HC Deb 04 August 1980 vol 990 cc9-11
3. Mr. Chapman

asked the Secretary of State for Industry by what amount the taxpayer has subsidised the British Steel Corporation in the last 10 years; and how much this works out per household and person.

The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Michael Marshall)

Over the 10 years to the end of March 1980, the Government have provided or guaranteed the British Steel Corporation about £4,700 million in loans and advances of capital to finance its capital investment, working capital, revenue deficits and other cash requirements. This is equivalent to £ 235 per household and £85 per person in the United Kingdom. No dividend on public dividend capital has been paid since 1974 –75. Interest on loan capital has been paid at a decreasing level in the past two years—since April 1978—because of the issue of interest-free finance under section 18 (1) of the Iron and Steel Act 1975.

Mr. Chapman

As taxpayers have had to bear a considerable burden in the past decade, does my hon. Friend think it not unreasonable that taxpayers should now try to get an assurance from the Government that henceforth subsidies for the corporation will be confined to investment in sound capital projects, rather than merely to prop up the industry at the same manpower level, which by any token is a relatively high-wage low-productivity industry?

Mr. Marshall

I am sure that the chairman of the corporation will have taken on board the force of my hon. Friend's comment. We look forward with great interest to receiving, and await urgently, the chairman's proposals.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Does the Minister agree that over the years the industry has been badly managed? Is it not a fact that a steel industry is vital and basic to a modern industrialised nation? Does the hon. Gentleman agree also that other countries have been more successful in disguising their subsidies—for example, the West German coking coal subsidy? Is the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) suggesting that we should turn our steel workers in South Wales into hotel porters and their wives into domestic servants in the South-East of England?

Mr. Marshall

I shall attempt to answer two out of the four supplementary questions put to me. The hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that the West German subsidy is designed to give coal a price that is equivalent to the world price. The corporation is currently importing steel at world prices to balance its load. As one who has known the industry for many years I recognise that there are problems, but the hon. Gentleman's condemnation of management is too sweeping and does not help the argument.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I appeal to Ministers to answer one supplementary question only, because hon. Members are entitled to ask only one.

Mr. Archie Hamilton

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best service that could be done to the taxpayer and to the employees of BSC would be to sell the profitable bits of the corporation to the private sector?

Mr. Marshall

Again, a question has been raised that must be very much in the mind of the chairman of the BSC in relation to his proposals. Such arguments cannot be taken in isolation at Question Time.

Mr. Hooley

How much harder would all those households have had to work if we had had to import the £30 billion of steel that the BSC has produced over the past 10 years?

Mr. Marshall

As the hon. Gentleman knows, he has posed a question that it is not possible to answer. Substantial amounts of money are involved and the British taxpayer has shown great faith in the industry. I support the BSC, but it must become profitable, not only in the interest of the industry, but in the interest of the many steel-consuming industries, on which this country's wealth essentially depends.

Mr. John Silkin

Does the Minister agree that the existence of a British bulk steel industry has been of enormous value to British industry during the past 10 years? If so, will he ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to tell his 4 million-dollar man that British bulk steel will not best be preserved by closing down steel mills in South Wales?

Mr. Marshall

I support the general proposition that this is a vital industry on which the whole of our industrial infrastructure depends. However, it must be competitive, not just in its own interests, but for the reasons that I outlined earlier.