The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the steel sector. It is with regret that I find myself having to update the House on further job losses. This morning, Tata Steel announced plans to make over 1,000 redundancies across its UK strip business as part of its continuing restructuring plans. The proposals involve 750 job losses at Port Talbot, 200 redundancies in support functions at Llanwern, and 100 redundancies at steel mills in Trostre, Corby and Hartlepool. This will be a difficult time for all the workers and their families, and our thoughts must be with them. Our immediate focus will be on helping any workers who lose their jobs back into employment as quickly as possible. We will also continue to support the steel industry.
Given the United Kingdom’s devolution settlement, much of the support that can be offered in south Wales, both to the workers and to Tata Steel, will come from the Welsh Government, but the UK Government want to ensure that Port Talbot has a commercial and sustainable future. It is encouraging that the Welsh Government are to launch a taskforce this week—I believe that it is to meet for the first time on Wednesday—to support those affected by today’s announcement. We have offered our support to the chair of the taskforce, Edwina Hart, and we will continue to work with the Welsh Government. I welcome the commitment that the First Minister made today to work closely with the UK Government. I am confident that the Welsh Government will accede to our request to play a full part in the taskforce. I can assure hon. Members that we are also working closely with the Secretary of State for Wales—he is there today, which is why he is not in the House.
It is important to remember that the fundamental problem facing our steel industry is the fall in world prices, caused by the over-production and under-consumption of steel. We know, for example, that the price of slab has almost halved over the past 12 months, and that Tata has been losing £1 million a day as a result of the slump in prices. All that the industry has asked for—this includes the unions—is a level playing field, and that is what we are achieving. The Government have been working closely with Tata to do all we can to ensure a sustainable future for Tata Steel in the United Kingdom, both at Port Talbot and at Scunthorpe. We have offered our assistance to Tata as it seeks to find a buyer for its long products division. It is encouraging that it has announced that Greybull Capital is its preferred bidder. We remain in close contact with Tata as its commercial negotiations continue. The Government stand ready to play our part to help secure Scunthorpe’s long-term future.
Returning to today’s announcement, the same offer is there for Port Talbot. Tata is currently working with consultants to develop a plan to address the near-term competitiveness of its business at Port Talbot. We and the Welsh Government are in regular dialogue with Tata. This dialogue includes my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, as well as my officials and, of course, me. While the future of Port Talbot must be commercially led, we will help where we can within the parameters of state aid rules. I want to make it absolutely clear that, in the words of the Prime Minister, we are unequivocal in saying that steel is a vital industry. This Government are determined that steel is produced not just at Scunthorpe but at Port Talbot, and that it has a sustainable future.
As I say, we are creating the level playing field that the industry has asked of us. It set out five asks when we had our steel summit back at the end of last year. On dealing with lower energy costs, in December we secured state aid approval to pay further compensation to energy-intensive industries, including steel, to include renewables policy costs. We have already paid about £60 million to the steel industry to help to mitigate the costs of existing energy policies. The new state approval will enable us now to extend the scope of compensation. It will go live tomorrow, enabling steel and other energy-intensive industries to apply. That will save the steel industry about £100 million over the financial year—roughly 30% of its energy bills—but we are going to go even further and exempt EIIs from most of these costs. Our support for these industries will save them hundreds of millions of pounds over the next five years.
The sector asked for flexibility over EU emissions regulations, and that is exactly what we have secured. Derogations for Port Talbot have already been agreed by Natural Resources Wales. The Environment Agency has accepted Tata Steel’s proposals for derogations for improving emissions from Scunthorpe, subject to a current public consultation. Once approved, this will give it a further six years to improve emission levels from the coke ovens. Both of Tata Steel’s major power plants have been included in the UK transitional plan that the UK has submitted to the European Union. This gives it until June 2020—a further four years—to meet the emission requirements. These actions will save the industry millions of pounds.
We have further updated and published, specifically and properly, new guidance about procurement, of which mention was made during Defence questions. We are the first country in the European Union to take advantage of and implement these new flexibilities, so social impact, job impact and staff safety can now be taken into account. In short, there is no excuse not to, and every reason to, buy British steel. Having just met the Aluminium Federation, I want to make it clear and put it on the record that those procurement rules include aluminium.
