Steel Sector Deal Debate

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I secured a debate in Westminster Hall on a steel sector deal. In the debate I argued that we need the government to approve the steel sector deal & radically reshape the energy market, but they have done nothing. This is about defending our communities & building a successful industrial strategy, and we cannot do that unless we stand up for steel.

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the steel sector deal.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and I thank the House for granting the debate.

Hon. Members will recall that there was a period of time when we had debates about the future of the British steel industry almost weekly. Since then, the media circus has moved on, and with it the Government’s apparent concern, focus and attention. Let us be clear: Government engagement with steel evaporated once the crisis had dropped off the front page of the newspapers. Back then, the Prime Minister was a guy called David Cameron. As we know, he was first and foremost a PR man, so when the steel crisis hit his PR instincts went into overdrive. He needed to manage the story and get it off the front page as quickly as possible. Did he ever have any intention of tackling the underlying causes of the crisis—his Government’s abject failure to push through the policy reforms so desperately needed to create a level playing field for the steel industry? No, he did not. As the debate will show, David Cameron’s successor has simply picked up where he left off.

Just over two years ago, the closure of the Redcar steelworks had a truly devastating impact on the town and community; 3,000 people were put out of work, and of those who have since found work almost two thirds have had to take a pay cut. Many other businesses in the area have struggled, because every UK steel job supports at least three more elsewhere in the economy. Three months after the closure of Redcar, Tata Steel announced more than 1,000 job losses across Wales, three quarters of them at the Port Talbot steelworks in my constituency. About a month later came the devastating news that Tata Steel planned to close or sell its entire UK business. While the then Business Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), was enjoying a nice little Easter recess jolly to Australia, I was out in Mumbai with Community Union to present the turnaround plan to the board of the Tata group.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. Does he remember—he has missed it out of his chronology so far—the national steel summit held in Rotherham? It was not just the steel towns and their MPs that felt let down, but the leaders of Britain’s major steel companies and steel trade unions who were round the table that day as well. The promises of serious attention and action to follow, which were made two years ago at the national steel summit, have not been followed through.

Stephen Kinnock: My right hon. Friend is right. That was an important milestone, but there have been so many false dawns, and warm words matched by frozen actions.

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the great work that he has done over a significant period to stand up for the steel industry. On the subject of broken promises, does he agree that investment in research and development is another big issue? Across the UK generally it remains stubbornly below the OECD average. The whole sector is now asking for increased R and D investment in steel, and the Government should deliver that.

Stephen Kinnock: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think that in the minds of some Ministers, and others in the House, steel is seen as metal bashing and an almost primitive industry; but in fact it is at the cutting edge of many innovations that we desperately need to drive our economy forward. If we are serious about getting a broad-based manufacturing renaissance it must start with investment in the steel industry.

It was clear that Tata’s initial preference was to close the business down rather than sell it, but thankfully we managed to persuade the company to shift its position from closure to sale. Thanks to the magnificent professionalism and dedication of the workforce and steel unions, the turnaround plan began to kick in. The performance of the business dramatically improved, and from a fire sale we got the slow burn that eventually morphed into Tata’s decision to remain. However, that happened only after the workforce, facing the prospect of either the closure of the Port Talbot works or the closure of their pension scheme, voted for pension restructuring. They put the future of their industry, livelihoods and communities before all else. Steelworkers and steel communities are like no others. If my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) were well enough to be here today, she would have told us of the incredible strength and resilience of her community, which has stood firm, united and resilient, just as she has fought tooth and nail for it since the closure of the works.

There have been many ups and downs in the British steel industry in the past few years, but three things remain constant. The first is the relentless passion and commitment of steelworkers and their communities, exemplified by the delivery of the turnaround plan and the vote on the restructuring of their pension scheme. The second is the Government’s indifferent and incompetent attitude, and the third is the key policy asks of the industry—business and workforce—which have remained fundamentally unchanged for well over two years. We have discussed those policy asks many times, but it would be remiss not to take the Minister through them, as this is her first time attending such a debate.

To take trade defence first, we asked the Government to stop blocking reform of the lesser duty rule, which means tariffs that we can impose on illegally dumped steel are capped at 16%, while the Americans can impose far higher duties. The Trade Bill is set to transfer the lesser duty rule to UK legislation after Brexit. We asked for meaningful action against illegal Chinese dumping, with proper trade defence instruments. However, as steelworkers were being shown the back door, No. 10 was rolling out the red carpet for Beijing. What was the result? We can now add the challenge of illegally dumped Russian and Turkish steel to that of Chinese steel.

