HC Deb 02 March 2000 vol 345 cc545-6
12. Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

What assessment he has made of the impact of the strength of sterling on the United Kingdom steel industry. [111543]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell)

The Government are well aware of the concerns of the steel industry in relation to the strength of sterling. However, the steel industry itself has worked hard to improve its competitiveness. Although exports fell in 1999, the prospects for increasing exports in 2000 are much improved, especially in the light of recovery of the south-east Asian market.

Mr. MacShane

I am grateful for that answer, but my right hon. Friend will know the very great fear in the steel communities of the United Kingdom about the loss of jobs as a result of the over-valued pound, which was inherited from the previous Government. Will she—and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State if he is available—agree to meet a delegation from the steel communities to discuss this very great concern?

Mrs. Liddell

I am very happy to agree to meet representatives of the steel industry. I represent a steel constituency, so I am well aware of the issues. The Government's priority remains to put economic management on a stable, long-term footing by reform of both monetary and fiscal policy. The worst thing that could happen for the steel industry would be to return to the short-term fixes of the previous Government, bringing the boom and bust that so unsettled the industry over the past 20 years.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Does the Minister not accept that in steel plants, such as Llanwern and Ebbw Vale, there is great concern that the high value of the pound will undermine their on-going viability? Will she give a categoric assurance that her Department will take up with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the context of the forthcoming Budget, the question of getting a fair parity for the pound that will give some chance for the plants that I mentioned? Their closure would be an absolute disaster for those areas.

Mrs. Liddell

Hon. Friends who represent those constituencies have made representations about the steel industry in that area. Approaches to Corus have revealed that speculation about Llanwern is based on press speculation. It would be unfortunate—and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would not seek to do it—to spread fear in those communities about the possibility of further unemployment.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is well aware of the need to ensure a stable economy in the United Kingdom. We now have one of the strongest economies in the world. What we must seek to do is to ensure that all our industries benefit from the competitive advantage that can be brought about by increases in productivity and increases in output across the board for those industries. My right hon. Friend's main priority will be to ensure a stable economy and a stable exchange rate in the medium and long term.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

The pound is strong against the undervalued euro, but we do not see such discrepancies so much in terms of the pound's valuation against the American dollar. Given that the right hon. Lady and her friends are proponents of scrapping the pound and taking us into the euro, what in her view is the optimum exchange rate between the pound and the euro?

Mrs. Liddell

I am sure the hon. Lady knows rather more about how exchange rates work than her question appears to suggest. The Government believe that the decision about the single currency and sterling should be based on the best economic performance of this country, not on some arbitrary date that seems to have been dreamt up by the hon. Lady and her friends to try to heal divisions within the Conservative party. The main priority on the Government Benches is to have a sound economy whereby competitive businesses can ensure further growth, not just in Europe, but in competing against other economies such as the United States and Japan.

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