HC Deb 23 July 1980 vol 989 cc537-9 5.20 pm
Mr. David Watkins (Consett)

I beg to move.

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to transfer the British Steel Corporation works at Consett to the control of the people working there; and for purposes connected therewith.

The background to my Bill is that the British Steel Corporation is proposing to close its Consett works at the end of September. It is a viable and profitable works, with productivity among the best in Europe. If it were closed, 3,700 steel workers' jobs would be lost, plus many more in associated occupations. There is great opposition locally to that proposal, which is not surprising. With unemployment already at 14.9 per cent. in the area and rising, the consequences of the closure would be devastating.

It is coincidental, but important and worth mentioning, that on the very day that I seek the leave of the House to introduce the Bill the representatives of the Consett steel workers are meeting the representatives of the British Steel Corporation in Middlesbrough to present their plans for the survival of the works. That is the background to the Bill.

The Bill would establish a new enterprise. It might even revive a famous old name, the Consett Iron Company. It would not revive the old days when Consett was a classic example of a company town. The new company would reverse the old process of company dictatorship. It would be democratically owned and controlled by people working in it. As such a high proportion of people in Consett work there, it would be a notable example of local democracy.

In accordance with the terms of the Bill, the constitution of the enterprise would accord with section 2 of that powerful and pioneering piece of legislation, the Industrial Common Ownership Act 1976. I say with due modesty that I had the privilege of introducing that legislation as a Private Member's Bill, and of piloting it to the statute book with all-party support. The Bill would require the registrar to issue a certificate approving the new company as a body without share capital, limited by guarantee, and a bona fide co-operative society.

The registrar would also require to be satisfied that only persons employed there would be members, and that the rules would guarantee the right of all employees to be members with equal voting rights at meetings of the body. The Bill would contain provisions to ensure a continuing relationship with the British Steel Corporation,, but on a basis of mutual co-operation.

I turn to the financial aspects. No public expenditure would be involved. On the contrary, there would be a large saving. The Govenment have already announced, and are committed to, an expenditure of £ 12 million to attempt to encourage new industries into the Consett area, and a further £ 10 million to clear the site of the steelworks. If the works were closed there would be additional expenditure of more than £ 30 million in redundancy payments, plus large and continuing social security payments. I remind the House that the estimated Exchequer figure is that every unemployed family man costs Britain at least £ 4,000 a year.

The consequences of the closure, not only in immediate expenditure but in continuing social expenditure, would be very high indeed. The Bill would avoid that taking place. The same amount of money would effect the transfer of ownership, but there would be no actual physical expenditure of money. It would be a straightforward bookkeeping transaction.

I wish to emphasise strongly that the Bill would create an enterprise entirely different from the so-called workers' co-operatives. There are two great differences. First, the co-operatives were endeavours to save loss-making products of private ownership. The Bill is an endeavour to retain a viable, highly productive plant, and to maintain it in genuine public ownership. Secondly, the so-called co-operatives in reality never were co-operatives. They did not have bona fide legally defined co-operative constitutions. The new Consett Iron Company, as proposed in the Bill, would have precisely such a constitution.

I remind the House that since the 1976 Act there has been a rapid growth of common ownership enterprises in Britain. About 300 are registered at present. The Bill would extend that democratic form of ownership to a viable works whose local management and work force have proved already that they can meet any reasonable challenge with which they are confronted. The Bill would extend that democratic form of ownership to a works whose survival is vital to the future of an entire community. In view of those facts, I hope that the House will grant me leave to introduce the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Watkins, Dr. David Clark, Mr. Ernest Armstrong, Mr. Terry Davis, Mr. Jack Dormand, Mr. Robert Edwards, Mr. Bill Homewood, Mr. Mark Hughes, Mr. John McWilliam, Mr. James Tinn, Mr. Tom Urwin and Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth.