HC Deb 22 January 1980 vol 977 cc201-5
Mr. John Silkin (by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Industry whether he will make a statement on the results of the discussions the Government have had with the trade unions and the chairman of the BSC.

The Secretary of State for Industry (Sir Keith Joseph)

The Secretary of State for Employment and I met Mr. Sirs and Mr. Smith on Saturday. Together with the Secretary of State for Employment and myself, the Prime Minister saw trade union leaders and the BSC management at separate meetings yesterday.

The Government welcomed the meetings, which allowed those concerned to explain their views to Ministers. All concerned clearly understood that Ministers were in no way involving themselves in negotiation—and Ministers emphasised that there was no taxpayers' money available to fund a settlement. ACAS continues its contacts to see whether it can help.

Mr. Silkin

The Opposition have consistently over the past fortnight pressed Ministers to meet the unions and the British Steel Corporation. Therefore, obviously we welcome those meetings.

I should like to ask the Secretary of State some questions. First, does he still stick to his rigid and inflexible timetable? Secondly, if he is still rigid on that timetable and on the finance available, what on earth can ACAS do? What flexibility does it have to bring the two sides together? In the light of that, how and when does the Secretary of State expect a settlement to be reached? While there is no settlement, the strike is prolonged. Has he any estimate of the cost and the effect on British industry of a prolonged steel strike? Finally, will he take note that we expect him to give regular reports to the House as the steel strike progresses?

Sir K. Joseph

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's first question is "Yes". [Interruption.] I cannot remember whether the right hon. Gentleman asked me whether I was sticking to what he called a rigid timetable. If that was the question, the answer is "Yes". The Government believe that it is in the interests of the steel workers, the taxpayers and the whole country.

It is not for me or for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to speak for ACAS. ACAS is an independent body. I have no way of telling the House when a settlement will be reached. The cost to British industry of a prolonged strike could be very serious. It will also be very serious for Britain if, after the taxpayer has found about £4,500 million to help the BSC to become competitive, the BSC's management and workers fail to reach a settlement that enables the workers to earn more by higher productivity and the British steel industry to become competitive again.

Mr. Silkin

The right hon. Gentleman has not told the House what is the point of an ACAS meeting, if ACAS has no room for manoeuvre.

Sir K. Joseph

I told the House that neither I nor any Minister can speak for ACAS. It is not for me to justify a decision of ACAS. As an independent body it makes its own decisions. I understand that it has been in contact with both the BSC management and the steel unions.

Mr. John H. Osborn

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are many steel workers in the private sector who fear the impact of a closed shop, and are worried that they will be forced to strike? What contact has the Secretary of State had with the British Independent Steel Producers Association about the possibility of the private sector being brought into the strike?

Sir K. Joseph

My hon. Friend will be aware that the House will have seen the statement issued by the British Independent Steel Producers Association yesterday. The association explained the serious damage—possibly terminal damage—to individual firms that would be caused if the strike spreads to the private sector.

Mr. Coleman

Will the Secretary of State instruct the BSC to reallocate the funds that are available from the Government? Does he not believe that the purpose of allocating this money should be to provide for the health of the industry, not its redundancy? Does not he agree that the rigidity of the BSC, in its insistence in allocating this money, is the means of keeping the dispute going?

Sir K. Joseph

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is "No, Sir". It is not in the interests of the steel workers, the steel industry, the taxpayers, or the country to make taxpayers' money available for pay increases in the steel industry. The taxpayer has been asked to provide by the Government, on top of the £4,000 million already provided, an additional £450 million next year to help towards investment, working capital and closure redundancy costs. That is fair to the taxpayer, because it was the decision of previous Governments of both parties that led to an expansion of the industry, which has proved to be overoptimistic. It is therefore reasonable that the industry should be helped by the taxpayer to contract in a humane way. That justifies the contribution towards closure redundancy costs. However, it is not reasonable to ask the already heavily burdened taxpayer to meet increases in earnings that the steel workers can find by higher productivity on the way to becoming, as is in their interests, competitive.

Mr. Michael Brown

Can my right hon. Friend say, now that he has had an opportunity to consult both management and unions, how far apart are the two sides?

Sir K. Joseph

It was not that sort of meeting. We were not in any way negotiating with either management or unions. It is not so much the amount of money that is at issue between the parties. What is at issue is from where the extra earnings are to come. Are they to come from the taxpayer, which is the unions' view, or are they to come, as the Government believe is proper, from the higher earnings and increased competitiveness of the steel workers?

Mr. Roy Hughes

Will the Secretary of State note the advice of Mr. Scholey, of the British Steel Corporation, that the Government should not interfere in the dispute? Bearing in mind that Mr. Scholey has presided over losses of over £1,000 million in the past three years, would it not be a good idea for the Secretary of State to take the advice of the Wales TUC and appoint a caretaker management to organise the BSC?

Sir K. Joseph

The British Steel Corporation management has inherited a difficult task. I do not think that a caretaker management is a good idea.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Although this is an extension of Question Time, I propose to call two more speakers from either side.

Mr. Hal Miller

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether there was any discussion with the steel workers' leaders about the effects of picketing factories not concerned in the steel dispute, and on the effects of picketing the imports of steel that would enable factories to continue their production in this country? Will he tell us what answer, if any, was given by the steel leaders?

Sir K. Joseph

I do not think that that subject came up in the presentation by the steel union leaders. They chose the subjects that they wanted to discuss with us and they put their point of view.

Mr. Cyril Smith

If the Secretary of State is seeking, in his own words, a humane way in which the British steel industry can contract itself, why is it more humane to the workers in the British steel industry that they should have to break even by 1980 whereas steel industries in other parts of Europe do not have to break even until 1981?

Secondly, will he tell us what part the Secretary of State for Employment is playing in all this? Is it a new way of conducting industrial relations in this country, when the Secretary of State for Industry is more involved than the Secretary of State for Employment in dealing with strikes of this magnitude?

Sir K. Joseph

I think that I am involved because I am accountable to the House for the nationalised British steel industry. The hon. Gentleman's assumption, with which he introduced his question, is totally wrong. Half the German steel industry is already back in profit, and the whole Dutch steel industry is back in profit.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

Given that the damage that would be done by an extension of the strike into the private sector would be as my right hon. Friend suggested, did he, in his discussions with Mr. Sirs or at any of the other meetings, suggest that a ballot of the work force should take place before the weekend and before this damaging strike takes place?

Sir K. Joseph

No, Sir. Decisions on the question whether to have a ballot are for the union leaders and members and for the managements concerned.

Mr. Flannery

Did the Secretary of State notice that yesterday, after Mr. Bill Sirs had had the discussions, he went straight up to the great rally in Sheffield—one of the greatest rallies of steel workers ever seen? Did the right hon. Gentleman notice the tremendous solidarity of all the trade union movement in the city, to demand 20 per cent.? Does he further understand that the steel workers say that they are determined to have it and that they will not back down until they get it?

Sir K. Joseph

I read that Mr. Sirs had gone to Sheffield yesterday.