Mr Speaker, I would like to start by saying how grateful I am that we have been able to secure this debate.
Ever since last month’s announcement of 750 job losses at the Port Talbot Steelworks, I’ve been calling for a full and comprehensive debate on the future of British Steel.
The Tata Steelworks in Port Talbot is the beating heart of my Aberavon constituency. These job losses, and those that are sure to follow along the supply chain, are a devastating blow.
The Minister will be aware that, following the announcement, Tata have been working on a rescue plan which will be discussed by the Tata board in Mumbai at a critically important meeting at the end of next month.
I would therefore like to start this debate today by imploring the government to give their full support to the plan by, for example, ensuring that there is proper investment support to improve the plants ‘premium product’ capabilities – such support could help in converting the CAPL line into a galvanizing line, thereby better serving the automotive market.
Can the Minister confirm that she will urge the Chancellor to give a firm positive commitment on Enhanced Capital Allowance to allow the Welsh Government Tata Taskforce to move forward in establishing an Enterprise Zone in Port Talbot?
Mr Speaker, I would now like to focus on what the government can be doing at the national and European level.
Mr Speaker, it is well known that this government operates inside a fog of laissez-faire ideology. Its modus operandi is to pray to the gods of the free market and hope for the best.
But what is fascinating to observe, Mr Speaker, is that this steel crisis is cutting through that fog, and forcing the Tories to understand a very simple truth, which is that when the market fails, then government should intervene.
The market economy can only function effectively if it is regulated. Just as a game of football requires the off-side rule to ensure fair competition, so the British steel industry requires the right regulatory framework, so that it can be given a fighting chance, on a level playing field.
The impact of this market failure, and of the governments failure to intervene to fix it is being felt around the country by the thousands of steel workers and their families.
They are the victims of the government’s laisse-faire doctrine. They are the victims of the government’s failure to stand up for them.
The reality of this is felt across kitchen tables around the country by the thousands of steel workers and their families who are the direct victims of this market failure, and of the failure of their government to stand up for them.
Madam Deputy Speaker, all of us here today will be aware of the five industry asks.
The government like to boast of delivering on four out of five of these asks. But a cursory glance at the scorecard demonstrates how disingenuous a claim this is.
Take the compensation package for energy intensive industries.
Five years after the Chancellor accepted the need for it the money still hasn’t arrived. Perhaps the cheque got lost in the Christmas post?
And what about procurement? No tangible evidence of any change.
If there were, then why on earth is the MoD’s latest order for a set of Royal Navy frigates going to be based on Swedish steel? And would a government seriously committed to supporting the Welsh steel industry still be flip-flopping on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon?
But most disingenuous of all is surely the government claim that it is acting against the dumping of anti-competitive subsidized Chinese Steel.
Madam Deputy Speaker, if anyone doubts the acute impact of Chinese steel dumping then they should just look at rebar.
From almost no market share in 2011 today, Chinese rebar accounts for almost half the UK market.
That is the cost, Madam Deputy Speaker, of five years of Conservative government. Five years in the fog of laissez-faire dogma and inaction. Five years of watching the storm clouds gather on the horizon and refusing to strengthen our flood defences.
Five Tory years of rolling out the red carpet for Beijing, rather than standing up for the men and women who form the backbone of the British economy.
Could I therefore implore the Minister to resist the temptation to blame Labour? The exponential growth in Chinese market share has taken place since 2011. This crisis has been brewing for five years. Let us hope that she is able to clear up the mess that her colleagues have left for her, and fast.
Madam Deputy Speaker, the growth in Chinese market share is only possible because of Beijing’s subsidies and market distortion – 70% of the Chinese Steelmakers are state owned.
In light of this fact alone, who in all seriousness could possibly see China as a market economy?
I’ll tell you who, Madam Deputy Speaker: the British government. Yes, our very own government has taken it upon itself to become some sort of outpost of the Chinese PR machine.
UK Steel, Tata and Community have all stated unequivocally that the granting of Market Economy Status to China would probably be the last nail in the coffin for UK steel-making.
And yet the Prime Minister and his government are actively lobbying in Brussels, and across the capitals of Europe, for China to be granted Market Economy Status.
The decision on this will be taken in December. There is still time for the government to change its mind. There is still time for it to become a cheerleader for Britain, rather than as a lobbyist for Beijing.
But Market Economy Status is not the only issue where government action is actively undermining the British steel industry.
It has become widely recognized in Europe that the lesser duty rule is killing our industry – indeed the European Commission proposal that it be scrapped was supported by the European Parliament.
And just for a fleeting moment we’d have been forgiven for believing that our own government was following suit, on 5th February the Secretary of State signed a heavily publicized letter to the Commission calling for Europe to, and I quote: ‘use every means available and take strong action’ on Chinese dumping.
And yet, the UK continues to be the ringleader in blocking the scrapping of the lesser duty rule.
And so while the American’s can impose duties of over 200%, the lesser duty rule means we can only impose tariffs of between 13% and 16% on Chinese cold-rolled flat steel products.
Earlier this month at the BIS Select Committee the SoS claimed that the UK has been “one of the most vocal and proactive in making sure that the EU takes action wherever there is evidence of dumping”.
And yet he has been actively campaigning in Europe against effective trade defense reform, opposing the removal of the lesser duty rule.
Mr Speaker, I have grown used to warm words being matched by frozen actions from this government, and I believe that most of the government’s failures have come down to incompetence, complacency or a mixture of the two.
But this is much, much worse.
On trade defense and the lesser duty rule this government have publicly declared their undying commitment to British steel, while behind closed doors they have been consciously conspiring to undermine the British steel industry.
Mr Speaker, this is nothing short of a disgrace.
I know that the Minister and the SoS recently visited my constituency, and I hope that they will return.
If they do, I hope that they will take the time to visit the homes of some of my constituents who have lost their jobs. I hope that they will look those men and women and their families in the eye, and explain their actions.
Explain how they can, in all good conscience, claim to support the steel industry while fighting tooth and nail behind closed doors against meaningful trade defense reform, and for market economy status for China.
Explain, Mr Speaker, the gaping chasm that exist between their words and their deeds.
Mr Speaker, the underlying cause of many of the government’s failures is the lack of a long-term industrial strategy for steel, with a commitment to a strategic approach to skills, investment, regulation and industrial relations.
For months now the government has ignored our calls, both in this House and elsewhere, for them to come up with such a strategy.
They may be happy to sit on their hands and do nothing, but I am not.
That is why I am proud to be co-chairing a working group of the APPG on Steel, along with the Hon Member for Redcar, that will produce a report, Steel 2020, on formulating a long-term industrial strategy for British steel.
We will show the government that they can do things differently, and we will give them concrete proposals for protecting British steel and jobs.
If this government won’t show leadership then someone else will have to.
We need a government that is committed to British Steel.
A government committed to a long-term industrial strategy.
A government that is more committed to Britain than it is to Beijing.
A government that isn’t spinning a line to the British people, whilst fighting for the opposite behind closed doors.
A government that will actually deliver on the five industry asks.
Mr Speaker, we need a government that will stand up for British Steel.