South Wales Evening Post
In 2016 I went to India as part of a Community Union-led delegation to meet Tata Steel’s management in the midst of a crisis that nearly led to the loss of 4,000 jobs in Port Talbot. Our community fought tooth and nail to make Tata recognise that these are real people with families to look after, not just numbers on a spreadsheet.
The result? Tata Steel decided against closing or selling the business, the workforce showed the sacrifice that they were prepared to make by voting for the divestment of the pension scheme, and in return Tata Steel put forward a substantial investment plan and promised that there would not be a single compulsory redundancy in the coming years.
But now it seems that we are in danger of being back in 2016 all over again. In November Tata Steel announced that 3,000 jobs would be axed across their European operations, and now the Chairman of Tata Sons, the holding company that controls the entire Tata empire, has told the Sunday Times: “I need to get to a situation where at least the plant is self-sustaining… We can’t have a situation where India keeps funding the losses just to keep it going.”
This is extremely disappointing. Our Port Talbot steel works is suffering from decades of under-investment. Projects such as the recent renovation by Tata of Blast Furnace 5 are of course very welcome indeed, but it takes time for these investments to bear fruit. Our steelworkers have shown tremendous strength, patience, courage and resilience through these difficult times. Instead of threatening job losses, Tata Steel must now show those same qualities.
But more than anything this has to serve as a wake-up call for the government. Four years ago, at the height of the steel crisis, MPs set out five key asks that are the policy pre-requisites for a successful industry: action to bring down the cost of energy, a reduction of business rates in line with those of competitor countries; more time to meet directives on emissions; more support on anti-steel dumping measures; and more support for local producers in large construction projects. These aims should have formed part of the UK Sector Deal for Steel that our country desperately needs – reflecting similar arrangements in place for Aerospace, Automotive and Construction.
Yet four years on the UK government is still only buying 50% of its steel from UK sources and UK steelmakers are paying energy prices that are double that of their German counterparts and 50% higher than in France. Other than offer some warm words about consultation and reviews, and a half-baked energy cost compensation scheme that deals with the symptoms rather than the causes of the problem, the Tories have done nothing whatsoever. UK steelmakers are still fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.
Since entering Parliament in 2015 I have consistently made the case that the steel industry is of fundamental strategic importance to the UK economy. It’s a foundation industry that underpins so many aspects of our every-day lives – from the houses that we live in to the offices we work in to the trains, buses and cars we travel in – to major infrastructure projects like HS2 and the Heathrow expansion. It is also crucial for defence and security. This is why we need to see a patriotic commitment to making steel here in the UK.
Yet the Tory government refuses to recognise that steel is very much a 21st century industry and a huge asset to the UK economy.
My constituents are facing a perfect storm; an employer that is sending worryingly negative signals and a Tory government that won’t stick up for British industry. This could have a catastrophic impact on the steel sector, the workforce, their families and the wider community. The Port Talbot steelworks in my Aberavon constituency is the beating heart of our community, and the British steel industry is the beating heart of the UK manufacturing sector. These are the highly skilled, relatively well-paid jobs that the government should be supporting, not abandoning.
It’s time for Tata and the government to work together, to ensure that our precious British steel industry can ride out this storm and move forward to a brighter future.