Secondly, on business rates, there have been five Budgets in the past two years, and not one has acknowledged the industry’s concerns about the way business rates inhibit investment and hold us back from investing in plant and machinery; so of course no remedy has been proposed.

Thirdly, on the question of procurement, which I have been working on extensively with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), the Government have utterly failed to translate their rhetoric into reality. The public interest test that they introduced proved inadequate. Our calls for a longer lead-in time for central Government contracts have fallen on deaf ears. The Government have resisted transparency, dumping the idea of mandatory reporting and refusing even to gather and hold the relevant data, let alone provide it to us whenever we have asked. Foreign steel has continued to be used on iconic projects such as the repair of Big Ben, the new Firth of Forth bridge, the new Type 26 frigates and all sorts of smaller refurbishment and development projects around the country.

On the most vital of issues, energy prices, there has been some tinkering at the edges but no attempt at all to tackle the root causes of our ludicrously uncompetitive energy costs. The Government found a chaotic resolution to the EU emissions trading threat—something that would have cost the steel companies tens of millions of pounds, owing to the mishandling of Brexit—but they have singularly failed to clear changes to the feed-in tariff and renewables obligation opt-out. On the central issue of energy pricing, which means that UK producers’ energy costs are more than 50% higher than those of our European competitors, nothing has been done, and it appears nothing will be done.

That brings me to the very matter that we are here to discuss: the sector deal for steel, which hinges on the issue of energy pricing. After publishing the industrial strategy White Paper the Government asked all industries to present their sector deals—comprehensive packages about how their industry would work within a national industrial strategy. The steel industry did just that, by presenting a sector deal to Ministers that met all the requisite criteria back on 7 September.

That deal would see a 50% increase in investment, from £200 million to £300 million per year—an additional £1.5 billion of investment over the next five years. It would increase production capacity by 40%, from 10 million tonnes to 14 million tonnes a year. It would create 2,000 jobs, and would see 200 more apprentices trained every year. It would develop a low-carbon roadmap, and help to deliver a more efficient electrical system, almost doubling the industry’s demand-side response. It would see the industry pump an extra £30 million investment a year into R and D, which is an area, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) pointed out, in which the UK is traditionally weaker than our rivals.

In return for all that value, all the steel industry asks is that the Government match the R and D funding, helping to establish the future steel challenge fund, which would bring together the steel value chain, from automotive to aerospace and from renewables to construction, to work in partnership towards a cohesive industrial strategy and a new kind of growth, unlocking exciting innovation and new opportunities. The deal asks for Government help in facilitating investment by providing access to commercially competitive loans, providing capital investment grants or innovative tax discounts linked to investment. Essentially, that would help the industry to unlock the monopoly on investment held by property speculators and quash the myth that investing in industry is risky.

Crucially, the linchpin on which all this untapped potential rests is energy prices. Our steel producers have to pay 55% more than their German competitors and 51% more than the French, which adds up to an additional cost of almost £50 million a year. As the sector deal makes clear, if the steel industry gets the help it needs, it will put every penny and more of that £50 million back into the industry, creating jobs, increasing capacity, innovating and creating new opportunities and value.

Nick Thomas-Symonds: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is wide support for the sector deal right across the steel sector? It makes sensible and innovative proposals. Why do the Government not simply adopt it?

Stephen Kinnock: I agree with my hon. Friend. The sector deal has been submitted under the umbrella of UK Steel and EEF, but with the full participation and support of Tata Steel, British Steel, Liberty Steel, Celsa Steel and a number of other key players in the sector. The steel industry really speaks with one voice on this.

Without a cost-competitive energy environment, steel companies cannot invest in the future, and the industry can survive only when it has the potential to thrive. Steel is too important a product for our economy, our security, our communities and our standing as a nation for us to have to rely on others for it.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The fact that the UK produced some 8 million tonnes of steel in 2016, while China produced 808 million tonnes shows a vast difference. Does the hon. Gentleman agree—I think he is basically saying this—that it may now be time for the Government to enter into negotiations with the companies and also the unions to ensure that we have a manufacturing base for steel in future? We will not have one unless the Government act. It is time that they did.

