13 February 2001

Alison Halford (Delyn):

With regard to policy development and co-ordination of cross cutting issues, what lessons has the Assembly learned from the recent dealings with Corus in order to prevent such actions in the future. (OAQ9578)

The First Minister:

I am grateful for that question because Corus did itself no favours in its conduct. It was in marked contrast to the way Ford in handling the disinvestment in Cleveland, Ohio, and the welcome investment in Bridgend, operated on both sides of the Atlantic. As regards Corus, we are continuing to work closely with the trade unions. There will be an enormously important meeting between the trade unions and Corus’ top brass tomorrow. We had a meeting of the taskforce, which involved the trade unions, local authorities, central Government agencies such as the Department for Education and Employment, and other agencies in Wales such as the Welsh Development Agency and the training and enterprise councils. Therefore, we tried to examine this as a cross-cutting issue, allowing for the fact that the circumstances will be different in Ebbw Vale, Llanwern, Shotton and Bryngwyn. Each will need a tailor-made package suiting their exact circumstances when we know the outcome of tomorrow’s negotiations. We hope that tomorrow’s meeting between Corus and the steel unions in London goes well.

Alison Halford:

Continuing the policy development theme, and bearing in mind the unnecessary criticism of you by colleagues in this Chamber about your perceived lack of interest in north Wales, can you recall that you went to a business breakfast on 12 January, and made useful statements there? Regrettably Janet Ryder or Peter Rogers did not attend it and they may wish to know what you said in their absence.

Peter Rogers rose—

The Presiding Officer:

Order. Alison Halford asked a supplementary question and is entitled to an answer.

The First Minister:

I am not responsible for attendance at business breakfasts. It is one of those American innovations of which I do not entirely approve. I have every sympathy, therefore, with Peter, and others, who may have chosen not to attend, who may not have been invited, or who may have been there. I do not know. All I can say is that is was incredibly well attended—

Alun Cairns:

Peter was there.

The First Minister:

The fact that there were some 300 people present may be why I did not see Peter. It was great to speak to such a large, warm and receptive audience. It almost made it worth the effort of getting up and getting into gear a little earlier than I otherwise would, although of course you cannot eat your breakfast at a business breakfast if you are the guest of honour.

Phil Williams:

Without exonerating Corus at all, do you agree that Corus gave many advance warnings of its problems, including the reception in the Assembly Neuadd attended by seven leading Corus managers? There were far more of them in attendance than members of the Government. Can you explain to the public why the Government’s first apparent response was on 13 December? That was eight days after Corus had taken the crucial decision to restructure the UK carbon steel division.

The First Minister:

This is an interesting point: what were we supposed to do, exactly, before 5 December? Were we supposed to say to John Bryant and his Dutch opposite number, Mr Fokko van Duyne, ‘You are lying. We know that you are not going to reline the blast furnace in Llanwern. We know that you will shortly be ’caused’ to depart your present office and that you are not going to be there long, we know that you are kidding us, and we know that you are going to stand on your heads shortly’. You cannot do or say that. I was one of the few who put their heads above the parapet at the time of the merger. I said that there might be problems and that a dagger might be pointed straight at Llanwern and Port Talbot. Mr Brian Moffat and his Dutch opposite number reacted angrily to my intervention in this matter in May 1999. However, if the firm states time and time again that it is pursuing a particular strategy until 5 December, you are somewhat up in the air in implying that we could have read between the lines about what was really happening in the company when you now know it was the exact opposite. They had previously said that they would reline the blast furnace and the next thing you know they are not going to reline it and are going to shutdown the whole of the heavy industry in Llanwern. There was no way that we could have known that when the company changed direction on 5 December.

William Graham:

Are the lessons learnt from the 1980s slim-down incorporated into the findings to which you referred previously? If so, when will we see them being implemented?

The First Minister:

The lessons of slim-down bring back difficult memories of Ian McGregor and Margaret Thatcher as the two mad axe people of heavy industry in this country. Once they had finished with the steel industry, they went on to the coal industry. I am unsure what lessons you wish to draw from that period, but I was under the impression that Margaret Thatcher and her Government did not know what they were doing in playing around with the British economy after they first came to power. I do not believe that they intended to create the manufacturing holocaust that they did, but that is what happened. There was a 20 per cent fall in output during those first two years and nobody was buying steel. Nothing like that is happening now. There are minor, microscopic difficulties in comparison with the havoc wrought by Margaret Thatcher. Ian McGregor had to axe thousands of jobs from the steel industry. Llanwern’s workforce decreased from 8,000 to 4,000. The same thing happened in Port Talbot and 8,000 jobs were axed in Shotton alone. All of that was in the first 12 months of the Thatcher Government. I am sorry that you brought that up because it brings back such dreadful memories to anyone living in Wales at the time.

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