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5.35 pm

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): For me and for my constituency, the past week has been sad, dramatic and awful--to say the least.

For many years, my community has been built on coal and steel. The coal industry was wiped out by the previous Tory Government immediately after the 1984 miners' strike, when miners in my community stood up to defend their industry and, indeed, their community. Now, the steel industry might also be wiped out, once again by the privatisation policies of the previous Tory Government.

What annoys many people in my community is the refusal to accept that privatisation is the problem. What makes us angry is when Corus spews out a long list of excuses why Ebbw Vale as a steel town should close and why other steel jobs should go. We are told on one day that it is a problem of transport costs, on another that it is because of the climate change levy and on yet another that it is a problem of rates. We are then told that it is a problem of the euro.

Corus seems to have changed its position on the euro almost daily. A few weeks ago, it said that the euro was the problem. A week or so ago, one of its chief executives said that the euro was not the problem. When the closure was announced, we were told once again that the euro was the problem. However, some 24 hours after the closure, the Financial Times reported that the euro was not the problem. I do not believe that the euro, transport costs, the climate change levy or rates had anything to do with the closure of the Ebbw Vale tinplate plant and the loss of other jobs throughout the steel industry. I believe that it has happened as a result of the incompetence of the Corus directors, who, instead of building on the productivity achieved by the work force, spent the past 18 months asset-stripping the industry. The community in Blaenau Gwent is now paying for that.

I have said it before and I shall say it again: ominously, on the day on which Corus was formed, one of its first acts was not to make a statement saying that it was determined to build up the steel industry but to hand over approximately £700 million, which Moffatt described as a special payment, to its shareholders. As Moffatt said, had the £700 million not been handed over, it is unlikely that the merger would have gone ahead. Thus, we know that the merger was about money, not about building up one of our greatest industries.

Corus also appropriated some £900 million from the workers' pension fund. It was a workers' pension fund in more ways than one. Corus seemed to have forgotten that much of the money was paid into that fund when the steel industry was publicly owned. Over the past 18 months, Corus has spent some £135 million buying up companies throughout the world. Although it found the £135 million to do that, it could find only £3 million to invest in the UK steel industry.

It is ironic and obscene not only that Corus did not invest in the plant in Ebbw Vale as it should have done, but that 24 hours before the closure was announced, it got around to investing in a nameplate for the plant. During the previous 18 months, the company had not been willing to invest in a new nameplate. A piece of white tarpaulin with the name "Corus" splattered across it had been thrown over the previous nameplate. That says something about the company's contribution.

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The joint chief executives were sacked a while back. If we accept what we were told, they were sacked for incompetence, so why were they given millions of pounds of compensation? On top of that, when Corus was formed, one of its first acts was to give massive wage increases to the former Dutch managers. Surely that cannot be right. It is certainly not right when we compare that with the treatment of the steelworkers--the people who built the industry, and turned the plant in Ebbw Vale into one of the most efficient and productive in the world.

Steelworkers in Ebbw Vale have made sacrifice after sacrifice by accepting changes in their conditions of employment and wages. All that seems to be irrelevant to Corus. After making those sacrifices and building the industry and the plant into one of the most successful in the world, surely the workers should have been rewarded for their endeavours. In fact, they have been punished.

The media have reported that 750 jobs will be lost if that plant closes. They are wrong. Over the past couple of years, Corus has outsourced much of its work. People who were previously employed by the company are now employed by other firms but are still working at the plant. That is another 250 jobs. On 1 March, another 250 workers will be made redundant as a result of the last lot of job losses. The small community of Ebbw Vale will suffer 1,250 job losses. No matter how we measure deprivation--unemployment, low wages, ill health or bad housing--sadly, that community is top of the list. We have not recovered from the previous job losses in the steel industry or from the wiping out of the mining industry.

What annoys people in the community is that they made cuts in their conditions of employment, such as wage standstills, but Corus has never accepted that it is those workers who are the real experts. They have worked in the steel industry not for one or two years, but for 20, 30 or 40 years. They know the industry inside out. Sadly, their skills, talents and creativity were ignored by Corus's management. On no occasion did Corus say to those workers that it wanted to use their skills, talent and creativity to help it to build up the industry in the months ahead.

Corus showed disdain not only for the work force but for the Government, trade unions and other public representatives. I have been going into the tinplate works in Ebbw Vale for many a long year, but in recent years there has been a change and I have been prevented from doing so. A few weeks back, I said to Mr. Stuart Wilkie, the works manager, that I wanted to go into the plant to have a chat with the management and the union regarding the problems facing the industry and the possible job losses. Mr. Wilkie said that I could go into the plant, but only after the decision had been taken. Indeed, on the day of the decision, Mr. Wilkie said that Mr. Vickers, one of the managing directors, had asked him to contact me to explain the redundancies.