I have heard it said that the Government have blocked the reform of trade defence investigation, but they have not. I can assure the House that the Government have been acting decisively to safeguard the United Kingdom’s steel interests in Europe. In July last year, and again in November, we voted in favour of anti-dumping measures on certain steel imports. The United Kingdom lobbied successfully in support of industry calls for an investigation into imports of reinforcing steel bar. I hope that we will have an announcement soon on the result of those actions under the excellent leadership of the Business Secretary. The European Commission has taken this forward swiftly, including responding quickly to industry requests to register imports. The United Kingdom secured an extraordinary meeting of the EU’s Competitiveness Council and agreed faster action. Next month I will return to follow that up at a stakeholder conference where I will push for further progress.
The review of business rates in England will conclude this year. Of course, the Welsh Government, because this is devolved, have responsibility for business rates in Port Talbot and other parts of Tata’s workings in Wales.
We have seen today that the steel industry remains subject to unprecedented global pressures. While the immediate causes of these are beyond the Government’s control, I can assure the House that we continue to do all we can to help this industry, and we will stand by all the workers who face redundancy in south Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom.
Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)
It is welcome that the Government have come to this House to make a statement on steel rather than having to be dragged here, as they have been on so many other occasions, by urgent questions tabled by the Opposition. It is disappointing, given the seriousness of the issue, that the Secretary of State has not seen fit to make the statement himself, but I welcome the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise to her place.
I welcome the Minister’s intention to work closely with the Welsh Government to mitigate the effects of the job losses on local communities. I especially welcome the co-operation on business rates, but I note that the Government have taken no action on business rates in England.
Tata’s announcement of 1,050 job losses across Port Talbot, Llanwern, Trostre, Corby and Hartlepool is devastating news for all the workers, their families and the close-knit communities affected. Our hearts go out to them. This latest bombshell comes on top of job losses at Tata’s Newport plant last year, along with thousands of job losses across the sector in the UK, including the complete closure at Redcar.
At this time of crisis for the UK steel industry, all we seem to get from this Government is warm words but very little concrete action. In the three months since the Government convened the emergency steel summit last year, only one of the five asks raised with them has actually been delivered. Who would think that steel is the foundation of many of the UK’s most important manufacturing sectors, including aerospace, defence, automotive and construction? The existential threats facing it show no sign of abating, and yet the Government have been asleep at the wheel. They have not been tough enough with the Chinese or active enough with the European Union. They have made no concessions on the business rate system, which actively penalises those who invest in expensive infrastructure to improve productivity, and there is no sign that their technical change to procurement rules is making any difference in the award of Government contracts to help our domestic industry.
When are we going to get effective action from this Government and not just warm words? Countries such as China are engaging in ruthlessly uncompetitive practices that are destroying our steel industry. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised that directly with President Xi when we met him in October, and we have raised it with the Chinese at subsequent meetings.
The slow response in the EU to the tsunami of cheap Chinese steel, which is snuffing out our industrial base, is a disgrace. I made that point in no uncertain terms at a high-level meeting with representatives of the Commission in Brussels last week. They need to take action now and this Government should be leading the charge to reform EU trade defence instruments, but they are actually resisting reform to speed them up.
This country desperately needs an industrial strategy so that our steel industry can survive and thrive. The Chancellor once declared that Britain would be
“carried aloft by the march of the makers.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]
But five years on there is a yawning gap between his rhetoric and the grim reality. Manufacturing exports have slumped and manufacturing output is still below its level of seven years ago. Whether on the deficit, debt, exports or manufacturing, the Chancellor has failed every test he set himself. Despite the fanfare and flurry of Government press releases, there is no substantive industrial strategy in sight. Is that any wonder when we have a Business Secretary who will not even let the phrase “industrial strategy” cross his lips? Because the Government will not do it, Labour will create an advisory board of experts from business, industry and the trade unions to lead work on the development of an industrial strategy for the UK.
What size of steel industry does the Minister regard as sustainable in the UK? When will the Government stop cosying up to China and confront its role in dumping cheap steel on UK markets? Will the Minister assure this House that the question of market economy status for China will not be resolved until it stops dumping cheap steel in the UK?
