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Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw): On the point about the United Kingdom steel industry, will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what he did when the Conservative party was in power for 18 years? Year after year in that period, the Conservative party made steelworkers redundant, including 10,000 in my constituency.

Mr. Whittingdale: One of our achievements was to help to make the British steel industry one of the most efficient and competitive in Europe. It most certainly was not that when the Conservative Government came to office.

Mark Tami: Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, in 1980 in Alyn and Deeside, Shotton steelworks lost 15,000 jobs in a single day? If that is the achievement of the Conservative party, it is a very sad one.

Mr. Whittingdale: This is not an exercise in delving back into history, but that was part of the process that made British Steel the most efficient company in Europe. The more that the hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members attempt to distract from the main issues that the debate is about, the more the people listening out there

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will be convinced that the Government are desperate to avoid having to answer the real questions that have been put to them.

This is not the first occasion on which Ministers from the Department of Trade and Industry have refused to come to the Dispatch Box or that the Government have attempted to duck the issue. When the issue was first aired in the Chamber at DTI questions last month, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) was deputed to answer on behalf of the Government. I have great respect for the hon. Lady, but she is an Under- Secretary of State whose responsibilities in the DTI have nothing to do with the steel industry. Yet those who are responsible—the Secretary of State and the Minister for Industry and Energy—were content to sit on the Bench next to her and watch her while she squirmed.

Last week, in the St. David's day debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) again set out the questions that steelworkers in Wales and across the country want answered. Yet in his response, the Minister did not mention the issue even once. It is clear that the Government will do anything to avoid having to answer questions on this matter. The Secretary of State's speech so far has done nothing to counter that impression.

Mr. Paul Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is aware, I am sure, that this debate is sponsored by Plaid Cymru. It happens only once a year, for half a day, and it is conventional for Wales Office Ministers to reply to it. More significantly, does the hon. Gentleman accept that when we talk about the Welsh steel industry, the fact that his party does not have one single Member of Parliament representing a Welsh constituency puts his credibility at risk?

Mr. Whittingdale: As I have pointed out, the motion on the Order Paper does not refer to the Welsh steel industry but to the United Kingdom steel industry. In his speech, the right hon. Gentleman appeared to suggest that the minority parties could bring any Minister to the Dispatch Box to answer their debate. That is clearly not the case. This debate should be answered by a DTI Minister, and it is plain that DTI Ministers are not willing to do so. Indeed, the only party that appears willing to come to the Government's aid in this debate so far is the Liberal Democrat party.

Mr. Llwyd: It strikes me as arrogant of the Government to suggest that the Secretary of State for Wales should reply to the debate even before they saw the motion. The right hon. Gentleman said to me last week that he thought that he would be replying even before seeing the motion, and the motion does not mention Wales.

Mr. Whittingdale: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. If the minority parties were able to bring any Minister they wanted to answer their debate, it would not be the Secretary of State who has been put up today, but the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Lembit Öpik: I understand the hon. Gentleman's criticisms of the Liberal Democrats. If I may clarify matters, I made my earlier contribution because I do not

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like hypocrisy in the Chamber. I hope and expect that the hon. Gentleman will make no criticisms of other parties if his own is not capable of achieving high standards. What bothers me most in this debate is the effort made to besmirch political parties, when the truth is that politics as a whole is involved. No public interest is served by such efforts.

Mr. Whittingdale: If the hon. Gentleman really were so concerned about hypocrisy, he would be a little more critical of the Government than he appears to be.

I want to talk about the UK steel industry, which is the issue before us. The UK steel industry, as I said earlier, is one of the most productive in the world, employing 50,000 people. However, the industry is suffering from declining output and competitiveness, with thousands of redundancies having been declared in the past 18 months alone. In part, the industry is suffering from the same problems as the rest of manufacturing—the weakness of the euro, cheap imports and the cumulative impact of the extra tax and regulation that have been introduced by the Government, not least the climate change levy.

In addition, the industry is having to operate in a global market that is suffering from severe overcapacity. In a written answer to me yesterday, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that there is no precise estimate of global overcapacity, but that estimates ranged from less than 80 million tonnes a year to more than 200 million tonnes a year. The United Kingdom Steel Association uses the latter figure, while some estimates are higher still.

Through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Governments are negotiating to reduce the surplus inefficient capacity in steel with more than 100 million tonnes identified for closure within the next four years. It was in recognition of that need that the last Conservative Government pressed the European Commission not to allow the aid to be given to Irish Steel which was going to be given to pave the way for a takeover by Mr. Mittal's Ispat company. As a former DTI Minister said:

He made it clear that that was the view not only of British Steel but of the trade unions and indeed of Labour Members who were lobbying the Department to stop the takeover from going ahead.

What has changed since then? It is certainly not the problem of overcapacity, which—if anything—is worse. This time, why did the Government, instead of trying to encourage the reduction of global capacity, work against that by backing Mr. Mittal's proposed takeover of the Romanian steelworks?

First, we were told that such support was no different from that given by the Government to any other British company trying to win a contract abroad—except that LNM is hardly British. It is a curious definition of "British" that allows a company whose headquarters are not in London, as the Secretary of State for Wales suggested, but in a Caribbean tax haven, and which employs fewer than 0.1 per cent. of its work force in this country to qualify for support to promote its interests not only from the Government but from the Prime Minister in a personal capacity.

We were then told that the letter was merely one of congratulation after the deal had been signed, yet a spokesman for the Romanian Government has since said

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that it played a decisive part in winning the contract. Then we were told by the Minister for Europe, that it was a battle with the French. He said:

However, while Mr. Mittal's LNM company has been in the UK only since 1995 and employs 91 people in this country, Usinor, the French company, has had a British arm since 1923 and has more than 250 people on its payroll. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said:

We were then told that the letter had been drafted by the British ambassador to Romania, that the Prime Minister had barely glanced at it before signing it and that he would have had no idea that the beneficiary had given any money to his party. Yet we now know that the original draft referred to Mr. Mittal as a friend of the Prime Minister and that that reference was removed by Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State say that that was not the case although the "World at One" programme had clearly identified Mr. Powell as responsible.

The Prime Minister then said that he certainly had not known that Mr. Mittal was a Labour donor, nor that he had any connection with the LNM company, despite the fact that the reason why the company is called LNM is that those letters stand for Lakshmi N. Mittal—something that must have been in the briefing note supplied to the Prime Minister when he signed the letter. We also know that not long before signing the letter the Prime Minister attended a party for major contributors to the Labour party, at which Mr. Mittal was present.

The suggestion that Mr. Mittal's company was British or that the Government's support for it was part of a battle to win some lucrative contract in the teeth of French competition does not bear scrutiny. In fact, the position is even worse than that, for we now know not only that the connection between Mr. Mittal's company and this country is tenuous at best but that LNM has been actively working against our national interest.

Irish Steel, now named Irish Ispat, went into liquidation last year, owing money to hundreds of businesses in this country. Many of them are small firms such as Mawdlseys in Gloucestershire, which is owed £260,000 for work done with no indication that it will ever be paid. Even the Government are owed money in unpaid VAT, yet the Prime Minister was happy to write to the Romanian Prime Minister recommending Mr. Mittal's firm.

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