On the eve of the Budget I led a Westminster Hall debate on the future of the British steel industry, calling on the Government to support the steel industry in the budget. The Port Talbot steelworks is the beating heart of our community, so a prosperous steel industry is vitally important for the town and surrounding areas.
The Government needs to match the commitment that steelworkers have made to this crucial industry. They can do this by acting on electricity prices and business rates. They must commit to a patriotic procurement policy, using British steel for infrastructure projects like HS2. The Government should also sign UK Steel’s steel charter and deliver a sector deal for steel. They must also commit to removing Donald Trump’s tariffs.
Steel is important to all of us: it’s in the cars we drive, the houses we live in and the offices we work in. The UK relies on UK steel and we need a Government that stands up for steel.
Stephen Kinnock: I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the British steel industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am pleased to have secured this debate, particularly ahead of the Budget tomorrow, and at what feels like a critical juncture for our industry, and for the entire manufacturing sector that our industry underpins. The Budget is the first major fiscal event since 2018 and the first test of the Government’s promises to the British people, particularly to all their new voters from industrial areas. Today we will make the case to the Government that now is the moment to offer that long-overdue commitment to the steel industry, in order for that 21st century foundation industry to continue delivering for Britain.
Nick Thomas-Symonds: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that what is required is long-term planning? Following the mothballing of Orb in December, we are in a situation where an electrical steel producer is not producing steel that would be ideal for the green industrial revolution?
Stephen Kinnock: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; it is completely absurd to have a Government who on the one hand are committed to decarbonising our economy, but who on the other hand are failing to support Orb, which could play a major role in electric vehicles, which play a major role in decarbonising our economy. It seems that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.
The Government must recognise the strategic importance of steel to our country’s future. They must also recognise that steel must be front and centre of their so-called levelling-up agenda if they are at all serious about tackling regional inequalities.
Stephanie Peacock: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Liberty Steel recently announced the loss of 350 jobs in south Yorkshire, due to a “challenging” market circumstances. Does he agree that is concerning, because those are traditionally well-paid manufacturing jobs, in comparison with the low-wage sectors that tend to dominate the local economy?
Stephen Kinnock: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have to mention today’s very bad news of 500 job losses announced by Tata Steel, which shows that we are back at square one. We do not seem to have learned anything from previous years. Industries need a Government who will proactively work in partnership to produce a policy environment and market environment conducive to investment and to those businesses thriving.
Nick Smith: The excellent “Steel 2020” report contains a brilliant quote, on page 28:
“Government procurement and other incentives should be used to increase domestic steel content in manufacturing and construction…there is clearly a significant market opportunity.”
Is tomorrow’s Budget not a brilliant opportunity to support steel?
Stephen Kinnock: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need a patriotic procurement policy. We need procurement that gives the right weighting to local value. Let us look at big opportunities such as HS2—2 million tonnes of steel. How much of that steel will be British? Let us ensure that every single Government Department and HS2 are signed up to the steel charter.
The UK economy cannot stand up without a backbone made of steel. It certainly will not be able to level up if is not able to stand up. Steel underpins our everyday lives, from the houses we live in to the offices we work in; the trains, buses and cars we travel in; and the major infrastructure projects, such as HS2 and the possible Heathrow expansion. It is crucial for our defence industry and to our national security. I hear people say that steel is a sunset industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not a sunset industry; it is an industry of the present and of the future. It underpins our entire manufacturing base, from automotive to construction, aerospace and so much more.
Mark Tami: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that we cannot just carry on managing decline and that we must invest for the long term? Once a plant goes, it is gone; very rarely do they come back into operation.
Stephen Kinnock: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, we saw the tragedy of Redcar: once the blast furnace is turned off, that is it. In my opinion, that was an act of industrial vandalism. We must ensure that we take into account the cost of doing nothing. The cost to the Government and the British taxpayer of closing these businesses down is astronomical, so let us have a proactive industrial policy based on investment, and let us use tomorrow’s Budget to deliver that.
Ruth Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for securing such an important debate. The uncertainty about steel production in Newport, with the closure of Orb and the ongoing nervousness at Llanwern and Liberty, has had a huge impact on jobs in my city and the surrounding areas. Does he agree that we need to secure a level playing field for UK steel producers by addressing the energy price disparity, preventing steel dumping and investing in research and development, so that the British steel sector can thrive globally?
Stephen Kinnock: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about having a policy environment that is conducive to driving investment. Businesses are looking for a partnership with the Government. As she rightly says, the cost of energy in this country compared with what the French and the Germans pay means that our steelworkers are competing with one hand tied behind their back. They need a British Government who are on their side.
