If something positive is to come out of the coronavirus crisis, I hope that the UK Government will finally recognise the need to support industries of vital strategic, foundational importance, such as the steel industry. So far their record on this has been poor: it took French and German governments just ten days to loan steelmakers funds to help them through the crisis, while the UK government has sat on its hands.
Our recovery depends on a modern manufacturing renaissance – local supply chains, geographical rebalancing and a reduced reliance on China.
Here’s my speech on why there can be no post-pandemic recovery without a strong and health steel industry:
Stephen Kinnock: May I say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), who has paid a passionate and upbeat tribute to his constituency? It is the tradition in this House that when one gives a maiden speech, one is usually surrounded by one’s colleagues in a so-called doughnut. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on giving the first ever maiden speech with a socially distanced doughnut.
Let me begin by saying that I support wholeheartedly the aims of the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill. This is a welcome response and a much-needed one in the crisis times in which we find ourselves. However, the changes are and must be just a small part of the rescue and recovery package that will be required in the long term. This Bill will provide short-term relief from overbearing creditors and give necessary protections, but to avoid a wave of insolvencies as we come off the back of this crisis and those protections begin to recede—a situation that would profoundly damage livelihoods and might have just as many damaging public health consequences as the immediate effects of the crisis—we need to have a plan for the long term that will enable our economy to bounce back in a sustainable manner. This means that the Government must go further and they must go faster.
These needs for ambition and urgency are particularly relevant to the steel industry. It is the largest employer in my Aberavon constituency, with 4,000 well-paid jobs directly employed in the Tata steelworks in Port Talbot, but with many thousands more in the supply chain. Nationwide, the UK steel industry employs 32,000 people and contributes £3.2 billion to mitigating our balance of trade deficit through the exports that are produced. It contributes £5.5 billion to the economy directly and through supply chains, and each job pays on average 28% higher than the average UK job. Indeed, steel is the very backbone of our whole manufacturing sector—from defence to transport to infrastructure—and there can and will be no post-pandemic economic recovery for our country without a strong and healthy steel industry.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), the shadow Business Secretary, has rightly said, the support to the steel industry has been far too slow, and it finds itself now teetering on the edge of the abyss. I do not understand why the French and German steel industries received the liquidity injections they required, backed by their respective Governments, within 10 days of their respective lockdowns starting, yet not a single penny of Government liquidity has been made available to the British steel industry to date. I think we do need an explanation of why it has been so slow.
My worry was that the reason might be that some on the Government Benches have given up on the steel industry. I do not believe that to be the case. I do truly believe and hope that the silver lining from this dark coronavirus cloud may be that the UK Government finally recognise the need to support industries of vital strategic, foundational importance, such as the steel industry, and also that they will begin to acknowledge the value of more localised and shorter supply chains.
What we need, coming off the back of this crisis, is nothing short of a manufacturing renaissance in our country. If we are to grow the economy to meet the challenges presented by climate change, by the social care crisis and by the need to rebuild our economy post-pandemic in a serious, sustainable and balanced manner, we must significantly boost our manufacturing sector. It is currently languishing at 9% of GDP. I would strongly recommend that the Government set an ambitious target of boosting manufacturing to 15% of GDP by the end of this Parliament. We know that the Government like to chase targets. Let us have a target that can actually pull our economy together and rebuild it on the basis of a manufacturing renaissance.
Boosting manufacturing is a win-win-win in so many areas. Our economy is currently dangerously skewed towards consumption and debt. Manufacturing is about production, and that is the kind of shift that we need to make. It would boost productivity, and it is far easier to make productivity wins in manufacturing than in the services sector. It would rebalance the economy and correct the massive geographical gap that exists between the wealthiest region in our country—London and the south-east—and the poorest regions. It would reduce our reliance on China. Just look at the issues around PPE: 40% of the world’s PPE is manufactured in China. We surely cannot go back to having strategic dependence on a country such as China, which so patently does not share our democratic values and ideals.
