HC Deb 06 February 1991 vol 185 cc276-8
12. Mrs. Fyfe

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what information he has given to the Office of Fair Trading concerning expressions of interest from potential buyers of Scottish steel plants from British Steel.

Mr. Lang

I have given no information on potential buyers of Scottish steel plants to the Office of Fair Trading. The expressions of interest received by the Scottish Office were made in the strictest confidence and it would not be appropriate to release the details to third parties.

Mrs. Fyfe

Will the Minister explain further why he gives such an enormous advantage to British Steel? Does he think that the people of Scotland will ever forget that he preferred to put steel workers on the dole than to upset the board of British Steel?

Mr. Lang

British Steel's decision to close the hot strip mill at Ravenscraig and the Clydesdale tube works was taken by its board on commercial grounds. It is not a matter for the Government, who have no direct responsibility. My concern is to ensure that the economy of Lanarkshire and the rest of Scotland is in as healthy a state as can be achieved, and it is to that that I am bending my efforts.

Dr. Bray

Is the Minister aware that casual inquiries in the United States and Tokyo by Locate in Scotland or itinerant Ministers is not a serious sales effort and will he ensure that a proper sales prospectus is prepared for British Steel assets in Scotland?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman knows better than most that those assets are not mine to sell and I am not responsible for selling them. Nor is British Steel in such a dominant position as Opposition Members imply, when only some 17 per cent. of the capacity available to British Steel users is in the hands of British Steel.

Mr. Holt

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one thing that would help the Scottish steel industry in selling off its assets would be a clear, unequivocal undertaking from the Labour party that it would never seek to impose ministerial interference and renationalisation of that great industry?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend makes his point clearly and I fully understand his close interest in the steel industry.

Mr. Dewar

The exchanges that we have just heard suggest that the Secretary of State has given up the fight entirely. Is it still his position that the Government are challenging and attempting to reverse the decision to close the strip mill at Ravenscraig? Is he really prepared to tolerate a situation in which British Steel, in its prejudice, is blocking all expressions of interest in the purchase of the strip mill? Is not that a negation of competition policy? Knowing of such interest—it was the Secretary of State who revealed it—is he not prepared to do anything to test the market? Does he intend to allow British Steel to stifle competition in a way that cannot be in the public interest?

Mr. Lang

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that the European Commission's competition directorate has given its provisional view that under the treaty of Paris the actions of British Steel are not anti-competitive. I think that he is also aware that the Director General of Fair Trading has concluded that on the basis of the evidence available to him at present, he has no reason to exercise his competition powers. Anyone wishing to bid for any of the assets of British Steel is free to approach British Steel and welcome to do so.

I have not given up—if there is any possibility of saving any steel jobs in Scotland, I am willing to help towards that end. The trade unions have decided to accept negotiations, and the Arthur D. Little report has said that the overall climate for steel investment in Scotland is not attractive and that Scotland is not well placed to compete. I think that most people in Scotland are realistic about the situation. I certainly regard my primary responsibility as being to help regenerate the economy of Lanarkshire.

Mr. Oppenheim

Did not the type of meddling now being advocated by Opposition Members for the steel industry result in a disastrously inefficient industry in the 1970s, and has not British Steel actually flourished since the politicians relinquished their grip? How can we take seriously professions of concern from Opposition Members when we remember that it was their union chums who led to the Ford plant going to Spain rather than to Dundee?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes the point extremely well. Between 1975 and 1985, at today's prices, the taxpayer had to contribute no less than £14 billion—the equivalent of £25 million per week—to the steel industry. That did not improve competition, output, productivity or efficiency—all that it did was to prop up uncompetitive jobs at extreme cost to the taxpayer and considerable damage to other jobs in the economy.