Like most other Members who are present, I never use foul language. Never does an "expletive deleted" pass my lips. That occasion, however, was an exception, because the Mr. Vickers who advised the plant manager to inform me on the telephone of redundancies and the closure of the plant was the very same Mr. Vickers--the very same managing director--who, on the day on which Corus was formed, rang me at home at 8.30 am and assured me that there would be no job losses, that the plant's future was not threatened and that the plant was secure. Obviously

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the position has changed dramatically, because of the contribution of the Moffats of this world, the Vickerses of this world and yes, the works managers of this world. Instead of building up the industry, those people have tried to destroy it.

I think I am known in my group as one who, when I think the Government are wrong, says so and votes accordingly. In this instance, however, I do not believe that the Government are to blame. The blame lies entirely with Corus, and any Member who tries to shift the blame will do a disservice to my community--to the 1,250 people who will lose their jobs, and the 1,250 families who will suffer. They will suffer as a result of Corus: Corus and privatisation have caused this disaster.

When we met Mr. Moffat some days ago, I came away totally demoralised--not just in the context of the future of Ebbw Vale, but in the context of the steel industry's future in the United Kingdom. If the Moffats of this world remain in power within the industry, I predict that in five years there will be no steel industry in the United Kingdom. It seemed to me that Mr. Moffat had no commitment to the industry and no strategy for it; I sensed short-termism.

What probably happened was this. Mr. Moffat sacked the two chief executives and then thought, "I will sort this out", but he could not sort it out. He could not sort out the problems that obviously existed with the banks.

Another thing annoyed me. Mr. Moffat told us that no decision had been made about the future of the Ebbw Vale plant, yet about 24 hours later he and the others were planning a press release saying that the Ebbw Vale tinplate works would close. Mr. Moffat was lying through his teeth: it is impossible to reach any other conclusion.

It was bad enough to lie to me. What is more repulsive is the fact that Mr. Moffat lied to people who depended on the industry and the plant for their future: he and people like him will not be forgiven for that.

The current debate in Ebbw Vale is not about whether the Government can provide extra money; it is still about saving the plant, and that is what we must do. By working-class standards--by the standards of Blaenau Gwent--those were 1,250 good jobs. When the people who no longer have those jobs sign on the dole, the alternative will be not 1,250 jobs in some other manufacturing firm but, probably, security officers' jobs at £4 an hour. That cannot be right.

All our energies must go into saving the plant. In doing so, we shall not only be saving the lives of many people in that community; we shall be saving the life of the steel industry. That is a goal worth fighting for, which is what those in my community are still doing.

5.49 pm

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): My heart goes out to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith). What Corus has done to his community is unforgivable, and he rightly makes a cry for a fightback by the work force. We must all support him in that, whatever party we are in. We must do something to save the community, which depends totally on the steel industry. I feel strongly about the matter.

In Wales, the background to this subject is extraordinary. Social exclusion has been linked with problems of unemployment, poor skills, low incomes,

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poor housing, high crime, poor environment, bad health and family breakdown. The archetypal view is that social exclusion is found on inner-city estates, but one must remember that it can be found in rural areas, too, and that poor people in rural areas can be particularly excluded because of a lack of transport, increased costs and remote services.

Wales suffers disproportionately compared with other areas in the United Kingdom. Wales has a higher rate of children living in poverty, lower levels of educational achievement, more housing of poor quality, low rates of pay, a higher rate of households with no one in employment, a higher proportion of people on income- replacement benefits, a particularly high proportion of people in receipt of sickness and disability benefits, lower life expectancy and higher mortality rates. I am sorry to have to say it, but that is a legacy of 18 years of Conservative rule. The Conservatives have nothing to be proud of in leaving that legacy for us to pick up.

Social exclusion refers to more than a set level of income. It refers to the marginalisation of people in society and to their exclusion from what we would normally think was a thoroughly decent society.

Gender is important in this respect. In Wales, 245,000 women live on or around the poverty line. That is inexcusable. Lone parents, who are nearly always women, are even less likely to be in paid employment. Women represent the most significant group of socially excluded members of society. That must not be forgotten. With all the job losses, it is the women who have to struggle to bring up their families in poverty--that is what we are talking about.

People over state retirement age comprise 20 per cent. of the Welsh population. That is higher than in the UK as a whole. In my constituency, 24 per cent. of the population are in that category.

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