HC Deb 21 July 1967 vol 750 cc2694-700

12.41 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

I beg to move, That the National Steel Corporation (Change of Name) Order 1967, a draft of which was laid before this House on 5th July, be approved. The purpose of the Order is to change the name of the National Steel Corporation to the British Steel Corporation. The Government have always seen the advantage of using the word "British" in the Corporation's title, but there was in existence at the time when the Iron and Steel Bill was passing through Parliament a company called the British Steel Corporation Limited, a subsidiary of the British Iron and Steel Federation.

It was always expected, however, that this difficulty would subsequently disappear, and the Iron and Steel Act, as a result of discussions and debates in the House of Commons, therefore empowered the Minister to change the Corporation's name by Order when the opportunity arose.

The Federation has now agreed to give up the name British Steel Corporation Limited, and rename its subsidiary B.I.S.C. (Investments) Ltd. The way is, therefore, open for the Corporation's name to be changed and the Order provides for this to operate from 27th July the day before vesting date when the nationalised steel industry will come into the ownership of the British Steel Corporation.

12.42 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)

This is the first debate on a steel matter that we have had since the Act became law. The debates on the Bill were extremely long, and I am happy to assure you, Mr. Speaker, and the House, that the debate on this Order will be nothing like the length of the debates which we had at any stage of the Bill.

Although we remain utterly opposed to the whole concept of the legislation, we on this side are pleased to see this Order, and if I appear at any stage to be delighted about this, I shall try to keep any smugness which may be apparent to the minimum. The fact is that the matter comprised within the Order was suggested to the Government during the very first debate in Committee, when we debated a number of possible alternative means for what was then the National Steel Corporation.

I was a little surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the Government had always been prepared to look at this as a possible name. When we suggested calling it the British Steel Corporation, the Minister gave two reasons for rejecting it, and I think that it is worth looking at them. One was the reason to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that the name was at that stage pre-empted by a subsidiary of the British Iron and Steel Federation.

In Committee, the Minister said: Hon. Gentlemen opposite have asked why we should not call it simply the "Steel Corporation" or the British Steel Corporation or some other name. I confess immediately that I do not like the idea."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 27th October, 1966; c. 116.] I think that it is a little jejune of the hon. Gentleman to come to the House this morning and say that the Government have always welcomed the name the British Steel Corporation, but we have to remember that that was said at a stage of the Bill when anything that was suggested from our side of the Committee was automatically and brusquely rejected.

In the ensuing 2090 columns of HANSARD, and 168 hours of Committee debate the right hon. Gentleman learned his lesson, and left that Committee a very much wiser man than he went into it. So much so that when, on Report my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) proposed to give the Government power to change the name of the Corporation, they were very ready to accept the principle of the Amendment. My hon. Friend argued: We believe that the Corporation should explicitly carry the title 'British'."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th January, 1967; Vol. 739, c. 781.] This was accepted in principle by the Government, though they did not like the drafting, and in another place they introduced a new Clause. The Government spokesman, Lord Shackleton, said that this was clearly the result of the Opposition's initiative: We think that the initiative of the Opposition in suggesting this is useful,"—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, House of Lords, 28th February, 1967; Vol. 280 c. 1037.] The point must be made that the hon. Gentleman is enabled to bring forward this useful Order as a result, not of one, but repeated initiatives while the Bill was going through Parliament. This is one of many instances of the Bill being improved as a result of Opposition pressure, and we welcome the Order.

There are one or two points which I would like to put to the hon. Gentleman. First, why have the Government chosen the name "British Steel Corporation" rather than "British Iron and Steel Corporation"? The point which immediately occurs to me is that the letters B.S.C. are already in frequent use as the title of the British Sugar Corporation, which is another State corporation. Clearly, the extent to which there is likely to be confusion between the two is bound to be limited, as they operate in wholly different spheres, but here we have two wholly-owned statutory corporations with the initials B.S.C. Presumably the Government considered this, and rejected the suggestion which had been put forward by a number of my hon. Friends that it should be the British Iron and Steel Corporation, which would have given the letters B.I.S.C. which would not have been confused with anything else.

In choosing the shorter title, did the Government have in mind the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) in Committee, namely, the desirability of keeping the name as short as possible because of the substantial expense which is bound to arise from the printing of letterheads, the painting of signs on lorries and so on?

We recognise that this change of name became possible only as a result of the overall agreement which the Minister had always hoped for, and has been amicably reached between the Minister and the British Iron and Steel Federation, but B.I.S.C. is also used by the Federation. Was the Federation asked to allow this to be used for the State corporation If it was, why was this rejected by the Minister?