Stephen Kinnock: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I will come on to explain, the sector proposal is the litmus test for the Government. We have had years and years of warm words, but this really is the moment to see whether the Government are serious about providing the support they say they want to provide.

Steel enables transport, construction, manufacturing, energy and consumer goods—you name it, Sir Henry, and if steel is not in it, it was almost certainly used to make, process or transport it. Steel is truly a foundation industry, and demand is growing. The report published last week, “Future Capacities and Capabilities of the UK Steel Industry”, showed that, by 2030, domestic demand for finished steel products will have grown by almost 2 million tonnes. That leaves almost 7 million tonnes of domestic demand to be met by the UK steel industry, which equates to a £3.8 billion opportunity per year.

That value is even greater if we consider all that steel goes into. Almost half the content of all cars built in the UK is British steel. In researching the “Steel 2020” report by the all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal related industries last year—I have a copy with me; I am sure the Minister has already read it, but I would be happy to hand it over—we heard from leading figures in the car industry that the presence of a successful domestic steel industry is a key determinant of where steel is sourced.

Steel is vital to the future of UK car manufacturing and innovation. Take the much-vaunted electric and self-driving cars, which were championed by the Chancellor in last month’s Budget. Along with the normal steel content of any car, what do hon. Members think their batteries are cased in? Steel. If we are to invest billions in that new technology, why on earth would we not invest in the capacity to monetise those innovations? If we do not have the capacity to manufacture, or the capacity to produce the steel for the batteries and the machines that manufacture them, we will lose out. The steel will be Chinese. The manufacturing and machinery will be German, and we will have spent billions on an idea that sees profit not in Port Talbot, Sheffield or Redcar, but in IJmuiden, Tangshan or Duisburg.

Despite investment in R and D falling by 90% over the past 25 years, the UK steel industry is still at the cutting edge. More than two thirds of steel produced in the UK today did not even exist a decade ago, so we should not let anybody tell us that steel is a sunset industry. It is an industry that is building a Britain for the future, which is why a go-ahead for the sector deal is vital. It is also important because steel is the ultimate economic and social multiplier. For every £1 of public investment in steel R and D, the return averages between £6 and £16. That means the £60 million transformation fund in the sector deal could add up to £960 million for the UK economy. I do not know about you, Sir Henry, but investing £60 million for almost a £1 billion return feels like a pretty good investment to me.

On average, steel jobs pay 40% higher than the average in the steel heartlands of Wales and Yorkshire and the Humber. Every steel job supports at least three further jobs in the local community and the national economy. Losing the steel industry would devastate towns such as Port Talbot, but the knock-on effects would be equally catastrophic. If the Port Talbot steelworks were to close, it would cost 40,000 jobs across Wales and the UK, costing the Government a total of £4.6 billion in benefits and lost tax revenue and reducing household spending in the economy by £3 billion over 10 years.

If we were to reshape the energy market, as the steel sector deal calls for, the most it would cost would be the equivalent of 57p per household per year. That is 57p a year against almost £8 billion in lost spending, tax and benefit payments if things were to go wrong. Once again, Sir Henry, that looks like a pretty good return on investment to me. There is a golden opportunity, with huge potential for growth. We should all applaud the Government for crossing the Rubicon and accepting the need for an industrial strategy, but the fact of the matter is that, if the Government fail to support the sector deal, that strategy will not be worth the paper it is written on.

Speed is of the essence. Steel companies only have so much capital to invest. That capital is spread across their global businesses, and if they cannot invest it here and now, it will go elsewhere. That is the nature of the beast. We have already seen Liberty spend almost £1 billion in Australia, and there are reports that British Steel—formerly Tata Long Products—is looking at an Italian plant. The clock is ticking and time is running out.

With the uncertainties of Brexit, the Government should be biting the hand off of anyone willing to invest at this time. Instead, steel companies have been fobbed off with all sorts of excuses. They submitted the sector deal on 7 September, but were only granted a meeting with the Minister at the very end of November—hardly the behaviour of a Government serious about supporting this foundational domestic industry. The fact is that the Government’s failure to engage on the steel asks set the tone. The sad reality is that trust between the Government and the steel industry has been shot to pieces. Warm words are no good to anyone if they are matched only by frozen actions.

The Minister for Climate Change and Industry (Claire Perry): I must correct the hon. Gentleman on a factual point: one of my very first acts as Minister was to visit the steelworks in his constituency and close by. I met the council formally to discuss the shape of the sector deal and subsequently three times after the presentation of the sector deal, and I have met and spoken to the companies on numerous occasions. He really must correct the record, because it is simply not true to say I only engaged with the sector after the sector deal was submitted.

