Today’s columnist, Angela Smith MP: Fighting for industry

Steel ingot casting at Foregmasters Sheffield
Steel ingot casting at Foregmasters Sheffield
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Star readers will have been shocked to see so many jobs lost in the steel industry in recent weeks, with more than 5,000 job losses announced across the UK, including here in Rotherham.

The announcements will bring a sense of déjà vu to many South Yorkshire folk. Memories will be strong, after all, of the mass closures of steel plant in the 1980s and the huge job losses that came in their wake.

South Yorkshire still plays a major role in UK steelmaking.

Tata Speciality Steels in my constituency, for instance, makes top-end, high-value steel for industries such as aerospace and in doing so it secures employment, well-paid employment, for hundreds of highly skilled steelworkers.

We cannot take things for granted, however. The industry is under enormous pressure, thanks to the biggest crisis to hit steelmaking for years.

There are a number of reasons for this crisis. First of all, the cost of energy is a major factor in whether or not UK steel is competitive in international markets.

It is an energy-intensive industry, and yet our electricity prices for the first half of this year were 82 per cent higher than the European Union average for extra-large users, such as steelmakers.

Demand for steel is also low, while at the same time Europe is suffering a huge increase in the importation of cheap, subsidised Chinese steel; in the UK, Chinese imports have gone up by 129 per cent since 2013.

Another cost burden on the steel industry is business rates, which in the UK are up to 10 times higher than for some of our competitor countries, such as France and Germany.

To make things worse, we repeatedly see foreign steel used for building projects funded by taxpayers’ money.

It is just as painful to reflect on the fact that frequently nowadays the UK no longer produces what is needed by buyers; our defence industry, for instance, sources some its steel requirements quite frequently from countries such as France, because it cannot secure everything it needs from the UK steel industry.

Clearly, we need to tackle these issues if we are to secure a healthy, profitable steel industry in the UK.

That’s why I have been working with colleagues from across the political spectrum to get the Government to take action on a number of key demands.

We need to get the compensation package finalised for energy costs related to green taxation.

The Government should also consider removing plant and machinery from business rate calculations, and it needs to push at EU level for firm action to deal with what appears to be the unfair practice of dumping cheap Chinese steel on the European market.

Finally, we need government to strengthen the place of UK steel in projects funded by public money.

We also need a steel strategy, a plan for ensuring that steelmaking in the UK is well-placed to exploit economic opportunities in the future, such as HS2 and the successor programme for the Trident submarines.

Government has been reluctant to intervene on these matters but there are signs that the pressure we have brought to bear is producing a change of attitude.

Let’s hope so, for the sake of not only those who work in the steel industry, but for UK manufacturing itself.