Today I spoke in the Westminster Hall on the implications for the UK steel industry of the EU Referendum outcome.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing today’s debate. I also pay tribute to the fantastic workforce of steelworkers across the country, many of whom are represented here with us today. It is an honour to have those gentlemen here.
The past few weeks have been characterised by uncertainty, particularly since the referendum result: economic uncertainty with the pound falling, investment put on hold and jobs at risk; party-political uncertainty; and governmental uncertainty and paralysis. That uncertainty has been particularly acute for the steel industry.
When Tata announced on Friday that it was putting the sale of Strip Products UK on the back burner as it explored the possibility of forming a joint venture with ThyssenKrupp, the workforce and their families clearly reacted with a degree of scepticism and concern. The announcement compounded existing uncertainties. ThyssenKrupp has long expressed interest in Tata’s Dutch plant, but until last week there was no convincing evidence of any interest in Tata Steel’s UK operations. The central concern around the joint venture proposal, particularly with Britain outside the EU, is that the UK operations, including Port Talbot in my constituency, might not receive the support and investment they require. Clear assurances are required from the Government, Tata and ThyssenKrupp that the mooted joint venture will in no way diminish Port Talbot and the rest of the Strip Products UK division.
The uncertainties of the sale process have been compounded by Brexit and the resulting Whitehall paralysis. What we need now, on the day that a new Prime Minister enters No. 10, is a Government truly committed to the industry and its future. Like the Minister, I was a passionate campaigner for remain, but the British people voted to leave, and we must now deliver on and make the most of the mandate they have given us. To do that, we must urgently clarify the nature of our trading relationship with the EU27. I hope that the incoming Prime Minister will fully engage with the industry and parties on both sides of the House when determining the approach to Brexit negotiations.
The top priority is surely energy costs, which have been cited by leading figures in the industry as the No. 1 challenge facing British steel competitiveness. At present, there is a £17 per megawatt-hour differential between the energy costs for Germany and Britain, and that is after the energy compensation package is taken into account. Energy costs in this country are quite simply astronomical, and the Government should and must act.
At the Steel Council on 8 June, the Secretary of State was receptive to the industry proposals, with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Energy and Climate Change pledging to come back with “urgency” on energy costs. Well, we are still waiting. Will the Minister do all she can, in whatever time she has left in her post, to expedite the process? What the industry cannot take is more delay and uncertainty. Steel is a foundation industry, critical to the houses in which we live, the offices in which we work, the cars we drive and the bridges we cross. It is the beating heart of economies and communities such as the one that I represent. That is why we need a resilient steel industry that can compete on a level playing field with our global competitors and that serves our entire economy and our communities. The referendum has compounded the existing uncertainties facing our industry, but that means the Government must act decisively and quickly. Brexit is a fact. The will of the British people must be enacted. If the Government act with purpose, we can make sure they work for the steel industry and for our communities.