My Comment Piece for today's Sunday Express spelling out what govt can do to support our great steel industry:
Well the world is turned upside down! Who would have guessed that a free market Conservative Government would be kowtowing to Communist China and French nationalised industry to build the UK’s infrastructure? But in a week that has seen Communist China’s President ride in a golden chariot down the Mall, share a beer with the PM in an English pub and visit the City of Manchester Stadium, that seems to be what is happening! At the same time steelworkers in Scunthorpe and Scotland learned, like their fellow workers in Redcar, they would be losing their jobs as cheap Chinese steel floods Europe’s markets.
The Conservatives certainly talk the talk – that’s a large part of why they won May’s General Election. With their promise of backing ‘working people’ and supporting ‘the march of the makers’ to build a ‘northern powerhouse’ you can understand why people fell for them. But the time for rhetoric, the time for warm words is now over. It’s time now for action. If we believe in having a steel industry, the foundation of our defence and manufacturing base, we need to act before it’s too late.
And at the recent Steel Summit – first called for by me at September’s Prime Minister’s Questions – it was very clear what needs to be urgently done for UK steel is to have a prosperous future to match its prosperous past. All the leaders of UK Steel were there. The Chief Executives of steel companies like Tata and Celsa were there. The Trade Unions, ably led by Roy Rickhuss, General Secretary of Community, were there. All the great and the good of the UK’s steel industry! And they spoke with one voice. They asked for action to be taken so that UK steel can compete on a level playing field.
Our energy costs are a third higher than those of France or Germany. So the Government needs to bring forward its promised package of support for energy intensive industries from April 2016 and introduce it immediately. That would breathe confidence into the industry. Business Rates for the Tata’s Scunthorpe Steelworks are around £15 million a year compared with the £3 million a year they are paying for their larger plant in the Netherlands. Any government worth its salt would take some immediate action to provide relief on business rates.
The flood of Chinese steel onto the European market must be stopped. It’s attacking market share and pushing down the price of steel so there’s not enough value to keep people in work. It’s time for David Cameron to show some mettle and work with our European partners to match the US government and take immediate action on this. This might be by introducing a traceability system on product quality. Or going to the World Trade Organisation and using the evidence supplied by steelmakers to show what’s going on is against international dumping rules. Finally when we are building things here in the UK we need to be much better at insisting on a high level of local content in the steel used for construction. When taxpayers’ money is being used to build HS2, wind turbines, power stations or other large infrastructure projects their money should be invested in UK jobs.
These are the things that need to happen. Action on energy costs, business rates, Chinese dumping and procurement. And it needs to happen now before it’s too late. What we’ve had so far is some money found to support affected workers with retraining. This shouldn’t be sniffed at but the numbers are quite small and all the press releases in the world trumpeting this sort of thing won’t actually create the high quality jobs that are needed to replace those high quality jobs being lost. Too often, in places like Scunthorpe and Redcar, jobs with high pay and high skill are being replaced by lower skilled, less secure, lower paid jobs.
And it’s not just the people employed in the steelworks that are suffering. A logistics company contacted me this week to say that the knock on effect on them would be them laying off staff. Job losses of this sort could be devastating to our local economy. They are an attack on the future of our whole community.
Scunthorpe’s workforce are fantastic. They’ve done everything management have asked of them and more. Scunthorpe people are amazing in the way they’ve responded and shown their support. But for all our resilience we can’t get through this on our own. At times like this we badly need leadership. We need a Prime Minister who will match his words with actions. And we need his government to act before it is too late