The steel industry must underpin this manufacturing renaissance. Successive Conservative Governments have unfortunately failed to support the steel industry sufficiently over the past 10 years. For instance, UK steelmakers pay 80% more for their electricity than their French counterparts, and 62% more than their counterparts in Germany. Now, during the pandemic, the Government have failed to come up with the size of loan and liquidity for the cash-flow crisis that Tata Steel, the owner of the Port Talbot steelworks in my constituency, is facing. It is the UK’s biggest steelmaker. It asked the Government for a loan—I stress that it would be a loan, which the company would of course be contractually obliged to repay—to cover the £500 million cash flow black hole that has been caused by coronavirus for the company. The Government recently increased their large business interruption loan scheme to a £200 million cap, but that still falls well short of what the company requires to plug that temporary gap in its cash flow. What a contrast, as I say, with the French and German Governments’ actions. Within 10 days, their steel industries had the liquidity injection that they required.
The Government have now introduced Project Birch, which aims to support those larger companies that did not fall within the parameters of the business loan interruption scheme. However, we know very little about how Project Birch is going to work. Yet again, I am concerned that coming forward with a new initiative could set back the work that has been done under the framework of the previous initiative. It almost feels like we are back to square one. With every day that goes by, the British steel industry teeters closer to the abyss, so I urge the Government to make this their top priority. We need to see the action that is required happening with the greatest possible urgency. My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) have recently written to the Government demanding more action on UK steel, and I thank them for their efforts.
The Government must also urgently recognise that the cost of doing nothing is so much greater to the UK taxpayer than the cost of intervening. Previous research from the IPPR think-tank suggests that the loss of 4,000 well-paid steel jobs could cost the Exchequer almost £1 billion over 10 years, and that is before we count the astronomical capital expenditure cost of decommissioning the blast furnaces and steelworks. The structural cost of putting thousands of well-paid workers on to benefits, combined with the capital expenditure costs of decommissioning, would be absolutely astronomical for the British taxpayer. It would be the definition of a false economy.
The British steel industry is a 21st century industry. It builds the offices we work in, the cars we drive and the homes we live in. It is a cutting-edge industry that is doing so much to promote green growth. There is a project involving Tata Steel and Swansea University just next to my constituency called SPECIFIC, which is creating photovoltaic cells on the basis of a steel-based film, which could turn every home and office in our country into a power station. That is a steel-based product. We are not talking about metal bashing; we are talking about cutting-edge technology and manufacturing. We need to support the backbone of our manufacturing sector that is the British steel industry. We cannot afford to let that backbone break at this crucial time.
The legislation has also missed other opportunities. The Government should be bringing forward long-awaited reforms of corporate governance. I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), the Chair of the BEIS Committee, who I congratulate on his recent election to that position. We should ensure that directors do not focus only on profit. They must also focus on people and planet. There needs to be a triple bottom line reporting structure, and the first step is to amend section 172 of the Companies Act 2006. We need companies to adopt a much broader responsibility, not only to narrow shareholder needs and aims, but to a much broader-based stakeholder approach in setting their corporate objectives and mission.
On that note, I commend the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) in his role as shadow BEIS Secretary. He has made it clear that we need a green, sustainable recovery by creating, in his words, an army of zero-carbon workers by retraining and redeploying those who cannot work into different industries. That churn will be essential as we enter the new paradigm of the post-pandemic economy and could apply in areas from home insulation to wind turbine manufacture. These are the opportunities that we see.
My right hon. Friend has also rightly pointed out that those companies that receive state support through this crisis owe obligations to the taxpayer. Those registered in tax havens who want support should come onshore before they get it. Multinationals that plan to pay dividends to shareholders while claiming the Government resources do not need to be doing that. We could also be more creative. In the long term, the Government should consider turning Project Birch into a sovereign wealth fund of the type that has boosted the prosperity of countries such as Singapore and Norway.
Let us ensure that we use this recovery to form a new partnership between Government and business—a partnership that will benefit the whole economy. Let us use this crisis as an opportunity to rethink, redesign and rebuild the British economy. However, the urgent, No. 1 priority now must be to protect the backbone of our economy, our UK steel industry; because without a strong and healthy steel industry, there can be no post-pandemic economic recovery.