HC Deb 17 October 1990 vol 177 cc1195-9
2. Dr. Reid

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has any plans to meet the chairman of British Steel to discuss the Scottish steel industry; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Rifkind

I met the chairman of British Steel yesterday when we discussed matters relevant to the steel industry in Scotland.

Dr. Reid

British Steel's commitment to co-operate with the SDA's study and the guarantee that the hot strip mill will not be dismantled, destroyed, cannibalised or removed before the study's completion are two steps forward, and it would be churlish of me to say otherwise.

However, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give an assurance that British Steel will be more co-operative with the SDA in supplying information on Ravenscraig than it has been up to now with him? Given the rumours that now constantly sweep the Scottish steel industry, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that the works that were not mentioned—the Clydesdale tubes plant at Bellshill, were on the agenda for discussion yesterday? Can he give me a categorical assurance that he was given no information by the chairman of British Steel that would indicate an imminent or serious threat to the Clydesdale tubes works?

Mr. Rifkind

I asked Sir Robert about the Clydesdale works and he was not able to give me any decisions or conclusions reached by British Steel. He emphasised the difficult position faced by the seamless tubes sector and indicated, as has been said publicly in the past, that British Steel was looking for ways of identifying a possible future for at least part of that project. I do not conceal from the hon. Gentleman my concern about that plant's future, for reasons with which the House is familiar.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I welcome the willingness to co-operate with the SDA's study and particularly the agreement not to dismantle any part of the plant in advance of the study's conclusions. Clearly, part of the purpose of the SDA study is to seek to identify commercial opportunities for the steel industry in Scotland. It ought to be relevant for British Steel to wish to co-operate with that effort and with the report's conclusions if such opportunities are identified.

Sir Hector Monro

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is inexplicable that such a highly profitable company should refuse to give a coherent reason for the closure of the hot strip mill? How can we possibly test the commercial judgment of British Steel if we cannot have the facts on which it has based its decision?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is correct, and it is for precisely that reason that I and others have said that we cannot say whether the conclusion reached by British Steel is or is not justified. Clearly, one would have to have access to the information before one could be expected to agree or comment in any detail on the commercial judgment of British Steel.

Mr. McAvoy

In supporting all that my hon. Friends have said about the Scottish steel industry, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he is aware of the contribution made to that industry by the highly skilled work force at Clydebridge and Cambuslang in my constituency? Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that Clydebridge is also high on the agenda for his discussions with the British Steel chairman?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes. I can confirm that we are equally concerned with all employees and all aspects of the steel industry in Scotland. The SDA study does not concern itself with only one plant; its authors have deliberately and expressly been asked to consider the prospects for the steel industry in Scotland as a whole and that includes the plant to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Holt

May I advise my right hon. and learned Friend that, since his meeting yesterday with the chairman of British Steel, the board of British Steel has met? I have been in contact with the company, which has assured me that its expansion plans and other works on Teesside will go ahead, that it is not being influenced by the Scottish lobby on this matter and that the expansion of jobs in my constituency—which no Labour Member in the north-east of England has tried to defend—will go ahead.

Mr. Rifkind

Clearly, those are matters for British Steel. I do not believe that it is helpful for any part of the United Kingdom to seek to achieve benefits at the expense of any other. We are all seeking to achieve a healthy steel industry in the United Kingdom as a whole, and I believe that all my hon. Friends will share that view.

Mr. Tom Clarke

Has the Secretary of State had the misfortune to read the ill-informed, sloppy and uninviting academic report that describes Coatbridge as one of the worst towns in the whole of Britain? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that this once-proud iron burgh is still suffering from the fact that the iron and steel masters, having made their money, have pulled out? Will he ensure that other towns do not have the same experience, especially at a time when steel is as competitive as it is today?

Mr. Rifkind

Many towns—it is perhaps true of every town in the United Kingdom—have had, at some time in their history, to adapt to new industrial requirements and the changing patterns of industry. I have no doubt that the genius and ability of the people of Coatbridge will enable them to cope with the effects of any difficulties that they have experienced in recent years and to attract new industry, employment and prosperity for those who have the good fortune to live in the town.

Mr. Sillars

Is the Secretary of State aware that the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) has managed to give us much more information about British Steel's investment than the right hon. and learned Gentleman has? Is he aware of his responsibilities to the Scottish people? Is he further aware that one cannot talk about the future of the Scottish steel industry without reference to what is happening on Teesside? Did he ask the chairman of British Steel about the foundation already laid for the pipe mill at Hartlepool, and is he aware of the link, through the pipe mill, to a single plate mill strategy? Is he aware that if that goes to Lackenby, it will be at the expense of Dalzell? Did he ask those questions? What was the response?

Mr. Rifkind

I have two things to say in response to the hon. Gentleman. First, the bulk of our discussions was about the prospects for the steel plants in Scotland. I raised with Sir Robert the claim that I believe was made by the hon. Gentleman at the end of last week that he was privy to information that the decision on the Dalzell plate mill would be delayed for two years. I regret to say that I was informed that the hon. Gentleman's allegation was, as usual, complete nonsense.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

Having heard that Coatbridge is allegedly the worst place in which to live, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Perth and Kinross has been adjudged the place with the highest quality of life and the best place to live in Scotland—no doubt because of its representation?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. and learned Friend's most excellent representation of that worthy borough and county at least in part explains his reputation with the nation as a whole.

Mr. Dewar

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is little consolation for the stewards at Ravenscraig to be told that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has urged upon Sir Robert the utility of responding as far as he is able to do to their questions? Is not it time that the Secretary of State delivered his promises, got to the facts and forced British Steel to come clean about the reasons behind the decision to close the strip mill?

However, may I welcome what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said about British Steel not dismantling or removing any plant from the strip mill in advance of the report commissioned by the Scottish Development Agency? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman make it clear that there will be no removal of any plant before the publication of the report and before a proper assessment of its findings? I ask him to clarify that, because his earlier answer stated that there would be no removal in advance of the proposed closure, which is a very different circumstance. We want a guarantee that there will be no removal until the report is available and has been assessed. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman guarantee that, when the report is available, he will be prepared to meet Sir Robert Scholey and to go to battle on behalf of the Scottish steel industry if the report reaches positive conclusions about its future which, I am sure, is what all hon. Members hope?

Finally, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman remember that on 16 May when he first dealt in the House with the proposed closure of the strip mill, he deplored the decision and its implications for the work force and pledged: we shall seek to persuade British Steel to reconsider its proposal".—[Official Report, 16 May 1990; Vol. 172, c. 887.] Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman still trying to do that?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I certainly am. On the hon. Gentleman's earlier point, I have no doubt that it will be desirable for me to see Sir Robert again in the next few weeks or months, depending on how matters develop.

I have two points in response to the hon. Gentleman's other questions. First, the categorical assurance that Sir Robert gave me was that there would be no dismantling of the plant or of any part of it before the proposed closure in April next year. Secondly, however, Sir Robert also stated his intention to co-operate with the SDA study. I would find it inconceivable—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] I am answering the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). I would find it inconceivable that British Steel would wish to take any action that would be inconsistent with the proper consideration of the conclusions that that study might reach. We expect the study to come to its preliminary conclusions by December of this year and that will give an early opportunity at least to consider the general conclusions, proposals or ideas. There will be further opportunities early next year. That matter will need to be dealt with in the spirit as well as the letter of the assurance that was received from Sir Robert Scholey.

Mr. Speaker

I allowed a long run on that important matter, but we must now move on more rapidly.