Ravenscraig

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:55 pm on 23rd January 1992.

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Photo of John Reid John Reid , Motherwell North 8:55 pm, 23rd January 1992

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) for making time for me. One of the tragedies of debates of this kind is that, although they should be held in Government time, they are not. After all, the Government are the guilty men. In addition, we could do without juvenile interventions such as we had earlier from the young Back-Bench Conservative Member wearing the red tie—I refer to the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim). Apparently he has gone back to his nursery, as he does on such occasions, having made one or two interventions. Conservative Members obviously have no interest in this matter, nor have they shown any for the past five years.

What has happened at Ravenscraig is a tragedy. "Tragedy" is a word that the sophisticated leader-writers do not like us to use. They have said that it is a word that we Scots take out of the bottom drawer on such occasions. They do not believe that we know its meaning. Well, Ravenscraig is a tragedy in the classical sense. It is the unfolding story of men and women, not eminently good or bad, but decent and dignified, fighting against almost insurmountable odds and eventually being overpowered by powers outside their own persuasion or dictation. Perhaps, before so easily dismissing Scottish Members of Parliament as bawling illiterates, the leader-writers of the London and southern English press should consider the story of Ravenscraig.

Tonight the Secretary of State used a wonderful euphemism when he told us that it was inevitable that there would be "some contraction". The Secretary of State regards the closure, the industrial murder of Ravenscraig as "some contraction". I have no personal ill-feeling towards the Secretary of State, who appears to have departed for the moment, but tonight he performed in the most oily fashion that I have seen any Secretary of State display. That was in contrast not just with his predecessors, including the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), who is with us tonight and who was at least prepared to fight, to answer honest criticism and even at one stage to put his office at stake; it was in marked contrast also with the dignified contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray).

The word "inevitable" which the Secretary of State used today typified the attitude of the Conservative party over the past few years. The closure of Ravenscraig was never inevitable. I do not want to dwell on the past tonight, but we need to understand the past to understand where we are, and we need to understand where we are to understand the alternatives for the future.

There is no integrated modern steel plant in the world that does not have two essential components: a steel-making side and a finishing side, a hot and cold mill. That is patently obvious to anyone who knows anything about the steel industry. Yet in a cold, calculated fashion British Steel went ahead, at best with Government collusion, at worst with Government connivance, and on occasion with encouragement from the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) over Gartcosh, to deprive the Ravenscraig plant of one half of its essential elements—the finishing side.

In 1985–86 British Steel closed the Ravenscraig cold mill at Gartcosh. In 1990, it closed the hot mill. Simultaneously it refused to invest in the blast furnaces, running the plant down to a one-blast furnace operation. There were two consequences of that cold, clinical action. First, it left what remained of Ravenscraig on 7 January this year completely dependent on other plants inside British Steel for its finishing operation. Secondly, the action ensured that if Ravenscraig were removed from British Steel it would be left as a producer of raw slab steel only, without a finishing side and requiring massive investment for it to be brought back to being a viable and integrated plant.

We start from here, not from where we want to be, and I shall return to this idea later when considering some of the proposed options. For the present, I put it on record that the Government were well aware that the emasculation of one half—the vital half—of the Ravenscraig steel plant was under way.

The Government were warned six years ago almost to the day, on 8 January 1986, by those of us who marched from Gartcosh to London to bring the matter to the attention of the Prime Minister, who, as I recall, was too busy to meet those of us who had walked 400 miles. She was having tea with Ian Botham. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) mentioned that tonight, and full credit to him for his support on that occasion.

The Government ignored the warnings. They were continually warned at the time of privatisation, especially by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South, that if British Steel was privatised as a single unit monopoly, that would inevitably lead to the closure of Ravenscraig. This was the last chance, yet the Government ignored the warnings. We pleaded with them, asking them to allow the privatisation of a separate unit of Ravenscraig, of the plate mill at Dalzell and of the finishing works at Shotton.

The Secretary of State told us tonight that on that occasion he voted against a separate Scottish steel industry. Not only did he reject the idea, therefore, but he did not even understand what was being proposed. No one was asking him—apart from the Scottish National party—for a separate Scottish steel industry. We were asking the Secretary of State for a unit that included the steelmaking at Ravenscraig, the finishing side at Shotton and the plate mill. The Government rejected that and ignored our arguments. The tragedy was that, although the idea had the support of the Liberals, the Labour party, Motherwell district council, Strathclyde region, the campaign for the steel industry and the Ravenscraig shop stewards, the only people who opposed that last chance to save Ravenscraig as a viable unit—apart, that is, from the Government—were members of the SNP. Indeed, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) said on Third Reading of the relevant Bill that his party opposed the idea, presumably because Shotton was not in Scotland. What a way to make a decision of such importance for the industry!