HC Deb 12 February 1992 vol 203 cc961-3
Mr. Strang

To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will give the figures for steel production in the United Kingdom for the last two years for which figures are available.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Edward Leigh)

United Kingdom production of crude steel totalled 17.8 million tonnes in 1990 and 16.5 million tonnes in 1991.

Mr. Strang

Is the Minister aware that in Scotland we have gained the impression that while the Secretary of State for Scotland is prepared to have meetings about the industry—such as the one that he had yesterday with the shadow Secretary of State for Industry—the man with the real power in relation to the steel industry, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, is not prepared to lift a finger to help secure a future for steel production in Scotland? Will the Minister answer one straight question? Is the Department of Trade and Industry prepared to do anything to help the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) to try to secure thin slab steel production in Scotland—or are we to be left entirely to the mercy of that virtual private monopoly, the British Steel Corporation?

Mr. Leigh

We would be happy to consider the prospects for thin slab steel production, but unfortunately there has been absolutely no commercial interest in such production. Those are the economic facts of life. As for the Government's position, we are investing £120 million to help the people and economy of north Lanarkshire, including £40 million from this Department. The hon. Gentleman asks what we intend to do. One could well direct that question to the Labour party. Will the Labour party nationalise, subsidise and force British Steel to keep the plant open? The Labour party should put up or shut up.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

Is my hon. Friend aware that British Steel's productivity woud be fatally crippled by Labour's absurd proposal to ban coal imports? Is he aware that 50 per cent. of imported coal goes directly to British Steel and that that coal is not currently available in the United Kingdom? Should not the Labour party occasionally pause and think before announcing ridiculous objectives which would cost so many British jobs?

Mr. Leigh

We are extremely worried about that proposal, which was no doubt drawn up on the back of an envelope. British Steel tells us that there is no viable United Kingdom source of metallurgical—grade coal—coking coal. It has to import 100 per cent. of that grade of coal and take advantage of world markets to buy from the cheapest source. The Labour party wants to stop British Steel importing that coal.

British Steel has trebled productivity since 1979. Does the Labour party want to return to the days when British Steel cost the taxpayer £8 billion or £16 billion in today's money. The Opposition must withdrawn their policy, and do so today, or everyone will know what their policies mean for British Steel.

Mr. Salmond

Is the Minister aware that the case for expanded production and investment at the Dalzell plate mill in Lanarkshire is now backed by the Glasgow university study, the Scottish Office, the Scottish Trade Union Congress, the Scottish National party and Motherwell district council, all of whom believe that it is an outstanding plant, given the requisite investment, with a ready market for its enlarged product? Would the Minister be prepared to back such investment and expanded production, provided that the local Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) is prepared to stop rubbishing the plant and its work force?

Mr. Leigh

There is every provision for market investment in this area. If the market wants to back such a scheme the market will back it.

Mr. Oppenheim

Will my hon. Friend remind Opposition Members that in the heady days of politician-directed industrial strategy in the 1970s Britain had a deficit on our steel trade of £1 billion per year and British Steel lost £16 billion during that decade, whereas now British Steel is the most efficient steel maker in Europe and we have a surplus on our steel trade of £1 billion per year? If Labour Members are so keen on Ravenscraig staying open, why does the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) not have the guts—or perhaps the influence in the shadow Cabinet—to give an unequivocal commitment that if the Labour party came to power it would keep Ravenscraig open?

Mr. Leigh

I see that the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) is seeking to intervene. The whole House is waiting to hear what the Opposition's policy is. Will they subsidise? Will they nationalise? We want to know now.

Dr. Bray

Is the Minister aware that the proposals for the expansion and development of the Dalzell works have been pursued for many years more consistently and vigorously by the Labour party than by any other party? Is he also aware that British Steel cannot go ahead with its plans for building a new plate mill on Teesside because of the depth of the recession into which the Government have plunged the country? Is he further aware that he is out of date about the commercial interest in thin slab production at Ravenscraig, which has been communicated to the Secretary of State for Scotland but not, apparently, to the Department of Trade and Industry?

Is the Minister aware that substantially lower steel production costs are being achieved by NUCOR with thin slab production in the United States? Will he confirm, in line with undertakings given at the time of privatisation, that he expects British Steel to consider offers for the sale of Ravenscraig on a commercial basis at opportunity cost—at a price which British Steel could expect to get for the plant on world markets?

Mr. Leigh

That was a very interesting academic lecture, but it was absolutely meaningless because I have already said that if there was a market for thin slab production we would welcome that. Once again, despite the smoke-screen, the hon. Gentleman has failed to answer the question to which everyone in Scotland wants an answer. Will Labour subsidise Ravenscraig? Will it nationalise it? Will it force British Steel to keep it open? The Opposition refused to answer that in the recent debate, and they have refused to answer it again today. Their only guiding light is ambition for office, and they refuse to tell the people of Scotland what their policy is. That is disgraceful.