Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:14 pm on 23rd January 1992.

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Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden 7:14 pm, 23rd January 1992

I beg to move, That this House condemns the repeated in defiance of guarantees given by the company; calls for British Steel to honour these guarantees and for the failure of British Steel to support and invest in its Scottish plants, culminating in the announcement that Ravenscraig is to close Government to explore with determination every possible means of saving the steel industry in Scotland, including the search for a new owner and the use of new technology; deplores the inadequate response from Ministers to the present crisis; and demands a co-ordinated and determined drive to rebuild the Lanarkshire economy which has been cruelly damaged by the policies of both the Government and British Steel. This debate is about a great industry and the trouble which has befallen it. Inevitably much of the spotlight will fall on the role of Government. I suspect that the Secretary of State is in difficulty and is embarrassed by his predicament. Well he might be.

At the end of last week, as the right hon. Gentleman may know, I put down a priority written question. It was a simple request for a list of dates of any meetings in the last six months between Ministers in the Scottish Office and British Steel. The list could not be long, and it did not require an extensive diary search. The first effort at a reply was: I shall reply to the hon. Member as soon as possible. Clearly the Secretary of State had no great interest in getting the information on the table. However, he may have had a tactical rethink, because today there crept on to the board a reply. It was the reply which I had expected. In the last six months, the entire contact at ministerial level between British Steel and the Scottish Office boiled down to one meeting on 6 January, after the Government knew that the closure decision had been reached.

According to reports in the Sunday Mail, the Scottish Office knew as early as 20 December that closure was coming on 8 January. It is a serious charge, but I fear that, as Ministers contemplated the grim future, their one thought was how best to survive the fine mess that their own incompetence had created.

So far as I can find out, the Secretary of State did absolutely nothing to influence events. I am strengthened in that conclusion by a letter which the Secretary of State wrote to me on 14 January, in which he told me precisely what happened at the meeting on 6 January. I remind the House that that was the one meeting at ministerial level with British Steel in the last six months. What happened at the meeting was that he pressed Sir Robert very hard indeed to make public British Steel's assessment of market conditions". Faced with the final blow, with the long history of decline, and with the abdication of duty which has marked their course, the Government finally got into the presence of top management of British Steel, merely to press Sir Robert to make public the market assessment which had made him decide on closure. That is a fit comment on the total lack of action and the lack of fight shown by the Scottish Office over the years.

That is typical of the hands-off, do-nothing approach which has been the hallmark of the Government. Successive Secretaries of State have been licensed to protest carefully packaged concern for Scottish consumption only. The one condition laid down was that no action was to follow and no real pressure was to be mounted on British Steel.