HC Deb 20 December 1989 vol 164 cc340-2
2. Dr. Reid

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last met the chairman of British Steel; and what matters were discussed.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I met the chairman of British Steel on 26 October. We discussed a number of matters of current interest affecting the steel industry.

Dr. Reid

Is the Secretary of State aware that that answer will be a bitter disappointment to thousands of steel workers and their families? Is it not about time that he faced up to his responsibilities? Will he make a start today, first by joining me in congratulating the workers of Clydesdale on their productivity efforts and, secondly, by making it plain to British Steel management that a failure to reward that effort with the necessary investment will be a gross betrayal of the workers and of the promises the management made to them? Thirdly, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give a public pledge to the people of Scotland that, if any one of the three Lanarkshire steel plants goes, he will do the honourable thing and go at the same time?

Mr. Rifkind

I do not know why it should be a disappointment to the hon. Gentleman that I met with the chairman of British Steel on 26 October. As he well knows, since then, I have been in correspondence with the chairman following the productive meeting that I had with the Ravenscraig shop stewards.

I share the hon. Gentleman's view about the importance of the British Steel works in Scotland. I have communicated my view and that of Her Majesty's Government that we expect British Steel to honour its commitment that it expects to continue steelmaking in Scotland at least until the 1990s. I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the excellent work done by the steel workers in his constituency and elsewhere in the steel industry.

Sir Hector Monro

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the substantial investment in Ravenscraig has been fully justified by the results—all credit to the work force? Will he impress upon British Steel that it would be inconceivable that it should start to run down the industry in Scotland after 1994, and that, were it to do so, there would be universal opposition to that decision?

Mr. Rifkind

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is significant that, in the two years since the privatisation of the steel industry, British Steel's operations in Scotland have never been so fully worked, and the work force at Ravenscraig and elsewhere have been fully occupied. I share my hon. Friend's view that we want that to continue for many years to come.

Dr. Bray

Does the Secretary of State agree that the formal commitment to continue steelmaking until 1994 means very little if the investment is not undertaken to maintain the steelworks in a fully operational condition, complete with the cold strip mill at Ravenscraig?

Mr. Rifkind

Of course we welcome any investment that British Steel may think appropriate in the steel industry in Scotland. In the past, Ravenscraig has received substantial steel investment, and it is important that that should continue.

Mrs. Ray Michie

Does not the Secretary of State agree that British Steel's commitment to Scotland is not good and that we cannot have any confidence in its commitment to the future of the Scottish steel industry? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman therefore say today that he will use his influence and authority to establish an independent Scottish steel industry with secure investment and a long-term future, which would not be subjected to the constant threats of closure?

Mr. Rifkind

At the time of the privatisation of the steel industry, British Steel said that, in the event of not wishing to continue its steel operations in Scotland, it would be open to making the steelworks available to any other interested purchaser. At the present time, British Steel says that it has every intention of continuing its steel operations in Scotland. If that ever ceased to be the case, the alternative option would have to be seriously considered.

Mr. Oppenheim

Does not my right hon. and learned Friend agree that everyone accepts the importance of a steel industry? My right hon. and learned Friend's commitment to that steel industry is well known on the Conservative Benches. Does he also agree, however, that Opposition Members are practising a gross deception on the Scottish people if they suggest to them that any industry can have the guarantee of remaining in operation for ever, regardless of commercial conditions, especially bearing in mind the fact that the vast majority of the steel produced in Scotland is not used in Scotland?

Mr. Rifkind

It is certainly the case that the future of any industry depends upon the demand for its product. It is also true that, when the previous Labour Government were in office, employment in the steel industry in Scotland fell by some 5,000 and a number of Scottish steel plants were closed. That shows that, at the end of the day, it is economic considerations that are important. I believe that Scotland deserves to have a steel industry for a good number of years to come, and I believe that the work force at Ravenscraig have shown that they can be competitive with steel workers elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Dewar

While the pledge about steelmaking to the end of 1994 is important, does the Secretary of State agree that the key to the long-term future of Ravenscraig and the industry is investment? Will he join me in publicly pressing British Steel to implement the realistic £10 million investment package for the strip mill at Ravenscraig, which will improve our competitiveness and do wonders for morale in the plant? Does he accept the urgent need, and importance to the Scottish economy, of modernising the mill at Clydesdale so that Scotland can continue to supply the North sea tubes industry? If he does, what specific steps is he taking to fight for that investment and ensure that, when considering where to place any plate mill built by British Steel, full weight is given to the claims of Dalziel? Will he assure us that, now that the industry has been sold off, it will not be a case of Scottish Ministers simply shutting their eyes, crossing their toes and hoping for the best?

Mr. Rifkind

I can give the hon. Member a complete assurance on the last part of his question; our activities over the past couple of months are clear evidence of that. We have already made it clear to Sir Robert Scholey and British Steel that the Scottish Office would welcome further investment by British Steel in the Scottish steel industry. We would also expect it to consider the claims of Dalziel in relation to the future of any new plate mill in Scotland.