Why are the Government blocking the modernisation of EU trade defence instruments, which would deal with unfair trade before, not after, the damage is done to our domestic producers? Although there was welcome progress on the UK’s state aid application on the renewables obligation and feed-in tariffs, can the Minister confirm that until approval for its second application is received, it leaves some companies in the steel and other sectors without access to much needed compensation and still exposed to some 70% of climate change policy costs? When will there be any progress on business rates, which penalise new investment to increase productivity? When, in short, are the Government finally going to turn their warm words into real and urgent action to save our steel industry?
I am sorry the hon. Lady did not listen to what I said. While we are dealing with facts—actually, she was not dealing with facts—I remind the House that 68,000 people worked in the British steel industry in 1998; by 2010, that number had fallen to 33,000; and by 2014, it had risen to 35,000. It ill behoves Opposition Members, therefore, to lecture the Government about supporting the steel industry, which, I would contend, we have done more to support in the past few months than the last lot did in 13 years. It does not help anybody to make cheap political points—[Laughter.] It is so tempting, given the palpable nonsense coming from Labour.
The steel industry, including the unions, made five asks of us: energy costs—delivered; industrial emissions—delivered; procurement—delivered; dumping—delivered. [Hon. Members: “What?”] In July, for the first time, we voted to protect our steel industry. Such was the surprise of others sitting round the table that the EU officials went back to the UK delegation to check they had heard correctly, because never before had we voted to protect our steel industry. We did it again in November, and we have supported rebar, so we have delivered on that.
I confess—because I like to be honest with the House—that only on business rates have we not delivered. The review continues, and I hope, when it is finished, the Chancellor can say he will help all those who invest in plant and machinery so they are not penalised with higher business rates, which does seem rather perverse. Those arguments and discussions continue. I suggest, however, that we have done a good job in protecting our steel industry, and will continue to do so. We are not a party that has a problem and just sets up a committee; we are a Government who deliver and meet the demands and asks.
If I may, I will quickly deal with the allegation that we have been cosying up to China. Not at all: the Prime Minister was very frank with President Xi when he came over, and made our position clear. The EU will make the decision on market economy status. Yes, there is a good argument for our wanting China to have it, but we have also made it clear that if a country wants to be part of the game, it has to play by the rules. That seems a sensible approach.
Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con)
People in Corby were concerned to hear the news about job losses this morning. My thoughts are with my constituents, and I will do everything I can to help all those affected. One question they have relates to Chinese dumping. What steps are Ministers taking to apply pressure on the EU to take the strongest possible line with the Chinese and to expedite these dumping investigations?
As I said, in July, and then again in November, we took that action for the first time. The Secretary of State went over to Brussels, and, as a result of his holding an emergency meeting, put pressure on the EU. We have already seen a big change in how China operates when it comes to dumping—it is not just from China, I should say; several other countries do it. China has taken action on rebar in a way not seen before, as a direct result of this Government’s work to protect our steel industry.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP)
I thank the Minister for her statement and for giving me early sight of it. May I say how terribly sad these redundancies are, following on from the announcements last year, including the mothballing of Dalzell and Clydebridge? For our part, our solidarity and thoughts are with all those who face an uncertain future, wherever they are.
I welcome what the Minister said on derogations and procurement. I reiterate the fact that we have an exceptionally difficult trading environment for steel production, which is partly driven by the 645 million tonnes of excess supply this year. However, Chinese steel exports alone are likely to exceed 100 million tonnes this year. In that context, the governmental talks with the European Commission are vital. Will the Minister press for fast-tracking the investigation into Chinese steel exports?
At home, all Governments must support the workers and communities affected by all the announcements. In Scotland, the primary focus is on finding a viable future for Dalzell and Clydebridge, for which I understand there are serious interested parties. Will the UK Government be as positive and as forthcoming as possible, within the rules that apply, in support of any viable buyers for any of the plants?
May I briefly ask the Minister two specific questions? She said a number of things on energy costs that I welcome, but will her Department keep that under very close review to make sure that, should that be insufficient and additional help can be provided, such help is given at the earliest possible opportunity?
Secondly—this mirrors the shadow Secretary of State’s final point—the steel industry is vital, but it has suffered from the absence over decades of an industrial strategy. We discussed that in a debate last week. Will the Minister bring forward, or have her Government bring forward, a credible, coherent industrial and export strategy centred on steel at the earliest opportunity?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. It has absolutely been a pleasure to work with Fergus Ewing—I think that is the correct way to refer to him—with whom I have had such discussions. I of course fully back all efforts to sell Dalzell and Clydebridge, and I very much hope that a buyer can be found. Any support that the UK Government can give will be given.
