Roy Hughes – 1974 Speech on the Spencer Steelworks

Below is the text of the speech made by Roy Hughes, the then Labour MP for Newport, in the House of Commons on 13 March 1974.

I would say at the outset, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what a delight it is to me to see you in your elevated position, and as a fellow Welsh Member I ask you to accept my sincere congratulations.

I wrote to Mr. Speaker seeking this debate the day after I was elected back to the House, and following promises that I made to people in my constituency during the election campaign. The Spencer works employ nearly 9,000 people, and many hundreds more are employed by ancillary concerns attached to them. The works are literally the cornerstone of the economy of Newport.

Recent happenings at these works have been the subject of considerable public concern. They have been highly detrimental to the town of Newport in its quest for new industry. Secondly, they have been politically damaging to the Labour Party which profoundly believes in public ownership of the steel industry.

The immediate sequence of events was a small dispute, following which the British Steel Corporation decided to close the works and to lay off many thousands of workpeople. Following that, the payment of unemployment and other benefits to those workpeople was stopped. In addition, an offensive letter was sent to each workman at the plant, and this all at the height of the General Election campaign. The letter caused tremendous bitterness in the area. Housewives as well as workpeople at the works were highly indignant, and I can truthfully say that at times there was almost a riotous situation there.

There are a number of questions which I want to pose to the Minister. Who gave instructions to Mr. Stanley Brooks, the Llanwern group director, to close the works? Was the corporation responding to the dictates of the Government of the ​ day in their law and order campaign? In other words, was it a politically motivated decision? Those are fundamental questions which I feel need answering.

These works have a tremendous potential, but their history to date has been nothing short of a disaster. They were opened in 1962 by Her Majesty the Queen, following a decision in 1958 by the then Macmillan Government. There was a controversy over the site. Consequently, half of the original plant came to Newport and half went to Scotland. The Newport side of the venture nevertheless cost about £200 million, but due to the split there was a production bottleneck right from the start. There was not enough steelmaking capacity to keep the massive and extremely expensive rolling mills working to capacity. What is more, the plant was opened at a time when the product produced was plentiful. Thus, in the early ‘sixties it was selling its product at below market price. The works certainly got off to a bad start.

My former colleague, Mr. Donald Anderson, who was then Member for Monmouth, and I fought hard to remedy matters. Eventually, in January 1970, the last Labour Government authorised what became known as Scheme C to provide, among other things, a third blast furnace and to bring the steel-making capacity into line with the rolling mills.

After the 1970 General Election, however, the new Conservative Government held up the scheme, although later they gave the go-ahead again. Such indecision, nevertheless, was hardly likely to inspire confidence among the workpeople.

What is more, over the years the cost of the scheme has escalated from the original £48 million to £90 million. Another damaging factor was three years ago at the works, when an investigation was held by the fraud squad into a possible £300,000 fraud involving the hire of plant and equipment. Although the Director of Public Prosecutions eventually decided to take no action in the matter, this, again, tended to undermine confidence.

These factors have been highly detrimental to the works, but they had nothing to do with the actions of the work force. Nevertheless, I agree that many of the current difficulties are about industrial relations—in other words, about ​ people. When the works started, people flocked there from West Wales, from many of the villages and towns of the hinterland. New communities sprang up, and ever since there has been a certain lack of social cohesion. Likewise, there has been the lack of security at the works. This is partly due to the production bottlenecks to which I have referred.

I have received numerous deputations over the years from the trade unions calling for a fully integrated plant. There is the question of iron ore supplies. The works are at present supplied by small ships of less than 30,000 tons coming into Newport docks but there was an Uskmouth scheme passed by the House in 1967 which would have provided for much larger vessels. After public ownership, this scheme was, unfortunately, pigeon-holed. Now we have the ridiculous decision by the corporation to supply iron ore for the works through Port Talbot and bring it 50 miles over land. A new harbour would cost a fraction of the cost of new works, and the Spencer Works would derive tremendous benefit from a harbour at Uskmouth. Instead, the works are being treated merely as a subsidiary of Port Talbot, and this, again, is highly detrimental to morale.

Why cannot the corporation management see this? It has much to answer for and it is no good its trying to put all the fault on the workpeople, as it is doing through its public relations department. There was a major dispute there in early 1973 over the sacking of a boilermaker. A strike by 280 men ensued which lasted over seven weeks. Eventually, over 5,000 men were laid off and the dispute was estimated to cost £10 million. It was a completely unnecessary dispute.

I do not want to go into the pros and cons of the dispute, but an independent tribunal reinstated the man. I said at the time—and I was fully supported by my right hon. Friend the present Foreign Secretary—that this man should have been suspended with pay and then a tribunal could have been established to go into the whole matter. But what the BSC wanted was that the man should be laid off without pay and that then the tribunal should sit.

As I said at that time, it is like the judge in the Western film who said, “You are guilty, but you will have a fair trial”.

This behaviour is against all the concepts of British justice. Again, at the end of last year I was approached by one of the trade unionists at the plant who made allegations of telephone tapping. I took up the matter in a reasonable manner with the British Steel Corporation management.

After eight weeks I had received no satisfactory reply and I therefore indicated that I intended to raise the matter in the House. Subsequently, the British Steel Corporation issued a statement in The Times to the effect that it had reviewed its procedures for checking against the misuse of company telephones and that the previous practice at some works of monitoring certain calls had been discontinued.

Again, I pose the question: are actions of this kind likely to promote confidence and good will among workpeople? Another factor from which the works is suffering is in their choice of management personnel. There has been an invasion from the North of England from people previously associated with the United Steels Company. They have worsened the situation at the works. They do not understand the psychology of the workers. The Welsh temperament is different from theirs. There has been a long and great history of steel making in South Wales, but there is no vision among the new management staff. I believe that the corporation should bring to the works Mr. John Powell, the formerly highly successful manager at Ebbw Vale, now at Shotton. He has the verve and flair to make a success of this potentially great works.

I turn to the present scandal of the non-payment of benefits to the people who were laid off as a result of the recent dispute. I have been swamped with requests from workers about the injustice of this situation. My telephone at home has hardly stopped ringing. The dispute originally affected only a handful of people. Why should thousands of people be denied benefits as a result?

I call upon the Minister, as a matter of urgency, to contact the Secretaries of State for Employment and for Social ​ Services to see that these benefits are paid without further delay. There is a feeling of righteous indignation in our area at the present time about the situation at these works. People are simply demanding that the situation be looked into.

Tonight I wish officially to report this request. The inquiry must be national in character. Perhaps the steel committee of the TUC would be the appropriate body for it, together with representatives of top-level management of the British Steel Corporation and also of the Department of Employment.

There was a series of industrial disputes some years ago at the Port Talbot works, but eventually, after the major inquiry there, the air was cleared and it heralded a new era of industrial relations at the plant. Something similar is called for at the Spencer works. To my mind, it is not only management-worker relationships that should be discussed but also the future development of the works, to build it into a fully integrated plant, as I mentioned earlier. These are the moves that need to be urgently made to restore morale at these works. I hope that my hon. Friend will give some clear assurances tonight about these matters and authorise the establishment of an inquiry so that the position can be clarified for the people in my constituency.