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5.42 pm

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Most hon. Members would accept that when the Government say or do anything that I think is wrong I say so, and vote accordingly. I have too much respect for the community that I have the privilege to represent to do anything else. I have long said that I am opposed to the Labour party taking donations from big business. That is not a recent idea but one that I have held for many a long year.

To say that is not to accept the arguments that have been reiterated by the nationalists during the past few weeks, however. It is ironic that those who now pretend to be the champions of the Welsh steel industry and its workers were hardly to be seen when some of us were involved in the struggle to defend those plants and jobs.

In my constituency of Blaenau Gwent, which was hit worse than any other community in the United Kingdom, the local trade union officials had no contact with the local nationalists. The nationalists spent most of their time writing in the correspondence columns of the local newspapers attacking the Labour Government and everyone else who was trying to support the unions and defend the jobs. What they have said during the past few weeks is utter nonsense and I want to concentrate on two of their arguments.

First, the nationalists have argued that jobs have been lost and plants have been closed, as in my constituency, because the Government did not offer Corus a favourable enough package, since they were more interested in placating and responding to the views of Mittal. Secondly, and linked to that, they have argued that the lack of

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Government support resulted in the failure of the workers' buy-out and, in particular, the buy-out by the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation at the Llanwern plant. Both those accusations are nonsense.

When we were campaigning to save the plant and the jobs, and in many other ways to save our communities, I had many meetings with the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Wales, Assembly Members, local authority representatives, trade union officials both local and national, and the chief executive of Corus. It became obvious to me when I had meetings with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales that they had the impression, from talking to and negotiating with Corus, that it was not interested in any package, no matter how big or small.

One could argue that I, the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State would say that anyway. However, I and other Labour Members met Moffat and asked him what he required of the Government in order to maintain the jobs in the UK steel industry, and in particular in my plant in Ebbw Vale. His response was direct. He said that there was no package, no matter how big, which could persuade Corus to go back on its commitments. He said that Corus had a vision—if vision is the right word—of the steel industry's future and that it intended to go forward with that.

When we met Moffat we also put to him the charge that Corus was unwilling to support a workers' buy-out or the proposed buy-out by the ISTC of the Llanwern plant. Once again we asked him whether there was any Government package that could persuade Corus to sell that plant to the ISTC. Once again, Moffat was direct in his answer. He said that there was no package, no matter how big, which would persuade Corus to sell Llanwern to the ISTC, because to do so would be to increase the competition against it.

Some of us found that not only offensive but ironic. Throughout our political lives we have always been told by the right that public ownership equals monopoly and is bad, while capitalism—free enterprise, as it is laughably called—equals competition. But here we had the situation where a union was willing to buy out a plant in order to maintain jobs and the community, but was refused the opportunity to do so because one of the bastions of capitalism, of that free enterprise system, refused the union the right to do so. That is a funny type of competition. I came away from that meeting utterly despondent about the future not just of my plant in Ebbw Vale but of the steel industry in general.

The nationalists have done a great disservice to working class communities and steel communities such as my own. Contrary to the opinions that Corus may express, there is no doubt that it is the guilty party. I remember when Corus was formed. I had a phone call from one of its managing directors, Vickers. He rang me at 8 am from Holland saying that he wanted to confirm that there was no threat to the Ebbw Vale plant, that it had a secure future and that everything on the horizon was good. But it was obvious from day one that those were merely words, because it was clear that Corus was bent on asset-stripping the industry.

If anyone doubts that, they should look at the old balance sheet. Corus appropriated £863 million from the surplus in the British Steel pension fund and paid out £694 million to its shareholders. When we met Moffat he

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accepted that if Corus had not paid out that £694 million as a massive sweetener, its shareholders would not have agreed to the takeover. Corus also paid out millions upon millions of pounds to former directors, and, in particular, to its chief executive, Bryant. It also handed out millions upon millions of pounds to senior managers, once again to placate them and to line their pockets.

I have spoken to several people in and outside the industry since then. Many have expressed shock and horror at Corus's possible involvement in that act of asset stripping. To me, it was no surprise at all. Moffat is on record as saying that the company is in business to make money, not steel.

It is true that people in my community who devoted their lives to the steel industry worked for money—they had to pay the rent or the mortgage, and feed their children each and every day—but their involvement in the steel industry was somewhat different. They took pride in that industry and craft, and took great pleasure in building the Llanwern plant into the most effective and productive in the world. In return, they received a closure notice from people whose only interest in the steel industry is the money that they can make from it. The nationalists argued in the past few weeks that the blame lies entirely with the Labour Government, but in doing so they diverted attention from the real enemies: Corus, Moffat and the shareholders, who asset-stripped that industry and did their damnedest to wipe out my community.

As a past student of Coleg Harlech, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will know that one of my predecessors was Aneurin Bevan. Nye had something important to say—a phrase that he often used—on issues such as this:

What I have said today is my truth, and I know it to be true because I was there. I was part of the struggle to maintain those jobs and that industry. It is sad that the nationalists have not followed that example. Once again, they have come down on the side of the bosses against the workers.

5.52 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I am delighted to follow those bizarre closing remarks, and I promise to be brief.

I want to start on a positive and perhaps consensual note by expressing my gratitude to the Government Whips for helping us to secure today's debates. You may be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there is a new arrangement whereby we in the minority parties now represent ourselves in dealing with Government Whips. We have found that productive and useful, and we are delighted to be relieved of the dead hand of Liberal Democrat representation in Committee. Towards the end of our relationship, our Liberal Democrat colleagues were actively acting against our interests, so we are pleased to be shot of them. It is important that the minority parties have something to contribute, and we are pleased that the necessary structure and arrangements are now in place. We look forward to many more such days.

I want to congratulate my hon. Friend—it is good to be able to say that, as an SNP Member—the member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price). I hope that I have not put back SNP/Plaid Cymru relations by perhaps

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pronouncing the second part of his constituency incorrectly. It is he who has unearthed and led on this issue, and who has tried to expose a new, murky dynamic involving donations by key individuals and business men, and key Government concessions. He has dominated the issue and become the major opposition, and I congratulate him on unearthing it.

The SNP has major concerns about what my hon. Friend has uncovered. As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) will know, we in Scotland once had a viable, productive and efficient steel industry. Ravenscraig was one of the largest steel producers in Europe. In fact, it made excellent flat-rolled steel, produced in the distant steel mill in Kazakhstan that is now owned by Mr. Mittal, which he acquired with the assistance of Government money. I wish that a Mr. Mittal had been around in the 1980s, when the Scottish steel industry started to experience difficulties. Perhaps we could have encouraged him to try to get Government investment in Scotland. If such a figure had existed in those days, we might well have secured some jobs and retained a steel industry to call our own.

We are concerned not only about recent events in the steel industry, but about a further "cash for access" issue. Scotland on Sunday recently highlighted the case of Snowie, a waste company that donated some £5,000 to the Labour party in Scotland. Five months later, it secured some £30 million-worth of work. Snowie handed over the money after it was awarded clean-up work by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Scottish Executive, following the foot and mouth epidemic.

There is also the case of Ballathie Estates, a hunting and fishing estate on the River Tay, in my Perthshire constituency. Its director, Mr. John Milligan, was recently appointed chairman of the Scottish new deal advisory taskforce after giving some £25,000 to the Labour party.

Finally, there is the case of Hunter Esson, a director with Aberdeen-based Esson Properties, who said that he could not imagine why anyone would think that his company's £5,000 donation to Labour had any impact on the decision to grant it planning permission to build on greenbelt land.

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