The hon. Gentleman made good points about energy costs, but as he will know, the state aid rules are really strict when it comes to any support we give the steel industry. He talked about the future, but I would say this. One of the things we have done as a Government—this has never been done before—is to look at all the huge infrastructure projects that we are rightly putting together, at huge cost to the taxpayer. That includes HS2, for example. We have assessed the steel needs of all those projects, and we have given that assessment to the steel industry, so we are already doing that sort of work. We are looking not just at the next five, 10 or 15 years, but right the way down the track, if I may use that expression, at the sort of work the Government are doing to invest in our infrastructure, and we have put our steel requirements to the industry.
I know that this may sound a little emotional, but it is our absolute intention and we are absolutely determined that the steel used in HS2 will be made in this country. That is not just at Scunthorpe; we also want to ensure that there are blast furnaces in south Wales. That is our determination, and we are working towards it.
John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
The Minister is right that the Government need to ensure that every penny of public money spent, directly or indirectly, on steel procurement should be spent on British steel. Is she now saying she has secured such changes in European law and rules that she can actually specify that all railway and construction steel paid for by Britain will be British? That is what I want.
I am amazed that my right hon. Friend, who I thought was a real free enterprise chap, takes such a view. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] That is a gentle chide. We are two good friends who agree on many things.
The most important point is that we have changed the procurement rules. We are the first ever country in the EU to take advantage of doing so. There is now absolutely no excuse for any Government contract not to include buying British steel and, indeed, other metals such as aluminium.
Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
I assure the Minister that the people of my constituency are listening carefully to what is being said today. I also assure her that there is palpable anger and frustration among my constituents. The claimed action on energy has still not been implemented. The claimed action on procurement amounts to so-called open advertising, while Hinkley Point has no British steel. The Government use the EU as an excuse for delay, while being China’s chief cheerleader in Europe.
Is it not clear to the Minister that urgent action to sustain a steel industry in Britain is of the highest national priority? No more excuses, dodges or delays. Will the Government confirm here and now that they will not support market economy status for China? Will the Government immediately establish a strong, long-term steel strategy with Tata and the unions? If they do that, there is a future; if they do not, there will be a wasteland.
Of course, this is all about all those men and women who work at Tata at Port Talbot and their families. Our thoughts are with them today. I pay tribute to some of the work that the hon. Gentleman has done. I met the leader of Port Talbot port and I hope that we can continue that discussion, because there is much that can be done.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that it would really help if we all worked together on this, because we all agree. I am not going to say what he said about China and market economy status at all. There is a good argument that it should have that status. [Interruption.] Yes, there is a good argument, but as I say, China has to show us that if it is in the game, it plays by the rules. It will be for the EU to look at all the evidence before it makes its decision on that.
Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase) (Con)
Chinese steel manufacturers are offering added-value services such as steel polishing and finishing free of charge, making the UK steel industry and our businesses less competitive. Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps the Government are taking to support UK businesses in offering those added-value services?
I strongly suspect that it is quite a long list, so I undertake to write to my hon. Friend in full with exactly the detail that she wants. This Government absolutely get and understand business. We support British business, wherever it may be.
Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
The job losses that have been announced today are a huge blow to communities across south Wales. Workers in Llanwern in my constituency are directly affected, as are the workers who were seconded to Port Talbot when the hot strip mill in Newport was mothballed last year. We are thinking of those workers today. Steelworkers have made huge sacrifices over the years and have done everything they can to help the company during these particularly tough times. Can the Government say, with hand on heart, that they have done the same? Despite what the Minister has said today, the industry and the unions say that the action has been far too slow.
I am in danger of repeating all the things that I have said about what we have done. Where I agree absolutely with the hon. Lady is that we must not forget Llanwern and the huge impact that this news will have. As she rightly says, it follows the mothballing last summer. I pay a huge tribute to all those who work in our steel industry. They are highly skilled, highly prized workers. I know that for many reasons, but I am always reminded of my visit to Redcar and of the whole workforce that worked at SSI. These are highly skilled people.