Stephen Kinnock: I thank the Minister for her intervention. Conversations, visits and meetings are excellent, but the fact remains that the sector deal was submitted on 7 September, and a meeting was not granted with the steel industry until the very end of November. As the clock is ticking, the decisions about investment next year are drying up. It would be great to see rhetoric matched with reality.

An industrial strategy is not built on good will. A business cannot be built on Whitehall bluster, and communities cannot be sustained on platitudes. We all understand that an industrial strategy cannot do everything for everyone, but if the Government are serious about rebalancing our dangerously skewed economy, they must surely start by investing in the steel industry. With the steel sector deal, all that is being asked for is a small amount of help to unlock tremendous potential, create thousands of jobs and add hundreds of millions of value to the economy. Instead, the Government seem to be more interested in investing in robotics, medicine, life sciences and driverless vehicles. I am sure that those emerging industries are vital, but they are all concentrated in the south-east of England. Is that really going to support the broad-based manufacturing renaissance that our country so desperately needs?

Steel workers the length and breadth of Britain have shown that they will make every sacrifice, and the industry has dug deep too. It is the Government who have been found sorely wanting. Steel communities are a hardy bunch, forged in the white heat of our industry and from parts of the country that are well used to being forgotten, neglected and ignored by successive Tory Governments. They know how to take bad news on the chin, and they certainly prefer to be treated like adults, with honesty and clarity as opposed to the obfuscation that has become the hallmark of this Government.

I urge the Minister to stop taking us for a ride. All the indications are that the Government really could not care less about the future of the British steel industry. If that is the case, they should just say so. Please stop stringing us along, and stop promising to do something about energy prices, dumping, procurement and business rates while in reality having no intention whatsoever to act. Please level with us today on the sector deal. Just tell us here and now whether or not the Government are minded to support it. If they are not, it is clearly better to know that now, so that no more of our time and energy is wasted. We know that the previous Prime Minister and Business Secretary only got involved when they realised they had a brewing PR disaster on their hands. We hoped that this Prime Minister and this Business Secretary would be different, but the sad reality is that the Government lost interest once the media circus moved on, so we are back to square one.

The toxic combination of complacency, indifference and incompetence is back with a vengeance. Eleven months ago, the steel APPG produced “Steel 2020”, which provides a road map for the industry’s future. Eleven months on, we are still waiting for the Secretary of State to give us a date for a meeting to discuss it. Over recent weeks, we have seen unscrupulous financial advisers swooping in like vultures to exploit steelworkers while the Government stand by and do nothing. Now we see a comprehensive, exciting offer from the steel industry, backed by the trade unions, sitting on the shelf and ignored for three months. I would say that that is shameful, but I wonder whether the Government are capable of feeling that emotion.

I implore the Minister again to level with us. If she will not help, she should just say so, and the Government should stop wasting our time and giving us false hope. Let us get on and fix what we can ourselves, because right now, the Government are only holding us back. I desperately hope that the Minister will stand up and prove all my suspicions wrong. In fact, I am praying for it, because it is my constituents’ lives and livelihoods that are at stake. I will finish by saying to the Government that they have a choice: they can either be part of the solution, or they can continue being part of the problem. Now is the time to choose, and this sector deal is the litmus test.

Stephen Kinnock: I congratulate all hon. Members present on an excellent debate. We should remind ourselves of the purpose of the industrial strategy. It is about rebalancing the British economy, from services to manufacturing, from consumption to production, from debt to surplus. None of those aims will be achieved unless we have a thriving and productive steel industry, and for that to happen we need a radical remodelling of the energy sector, and to develop a post-Brexit trade policy and deliver on the sector deal.

Since I entered Parliament in 2015, Labour MPs have raised the issue of steel almost 300 times, and every time we have heard the same set of platitudes in response: “We’re continuing to review”; “We’re having meetings”; “We’re going on visits”; “We’re having roundtables”. Nothing ever seems to change. I hope, therefore, that we can be forgiven for allowing our concern and frustration about the future of our communities to bubble to the surface. That has nothing to do with party politics. It has to do with the future of an industry that will enable the industrial strategy. We hope, therefore, that in 2018 we can turn the page and move from rhetoric to reality.