member who was then on this side of the House but who is now on the other side of the House, and will in due course no doubt finish up somewhere over the top of the Speaker's Chair. After that discussion the White Paper was withdrawn or suspended.

After some months I went into the Ministry of Power, and I thought that the threat of nationalisation would have spurred the industry into doing something, because market forces had not, but it was just falling further and further behind. My first question to the Department was: what changes were taking place in the industry in the light of its reprieve from nationalisation? There was an economic crisis at that time, and many people were worried about the possible effect upon foreign confidence and sterling of going ahead with nationalisation at that time, and the industry knew this. The industry could have done something about it. Had the industry itself made major changes, I am not totally sure that it would have been nationalised at that time—if the industry had shown willing. But, although faced with the threat of nationalisation, not one single thing had the industry done.

What has happened since? As my right hon. Friend says, the British Steel Corporation has been in existence for 2½ years and it has problems. That is not surprising. This is the biggest merger of competing manufacturing companies the world has ever seen—13 firms, 100 works throughout the country, 250,000 men, a major restructuring of prices, a major restructuring of unions. The Corporation deserves congratulations for the way in which it has brought the unions together in a difficult situation. On the argument about recognition, I do not think that the fault lies with the British Steel Corporation. I will not go into detail into whose fault it is, but I do not think the Corporation can be blamed for that.

The Corporation has gone through all these difficulties. It is now the seventh largest company in the world outside the United States of America. No hon. or right hon. Gentleman opposite believes that at the end of 2½ years in those circumstances it is even sensible to get up and say, "But there are criticisms we can make of the British Steel Corporation". In 2½ years it has done a superb job. Look at some of the things it has done.