HC Deb 17 May 1976 vol 911 cc947-50
15. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for Industry when he next expects to meet the Chairman of the British Steel Corporation.

Mr. Varley

I met the chairman on 28th April. No date has been arranged for a further meeting but as and when necessary I meet the chairman on a wide range of matters affecting the corporation.

Mr. Canavan

Will my right hon. Friend try to arrange a meeting with the Chairman of the British Steel Corporation to discuss the fears expressed at last week's NEDC meeting about a possible shortage of steel once the economy starts to pick up again? In particular, will my right hon. Friend stress the importance of British Steel being able to produce, for example, the 800 miles of gas pipeline which will run from the fields in the North Sea to the North-East of Scotland? Is he aware that in the past British Steel has had a pretty poor record in winning underwater pipeline contracts of that nature?

Mr. Varley

I was at the NEDC meeting referred to by my hon. Friend and heard the comments made by some members. It is fair to say that Sir Monty Finniston asked that people should be much more specific about the shortage of steel that they were envisaging. I know that he is prepared to look into this immediately specific proposals are made.

As for North Sea contracts and work on the gas pipeline recently announced by my right hon. Friend, in the first instance it is for British Steel to decide about this project. I shall urge it to look for any profitable work which is available there. I imagine that it depends on the specifications.

Mr. Tim Renton

When the right hon. Gentleman meets Sir Charles Villiers, Sir Monty Finniston's successor, will he promise him some security of tenure so that he may speak his mind freely? Will he also discuss with him the now widely-held view that the major capital expansion plans of BSC are so delayed and inflated in price that it will be hard for the corporation ever to compete with the larger plants now installed in Japan and the EEC?

Mr. Varley

The terms of the appointment of Sir Charles Villiers have been announced and I do not think I have anything further to add to them. I know that some concern has been expressed in varying quarters about the delays, particularly in relation to the Port Talbot and Shotton arguments. The Government will announce their view on that in due course. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that major investment projects have been held up within the British Steel Corporation. I gave figures on the last occasion I answered Questions which showed that the year-on-year investment had been maintained and had increased in the British steel industry.

Mr. Hooley

When my right hon. Friend meets the Chairman of the British Steel Corporation, will he say not that the Port Talbot scheme will be dealt with "in due course" but that the Government are getting on with this matter? Is he aware that this is a vitally important investment scheme which the Government and not BSC are holding up?

Mr. Varley

I am anxious to give the British Steel Corporation as much support as possible. My hon. Friend will know of the major social implications involved in the Port Talbot development and how they affect Shotton. We need to look into this development much more closely. My hon. Friend knows that when we were in opposition we gave a specific undertaking, which we are now honouring, to look not only at the economic case but at the social case involved in this proposal.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

If the right hon. Gentleman and the Government really believe in decentralisation, why do they not issue a general direction to the Chairman of the British Steel Corporation telling him to move at least part of the massive bureaucratic and expensive British Steel headquarters from the centre of London to one of the areas where steel is produced? Would not that do more good to the steel industry in Scotland and other steel-producing areas than the Government's daft proposals for devolution, which were so brilliantly condemned by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on Saturday?

Mr. Varley

I am certainly not getting involved in that argument. As to managerial and organisational changes within the corporation, I know that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the corporation announced changes a few weeks ago as a result of which it has established a Scottish division in Glasgow.

Mr. Leadbitter

Does my right hon. Friend agree that he has a responsibility to look very much more closely at the question by my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) about the gas pipeline? If the Japanese can find such work an attractive commercial proposition and British Steel can- not, is there not something wrong? Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the pipe-making facilities in Hartlepool are not being fully worked and that the investment programme announced last year by the Government is not being pursued by the corporation?

Mr. Varley

I do not know of the specific point about investment programmes not being pursued in my hon. Friend's constituency. The Government will be urging the corporation to do everything possible to obtain any available profitable work resulting from opportunities in the North Sea.