The final thing to say is that there is no debate about the fact that a large number of steelworkers have made considerable sacrifices. When I went to Scunthorpe, I met a group of workers who were represented beautifully and brilliantly by their excellent trade union leaders. It was striking that these men—the majority are men, so forgive me; it is striking that these men and women had taken pay cuts and made the ultimate sacrifices. This is a very sad day and that is not lost on us, but we are determined that steel will continue to be produced in south Wales and in Scunthorpe.
Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con)
As one who was brought up in Sheffield, I ask the Minister whether she accepts that the deadly combination of EU energy law, EU subsidy law and EU dumping law means that, although the Government may want to achieve a solution to this problem, ultimately they cannot do so without leaving the European Union.
Here is a surprise: I do not agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis, or his conclusions. When the Secretary of State went over to Brussels and led the charge, I found in the conversations that I had with my equivalent Ministers throughout the EU that we had all come together. I think that by working together, we can assure the future of the steel industry not just in our country, but throughout the European Union.
The Minister has just invited us to believe that Europe offers an equivalent to her. You learn something new every day. Scunthorpe was mentioned, so let us hear from the fella. I call Mr Nic Dakin.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab)
It is strange that Redcar did not meet the criteria for exceptional growth funds, but I am pleased the Minister has indicated that they will be used to assist the Greybull Capital interest in long products. The Foreign Secretary stood at that Dispatch Box and said that the Government will judge market economy status through “the prism of steel”. Will the Minister confirm that there will be no drawing back from that position?
I always try to be honest and helpful to the hon. Gentleman. I did not hear that comment from the Foreign Secretary, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will take it up with him. As he knows, we are working hard to secure the future of the blast furnaces at Scunthorpe, and we are determined that British steel will continue to be made in this country and that it has a sustainable future.
Mr David Jones (Clwyd West) (Con)
Today’s announcement will be a bitter blow to all communities affected, not least Port Talbot where relations between the unions and the Tata management have been excellent. My right hon. Friend mentioned that the Government will be participating in the taskforce that is to be assembled to address this issue. Can she confirm that the Department for Work and Pensions will be heavily involved so as to ensure, if at all possible, that those affected by redundancy will be redeployed?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend and his analysis of the effects of these events throughout south Wales. It is not just the workers who face redundancy, because we know that this will have a huge impact on the local economy right the way through the supply chains. I assure him that we will work with the DWP in these circumstances, and it will send in almost emergency teams to start work now, before any compulsory redundancies are made. That work will be, and is being, done.
Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op)
The Minister owned up to the failure to implement reform of business rates as part of the toxic package that the steel industry is confronting. Will she examine that issue and provide assurances that in advance of next year’s business rates proposals, the Government will consider putting in place a special package to give some relief to this beleaguered industry?
I did not say that we had failed—we have a review going on and it has not come to any conclusion. The hon. Gentleman must remember that in Wales business rates are devolved, and it is up to the Welsh Government whether they want, or can, do anything to assist Tata. Of course we will do everything that we can to support our steel industry, but always within the unfortunate confines of the state aid rules.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con)
With all due respect, I do not think that the Minister answered the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash)—she just said that she disagreed with him. It seems to me clear that if we were not in the European Union, we could have acted differently and more quickly. Will she at least agree with that?
No, I am afraid I do not agree with that. I think we are better within a reformed European Union, and this is a good example of the benefits of our continuing membership of the EU.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC)
Port Talbot and Trostre are situated within an EU tier 1 assisted area. What consideration has the UK Government made of a holiday for employer national insurance contributions to help Tata reduce its employment costs?
That is exactly the sort of conversation that I am more than happy to have with—I nearly said my right hon. Friend, but the hon. Gentleman might take exception to that. I am more than happy to discuss that issue with him.
James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con)
Following the collapse of the Caparo group towards the end of last year across the west midlands and other parts of the country, the administrator PWC has been able to salvage a considerable amount of the business and secure local jobs, including in my constituency in Cradley Heath. Notwithstanding the action that the Minister has taken on steel, does she agree that serious questions need to be answered about the financial management of the Caparo group that led to its collapse in the first place?
Quite simply, I would not know but, again, I am more than happy to have that discussion with my hon. Friend because, if that is right, it is a very serious matter.
