Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Will my right hon. Friend comment on the progress of legislation to establish through ratification and into full law the International Criminal Court? Does she accept that there is unnecessary delay in the House of Lords? Will she do her best to persuade the relevant authorities there to ensure that the measures pass rapidly into Committee, so that they can come to this House and be passed into law? They can then be used to bring to justice the international criminals who can currently go free.

Mrs. Beckett: I know that my hon. Friend has for some time expressed a great interest in those matters and

1 Feb 2001 : Column 456

pressed for the measure's introduction. I am not aware of any untoward delay in the House of Lords, but I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of relevant colleagues. I assure him that the Government are anxious to make progress on the matter.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): The transport commissioner for London is today meeting the Deputy Prime Minister to discuss the future of the underground, for whose long-awaited modernisation the Government promised a public-private Partnership. Will the Leader of the House at least induce the Deputy Prime Minister to provide progress reports, if that is the correct term? Will she encourage him not to wait for what she earlier called a somewhat refined stage in discussions? Knowing the Deputy Prime Minister as we do, we cannot help but expect that we might have to wait an inordinately long time for such a stage to be reached.

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman rightly says that the modernisation of the tube has been long awaited. It is unfortunate that it waited 18 years under the Government whom he supported. However, I assure him that the Labour Government are keen for the constructive negotiations that are taking place to be successfully concluded. If that happens, we shall be only too anxious to make it known.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): Is my right hon. Friend aware of worrying reports today about a former Conservative immigration Minister who admitted receiving papers from the Hinduja family for a passport application and was employed by them as an adviser after leaving office? Does she agree that, for the Hammond inquiry to be full, thorough, transparent and fair, the House must have access to papers from the previous Administration that show the involvement of Conservative Ministers in the matter? That would ensure that all the issues were brought to light and that the House had confidence in the inquiry.

Mrs. Beckett: I had seen the reports to which my hon. Friend refers. The papers that Sir Anthony asks to see and their release are matters for him, not the Government. I am sure that he will wish to examine thoroughly the facts about a series of events, which, from my reading, are of long standing. However, I know that Sir Anthony is anxious to complete his inquiry speedily, and we must therefore strike a balance.

Sir Anthony has expressed a wish for Ministers to avoid making comments that appear to prejudge any aspect of the inquiry before it produces any details. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend understands if I do not comment further on her question.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order.

1 Feb 2001 : Column 455

1 Feb 2001 : Column 457

Steel Industry

1.17 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): With permission Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the steel industry and the announcement made today by Corus.

The House will know that since early December Corus has been conducting a review of its operations, the results of which were announced this morning. Corus has said that it intends to introduce radical restructuring measures, which will mean significant job losses in England and Wales. More than 6,000 jobs will be lost; about 3,000 will be lost in Wales and 3,000 in England.

Corus has failed to discuss its plans with the Government. Relevant information has not been disclosed; the company has resisted any meaningful dialogue and has refused to discuss in detail its plans for the industry. We have expressed our anxieties to the company about that lack of information at the highest level.

There is no doubt that Corus has been facing difficulties. Trading conditions are tough, and there has been a clear need for the company to take steps to address those problems.

The Government recognise that it is for Corus and any other company to take the commercial decisions that it believes are necessary. However, in the case that we are considering, capacity will be reduced and thousands of jobs lost as a result of a short-term response to the difficulties.

The Government acknowledge that, at a time of globalisation, many sectors of industry are undergoing major restructuring. In those circumstances, the role of Government is to provide economic stability. We are doing exactly that. Consequently, more than 1 million more people are in work now than in 1997.

Inflation remains around or below the target of 2.5 per cent. Long-term interest rates are the lowest for 35 years. We have put an end to the old cycle of boom and bust. Building on that platform of stability, the Government have been driving forward an active industrial policy to enable established industries to modernise, to adopt new processes and technologies and to support the development of new industries.

We have seen manufacturing productivity increase by about 3.5 per cent. over the past year. Exports are growing, with manufacturing export volumes up by more than 9.5 per cent. in the past year. Manufacturing output is also rising. The prospects for manufacturing are improving, with most forecasters expecting growth to pick up over the next two years. Only this morning, the latest Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply report showed manufacturing growing at its fastest rate since March last year.

Today's announcement by Corus stands in stark contrast to other manufacturing companies that are prepared to take a long-term view. In recent weeks, Toyota and Nissan have taken positive decisions on production in the United Kingdom, when they could have gone anywhere in the world. They have decided that they have a future as manufacturers in the United Kingdom. They have committed to substantial new investment. They

1 Feb 2001 : Column 458

have demonstrated confidence in their labour force and in the economic stability and favourable business environment that this Government have established.

Corus should, like Toyota and Nissan, weigh up its long-term interests and prospects and, in responding to the real challenges that it faces, put far greater weight on the new opportunities for developing into new markets. Even after today's announcement, Corus will remain a major employer, with about 22,000 employees in the United Kingdom--a demonstration of the fact that there is a future for the steel industry.

