HC Deb 11 December 2003 vol 415 cc1180-2
4. Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East) (Lab)

What action she has taken to protect British steel workers from the effects of US steel tariffs. [143320]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

As the House knows, we have strongly opposed the unlawful tariffs that the United States imposed on our steel exports. We worked extremely closely with our European partners in the successful challenge under the World Trade Organisation. I am delighted that President Bush has now announced the full removal of those tariffs.

Dr. Kumar

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and praise her hard work on behalf of the steel industry. Everyone welcomed her when she visited Teesside steel works, and she has lobbied President Bush hard on the illegal steel tariffs that he introduced—I am delighted that we have got such an outcome. Does she realise that the steel maker Corus recently admitted that its sales were down by 10 per cent. in America in the past six months, which will obviously have a knock-on effect on its profits? Is my right hon. Friend in a position to say whether the Government are willing to give any help or support to overcome the difficulties that the steel industry has faced?

Ms Hewitt

I thank my hon. Friend for what he said. We have been working closely with Corus and the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation—the trade union—and its members to help Corus and the wider steel industry. I am glad that we were able to get about 70 per cent. of UK steel exports exempted from the tariffs when they were in force. None the less, the tariffs have hit Corus hard. We all hope that with the growth that is taking place in the United States, steel exports will begin to pick up. I know that my hon. Friend welcomes, as I do, the success that the new management of Corus is beginning to have in putting a new financing package in place, working in much closer partnership with employees and their trade unions, and creating a positive relationship with the Dutch branch of the business to ensure that Corus and its work force will have a strong future.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con)

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is welcome that the United States has recognised that steel tariffs have done real damage to its manufacturing industry, as tariffs usually do? What steps is she personally taking to ensure that with its proposed licensing system, the United States will not introduce steel tariffs by the back door?

Ms Hewitt

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new place on the Front Bench, although I cannot help but observe that it appears to take two Conservative men to do the job of one Labour woman. We have looked closely at the small print of not only consumer credit agreements, but the announcement by the United States on steel tariffs. I do not believe that it intends to introduce new tariffs or import barriers through the back door, but we are examining closely what it means by "monitoring imports" because we want to ensure that what we have succeeded in defeating through our partnership with Europe and work in the WTO will not re-emerge. I will continue to work extremely closely with our steel industry on the issue, but at this point we have no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Washington might do what the right hon. Gentleman fears.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil) (Lab)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her efforts in securing that outcome. It is a victory not only for common sense but for the WTO, as a rules-based trading organisation, in enforcing those rules to fulfil its responsibilities. Does she accept, however, that there is a sense of frustration about the fact that the appeals procedure takes so long, and that the rather cynical stroke that President Bush pulled in this instance got him the short-term political advantage that he wanted in those vital states that produce steel? If we could have dealt with the matter more quickly in the WTO, that political advantage, which had nothing to do with economics or industrial policy, would have been denied him.

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and as part of strengthening the WTO as we move forward in the development round it would be helpful if we could resolve disputes much more quickly. I return to the point made by the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) that the United States manufacturing sector, including its car-building industry, has become increasingly concerned about the impact of those steel tariffs on wider industry in the US. It was able to deploy that argument to good effect, as were we, and that reinforces the case that we consistently make for free and fair trade. Such trade has benefited us enormously in the European Union, and it needs now, within the WTO, to benefit the whole world.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

I appreciate the Secretary of State's hard work, and she is absolutely right to point out that the promotion of free and fair trade should be the cornerstone of Britain's policy. She will recognise, however, that this country, either as an individual nation or as part of the EU, still has tariffs in place, and they are a hindrance to ensuring that we are able to counter global poverty, particularly in developing countries. I should be interested to hear what she has to say about the efforts that she will be making to try to promote free and fair trade and to cut tariffs that affect the third world.

Ms Hewitt

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the cause of free and fair trade. One of the most damaging aspects of the EU has been the impact of the common agricultural policy. It is through our commitment to EU membership, the alliances that we have built with other members—in striking contrast, let me say, to the isolation of the UK Government under the hon. Gentleman's party—and our positive approach that we were able to get such a good outcome on CAP reform in June. That will help us as we move forward with the Doha round, so that more developing countries can sell products to us, to their benefit and to the benefit of our consumers.

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