Orders of the Day — Steel Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:18 pm on 7th November 1979.

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Photo of Mr Barry Jones Mr Barry Jones , Flint East 7:18 pm, 7th November 1979

I accept that the Secretary of State is not an ogre. However, as the head of a great steel industry he is a total disaster. I do not call him an ogre, but I describe him as a kind of Count Dracula. His leadership of the steel industry is as inappropriate as putting Count Dracula in charge of a local blood transfusion service. There is no doubt that his appointment is a bad one for the British steel industry.

I did not agree with much of what the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Brown) said, nor did I agree with some of the remarks of the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson). The latter hon. Gentleman made an eloquent and informed speech. It was interesting that he was defensive in his remarks on the commanding heights. Aneurin Bevan once said that Remote control is the consequence of bigness, not of the nature of ownership. I took exception when the hon. Gentleman said that the men had to be bought out. They have not compaigned for eight years in Shotton and district to be bought out. On their behalf, I find that remark offensive. When the steel committee of the TUC goes to Steel House on Friday to meet the British Steel Corporation, it will not go there on its knees. That will certainly not be its approach with Mr. Bill Sirs leading it. It will not have buying out in mind.

Our steel industry is the bedrock of our economy. Nobody would deny that. There is a crisis of confidence in the industry that is largely of the Government's making. The Secretary of State pursues a highly controversial policy. The chairman of BSC is soon to leave. The work force is demoralised and angry, and their leaders moot a strike. Several steel communities move nearer to the brink of social and economic disaster. That is the background to the debate.

At the heart of the problems are the rigid cash limits. The policy of not funding BSC losses in 1980 means that the Corporation can move nearer to solvency only by closures. The "break even at all costs" policy is a foolish mirage. It will not be successful and will severely damage this seed corn industry. Hasty closures will guarantee more steel imports.

Is there an alternative explanation to the policy that is so rigidly adhered to by the Government? Is the policy designed entirely to secure early closures, in the knowledge that in the long term the policy is ruinous? When the closures are effected, the policy can be dumped. I disagree with that fundamental point of policy.

In the years that I have tried in the House to help the Shotton steelworkers, I have learnt that their leaders—both production and staff workers—are able men. All over Britain the steelworkers could make the industry a brilliant success. They could rescue the demoralised hulk of the Corporation. They should be given an ungrudging, decisive, meaningful and substantial role in the running of the industry. Ministers should seek to regain the confidence of the TUC steel committee. That means paying greater respect to the voice of experience in a cyclical and complicated industry. The Corporation should make greater efforts to tap the professional skills and insight of its middle management.

I sincerely hope that the Government will make even greater efforts to stem the damaging steel imports. We should fight for a bigger export market. We should not go for sudden closures. New plant and equipment should be run in very carefully. Some of the older plants could act as valuable balancing plants and an insurance against breakdown or delay as the newer plant comes on stream. The steel customers should receive a better deal. Perhaps we are neglecting them to some degree.

Largely speaking, North-East Wales and the North-West face the likelihood of becoming a steel desert—witness the closures at Irlam, Warrington, Workington and Mostyn, and, in the offing, if the Government and the Corporation have their way, at Shotton. Yet the North-West accounts for 8 per cent. of the United Kingdom domestic steel market. Within a 40-mile radius of Shotton there is an extremely heavy consumer presence. The North-West and the Midlands' markets are on Shotton's doorstep. Why obliterate an able producer and supplier? We have all heard of the domino effect.

Merseyside can ill afford the decimation of Deeside. My area must inevitably become a determined competitor with stricken Merseyside to obtain new jobs. I do not seek or wish for that. I fear that the legion of the Merseyside unemployed will be dealt a heavy blow for many years to come. The social consequences of putting so many so swiftly on the dole will damage the social fabric of the community that I represent.

In a modern industrial State, when was a proposal of that magnitude last performed? When were two such fearsome and awesome redundancy proposals as those at Shotton and Corby promulgated? These proposals are to be carried out at a time of widely forecast recession in the coming years. The Treasury Bench can say nothing that will alter the fact that at Shotton, Corby. Birkenhead, Liverpool and Greater Merseyside the outlook and the future hopes of the boys and girls leaving our comprehensive schools will be grim and miserable. Some will have to leave our areas to find work.

As a community, we face that with great sadness. We are not sure that the Treasury Bench is taking full account of that problem. I should like to see the door of No. 10 opened to a major deputation from Shotton. It has been officially predicted that in the late new year in the town of Flint the unemployment rate will rise as high as 31 per cent.