HC Deb 17 October 1990 vol 177 cc1194-5
1. Mr. Robertson

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next expects to meet representatives of trade unions in the Scottish steel industry to discuss the future of steel in Scotland.

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

I met representatives of the Ravenscraig trade unions on 11 October. My hon. Friend the Minister for industry and local government met representatives of the Dalzell trade unions on 15 October. I am prepared to meet them again as occasion demands.

Mr. Robertson

The Secretary of State will be aware of the deep and passionate concern in Lanarkshire not only among the trade unions but throughout the community about the future of Ravenscraig and Dalzell. We want to know whether, at yesterday's meeting with the chairman of British Steel plc, he received answers to the questions put by the shop stewards at Ravenscraig, which he undertook to put at any meeting that he had with Sir Robert. Did he receive any answers to those questions? Did he receive any assurances from British Steel about co-operation with the Scottish Development Agency inquiry into the Scottish steel industry? What confidence can the people of Scotland have in any assurances given by British Steel, given its past record and the contemptuous way in which it has treated the Secretary of State for Scotland?

Mr. Rifkind

With regard to the representations of the trade unions, I did as I undertook when I met Mr. Brennan and gave Sir Robert the detailed questions to which he and his colleagues wished answers. I put to Sir Robert the utility of trying to respond to those questions as much as he felt able to do. With regard to British Steel's attitude to the SDA study, in response to my representations Sir Robert Scholey said that British Steel would co-operate with the Scottish Development Agency study on the prospects for the steel industry in Scotland. He further said that he intended to have a meeting with Sir David Nickson, chairman of the Scottish Development Agency, to discuss that matter. Sir Robert gave me a full assurance that British Steel would not dismantle or remove any plant from the hot strip mill in advance of its proposed closure next April.

Dr. Bray

Will the Secretary of State invite British Steel to join the Government, perhaps other steel companies and the European Commission in a study of the treatment of Ravenscraig as a development plant for the introduction of the next generation of new technology, which is more efficient and produces higher quality steel, including thin-slab casting? Is he aware that that is within the policies of the steel strategy of the European Community, his research and development strategy, his energy policies and his environmental strategy and that it would qualify for state aid under the European Community state aids regime?

Mr. Rifkind

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's interest in this suggestion, because he has raised it in the past. I hope that British Steel will fully consider any proposals, including that mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, to find out whether this is a potential project which should attract investment by British Steel and get support from a wider circle.

Mr. Devlin

Will my right hon. and learned Friend tell the trade unions that the long-term viability of the steel industry can be guaranteed only if decisions on future investment are made for valid commercial reasons and not for political reasons? Will he tell the trade unions that the most commercially competitive and productive plant in this country is at Teesside and that it would be a tragedy to dismantle it because of the political machinations of the Labour party in Scotland?

Mr. Rifkind

I cannot comment on the details involving the Teesside plant, to which my hon. Friend understandably referred, given his constituency interest. I think that there is now agreement on both sides of the House that the steel industry's future must be decided on commercial grounds. When I met the trade unions, they emphasised their view that commercial considerations should apply. Of course, there must be a debate on what the commercial conclusions should lead to and on whether one should argue in favour of Ravenscraig or against it. Naturally, we in the Scottish Office hope that British Steel will fully take account of the commercial case for investment not simply at Ravenscraig but at Dalzell.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, in effect, the meeting yesterday between himself and the chairman of British Steel was a meeting between two private citizens, because the right hon. and learned Gentleman has effectively given up his ability to influence British Steel's decisions in spite of Ravenscraig's commercial viability? Can he tell the House when the SDA's study on the future of the steel industry in Scotland is likely to be available and whether it is likely to be available in sufficient time to contribute to reversing this disastrous decision?

Mr. Rifkind

If the hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the Liberal party, is calling for the renationalisation of the steel industry—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Well, unless that is what he is doing, he exposes the bankruptcy and double standards of his earlier question. We expect the preliminary conclusions of the SDA's study to be available by Christmas and final conclusions early in the new year. On that basis, I am particularly pleased that British Steel is to co-operate with the study. Obviously, there will be limits with regard to commercially confidential information. It is important to note that British Steel will co-operate with the study, that Sir Robert will discuss the study with Sir David Nickson and that no irreversible action will be taken on the plant until the study's conclusions are known and can be taken into account.

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