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Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend's comments about the enormous anger that is felt today in the steel communities throughout our country. Their anger is justified; they are right to be angry about the action that the American Administration will take.
It is a tragedy that the American Administration, who played such a crucial role in securing the launch of the Doha development round and a new round of world trade negotiations, and signed up to negotiations that are designed to slash tariffs and import quotas around the world, have resorted to naked protectionism with no justification or legal basis.
I sympathise with my right hon. Friend's points about the need for action that is directed against America. I stress again that we shall consider what action to take, but will act within World Trade Organisation rules. That is in the interests of our country, of free and fair world trade and of the developing as well as the developed world.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Will the right hon. Lady ask the Prime Minister to speak gently but firmly to President Bush, and to tell him that many friends and admirers of America, who strongly supported the way in which the Government stood by our ally in recent months, will perceive the cynical and appalling action that we are discussing in the context of
Ms Hewitt: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will doubtless express his disappointment and views on the action directly to President Bush. However, it is important to understand that there is no connection between the action on steel and the global coalition against terrorism. We stand with the Americans and many other countries around the world in the global coalition against terrorism because that is the right thing to do and it is in our interests to do so. In the same way, we will stand with our steelworkers and steel producers against the American Administration, who have taken such completely unjustified action, because the Americans are wrong about that matter.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Does my right hon. Friend believe that the Americans will take a blind bit of notice of what she does?
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): They should.
Mr. Dalyell: Of course they should. I believe that my right hon. Friend is wrong and that the Americans will not take any notice unless we link the global connections with what has happened to the steel industry. Should not we tell the Americans that we are not with them in their proposals on, for example, Iraq?
Ms Hewitt: Although I understand the strength of my hon. Friend's feelings on the matter, he is wrong to try to link the deeply unfortunate action on the steel industry with other foreign policy matters, which the Government should and will judge on their merit.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): May I tell the right hon. Lady that the anger on our Benches today, yesterday and the day before is anything but synthetic? Will she confirm a couple of small points? First, when did the Prime Minister become involved? There is an impression that that happened last Thursdaya bit late in the day. Secondly, when will she meet Pascal Lamy to discuss the way forward? Will she keep the House updated every week or 10 days about what is happening? The UK steel industry is going down the tubes.
Ms Hewitt: Of course I shall continue to keep hon. Members informed about the action that we are taking. I spoke to Commissioner Lamy a few minutes before making the statement to the House this afternoon. There will be meetings and further telephone calls between officials and Ministers in the next few days and weeks as we decide on the appropriate and lawful action to take. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will continue to support the interests of British steelworkers.
Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): I thank the Secretary of State for her unequivocal and clear statement of support for the steel industry in the United Kingdom. Steelworkers in my constituency appreciate the Government's work on the matter.
Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that the safeguards that she has described will be introduced immediately? That will reassure steelworkers and their communities throughout the United Kingdom and the new all-party group on steel.
Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks and I very much appreciate the work of the new all-party parliamentary group on steel, with which I will continue to work closely.
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): As it is now clear from the letter published by the American chairman of Corus that the Secretary of State misled the British public on the "Today" programme this morning and has slurred Corus, will she now apologise? On three occasions, she has failed to answer a simple question, which is this; when did the Prime Minister first get involved in making representations to the American Administration and the President on this unfortunate matter?
Ms Hewitt: The statements that I made on the "Today" programme this morning and in other interviews during the day were, like the statement I made this afternoon, all factually accurate. I briefed my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the situation in July last year. He has remained closely involved and recently raised the issue personally with President Bush.
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): In the north Lincolnshire area that I represent alongside my hon. Friends the Members for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), we have seen tremendous changes in the steel industry. Back in 1979, there were more than 22,000 people on the works; there are now fewer than 4,000. Those steelworkers have taken those changes on the chin every time because they have been told that they would secure a long-term future for UK steel. This ludicrous decision from the American Government once again puts their jobs in jeopardy. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that at a UK, EU and worldwide level she will do everything she can to get assistance for the industry and, moreover, that she will base all her decisions on the simple criterion of protecting British steelworkers' jobs?
Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and of course I can give him that assurance.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I very much hope that the Secretary of State does not feel that our anger at the loss of British steel-making jobs would be, to use her word, "synthetic". Is it her intention to approach the European Commission with a view to exempting from the safeguard procedure the steel industry of Romania?
Ms Hewitt: I have already told the House that steel exports from the candidate countries have been exempted by the American Administration from their proposed tariffs. The reason for that is simple; it is because the exports from all those candidate countries are so small, whether those are exports to America or to the EU. The threat of diversion of imports, which is what we are concerned about, arises in the case of countries to whom the Americans are applying the tariffs, not the countries to whom they are not applying the tariffs. It will be in
Alan Howarth (Newport, East): Will my right hon. Friend reject at very short order the proposal from the Liberal Democrat spokesman, which is that she should, in effect, write off the UK steel industry? Is she aware that the determination that she has expressed on behalf of the Government and the EU to act urgently to challenge the legitimacy of American actions in the WTO and to prevent dumping in Europe of steel displaced from the market to the USA will be very much welcomed in steel-making communities in south-east Wales, where it is understoodin a way that the Conservative party and Plaid Cymru seem entirely unable to graspthat the policy of the Government to assist Romania to prepare its steel industry to operate within the rules of the EU so far from being detrimental to the interests of the British steel industry, will be beneficial to it, in that it will bring to an end subsidies and unfair trading practices in that quarter?
Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree. My right hon. Friend is standing up for the interests of the steelworkers whom he represents. We will of course do all we can and will work extremely closely with our European allies to ensure that we protect as far as possible his constituents and other steelworkers around the country against an utterly unjustified and unlawful action.
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): It might surprise the right hon. Lady and the House to hear me say that the steel industry is hugely important to Ryedale. Some of our major employers and manufacturers are among the biggest customers for steel made in the United Kingdom. In particular, Ward Building Components, which is part of the Kingspan group, is important given its purchase of steel manufactured in Wales. The Portakabin and Portastore factories on the outskirts of York also purchase huge amounts of steel. Those companies need a consistent supply of high-quality steel at competitive prices.
The market has already been destabilised over the past two or three years, as the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) said. I foresee the situation becoming worse. We risk the loss of jobs both in steel manufacture and in firms that use steel as a major component of their manufacturing processes. The Secretary of State said that she will consider safeguard action that may cause serious injury. In doing so, will she keep in mind the serious injury that may be caused to companies that rely on the supply of steel?