Let us not forget the tremendous value that the steel industry generates for the British economy. It produces 7.3 million tonnes of steel a year, which is around 65% of the UK’s annual requirement. It employs 32,600 people directly in the UK and supports a further 41,000 through the supply chain. It makes a £2.8 billion direct contribution to UK GDP and supports a further £3.6 billion through the supply chain, and it makes a £2.5 billion direct contribution to our balance of trade. Steel is also integral to the greening of our economy. It is used in wind turbines, tidal lagoons and electric vehicles, and of course it is far cleaner to make our own steel here than to import it from places such as China, where steel production is much dirtier and the carbon footprint of transportation is huge.
Although we can be immensely proud of the contribution that our industry and its workers make, we must reflect on the sector’s recent struggles. UK manufacturing has been in decline, dropping from 30% of GDP in the 1970s to just 9% today, and the UK’s shift towards a city-centric, service-based economy means it is now the most geographically unequal country in northern Europe. We have the richest area in the whole of northern Europe—London—but also the five least prosperous, with west Wales and the valleys the poorest of all.
Let us not forget that steel jobs are good jobs, paying an average salary of £36,000, which is 36% higher than the regional average in Wales. Port Talbot provides 4,000 such jobs. The wider supply chain benefits are even greater, and the sense of local pride that our community feels in providing the very backbone of the UK economy is immeasurable. However, since 2010 our steel industry has been abandoned by the UK Government, leaving us trying to compete with one hand tied behind our back. After 10 years of Tory austerity, our community has also been left to fend for itself as a result of the money that has been taken out of our local economy.
The lowest ebb for our local steelworks in Port Talbot came in 2016, which marked the height of the steel crisis. A number of market forces combined to set the hares running: the UK had some of the highest electricity prices in Europe, which have gone on to cost the sector £200 million since 2016; business rates were through the roof, five to 10 times higher than in France, Germany and the Netherlands; and there was increased Chinese dumping in European markets to undercut European steelworkers. At one point, the UK Government blocked the EU from taking stricter action against the Chinese.
With such little support from the Government, all that came to a head. Leading the march for steelworkers as they always do, Community and other steel unions flew a delegation to Mumbai, which I was fortunate enough to be part of. 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 Steel recognise that these were real people with real families to look after, not just numbers on a spreadsheet.
Mark Tami: There is an important point here: these are not workers who have refused to change; in fact, they are quite the reverse. They have been at the cutting edge. They want to do everything to make the plants as efficient as possible, but with all these other factors counting against them, there has to be a point where something changes.
Stephen Kinnock: I fully agree. British steelmakers make the best steel that money can buy; of that, there is no doubt whatsoever. Look at the flexibility they showed over the divestment of the pension scheme, when many steelworkers thought not about themselves but about their families—their sons and daughters, and their grandsons and granddaughters. That shows the passion and commitment of our steelworkers and their willingness to be flexible. I pay tribute to the steel unions, and to Roy Rickhuss and Community for their leadership in making that happen.
Our endeavour at the time paid off. Tata Steel decided against closing or selling the business, and in exchange the workforce showed incredible sacrifice by voting for the divestment of the pension scheme. 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.
Fast-forward four years and we are stuck at square one. While electricity prices and business rates continue to be a thorn in the side of our steel sector, Brexit and Donald Trump’s section 232 steel tariffs are combining to create a hostile policy and market environment once again. Some 70% of UK steel exports go to the EU, and a basic trade agreement with the EU could cost the industry £70 million a year through additional border checks. Although Trump’s tariffs were aimed at punishing China for illegal dumping, they ended up severely damaging the UK’s US exports, which have dropped by 30%. Exports of long products such as rods, bars, rails and construction materials were hit particularly hard, falling by as much as 60%. I am sure the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) will wish to say something about that.
These are tough times. It is important for steelworkers in my constituency and across the country that Tata Steel keeps its part of the bargain by continuing to invest in the long-term future of UK steel making. Our steelworkers, who make the best steel that money can buy, are crying out for UK Government support. It is time the Government put their money where their mouth is and backed this essential British industry. We need a Budget for steel—a Budget that really does level up.
First, the Government must take specific action to reduce UK industrial energy prices in order to move the steel sector’s costs in line with its European competitors. The Government’s energy intensive compensation scheme barely touches the surface; it deals with the symptoms but not the cause of the problem. UK steelmakers still pay 80% more for energy than their French counterparts, and 62% more than German companies.
Will the Minister commit to studying and delivering on the nine recommendations in UK Steel’s “The Energy Price Gap” report? They include providing 100% compensation for the indirect costs of the carbon price support mechanism, enabling energy-intensive industries to buy energy collectively, and providing an exemption from capacity market costs. It is worth noting that any savings on electricity prices would be reinvested in the recently announced clean steel fund and would deliver £750 million of investment in the sector over the next decade.