Anna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op)
The people of Redcar and Teesside are still dealing with the repercussions of the tragedy of the loss of our steel-making facilities and our 175-year history of steel making. They will send their solidarity and their thoughts to the people of Port Talbot, Llanwern and other areas that have lost their jobs in the past few days.
The Minister has again refused today to acknowledge the impact that market economy status for China will have—it will destroy the future of British steel making because, in a sense, it will facilitate Chinese dumping. She says she has sorted that and ticked the box, but that is not the case. I urge her to think again about market economy status for China.
I listen to the hon. Lady’s arguments and it is always good to have that debate with her. I am not saying, “It’s all sorted on dumping,”—[Hon. Members: “Yes, you did!”] Well, we have ticked the box in terms of getting on and doing something about it, but no doubt the steel industry will raise more concerns. The industry raises its concerns with the EU but, for the first time—this is rich coming from the Opposition—we have voted in favour of taking that action, not just once but twice; and now we have rebar, so we are making good progress.
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con)
Does my hon. Friend agree that UK companies that want to export their products need to source the cheapest steel they can if they are to be competitive in the world market, and that, realistically, the UK steel sector will always struggle in the long term if foreign competitors can produce steel cheaper than we can?
If I may say this to my hon. Friend, one absolutely striking thing about the British steel industry is the quality of the product. That is one of the main reasons why people want to buy British steel—they know it is the best in the world.
Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab)
It is many years since the steelworks in my constituency closed. Some would say that the local economy has never fully recovered. My constituents therefore understand well the fear and worry that will exist in the community in south Wales and elsewhere in the country after the news today. Will the Minister be clear with the House on exactly where the Government stand on the question of market economy status for China and how it relates to anti-dumping rules?
The Prime Minister has spoken about the fact that we think it could be good for China to have market economy status, but the decision will be made by the European Union. We take the view—I am repeating myself, but this is important—that, for China to get that status, it must show that it will play by the rules and provide the evidence that it is playing by the rules.
Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con)
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the quality of British steel, but the quality of some imports leaves much to be desired. What work is being done on steel quality standards so that British steel can flourish both domestically and in export markets?
A number of companies—I am thinking, for example, of Celsa, a Cardiff-based company that I met—are keen to make the point about whether or not imports are of the same quality. Yes, we have looked at the standards. Sadly, we have not always made progress, because an independent body makes those decisions. It is not the job of the Government—unfortunately, we have no influence over it—but my hon. Friend makes an important point. It is one we advance all the time.
Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab)
Job losses at Port Talbot and Trostre are devastating for the people and communities in south-west Wales. Many of my constituents in Neath who work at Port Talbot and Trostre will suffer. I endorse the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and ask again what urgent action the Government will take to help, apart from offering warm words.
I am not going to go through all the things we have done again, but I assure the hon. Lady that we will work with the Welsh Government. We have asked to be part of their taskforce and I very much hope that they will have the UK Government as part of it—it is very important.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con)
I thank the Minister for all the work and support she is providing to all of us affected in Scunthorpe—it is really appreciated—and for her commitment to support the sale of the site to Greybull, which I and other local MPs will meet later this week. On the specific issue of support to those who have been affected by job losses thus far, £9 million has already come our way. One question that has come up at our local taskforce is: how much of that money can be used, and how flexibly, to support new jobs as well as current ones? If we make a representation to her on that, can she assure us of maximum flexibility so that the money can be used to create new jobs as well as supporting existing ones?
The short answer is yes—that will please you, Mr Speaker—but, as the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) knows, when I find out about any difficulties I do not mess about in getting them sorted. We do not want any nonsenses. My hon. Friend knows my door is always open, so we can sort things out.
Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab)
The Minister has spoken about the state aid rules, yet the Italian Government have perfectly permissibly provided assistance to their steel industry on the basis that it constitutes environmental protection. My father worked in Llanwern steelworks for nearly 40 years and I know at first hand the sacrifices that so many steelworker families made over many years. Do they not deserve a Government who are willing to do so much more than this one?
I pay tribute to all those, including the grandfather of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) and, I think, my own great grandfather, who have worked in steelworks. None of these things matter. The important thing is to make this absolutely clear. We know the great value of all steelworkers. The hon. Gentleman asked me a question that I have now completely forgotten. [Hon. Members: “Italy.”] Italy—another huge myth. The Italian Government are in the process of selling their steel industry. We will see if there are any buyers.
Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con)
I pay tribute to the Minister, as I am aware of the enormous personal effort she has put in to mitigate the impact of job losses. Will she reassure the House that the Government’s investment in retraining and reskilling workers will end up in the pockets of those workers, not of consultants or accountants?
Yes, absolutely. We know that in the past that has not always been the case. My hon. Friend and I come from coalfield areas, where there was always concern about whether taxpayers’ money in Government schemes was properly spent. I am hopeful—in fact, I am sure—that the money we made available for workers at Thoresby colliery will be properly spent. If it is not, I want to know about it and we will sort it out.
Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
May I press the Minister? Will the Treasury find a way to provide the extra resources to the Welsh Government to reduce business rates at Tata? That would help to keep steel alive in south Wales.
They wanted that as part of their devolution settlement, of course. There is a good argument that if one gets what one asks for, one has to take the consequences. At the moment, however, no such request has been made. If a request is made, whatever it may be, we will always listen.
Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con)
When I walked through the Crossrail tunnels with the Transport Committee, the bosses stressed the high level of British procurement as part of the project. Does the Minister agree that we can win hearts and minds on the HS2 project, which is worth billions and billions of pounds, by putting British steel at its heart?
Yes, absolutely. We are all hugely proud of the fact that Crossrail, a fantastic multibillion-pound project, has been built with British steel—and that is because it is the best.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab)
My constituency is next door to Aberavon. Many of my workforce travel into Aberavon on the A48 to work and have done so for many years. There is a real risk that the critical mass of the steelworks in Port Talbot will be endangered by the job losses. May we have an assurance from the Minister that there will at least be interim relief in business rates? That is the big issue that will make or break the viability of the works and the jobs there.
That is a good argument, but not one to put at my door. This matter is the responsibility of the Welsh Government, because, as the hon. Lady knows, it is devolved. There is other work we could do: we have been discussing with Tata for a long time whether the land is being best used, and there is a lot of work we can do with the port to make it much more viable. We can look at other ways to ensure we make full use of the port by Port Talbot.
Byron Davies (Gower) (Con)
Today is a sad day for the south Wales steel industry, particularly in Port Talbot. Many of its steelworkers live in my constituency. Over the weekend, there has been quite a lot of rhetoric from the First Minister of Wales about the responsibility for recovery lying at Westminster. There are many economic levers in Cardiff Bay that could be used, in particular business rates, which have just been mentioned. Does the Minister agree that the First Minister would be better off employing his time by ensuring that those levers are used, rather than by engaging in tribal politics?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. This is not a time to play party politics; it is a time for everybody to come together and do the best thing by Britain’s steel industry.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
The Minister just said that there is no excuse not to buy and every reason to buy British steel, so what discussions has she had with her colleagues in the MOD about procuring British steel for defence contracts? In particular, has she discussed the future of Sheffield Forgemasters, which is vital if we are to procure a new generation of nuclear submarines?
The short answers are yes and yes. The value of Sheffield Forgemasters is not lost on anybody, especially those concerned about the future of our defence sector.
Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)
In an earlier answer, my right hon. Friend talked about playing by the rules and added that there was no reason why we could not use British steel. As I understand it, however, EU law means that my right hon. Friend cannot guarantee that. Is that not correct?
I do not think it is as simple as “cannot guarantee it”. We live in a free market economy. That means that anybody must be free to buy from whomsoever they feel will give them the best deal. My point is that when it comes to this Government’s own procurement rules and what can be done with taxpayers’ money, we have made those rules such as to provide no excuse for anybody not to buy British steel—and because it is so good, there is every reason why they should.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Although the measures announced by the Government are welcome, they are very limited. Does the Minister not accept that unless we tackle the issue of Chinese dumping, the whole future of the whole UK industry is at threat, and that the clock is ticking—we do not have much time left?
That is important, but it does not provide the answer. The price of steel has plummeted not just because of worldwide over-production, but because consumption of steel has not even reached where it was before the crisis. It is not as simple as merely dealing with Chinese dumping.
Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab)
The Minister talks tough on procurement. Why, then, under the terms of the contract struck between this Government and EDF, are UK companies capable of producing the large forgings for the Hinkley Point reactor not being given the opportunity even to tender for the work? What independent evaluation has her Department undertaken of EDF’s assertion that there are no UK companies with the relevant experience?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is hearing all of that, so she and I will discuss it and write to the hon. Gentleman.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton South West) (Lab)
I welcome the belated announcements of some support for the steel industry. When can we expect similar announcements of support for other parts of UK manufacturing?
As I say, the procurement rules apply not just to steel but to other metals. In fact, I think they apply to almost everything. I will need to go back and check all the way through that, but aluminium provides a very good example. Let us be absolutely clear: I am very proud of this Government’s and the last Government’s record. The fact that more than 2 million more people are in work—unfortunately, it is lost to most Labour Members—provides a proud record for this country.
Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab)
The Minister provided details of the updated procurement guidance and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) pointed out, said that there was no excuse not to buy and every reason to buy British steel. Of course, the ability for the industry to do so is constrained by the fact that its range of capabilities has been lost and limited to a great degree over the last few decades. In other words, British steel does not make the range of components and specialised range of steel products that it did years ago. What, then, are the Government going to do to support the industry, as we propose with Forgemasters, to secure investment and develop a new range of capabilities? We will not see high UK content in our infrastructure projects until that issue is addressed.
The hon. Lady may have made a good point, but I think that what is most important is that, in the face of an unprecedented crisis affecting the whole steel industry throughout the world, the Government are absolutely determined to secure—and have already started working to secure—the long-term sustainability of the ability to produce steel, both in Scunthorpe and in south Wales. Members can chunter on about what other European Union countries are doing, but we have examined the evidence, and there is a lot of mythology. This country has taken the action that is needed, and is saying clearly to Tata and Greybull, “We will help you to secure this deal in any way we can”, and to Tata at Port Talbot, “We will do everything we can to support you in your determination to continue to produce steel in south Wales.”
Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)
On the issue of anti-dumping, at a European level, why have the United Kingdom Government led a blocking minority at the Council of Ministers to prevent trade reform?
I am afraid that I just do not accept that. The Secretary of State has led the charge. He went over to Brussels, and he set up an emergency committee to look specifically at the problems facing the steel industry. I think that we are doing the right thing.
Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
One of the most frustrating experiences for steelworkers in my constituency, throughout south Wales and throughout the United Kingdom, is knowing that the previous Government were warned again and again and again about the challenges facing the industry. The Minister has told us about the actions that she has taken in the last few months—many of which I welcome, as she knows—but can she say, hand on heart, that the previous steel Minister and the Chancellor did everything they could when they were warned again and again and again about the crisis?
Yes; and what I will say about my Department is “Thank goodness we have a Conservative Secretary of State.”
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
May I ask what the Minister’s assessment is of the optimum level for the strategic steel industry, especially in the light of her comments about wanting to use British steel for major UK infrastructure in the future?
As I said earlier, the Prime Minister has said that this is a vital industry, and we are absolutely determined to have a sustainable steel industry, producing steel in blast furnaces in Scunthorpe and south Wales.
Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab)
Before Christmas, the OECD held a meeting about steel that the Chinese delegation refused to attend. Obviously, every other country’s representatives wanted to talk specifically about Chinese dumping.
What is the Government’s position on Chinese market economy status? Are they in favour of it, whether inside or outside the European Union, and whether or not China signs up to the emissions trading system agreement that was signed in Paris? Will the Minister please tell us how on earth we will have a manufacturing sector at all by the autumn—when the European Union will make a decision on MES—if China is allowed to dump with such abandon in the absence of any proper control, whether in this place or in the European Union?
As I have said, MES is a matter for the European Union, and as I have also said, we are broadly in favour of it, but we have made very clear that China will only get it if it proves that it can play by the rules.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
The Minister cannot have it both ways. Eventually, as surely as night follows day, global consumption will increase, demand will increase, and the price of steel will increase. What assessment has the Department made of the long-term impact, not only on UK competitiveness but on our own domestic economic strategy, of this vital industry being so badly depleted?
What we do know is that if the Labour party is ever in charge of our country’s economy again, it will take us back to the brink of bankruptcy, as it did last time.
I am most grateful to the Minister and to colleagues.