It is because there is a future for the industry that Corus should think again about the proposed closures and redundancies, and work with the trade unions, the Government and the National Assembly for Wales to identify a better way forward. We recognise that that is a commercial decision to be taken by the company and that action had to be taken to tackle the losses being suffered. However, Corus should now engage openly and work constructively with all the relevant parties, building on the strengths of the steel industry.

UK steelworkers have improved productivity dramatically in recent years. They are the most highly productive steelworkers in the whole of Europe. Between 1998 and 1999, they increased their productivity from 533 tonnes per person to 571 tonnes--well above the levels in Germany and France. We have been working with the industry to help it to improve productivity, to modernise and to adopt new technology.

The work force at Corus have shown their long-term commitment to the industry and to the company, and I share their anger at Corus's behaviour. Corus should now work with its employees and the communities affected. Should Corus refuse to change course, it must meet its obligations. It must pay the costs of the clean-up of the sites affected by today's announcement. It should then release them quickly and play its part in helping the communities affected.

The Government will not walk away from the innocent victims of this decision. We will be there alongside them. We will provide help for the individuals affected, support for local communities and backing for regeneration schemes to support the local economy and provide new jobs for people. However, it need not come to that.

Corus could adopt a different approach. If it were to do so, it would have the support of the Government. On behalf of 6,000 steelworkers, their families and the communities in which they live, I urge Corus to think again and to work with us to identify a better way forward.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving me an advance copy of his statement.

The ending of iron and steel making at Llanwern and at Ebbw Vale and the plant closures elsewhere--not just in Wales, but in Yorkshire and Teesside--represent a devastating blow to the workers affected and their families, especially as productivity in those plants increased so enormously over the past 20 years. The 6,000 job losses announced today come on top of some 4,000 last year, and the ripple effect will be felt much more widely among suppliers and others, including, as it happens, my constituency, which provides limestone for steel making. Where will the 3,000 job losses affecting

1 Feb 2001 : Column 459

so-called "other business operations" fall? In other words, outside Wales and the north of England, which other local economies and communities will be affected?

The much wider problem represented by the job losses is the manufacturing decline since 1997. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, since the general election, more than 350,000 jobs have been lost in the manufacturing sector? What is his assessment of the rate of those job losses? Are today's announcements just the symptom of a wider malaise and a deeper trend, which is getting worse, not better, in manufacturing industry?

Last week, we initiated a debate on manufacturing in which we demanded from the Secretary of State a package of practical and immediate measures to help manufacturing. Why did he refuse our proposals? We gave him specific examples of the regulatory burdens and the extra business taxes on manufacturing, which are undermining its international competitiveness. Is he aware that the United Kingdom Steel Association has specifically drawn attention to the burden of those extra regulations and the damage that it is doing to our competitiveness in overseas markets?

Is the Secretary of State aware that Corus partly blames high transport costs, which, of course, are caused directly by Government taxation policies that have made road fuel taxes the highest in Europe and undermined every manufacturing company that has to transport its products to the continent or elsewhere?

Last week, we demanded that the Government withdraw the new energy tax--the so-called climate change levy--which will come into effect in April and will do further damage to manufacturing concerns such as steel making that are high users of energy. Will the Secretary of State, even at this late stage, withdraw that new threat to manufacturing jobs? How can he justify an unnecessary and damaging extra measure that Corus must have taken into account in its decision to lay off such a number of workers?

Manufacturing is the sector that the Labour Government forgot. The Government say, and the Secretary of State has just told us, that Corus must think again. I hope that it does think again, but the Government must think again as well, and they can start by dismantling the £32 billion of extra regulatory and tax costs that the CBI has identified as an extra burden on British business over this Parliament.

Who in the Government is responsible for policy on Corus and on manufacturing and the steel industry? Is it the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry? Is it the Secretary of State for Wales? Is it the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly or his deputy, who is a Liberal and who apparently speaks on economic matters? Is it the Prime Minister, who met the chairman of Corus? Is it the Chancellor, who imposed those extra, damaging business taxes? Instead of a firm and clear strategy to stop the closures and reverse the trend in manufacturing decline, all we get from the Government is policy fragmentation and devolution of responsibility to others. Who is in charge of a strategy to prevent this from happening again?

We have been warning of these job losses for months. We have seen new Labour taking old Labour for granted. We have seen a Secretary of State for Trade and Industry who is constantly surprised at the damage that his own policies are doing. The Opposition will do all that we can to help the Government find a way out of the serious

1 Feb 2001 : Column 460

situation, but only the Government can introduce a practical and immediate package of measures to restore the competitiveness of manufacturing industry in world markets. If the Secretary of State cannot do that, will he make way for those who can?

Next Section

IndexHome Page