Secondly, the Government must back business rates reform to drive capital investment in industry. Will the Minister commit to removing plant and machinery from rates calculations? Thirdly, the Government must maximise opportunities for UK steel in major infrastructure projects by introducing measures to increase the amount of UK steel purchased by those projects. Will the Minister back calls for HS2 to sign UK Steel’s steel charter, and will he recognise the potential for the Government’s steel pipeline to support 6,000 new steelworker jobs and contribute £3.3 billion to the economy if every Government project used British steel?
Fourthly, will the Minister commit to using the estimated £200 million in returned moneys from the EU research fund for coal and steel post Brexit to boost UK steel sector innovation? Fifthly, will the Minister commit to removing Donald Trump’s section 232 tariffs from day one of the UK-US trade negotiations? Finally, will the Minister commit to delivering on a sector deal for steel? Aerospace, automotive and construction all have sector deals, yet the industry that underpins our entire manufacturing base—the steel industry—does not. That really is a travesty.
Steel is very much a 21st century industry that forms the backbone of the British economy. That fact must be reflected in tomorrow’s Budget. The Community union is set to launch a new campaign called “Britain, we need our steel”, because Community knows that the UK relies on UK steel every bit as much as its members and the steelworkers in my constituency do.
My constituents and their families, and steelworkers and their families across the length and breadth of our country, are not asking for charity; they are asking for a fair crack of the whip. They are men and women of steel who want the opportunity to compete without one hand tied behind their back and a chance to continue to serve their country by producing more of the best steel around for generations to come. I truly hope that the UK Government share that vision and will stand up for steel in the Budget tomorrow.
Stephen Kinnock: My hon. Friend is giving a powerful speech. Does she agree that following Jingye’s takeover of the plant at Scunthorpe, there is a risk that the Government may say, “Box ticked—that’s sorted. The short-term issue is resolved, and we can walk away and think about something else”? Does she agree that it is vital that that does not happen, and that we still have to address the structural problems that we are discussing?
Jessica Morden: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot be reactive; we have to look holistically at achieving a long-term strategic vision. Help for British Steel is, of course, welcome, but we need help for the whole steel industry in the UK, including the Welsh steel industry.
Stephen Kinnock: I welcome the Minister’s recognition of the deeply damaging impact of the section 232 tariffs on our highly competitive steel industry, which is not state-subsidised, unlike China’s. Does he agree that the point of maximum leverage is now? If the United States wants to enter into trade talks with the UK in a spirit of good faith and trust, surely it would be at the very least a gesture of goodwill to fire the starting gun on the talks by giving the UK an exemption from the tariffs.
Kwasi Kwarteng: The hon. Gentleman is tempting me down a rabbit hole. I am not here to talk about the specifics of our trade deal with the United States; perhaps he should call for another Westminster Hall debate on that. Certainly conversations around any trade agreement with the United States will centre in no small degree on our industrial base and on the nature of our relationship in terms of steel. He will understand that we are now in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU. We have not started the American trade talks, and I think it would be prejudicial to them—that is my own view—to start making demands in that round of conversations before we start the formal negotiation.
Stephen Kinnock: I thank the Minister for his remarks. I welcome anything the Government have done and can do to support our industry, but we have not really made much progress on the specifics, and the devil is in the detail. There is a crazy disparity between energy costs in this country and in France and Germany. That is the simple fact of the matter. We need policy intervention to give us that level playing field. It seems absurd to have an energy-intensive industry compensation package paying for the symptoms rather than addressing the causes. I urge some detailed responses to my questions, specifically about energy policy.
It is great to hear that the Government are reviewing business rates, but this crisis has lasted for five years. It seems incredible to me that we are still reviewing something when we know what the answer is: take plant and machinery out of business rates. On trade, a gesture of good will from the United States would be a welcome way to start those negotiations. I recognise that the Minister will not be in the room for those negotiations, but it is his job to champion the steel industry across Westminster and Whitehall. I hope he will be the voice of the steel industry in those trade negotiations. On procurement, there was a specific question: will the HS2 vehicle that runs that project sign the steel charter tomorrow? There is no reason why it cannot do that.
I welcome the Minister’s constructive response, but the devil is in the detail. I would welcome detailed progress on those points, because otherwise it feels like we are using a sticking plaster over a gaping wound. Our British steel industry is the pride of this country and the foundation of our manufacturing sector. It is the pride of communities such as the one I represent and those represented by colleagues around the Chamber. I hope we will see that proactive response from the Government in the very near future.