Peter Morrison – 1986 Speech on the Tin Industry

Below is the text of the speech made by Peter Morrison, the then Minister of State at the Department of Trade and Industry, in the House of Commons on 24 January 1986.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) has had the opportunity to raise an incredibly important matter for Cornwall.

I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s detailed and well-informed account of the tin industry in Cornwall. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) may be aware that I have been down two tin mines in Cornwall and I have visited Cornwall perhaps more times than any other part of the country since I became a Minister about five years ago.
I am aware that unemployment in Cornwall is extremely high—about 19·5 per cent. I am aware also that Cornwall’s distance from market places could be described as an inhibiting factor. I believe that people in Cornwall feel that way. I think that it is fair to say—I do not say this in a patronising way—that the rest of the country misunderstands Cornwall’s position. To a certain extent, it is assumed that problems do not exist in Cornwall. When we go as tourists and holiday makers to the area, we are greeted with enormous hospitality and great generosity. The countryside is beautiful and the seaside is perhaps everyone’s dream. We do not see the true position.

Most people would not expect unemployment in Cornwall to be 19·5 per cent., yet, in the big cities, the ​ unemployment levels are as follows: Manchester, a little less than 14·5 per cent.; Newcastle, 18·4 per cent.; Glasgow, 17·5 per cent.; and Bristol, 11·3 per cent. Even Ebbw Vale, where one would expect a much higher level of unemployment, has precisely the same unemployment level as Cornwall. I do not underestimate Cornwall’s problems. The problems are not sufficiently understood, and some people underestimate them.
Of course I understand the position of those who work in Cornwall, especially at Geevor, South Croft) and Wheal Jane, and at the other small producers in the constituency of the hon. Member for Truro. The hon. Gentleman said that about 1,500 people work in the tin mines. About 4,500 people, including dependants, are directly affected. Many other people are indirectly employed and, not surprisingly, are worried about what is happening. They will read what has been said in the debate and dissect it carefully.

It is still too early to judge the impact of recent developments on the commercial prospects for tin mining in Cornwall. The most important factor will be the price at which tin settles when the market reopens. Some fall in price is probable, indeed almost certain. The extent of that fall in the short term will depend on the outcome of the Government’s efforts to secure an acceptable settlement of the International Tin Council’s debts and a return to orderly trading. As it is unlikely that the International Tin Council will agree to resume buffer stock buying, it seems inevitable that in the longer teen supply and demand will have to balance—I was interested in what the hon. Member for Truro said about the tin mines of Cornwall in the market place in the longer term—and some of the world’s more expensive producers are likely to have to close as a result. It is against that background that prospects for Cornwall tin will have to be assessed.

We have already said that we shall consider applications for grants for tin mining companies to help them reduce production costs. Since 1979, we have given grants of £3·5 million to continue projects, including exploration.

Decisions on grants cannot be taken until we can be satisfied that any project receiving assistance from the taxpayer has reasonable prospects for a sound commercial future. I hope that the hon. Member for Truro and his constituents will understand that.

The period of uncertainty has been lengthy, and that is bound to cause problems for some companies. That is one of the reasons why our priority is to restore orderly trading as soon as possible. That will be in the interests of everyone. That is taking longer than we had hoped, but, when 22 countries are involved, there are bound to be difficulties.

The United Kingdom has made quite clear its readiness to meet its share of any commitments of the International Tin Council member countries and has called upon others to do likewise. Proposals aimed at finding an acceptable solution to the International Tin Council’s problems have been put forward, and we have made great efforts to resolve the crisis through diplomatic channels and will continue to do so. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that an inordinate amount of time has been spent in my Department dealing with this matter. The people involved are working nights and weekends.