HL Deb 04 February 1980 vol 404 cc1102-7

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place in answer to a Private Notice Question on the steel industry dispute. In reply to the Question, To ask the Secretary of State for Industry if he will make a statement on the effects of the extended dispute in the steel industry", my right honourable friend replied as follows: The employees of the private steel companies have now been brought into the steel dispute although they have no quarrel with their employers. The loss of business arising from this action and from the continuing dispute in BSC is putting steel firms and the jobs in them at risk. So far steel users generally have been little affected by the dispute, but production and employment will be threatened on a much wider scale if and when steel supplies run out. It is in the interest of all who depend on steel for their livelihood that the BSC and the unions should end this self-destructive dispute quickly on terms which the industry can afford".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.


My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, for repeating the Statement. First, I should like to ask the Minister whether he can give an assessment, his best assessment, of the value of production lost as a result of this dispute? As regards that, the Government have responsibility as well as those employed in the steel industry. It has been suggested that there has been a conspiracy of silence with the CBI and the British Steel Corporation. Is that true? I should like to know and I think that the public would like to know what is really the situation.

As regards the contraction of steel demand, that is partly due to Government policy in other areas. In today's edition of The Times it mentions: Prospects for Britain's engineering industries have dipped alarmingly in recent months, to the extent that new orders this year could be as much as 20 per cent. down on 1979". That is due to the Government's policy. I should like to know whether the Government are anxious to do something about that.

On a previous occasion when a Statement was made I raised the whole question of the effect of a cutback in production as a result of the strike, especially in our shipyards and as regards defence matters. This is a very important part of the argument. Engineering is one example and defence is another. However, we now hear that Her Majesty's Government have rejected £70 million worth of aid from the EEC, aid which was to help people who were being phased out of their jobs. Why are the Government so doctrinaire about this? After all, they must take some responsibility. More than that, Ministers must not act like Pontius Pilates, washing their hands. We want to know what they are doing. So far they are doing nothing; they are just waiting.

What about ACAS? The noble Lord, Lord Byers, Leader of the Liberal Party, today asked what I thought was an excellent Question. It referred to the need to inform the public. What is being done about the public? Are they being informed? What about ACAS?—which was set up to solve these disputes. Are the Government interefering or helping? So far nothing has happened; there has simply been a desire by some to let the strike go on and on until, as we have so often said, many of our industrial areas will be deserts.


My Lords, I must tell the Government that we on this Bench have very similar misgivings. Does the noble Lord think that the time has come for the Government to do something to get this dispute settled? Surely we cannot continue with this dialogue of the deaf for very many more weeks when we can see the fatal damage that is being inflicted on the economy of the nation. Do the Government intend to take any action in this dispute? Secondly, at the same time, do they intend to bring forward the necessary amendments to the Employment Bill in order to change the law on strikes so that this type of thing cannot happen again?


My Lords, on the last occasion when a Statement was made we nearly ran into a full-length debate, and I shall try very hard to avoid doing so today. The assessment of the value of lost production within BSC has been suggested by BSC as being of the order of £10 million sterling per week. That is an estimate because it depends on the second point which the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition raised, namely, the level and the contraction of demand. However, that is BSC's estimate. Outside BSC, as yet the loss is extremely small, and as the Statement says, steel users have not yet felt any appreciable loss at all. Nevertheless, my right honourable friend has made it clear that very severe repercussions will develop in the future if the dispute continues.

On the noble Lord's point about Government policies being responsible for the contraction of demand, that argument will not stand up, and I shall reply to it only very briefly. The estimates of demand made by our predecessors as well as by ourselves are not very different and the amount of steel called for in the last two years is consistent with the policies that BSC is following in relation to demand. I am not well briefed on what the noble Lord called a refusal of aid, except that I an quite sure that we have not refused aid as such; we have taken decisions relating to the EEC which are to the overall benefit of the industry and the country.

Both noble Lords asked what we are doing and whether the time has come to intervene. We do not believe that Government can make a greater contribution here than the one they have already made on behalf of taxpayers. These terms—"Would we intervene, interfere or do something to get the dispute settled?" are euphemisms for "Would we give more cash from the taxpayer to settle this dispute and deny the use of that cash for other purposes?" Of course, that does not merely reflect the issues within the steel industry. If more tax is to be raised and given to areas of this kind rather than to other major and deserving areas, it will not only be in steel that the demand will arise.

The noble Lord, Lord Byers, raised a point about the employment laws. A number of opportunities to discuss this will arise fairly soon, but at this stage I would prefer to say that it is a matter for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment. Noble Lords will have seen his statements over the weekend. They seem to indicate that our position allows events to take place which, in my personal experience, do not and cannot take place in other industrial countries.


My Lords, I want to raise a very short point. In view of what the Minister said, that he is not sure about certain matters, I would add that the question of aid from the Community was revealed in a Parliamentary Answer by Mr. Lester who is a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment. I am rather surprised that the noble Viscount has not been briefed on this. It was an Answer on behalf of the Government.


My Lords, the noble Viscount answers for the whole Government.


My Lords, I shall attend to my omissions here and communicate with the Leader of the Opposition.

Baroness BACON

My Lords, referring to the Minister's statement that the Government cannot afford to spend taxpayers' money on the steel industry, can the noble Lord tell us how much of the taxpayers' money will be spent and wasted if this strike continues for an interminable time?


My Lords, I cannot answer that question because it is hypothetical, but in relation to unemployment benefit and supplementary benefit within the industry, and taking into account people outside the industry altogether—some figures have already been mentioned—the bill will continue to rise. However, British Steel is now equipped with £2,000 million worth of modern capital equipment, and a further £2,000 million has been invested in it in the last four years to help it develop that capital equipment. That is the area of importance, and with that equipment there is no reason why the industry should not be able to stand on its own feet and pay much higher wages. It can be done. The stories about the port in Scotland and its use, and the stories of Llanwern, the new plant and its use, are known to the House.

I want to raise one other matter, because I failed to answer it earlier. I am not suggesting that these sums are large, because our salary and wage levels in this country are far too low, but we are dealing with a situation where last year the average wage of steel workers was £112 a week. We are talking about an increase, which has been on the table, and could probably be exceeded if productivity is improved and these new facilities were used, which would bring that average up to around the £130 mark. I understand that the two sides are in contact with one another; ACAS is still in contact with them; and the craft unions in the industry have had constructive talks. I suggest that it is the duty of the House to encourage them all to get back and settle as soon as possible within the budget which the taxpayer has given them.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that from today some of the private firms have suggested—and some are already doing this—that they withhold their contributions of VAT, et cetera, to the tune of £500,000 a week? That situation is getting uglier and uglier. The fact is that this non-militant steel union, which for 50 years has not caused trouble, said that what they wanted was a portion of the money that could be granted to increase productivity with the new tools and technology that are already within the firms and within the steelworks. Surely to God the Government cannot sit back and do nothing in a position like this!


My Lords, I think the noble Lord has mentioned two points. The second point I believe I have already fully answered, and I have nothing further to add. In relation to VAT, I too have heard the stories via the news media, whether they are correct or not. As I understand it, we are here dealing with an employer's threat that if their employees are going to be dragged out when they have no dispute with those companies at all, then VAT should be withheld. I am not, from this Dispatch Box, going to countenance law breaking of any kind, but I understand the emotions, and I have sympathy with the expressions of those employers that they are being dragged into a dispute which is none of their business.