I spoke in the debate on the British steel industry today – here’s my speech in full:
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on setting out the challenges facing the UK steel industry so effectively and forensically. Like him, I am a long-term member of the all-party group on steel and metal related industries, which I have the pleasure of co-chairing with the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft). In our group, alongside the Community and Unite unions and UK Steel, which represents the industry, we have been clear for a long time about the strategy we want the Government to follow to save our steel industry. That has never been more important than it is now, when we see a number of global and UK-specific factors aligning to create a uniquely challenging set of circumstances for steelmakers in this country.
Just this week, Tata wrote to its staff to say that its financial position was serious. This will be another critical year. The Government must act now to help the environment at home for business and our trading relationships, whether they lie in the EU, the US or elsewhere. We have heard those asks repeated again today, on the eve of the Budget, which offers the Government a major opportunity to do the right thing and provide the sector with the strong foundations it needs to weather the current downturn and be in a position to ride the next upturn when it comes.
That is why, as other hon. Members have said, we need action on electricity prices. It is a fact often quoted, but still unresolved, that the UK’s energy intensive industry pays some of the highest industrial electricity prices in Europe. UK steel plants, as my hon. Friend said, paid 62% more than their German and 80% more than their French counterparts last year. We need a level playing field with our European competitors. As he also said—I do not apologise for giving the same messages, because our group has been relaying them to the Government for some time—plant and machinery need to be removed from business rate calculations to drive that capital investment.
As others have said, we must maximise the opportunities for UK steel in major infrastructure projects. According to the last tranche of data from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 42% of the steel that was procured was sourced from outside the UK. That is still not good enough. Projects such as HS2 give us an opportunity to do better and finally get properly behind the steel charter. We need to use the money that is returned to us from the EU research fund for coal and steel to boost steel sector innovation.
Finally, we must prioritise our steel industry in upcoming trade negotiations. Some 40% of all UK steel is exported, and it is very vulnerable to any deterioration in our trading relationships with Europe and the rest of the world. As my hon. Friend said, we have seen the impact of the Trump tariffs on our exports. Many of us feel as though we have been firefighting for the last five years. The completion of the sales process for British Steel is good news for the company and some of its workforce, given the huge uncertainty and the setbacks that there have been along the way, but we need the Government to be proactive, not reactive. The Government need to decide whether they value making things in this country and whether we want to become an importer of steel, not a maker of steel.
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.
Just before Christmas, Tata’s Orb steelworks in Newport—the only producer of electrical steels in the UK—was mothballed. It needed investment, but with investment it could have provided the steel for the electric vehicle industry, in which the Prime Minister has repeatedly said that he wants us to be a leader. Last week, we found out that no Government support was forthcoming, that no suitable buyer had been found for the works and that Tata was now considering other uses for the site. No help or good news was forthcoming.
There is a human cost to the closure. As my hon. Friend said, the steelworks provided well-paid, highly-skilled jobs in an area that needs them, but the closure also represents the loss of a strategic industry at a time when we need it. We are going to need electrical steels like those made at Orb, so either we will have to import them or someone will have to go out and build another plant. How did we allow that to happen? We need this steel Minister to take a holistic approach, rather than a piecemeal and reactive one.
I am honoured to represent a constituency that has a proud steel tradition, which includes the Llanwern steelworks. The automotive galvanised steel produced at the Zodiac plant in Llanwern is renowned for its quality across the world and is used by manufacturers in the automotive sector, which is closely linked to the steel sector, to make more fuel-efficient and lightweight cars. I have mentioned Orb, but there is also Liberty Steel, which produces hot rolled steel coils and floorplate coils for the construction sector. Sadly, in January that company announced job losses in Newport, which is a reflection of the clouds of uncertainty that still hover over the sector.
Steelworkers in my constituency take huge pride in what they produce. There is a real passion for the industry, and that is why we fight so hard for it. Reflecting on that, I want to mention Paul Horton, who worked at the Orb steelworks for 37 years. He was the main union rep for Community and did an excellent job, alongside other reps from Unite. He attended a debate on the future of Orb in this Chamber just a few months ago, when he sat in the Gallery. In that debate, I highlighted the contribution of workers past and present at Orb, and that of the trade union representatives from Community and Unite who fought so hard for everyone there.
Paul clocked up 12,849 days of work at the site and, although he was reaching the end of his own time at Orb, he knew it would be a tragedy for Newport and for south-east Wales to lose such a strategically important works. Sadly, on new year’s day—the day after he finished work after 38 years—Paul passed away. He was a wonderful man and a passionate advocate for our steel industry. In mentioning him today, I want to reflect on the passion and dedication of those who work in the steel industry, and to honour his memory by carrying on the fight to save our steel.