Secondly, can the Parliamentary Secretary say at this stage whether the British Steel Corporation will be carrying on trade in that name? Will this be the name of the Corporation which will engage in the selling of steel products either in this country or abroad? Articles have appeared in the Press, some obviously inspired either by the Corporation or the Ministry, about the form which the organisation of the Corporation will take. There has been a suggestion that there will be a number of large groups. The Minister indicated in Committee—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot discuss the form—only the name.

Mr. Jenkin

You anticipated my next sentence, Mr. Speaker.

It was indicated in Committee that if this were to happen the trading entities would trade under the names of the existing companies. This would be expected, as substantial goodwill obviously attaches to them. But we are entitled to some indication of the extent to which the name "British Steel Corporation" will be a name under which steel will be sold by the nationalised sector.

I have in mind here the statement made the other day about a common pricing policy, put out by the member of the Corporation responsible for commercial affairs—Lord Layton. He referred to common pricing, loyalty, bonuses and so on. This appears to postulate centralised control, and that it will be done under the name of the British Steel Corporation—

Mr. Speaker

We are discussing an Order which changes the name from "National Steel Corporation" to "British Steel Corporation". That is the issue that we are discussing.

Mr. Jenkin

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, I do not think that either the Parliamentary Secretary or I have referred to one of the principal reasons why the name "National Steel Corporation" was disliked by us from the beginning, namely, that it was the name of the fourth largest American steel company. In Committee and on Report we raised the question of the obvious confusion that would arise if the British Corporation sold in competition with the American company, and if it had to register patents, trade marks, business names, and deal with all the other legal matters.

The Government are right to move away from this name, because there would be conflict and dangers of confusion. I ask whether the change has been made because now, contrary to what was said in Committee, it is envisaged that the Corporation will be selling under its new name. I will not labour the point, Mr. Speaker, but it is relevant to the question why the Government thought it right to change the name. Presumably, they accepted our argument that there could be confusion with the National Steel Corporation of America.

I merely ask whether this postulates the fact that they are envisaging that the Corporation will sell under its new name, or whether the sales will be handled—as we had always expected would be the case—by subsidary groups, which would retain the names of the companies.

I had another point to raise about the writing of the name of the various properties of the Steel Corporation. Would there be a British Steel Corporation House? What is the plan for the London office? Since I have already asked a number of questions, however, and this last question does not arise as directly out of the Order as do the others, I will leave it.

I merely say that we have not budged one iota from the hostility that we have expressed towards the whole of this legislation, and our deep and bitter opposition to the whole concept. We realise, however, that the Order makes an improvement which we recommended not once but three or four times both here and in another place, and if the Parliamentary Secretary can answer my questions to my satisfaction we shall have no difficulty in allowing the Order to go through unopposed.

12.56 p.m.

Mr. Freeson

Both at the beginning of his comments and at the end the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin) raised a general point about the history of this title. I was not in on the protracted Committee stage—thankfully—not having then been appointed to my present post, but as I understood the position there had been no doubt in my right hon. Friend's mind, and in the mind of my predecessor, as to the advantage of incorporating the word "British" in the title.

The only question that had arisen at an earlier stage was the question of the practicability of the matter. All sorts of queries arose. Therefore, by the time that the matter was considered on Report further consultations had taken place and further thought had been given to the matter, and the Government were happy to accept in principle the enabling power to change the name should the opportunity arise. That is what we are doing today.

The hon. Member raised certain queries about the possible confusion that might arise over the use of the initials B.S.C. both by the British Sugar Corporation and the British Steel Corporation. That was one of the thoughts in our minds at the outset, but we took the view that it would be manifestly absurd to confuse sugar with steel in commercial practice. We do not expect any difficulty on this score when the Corporation begins its activities as such.

Basically, the title has been designed in this way because it is shorter and simpler, and because steel will be the most significant part of the Corporation's production on vesting.

The hon. Member asked whether the Corporation would be carrying on trade as the "British Steel Corporation", and he linked with it the question of the possible use of existing names, with all that goes with it, historically and commercially, up to date. The answer must be that at this stage and for some time ahead there will clearly be a continuing use of existing names in various circumstances. The ultimate situation will depend upon the way in which the industry reshapes itself both organisationally and in terms of trade abroad and in this country.

The Corporation will trade under its own name, but the detailed manner in which it will undertake trading under certain other names will be a matter for the Corporation and not for my right hon. Friend the Minister.

As for the possible confusion between the American National Steel Corporation and the British Corporation, no difficulties have arisen since we accepted in principle the power to change the name, and we do not expect any to arise. To all the points raised the answer must be that matters of this detailed nature will be for the Corporation to decide in the conduct of its business.

As for the hon. Gentleman's observations about the legislation in general, I can only say that the arguments have been held at length over the years prior to and since the last election. The decision has been taken and we think that it will be effectively operated.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the National Steel Corporation (Change of Name) Order 1967, a draft of which was laid before this House on 5th July, be approved.