HC Deb 31 January 1977 vol 925 cc6-10
5. Mr. Tim Renton

asked the Secretary of State for Industry when he proposes to announce his decisions in regard to the British Steel Corporation's 10-year modernisation and capital re-equipment programme.

The Minister of State, Department of Industry (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)

The Government remain committed to the principles of the 10-year development strategy. My right hon. Friend intends to announce decisions on outstanding specific proposals as soon as possible after receiving specific recommendations from the British Steel Corporation.

Mr. Renton

I appreciate the complexity of the matter, but does not the hon. Gentleman accept that, due to delays over some years, the cost of the modernisation programme has risen from £3,000 million when it was first published to perhaps £6,000 million now? Where is all that money coming from? Would it not be far better for the Government and the BSC quickly to agree on a modified programme and for the Corporation to be allowed to get on with it?

Mr. Kaufman

We should not have had that money at all if the House had accepted the Tory Party's attempt to delete the financial provisions from the Iron and Steel (Amendment) Act in the last Session. When the 10-year development programme was published in July 1973, no one—including the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), who sponsored it—envisaged that it could be implemented in one year. It was built in that inflation should be taken into account because inflation was soaring under the then Government. Steel investment this year is more than £600 million, which, as the responsible European Commissioner acknowledged to me, is the highest level in any EEC country.

Mr. David Watkins

One of the issues which still remains to be decided is the plate mill in the Consett works in my constituency. Is my hon. Friend aware that we have been told for the past three years that we shall be given a decision as soon as possible? May we have something fairly specific fairly quickly?

Mr. Kaufman

My hon. Friend could have had an adverse decision fairly quickly, but we thought that the matter should be considered in order to give Consett and Hartlepool, together with Redcar, a chance of getting the plate mill. That is why the decision has not been made as quickly as some people may have wished. The BSC is re-examining the matter carefully and I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall give a decision as soon as we can after receiving the Corporation's proposals. Following my visit to Consett under my hon. Friend's sponsorship, I am well aware of its claims.

Sir A. Meyer

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that one of the consequences of the repeated deferment of a decision on Shotton is that the corresponding decision on whether the area should be given full development area status, which it needs so badly, has also been deferred? Will he take this into account in assessing the need for an early decision?

Mr. Kaufman

If the hon. Gentleman's vote on the steel development White Paper had been successful, Shotton would now be closing and there would be no uncertainty. The BSC has given evidence of the seriousness with which it is reexamining this issue by the fact that it is doing so in such depth, but a decision will be made as soon as possible. I received many letters from local authorities and others in the area paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mr. Jones) for the way in which he has advanced the case of his constituents.

11. Mr. David Watkins

asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will issue a general direction to the British Steel Corporation to present him with proposals for the reorganisation of management on industrial common ownership principles.

The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Les Huckfield)

No, but the Government have decided in principle that employees should have the right to representation at board level.

Mr. Watkins

Is my hon. Friend aware that we are talking not about the Bullock Report but about industrial common ownership? Is he further aware that management in the steel industry often appears to be almost as hierarchical as in the days of private lack of enterprise? Is it not time that something was done to make it more democratically accountable to all those involved in the industry?

Mr. Huckfield

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Industrial Common Ownership Act and on his excellent speech on 19th January against the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). I shall certainly bear in mind what he says. I am sure he will appreciate that the Government envisage the widest possible consultation on the Bullock Report.

Mr. Rost

If the Government are so keen to implement the Bullock Report for the undemocratic extension of trade union power and patronage, why do they not start the process in the public sector so that we can see whether the Government's proposals can really work before inflicting them on the rest of industry?

Mr. Huckfield

As the Government have already said, we accept the position in principle of the right to board membership on behalf of trade unionists. Obviously we wish to have the widest possible discussion of the issues involved. I am only sorry that the hon. Gentleman's contribution does not take us much further in that discussion.

Mr. Michael Marshall

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the British Steel Corporation already has working directors at divisional level and that trade unionists are already on the main board of the Corporation? If the hon. Gentleman is to carry forward the argument of Bullock, as he is now doing, he must recognise that certain companies have already made arrangements that seem to have struck the right balance. Does not this illustrate perfectly that legislation is not required and that it is much better for different companies and industries to make decisions that suit their own needs?

Mr. Huckfield

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's line, but I am sure he will accept that the Government have said that they wish to proceed along the lines of the majority report. Obviously that does not rule out much of the flexibility that he has described.

Mr. Biffen

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the nationalised industries are suitable for the principles of common ownership?

Mr. Huckfield

That is a rather separate question which I hope the hon. Gentleman may table one day. As I have said to my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins), we shall bear in mind the aspirations of what he has said.

14. Mr. Rost

asked the Secretary of State for Industry what discussions he has had with the British Steel Corporation on the effects of cuts in public sector capital expenditure on the concrete and iron pipe sector of the Corporation.

Mr. Les Huckfield

Representations have been made to me by the chairman of the Corporation and by managers and the work force of BSC's Stanton and Staveley Group. Following discussions, the group management has indicated that the situation is more encouraging than was first intimated.

Mr. Rost

Has anyone told the Minister that British Steel has only this weekend announced short-time working at Stanton and Staveley on the concrete and the cast iron pipe plant as a direct result of the Government's announcement of capital expenditure cuts, which are hitting the building and construction industry harder than any other industry? Why have not the Government given a higher priority to maintaining capital expenditure and, instead of cutting that, cutting some of their public expenditure in other directions?

Mr. Huckfield

That supplementary question was a bit difficult to follow. However, it would seem that the hon. Member, who is always up and down at Question Time like a jack-in-the-box asking for public expenditure to be cut, is against public expenditure being cut when it affects his own constituency. He should realise that Labour Members appreciate that public expenditure can have effects such as those he describes. That is why several meetings have taken place recently to ameliorate the situation.

Mr. Ronald Atkins

Is there not a need for very considerable investment in the production of offshore pipes, which we have no capacity to manufacture at present?

Mr. Huckfield

I know of my hon. Friend's interest in this matter because he has tabled a Question on it previously. Over the weekend, the British Steel Corporation has announced its intention to go ahead and expand its capacity at Hartlepool for just this purpose.

Mr. Rost

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the Minister's reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek the earliest opportunity of raising the matter on the Adjournment.

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