§ 3. Mr. Skinner
asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will now dismiss the Chairman of the British Steel Corporation.
§ Mr. Skinner
Does my right hon. and much-maligned Friend—much-maligned by the media, that is—agree that Monty Finniston may well be hoping that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be sacked? In that event Monty Finniston may be hoping that he can resurrect the idea to sack 22,000 steel workers and also refer back to the proposal to denationalise the steel industry once the taxpayer has put it on its feet?
§ Mr. Benn
My hon. Friend knows that my sole concern in this matter was that the board of the British Steel Corporation should discuss fully with the trade unions concerned the problems caused by a downturn in the steel industry. I am very happy to say that out of the talks that took place in London between the TUC Steel Committee and the board of the British Steel Corporation the proposal for the 20,000 redundancies this year was dropped. That was my sole concern. The other matters that my hon. Friend raised are not for me.
§ Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson
How does the Secretary of State reconcile the Government's stated intention that nationalised industry should behave commercially and without undue subsidy with his own decision to interfere directly in the operations of the BSC? Is he so far removed from the chairman of the corporation that he must carry out his negotiations with him by public correspondence?
§ Mr. Benn
If the House considers the latter point carefully it will appreciate that there is some merit in trying to get away from the private arm-twisting that has occurred under all Governments and to bring some of these issues into the open. The hon. Gentleman is wrong in supposing that I did more than suggest to the chairman that he should discuss these matters with the trade unions concerned, and not with me. I did not discuss the matters with him. I remind the House that when the steel corporation last cut back in production in 197172 and made closures it led to the massive imports last year that came in because the steel capacity was not there to meet the demand.
§ 4. Mr. Ashley
asked the Secretary of State for Industry what further discussions he has had with the Chairman of the British Steel Corporation; and if he will make a statement.
§ 15. Mr. McCrindle
asked the Secretary of State for Industry what plans he has to meet the Chairman of the British Steel Corporation.
§ Mr. Ashley
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the central issue in the steel industry is one not of personality but of policy and that the steel corporation, in its understandable search for commercial viability, must not be allowed to imperil the jobs of steel workers in efficient steel firms like those at Stoke-on-Trent, nor must it be allowed to place Britain in an unduly dependent position with foreign steel works?
§ Mr. Benn
I make no apology whatever for having deliberately sought to ensure that the interests of British steel workers were taken into account fully by the board of the British Steel Corporation, for considering fully the implications on steel communities that depend on steel plants, and for trying to take a longer view ahead than some might think or appear to think necessary to safeguard our steel capacity, so that when world upturn comes that capacity will be there to meet it.
§ Mr. McCrindle
Recalling the recent confrontation between the Secretary of State and the Chairman of the British Steel Corporation, may I ask whether the Minister is now satisfied that the chairman continues to have that freedom and day-to-day responsibility which is necessary to run a competitive and profitable steel industry?
§ Mr. Benn
The hon. Gentleman speaks of confrontation, but he should not be guided entirely by what was reported. The chairman, who has total freedom of speech—I fully support that, and always have done—made a statement which caused great anxiety among steel workers and in steel communities. I asked him to see me, and at my meeting with him I asked him to have consultations with the TUC Steel Committee about the matter. That was what happened. The accounts given in the Press were ill-founded, for at no stage did I do more than seek to ensure that a nationalised industry chairman had good working relationships with his own employees, and I believe that that commanded wide support in the industry and outside.
§ Sir G. de Freitas
Will my right hon. Friend say that before making important decisions affecting the steel industry he will always consider the views of the TUC Steel Committee, and particularly those of its chairman, Mr. Sirs, whose views are greatly respected by the members of our Parliamentary Steel Group?
§ Mr. Benn
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he said. I maintain the closest contact with the TUC Steel Committee. I saw the confederation, and it was with its good will that I urged the chairman of the steel corporation to discuss these matters with the steel workers and not seek to push through a proposal that did not have their understanding and agreement.
§ Mr. Michael Marshall
I appreciate that the Secretary of State may not have further oportunities to meet Sir Monty Finniston, but will he nevertheless assure the House that he or his successor will try to meet the Chairman of the British Steel Corporation less frequently—perhaps once a year—and allow the BSC to get on with its day-to-day management unhindered?
§ Mr. Benn
It is a good thing that the community interest, like the interest of the trade unions concerned, should be reflected in tripartite meetings taking place between the Minister, the board of management, and the workers concerned. Although I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman put his question in fun, I do not think it is sensible that there should be a division between a nationalised industry and the sponsoring Minister, and it is even more undesirable that there should be a gap between the board of a nationalised industry and the workers, who, after all, create the wealth in the industry.
§ Mr. Mendelson
Does my right hon. Friend accept that there has been a longstanding tradition for the corporation to take carefully into account proposals from the people employed in the industry and that throughout the steel areas his own intervention and his insistence that the corporation and its board should again, on this occasion, carefully consider the alternative proposals put forward by the steel committee have been welcomed? Will he now further consider advising the steel corporation, in co-operation with the trade unions, that there should be a policy of stocking certain quantities of steel so that when the upturn comes British steel could be drawn upon and that some of those stockholders of steel who ordered great quantities of foreign steel last year should curtail some of those orders and not continue with their orders abroad, but switch some of those orders to our own steel corporation and private steel companies?
§ Mr. Benn
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said about the attitude of the trade unions, which, throughout—there is a long history in this matter—have been entirely constructive in their approach to the British Steel Corporation. I think that a measure of their constructiveness can be found in the fact that the BSC board accepted their recommendations.
As to the matter of stockpiling, we are considering it. If a stockpiling scheme were to be introduced I would want to be sure that its employment implications were favourable. There are various types of stockpiling, some of which could be more favourable in that respect.