HL Deb 03 July 1980 vol 411 cc513-9

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that the measures announced on 19th June for areas affected by the proposed steel rundown, will alleviate sufficiently the economic and social consequences of the job losses involved at Consett.


My Lords, the Government believe that the measures announced for Consett on 19th June represent a realistic assessment of what can usefully be undertaken there at the present time and will help to alleviate the severity of the area's problems.


My Lords, does the Minister accept that action should not be taken at Consett that results in intolerable social strains for that single industry, town and its fine workforce? Has the British Steel Corporation considered inviting the trade unions to examine with them whether there is any economic basis—perhaps even including some reductions in pay—that would enable Consett, which is still potentially profitable, retains a growth market for steel billets and in recent months has met its production targets, to remain open beyond next September? If it does not, are the Government quite sure that they will be able to honour at Consett the undertaking that has been given, to give all this summer's school-leavers training or other work opportunities by next Easter, and also, to make places available under the scheme to all young people who have been unemployed for more than 12 months?


My Lords, I do not accept the noble Lord's premise that if the planned closure at Consett goes ahead as proposed it will produce intolerable social strains. That it will produce a very severe problem and that we need to mobilise a great many remedial measures—most of which have been announced, and about which I shall remind the House if requested—is undoubted.

Neither do I believe that the proposition that Consett is potentially profitable in present circumstances is one on which the noble Lord or even the Government can properly judge. With the latest turn of events in the steel industry in Europe and in this country and bearing in mind the coming on stream of the Redcar blast furnace, I can see no reason, as an amateur, speaking, I believe, to another amateur, to disagree with the British Steel Corporation's judgment that the position at Consett, both in the overall position and itself in the longer term, which has led them to take the decision that they have is a very difficult one.

As regards whether we can guarantee all school-leavers either training or a job, I should like the noble Lord to direct my attention to where we have positively said that we can train every individual leaving school. We are certainly expanding the various training services of the Manpower Services Commission. Where there is a need and it is practicable, we shall do all we can to meet it with training courses of one kind and another.


My Lords, I support strongly what the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, has said. Consett is suffering basically because the Government have refused to act properly on this matter. It is true that Consett was successful. Is the noble Viscount not aware that this is a deplorable situation? The Government are responsible for the breakdown in good relations in the steel industry, in a situation where the men of Consett are moderates in the best sense.


My Lords, the fact that the results at Consett have improved and through the efforts of the people working at Consett is accepted and has happened. To say from that that Consett is a highly successful steelworks is not correct on any long-term basis. There is a substantial improvement—but no more. So far as the Government's responsibility for the situation leading to the closures which British Steel judge must include Consett, noble Lords opposite must look to themselves and to their failure to face realistically the situation of the uncompetitiveness of British Steel as a whole at an earlier time.


My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what steps the Government have taken so far to take advantage of the proposals made by the EEC Commission for assistance under the Regional Fund for just such a situation as has now occurred at Consett? Those proposals were made, if my noble friend will remember, last October.


My Lords, as I have repeated before in this House, we have taken all available offers from the ECSC and from the Commission. I think my noble friend may be referring to certain proposals which go beyond that, for which there is not an EEC budget; nor is there an agreed scheme.


My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the closure of Consett will make a deserted town in the County of Durham from which I come? Is he not further aware that the remedial measures suggested to meet the position of Consett will not touch the fringe of the problem and that there will be practically total unemployment in the Consett town? Is it the Government's position, as they did in the 1930s, to create another Jarrow in the County of Durham at Consett?


My Lords, I would not accept that the closure of the Consett steel mill will turn Consett into a deserted town. The employee numbers in 1976 (and they have worsened only a very little bit since) in the travel-to-work area of Consett were 31,000. The present unemployed position, which is serious—and that is why the area is a special development area—shows that the figures are of the order of 4,000. The number of redundancies declared by the British Steel Corporation is 3,700. Those are the proportions, and I think the noble Lord's statement is an over-statement. Against those numbers, the Government have announced factories at a cost of £12 to £13 million, which could provide jobs on the average jobs to the square footage of factories of over 2,500 jobs; 33,000 square feet of the factories are under construction at the present time and 65,000 square metres have been agreed—

A noble Lord

Not at Consett.


At Consett.


My Lords, surely the noble Viscount will be aware that, in winding up a debate on unemployment, the Secretary of State for Employment last week gave in another place the undertaking concerning the youth opportunities scheme, to which I referred, and it has application not only at Consett but throughout the country?


My Lords, the youth opportunities programme will be expanded in all steel remedial areas and there will be enhanced measures under the four headings which I gave in the recent steel remedial Statement for all steel areas. In addition, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment, as you may have seen reported in the press yesterday, spoke at NEDC on the problem of extreme unemployment in these particular kinds of areas, and he is to table a further paper with further ideas for discussion with all parties at the NEDC in, I think, a month's time.


My Lords, in the light of the answer given by my noble friend to the first supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, will he be good enough to tell the House how he manages to distinguish between "very serious problems" and "very serious strains"?


My Lords, I have made no major distinction between them. What I said was that I did not accept "intolerable social strains". I believe that with the measures that we take, the social strains, which are very real, will not become intolerable.


My Lords, if the noble Viscount is serious in saying that the Government intend to extend opportunities for the training of young people, why is it that they have closed down two skill centres in County Durham and over the whole of that region?


My Lords, I know that the Manpower Services Commission are closing and opening skill centres in various parts of the country. I happen to know the detail of that at Corby, where a similar criticism has been made, but I am afraid I do not know the details of the particular situation which the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, raises in relation to Consett. However, I am pretty sure that availability of skill training within the area or within bus reach of the area—which is more and more what is happening in order that one skill centre should be properly equipped to cover a large area—will recieve the highest priority; we will train for skills people who are suitable for that kind of training and where there is a reasonable prospect of their being able to change their careers and take a new job in the area.


My Lords, in all seriousness, without hoping to make a party political point, may I ask the noble Viscount whether he will ask the Government very soon to come to this House and make a statement on the relationship of the steel industry, as they envisage it, to the military-industrial complex and all this talk about civil defence and military rebuilding in this country? Without the skill of the steel worker, which is going to he lost, it is ridiculous to talk in militaristic terms, as some Government people seem to do.


My Lords, this Government are well seized with the need to have a really competitive and efficient steel industry. I say once more that if their policies, and if the policies of the British Steel Corporation, had been applied and supported some years ago, we would have now a much stronger base for the purposes the noble Lord has described.


My Lords, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Pargiter, wishes to ask a question; perhaps the House may feel that, after he has asked his question and my noble friend has replied, it might be convenient to move on.


My Lords, could the noble Viscount tell us, with regard to these admirable new factories that are being put up, whether occupants have already been found for them or whether it is really a case of transferring unemployment from one area to another?


My Lords, some of those factories are already booked —I have forgotten what the official term is for "booked"—but far too few of them. Certainly I do not wish in any way to mislead the House on this, but the problem of Consett is indeed to attract other employment to that area. All I can say is that all departments of government are doing everything they can, including the preparation of factories, to attract suitable employers to the area.

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