HC Deb 09 December 1974 vol 883 cc15-7
10. Mr. Hooley

asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will take steps to acquire for the public the 35 per cent. share in the Sheffield engineering steel and wire groups of Johnson Firth Brown which has been put on the market by Mr. Oliver Jessel.

Mr. Benn

This is one of the possibilities which I am considering with the British Steel Corporation, Johnson Firth Brown and the work forces concerned.

Mr. Hooley

Does not the collapse of the Jessel empire provide an important opportunity for extending public ownership into the special steel sector of the industry? Has my right hon. Friend had opportunity to consider in detail the proposals put forward by the workers at Johnson Firth Brown, and will he resist any attempt by the European Commission to interfere in this matter?

Mr. Benn

I agree with what my hon. Friend says about the merits of an arrangement opened up by the situation in Jessel Securities. The papers prepared by the workers in Johnson Firth Brown are excellent documents reflecting a high degree of study. As to the steel question generally, I have already dealt with this in the House and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister dealt with steel in his speech on Saturday.

Mr. Jessel

As a close relative of someone who has come under a great deal of personal criticism in this matter, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that relations between the unions and management in this group have improved out of all recognition under the present management, that the unions have expressed opposition to any change of ownership and that, now this has become inevitable, there is no enthusiasm on their part to be taken over by the British Steel Corporation, and that in any case the European Commission at Brussels has ruled it out unless the major plants at Manchester and Glasgow are hived off from the rest? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that two or three other groups have expressed interest in taking over this holding?

Mr. Benn

I am aware of all of that except the hon. Gentleman's relationship with the person concerned. I have made no attack upon him, and I hope he will accept from me that I do not see these issues as personal matters of any kind. We are considering here the future of this part of the British steel industry. Even in relation to the hon. Gentleman's comment about the Commission in Brussels my concern is that we should retain for Parliament the powers necessary to pursue effective industrial policies, a phrase which the Prime Minister reiterated in his speech on Saturday. Within that framework, we are trying to do the best that can be done in conjunction with the people most directly concerned.

Mr. Duffy

Does my right hon. Friend recall the meeting which he had a month ago with a deputation of shop stewards from Johnson Firth Brown and their urgent recommendation to him that he should take their group into a public steel group independent of the BSC? Does not my right hon. Friend think that the EEC's conditions for a BSC take-over now point conclusively in the direction induicated by the Johnson Firth Brown shop stewards, and that the fears on competition policy in our own private sector and in Brussels can be readily set at rest only by his creating an independent public steel group for the Johnson Firth Brown group?

Mr. Benn

I recall the visit which my hon. Friend paid to me with workers from the firm concerned. I received from them the memorandum to which I have already referred. I have very much in mind the objective to which my hon. Friend refers, and in giving my answer today I hoped to give gentle encouragement to that broad objective.

Mr. Michael Marshall

Will the Secretary of State realise that this is a highly successful company, that there are possibilities of selling it to other bidders in the private sector and that if this were done there would be opportunity to retain the group in its present form and without its hiving off, thus meeting the wishes and fears of many of the work force, both management and labour, who are worried about becoming part of the British Steel Corporation's rationalisation?

Mr. Benn

The hiving off to which the hon. Gentleman refers is a hiving off which the European Commission seeks to impose upon us. It is not a hiving off which has played any part whatever in our own thinking on this matter. I am bound to have regard to the concerns of the people who make the special steel. After all, we must not speak of industry as though it could be confined solely to the interests of those who own industry. We must have in mind the people who work in industry when we reach solutions to problems of this character.

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