Inside Parliament: Tebbit in torment over EC move to fine British Steel: Minister 'washes hands' of steel companies penalty - Cook urges rethink over subsidy - Tunnel security tightened amid terrorism fears

Click to follow
Indy Politics
Lord Tebbit, former Conservative Party chairman, buried his head in his hands in a gesture of despair yesterday as he sat in the Commons gallery listening to Tim Sainsbury, Minister of State for Industry, wash his hands of the European Commission attempt to fine British Steel pounds 28m.

The Commission has decided to impose a fine of about ecu 100m (pounds 76m) on 16 steel companies after an investigation into alleged anti-competitive practices involving beams for the construction industry. It found price-fixing, exchange of information and market-sharing. British Steel, which faces the heaviest fine, is expected to appeal.

Mr Sainsbury, responding to a Labour demand for a statement, provoked uproar when he told MPs: 'I would stress that this matter is entirely for the Commission and the company.' Robin Cook, Labour trade and industry spokesman, sounded astonished. 'The survival of the British steel industry is not something else Mr Sainsbury can add to the long list of things for which this Government will take no responsibility.'

British Steel had made the biggest cuts in capacity and yet would be hit by a fine three times that of the next biggest fine, and larger than the profits it declared in the first six months of 1993.

Mr Cook urged Mr Sainsbury to reconsider his agreement at the Council of Ministers last December to a pounds 5bn subsidy for the steel industries of Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal. 'How can it be fair competition to fine BS millions and subsidise German and Italian steel by billions?' There should be no more cuts in steel capacity in Britain until the rest of Europe matched those BS had already made, he added.

Mr Sainsbury wondered whether Mr Cook was suggesting leaving the EU and abrogating the treaties of Rome and Paris. The purpose of the December agreement had been to reduce operating subsidies and to introduce strict monitoring.

Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, sat gloomy-faced on the front bench as his deputy came under fire, not only from Labour but from a succession of Tory Eurosceptics. In the gallery reserved for peers, their champion, Lord Tebbit, buried his head as Mr Sainsbury, seemingly incapable of deflecting the angry mood, said MPs should not assume the appeal would go against BS 'any more than we should assume it would succeed'.

From the Conservative side, Bill Cash, MP for Stafford, said European treaties had caused a 'disastrous mess' in Britain's coal and steel industries and should be renegotiated. Phillip Oppenheim, MP for Amber Valley, said the EC was 'the biggest rigger of markets of the lot'.

Roger Knapman (C. Stroud) wanted a guarantee that fines in Italy would not be paid with a further subsidy. ' pounds 28m is a lot of money. It will keep 28 MEPs going for a full working year,' he added.

MPs were keenly aware that, two weeks ago, Mr Sainsbury, with a similarly impassive Mr Heseltine by his side, had announced the takeover of Britain's last volume car-maker, Rover Group, by BMW of Germany. And last May he had signalled the end of shipbuilding on the Tyne with the closure of Swan Hunter. On both occasions he disclaimed any Government responsibility. 'When it comes to hand-wringing and hand-washing, Mr Sainsbury has no lessons to learn from Pontius Pilate,' Stuart Bell, Labour MP for Middlesbrough, said.

Perhaps the day's lack of enthusiasm for Europe accounted for the near-empty chamber as approval was given to an Order intended to strengthen the defences of the Channel tunnel against terrorists, bomb-hoaxers and train hijackers.

The Channel Tunnel (Security) Order creates a number of new offences, all punishable by life sentences, including hijacking, seizing control of the tunnel system, destroying or damaging tunnel trains or the system, and making threats. It places responsibility for security on Eurotunnel and British Rail and gives authority for searches of trains, passengers and buildings.

Frank Dobson, Labour's transport spokesman, said the tunnel was Britain's prestige engineering project of the last part of the century and as such was likely to attract the attention of terrorists, and of 'slightly potty' attention-seekers.

A feeling of security and safety was crucial to the success of the venture, he said. If ministers and Eurotunnel thought that 'at some point they are going to contract-out some of these security duties to people like Group 4, they can write off any thought that there is going to be any profit.

'Nobody will use the tunnel if they're going to involve people like Group 4.' Security had to remain with the British Transport Police and other police forces.

John Taylor, Ulster Unionist MP for Strangford, said it would 'foolish' to think that the tunnel would not be a major target for terrorism. He told MPs that a very large number of workers from the Irish Republic had been involved in the project.

'They had their chaplaincy and they had their Irish pubs. It may not be generally known that at those Irish pubs there were considerable collections taken for IRA funds.' Mr Taylor added that contracts for catering on the trains and duty-free shopping had gone to two Irish firms, and called for 'proper screening and vetting of staff'. The Order was agreed without a vote.

Leading article, page 19

Steel penalties, page 35