Boulby Potash and Teesside Unemployment: 2nd December 2015

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
I do not know whether the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) wanted to speak too, Mr Davies, but if she does, I will take as many interventions as she would like to make. That is never a problem.

Geraint Davies (in the Chair)
In the 10 minutes available.

Anna Soubry
I know—I only have 10 minutes.​

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing the debate. Obviously, we do not agree politically, but I would be the first to pay tribute to the continuing work that he does on behalf of his constituents. He has come here with a list of demands, and quite properly so—there is nothing wrong with that. As far as I am concerned, the usual rules will apply: if I do not answer any of the questions that he has asked, my officials will of course answer them later, and the same goes for interventions that other hon. Members have made.

The announcement that Cleveland Potash plans to shed 220 direct jobs along with another 140 contractor jobs is extremely bad news. I would be the first to concede that, and as the hon. Gentleman said, it comes at a particularly difficult time for this part of our country in the wake of the closure of the SSI plant at Redcar. The impact is not lost on this Minister, nor on the Government: it is bad news for those workers and their families. The hon. Gentleman is right that there is something about the run-up to Christmas that makes these things all the worse.

Andy McDonald
Will the Minister give way?

Anna Soubry
As an act of extreme generosity to the hon. Gentleman, I shall give way.

Andy McDonald
I am very grateful to the Minister; she is extremely kind. Will she apply her mind to the plight of those workers who were employed through agencies in respect of the SSI crash, and who are now having to go to the redundancy payments service and are not getting a return, notwithstanding the fact that they are producing P45s to show that they were employees? They are being told that they were self-employed and that there is nothing down for them. Will she please use her good offices to extend the rescue package to include those people?
 
Anna Soubry
I will certainly look at that, and I am more than happy to discuss it with the hon. Gentleman afterwards. However, if I may, I will talk about the situation at Boulby, which is, of course, the subject of the debate.

The Government, unfortunately, cannot alter the level of potash reserves. We stand ready to provide support to the Cleveland Potash workers through the Jobcentre Plus rapid response service. Let me say to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland that, as the hon. Member for Redcar knows, when it comes to some of the rather peculiar decisions that are often made by jobcentres, saying, “You can’t have funding for this,” or, “You can’t do that,” I urge him to give me the examples—my door is always open to him and to other hon. Members—and I promise I will always do whatever I can to unglue some of the ridiculous rules that seem to exist. We cannot mess about. People are in danger of losing their jobs and we need to make sure that the support available for them is real support that delivers.

Our aim is to help all the workers who are affected, even though a final decision has not been made. However, I think we all know and understand where we are going in this unfortunate situation. I am told that the Department for Work and Pensions has already made contact with Cleveland Potash to see what can be done to limit ​the impact on staff, and officials in my Department are discussing how the company can provide the most effective support to the workers who will be affected.

I am pleased that the owners of Cleveland Potash have committed to the long-term future of the mine, particularly in developing their polysulphate product line. The commercial exploitation of that product is supported by the Government. In due course, as the product becomes more acceptable in worldwide agriculture, I hope that more jobs will come back to the mine.

This loss comes after significant job losses in the Tees valley, particularly with the liquidation of SSI, but also given what has happened with Caparo’s operation in Hartlepool and the pause—and it is a pause, we are told—in construction announced by Air Products in Cleveland. Let us hope it is just that—a pause—and that all then goes well. I know from my meetings with those directly impacted by the SSI closure how difficult a time it has been for everybody. That is not lost on me.

Anna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op)
I thank the Minister for her generous offer to me. I will not take up too much time, because I am conscious that there is not a lot left.

I want to echo the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) made. A number of people have come to me who are still experiencing ongoing issues, including unpaid overtime. People who are unsecured creditors have been told that they will not be allowed any of the money that was owing to them from the official receiver. There are also agency workers—particularly those working for Jo Hand, which is a company that went into liquidation a few days before, then set up under another name—who have not been entitled to a penny, so we have a number of outstanding issues. If it is okay, I will take the Minister up on her kind offer and get in contact with her directly about those issues. I would appreciate her support in taking them forward.

Anna Soubry
Yes, I urge the hon. Lady to write or email me and I will make sure all those concerns are directly acted upon. If we can help and make a difference, we absolutely will.

I am conscious of the time, so for the record I want to make a few points quickly about Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned. In terms of that decision, 2018-19 is the time when the changes will be made. It is important to note that they are not happening overnight; there is a period of time.

On the comments by the Secretary of State for Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I will take that up—I cannot comment now because I genuinely do not know anything about that. I hear what the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland said about CCS. May I also say that we have changed the procurement rules? This is really important. Our new directive—our new rules on procurement—basically say that there are now no excuses for not buying British. It really is a big shift, not in Government policy but in the whole attitude and approach. We are making sure that people really do not have any excuses when it comes to procurement—they should buy British.

I also mention the appointment of Lord Heseltine of Thenford, which I know was controversial. It was my idea—I put that absolutely clearly on the record—to ​bring him in, because he is somebody who gets stuff done, who can bring folk together and who can connect various bits of Government to make sure that Tees valley now gets the inward investment, for example through working with Lord Maude, who sits in my Department and is responsible for trade and all that UK Trade & Investment does. I thought, and continue to believe, that it was a very good idea to bring somebody in with the experience and clout, if I can put it that way, to lead in the Tees valley and bring all these different people, ideas and resources together, so that we get exactly the sort of way forward and future for this part of the country that it absolutely needs and deserves.

Let me also put it on record that I am really proud of the huge amount of work that the Government have done, because it is not all bad news for the Tees valley, even though it has been a really bad few months. There is no debate about that—it has been dreadful. I do not disagree about the job losses and the numbers—they speak volumes, of course. However, we must not forget the huge amount of investment in the Tees valley, with the devolution deal and all that that will bring to the area. The area has huge resources in its people, its skills and its colleges. Notwithstanding this unfortunate time, it still has a great story and a huge future.

Alex Cunningham
I remain to be convinced about the value of the devolution deal, but I welcome Lord Heseltine’s involvement in the project. I hope that the Minister might arrange for him to have “CCS” and “coal gasification” on his pad when he starts to decide what he can do and uses the clout that she is talking about.

Anna Soubry
I absolutely undertake to write to Lord Heseltine specifically on that point. For the record, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland does not only make speeches; he comes to me and makes his case to my face. I make no complaint about that, because he is doing his job. It would be great if more MPs took up such issues in the way that he does—apart from when we fall out, of course.

In all seriousness, however, I undertake to ensure that Lord Heseltine gets a copy of the debate. If the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) or anyone attending or listening to the debate wishes to write something to me for forwarding, I will ensure that Lord Heseltine knows about people’s desires and dreams—what the hon. Gentleman would describe as things that can be realised as a reality and as a way forward, and that is important.

Anna Turley
Will the Minister give way?

Anna Soubry
I will give way—I have given up on the rest of my speech, so interventions are not a problem.

Anna Turley
As the Minister is aware, the SSI site is a crucial piece in the jigsaw of the future of Teesside. A number of people have contacted us locally with plans for and ideas about what to do with the site, but they have struggled to get any response from the official receiver—things have been very quiet on that front for the past couple of weeks. Will the Minister be able to give a poke to encourage a response?

Anna Soubry
I absolutely undertake to do that.

The big ask from the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland was for the support package. The package is very good and I am proud of the work that it is already doing. I will always remember the securing of those 50 apprenticeships as something we achieved—ensuring that those 50 young people continued their apprenticeships. I pay tribute to everyone who took them on. I am always willing to listen, but at the moment there are no plans to extend the support package.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).