Hywel in Parliament - Debates

Speech on Steel

5th March 2002

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): As a representative of the steel constituency of Aberavon, I take this opportunity to thank on my constituents' behalf the Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). Indeed, Torfaen is also a great steel constituency. He and the Labour First Minister of the Assembly have made great efforts to support the Welsh steel industry in the past year, which was arguably the most difficult in our history since the war.

I also welcome the Government's commitment to referring the United States to the World Trade Organisation if it introduces steel tariffs. Hon. Members on both sides of the House should welcome that, and we should also welcome the support of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for the introduction of safeguards to ensure that steel currently sent to the US by non-EU countries is not dumped in the EU. Further to that, the House should demand that Corus in the US—Corus Tuscaloosa—unequivocally oppose US tariffs.

While my constituency has not borne the job losses experienced elsewhere in Wales, we none the less have had our own terrible tribulations with the tragedy on 8 November 2001. The explosion at the No. 5 blast furnace in Port Talbot resulted in the deaths of three steelworkers. Thankfully, all the injured men have now been discharged from Morriston hospital, thanks to the dedication and skills of staff in the burns unit.

This debate affords those of us from steel communities the opportunity to review the very considerable efforts that have been made in the last year by the Labour Government and the Labour-led National Assembly in partnership with many bodies, including my own union, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation.

The pretext for this debate, on the face of it, is one company and one political donation, but we believe that the real issues facing the industry, steelworkers and our communities are being addressed by the Labour Government in real, tangible and constructive ways. As secretary of the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on steel, I am well aware of the efforts made not

Only by our Labour Government here in Westminster, the Labour-led Welsh Assembly, the many Labour authorities in Wales and throughout the United Kingdom but by the many agencies and private sector companies that have worked together in social partnerships to rebuild and diversify our local economies.

In my own constituency, we have the welcome news from Corus of the £75 million investment in rebuilding the No. 5 blast furnace. We also have the announcement by the Welsh Assembly of the establishment of an advanced technology centre at Port Talbot, which will bring together Government agencies and the very best applied research in our Welsh universities to drive forward innovation in the industry. We have the continuing very good progress of the new Baglan energy park, again through public and private social partnerships, notably with General Electric, the Welsh Development Agency and Neath Port Talbot county borough council—a Labour authority that has been outstanding in its efforts to diversify the local economy. Next Monday, we launch our own Afan community credit union, with strong support from the ISTC and the Welsh Assembly—yet another example of how we are getting on with the job of rebuilding and serving our steel communities.

Across Wales, great efforts have been made by the main steel union, ISTC, and all the other unions in the industry, Steel Partnership Training, UK Steel Enterprises and Steel Action. All those bodies have placed great emphasis on the acquisition of new skills and new learning opportunities. I am proud to say that one such initiative, the newly formed Port Talbot union academy links into the new local community learning network in my constituency, established through objective 1 funding, which our Government achieved.

Too many Opposition politicians tend to undervalue the efforts and achievements of the past year. Who on the Opposition Benches applauds my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith), who has consistently championed the steelworkers of Ebbw Vale? In the wake of the redundancy announcement last year, through his efforts and the efforts of Lord Brookman of Ebbw Vale, as well as those of the local Labour Assembly Member, Peter Law, and the Labour authority, we have the reopening of the passenger train service to Ebbw Vale and the new UK steel enterprise innovation centre. The new centre will be launched at Victoria, near Ebbw Vale, at a cost of £3 million, to assist local start-up enterprises.

It is clear that steel and manufacturing are still major players in the Welsh economy. Manufacturing accounts for more than 18 per cent. of employment in Wales. Corus has made it clear to our Government that Wales is now a place where world-class steel production can take place and says that it is committed to achieving that.

Much has been done in the past year that deserves praise. The Prime Minister and other Ministers supported the attempted ISTC workers' buy-out at Llanwern. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister have all been unequivocal in their condemnation of possible US tariffs on British steel exports. The possible announcement tomorrow of such tariffs will add to the existing difficulties faced by large companies such as Corus. They have already identified issues relating to tax, transport and energy costs, which they consider to be challenges for them, and the imposition of a US tariff would only add to those problems.

It would be appropriate for this debate to focus on those challenging issues rather than the irrelevance of trying to link political donations to the Government's policies. As internationalists, and as supporters of European enlargement and the modernisation of the global steel industry, we should be proud of what our Government are doing in Westminster and Cardiff.

I trust that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will convey to both the Prime Minister and Mr. Mittal our expectations that every effort should continue to be made to prevent such tariffs from being introduced. That should be done in the spirit of extending and strengthening our Government's commitment to developing corporate social responsibility.

I arranged for the all-party steel group to write to Mr. Mittal last week urging him to support the aims of our group, in particular our desire to ensure a fair deal for the UK steel industry and to aid the regeneration of steel and former steel communities.

We would all concur with the words of the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, Rhodri Morgan, earlier this year when he said:

"The new blast furnace which will be constructed at Port Talbot will not only be a memorial to those who lost their lives but also a symbol of the endurance of an industry vital to Wales and its continuing contribution in the years ahead to this country and the communities that serve it".

He continued:

"There are no quick fixes to problems as entrenched as those of our long neglected industrial communities. I believe that the programme set out"— by the Welsh Assembly—

"is a new start and the strongest possible expression of faith in the future of these communities".

Modern Wales was built on and built by those great steel communities. Historians have written that the building of Margam steelworks in my constituency was a symbol of Labour's commitment to the reviving of south Wales in the post-war period. Margam in its day was the greatest steelworks in Britain and the historian Dr. John Davies saw its creation as one of the three great political landmarks of post-war Wales.

I find it encouraging—indeed, prophetic—that the rugby sides enjoying success this year are from the great south Wales steel towns of Aberavon, Newport, Pontypool and Ebbw Vale. Unlike Opposition Members, we can speak legitimately for steel communities and former steel communities in Wales and throughout the United Kingdom. We are proud of what our party in government is doing to address the serious challenges facing our industry. That is why Labour Members took the initiative to establish the new all-party parliamentary group on steel and I urge all Members, of whatever party, to assist us in our objectives of ensuring a fair deal for the UK steel industry.

This year, steelworkers in Port Talbot celebrate a centenary of steel making. The industry continues to be a very significant contributor to the economy of the region. It is my belief that Labour's policies assist, even in these most difficult times, in sustaining our steel communities and in assisting those who wish to develop new initiatives to achieve a more diverse local economy.

I shall end with the words of David Ferris, the chair of the unions at Port Talbot steelworks. We would all do well to listen to and show some respect for the steel unions. I only wish some parties—daffodil Tories all—had done so after the explosion in Port Talbot. David Ferris said this to me yesterday:

"What Labour is doing today is to be welcomed by all of us: it is comparable with our achievements after 1945."

Return to the top of the page
Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Level Double-A Conformance to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0