Business Secretary to face the music as the steel crisis deepens

Business secretary Sajid Javid has a vital appointment in Sheffield next month. South Yorkshire writer David Walsh reports.

Wednesday, 6th April 2016, 5:27 pm
Updated Wednesday, 6th April 2016, 5:31 pm
Business Secretary Sajid Javid talks to workers as he leaves Tata Steel in Port Talbot, South Wales, as the Government outlined its response to the crisis gripping the steel industry. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

In a major coup for Sheffield’s historic Cutlers’ Company, business secretary Sajid Javid is headline speaker at its annual white-tie-and-tails dinner next month.

But how things have changed since he accepted the invitation from the manufacturers’ organisation in February.

Today, Mr Javid is perhaps the busiest man in government with one of its biggest jobs – to save Tata Steel.

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On Tuesday he was talking to Sanjeev Gupta, chief executive of the commodities firm Liberty House and a potential buyer of Tata’s UK operations.

Yesterday he was in India talking to Tata bosses on the same subject. Before that he was in Port Talbot, fresh off the plane from Australia, forced to dash home after being caught on the hop by news Tata UK was up for sale.

Many claim the crisis engulfing the sector could have been avoided if the government had done just a little bit more to help.

Two years ago the EEF and the Cutlers’ Company staged a crisis summit in Sheffield over high energy prices and rocketing green taxes.

The Chancellor announced a compensation package soon after but it took two years before it was fully implemented despite repeated and loud complaints from UK Steel.

Last week, IPPR produced a document listing several small scale things the government could do to help the nation’s foundation industries including a level playing field with Europe on trade and energy costs, switching the Regional Growth Fund to target supply chains and renewing the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative. The fact they haven’t been done gives justification to Rotherham MP John Healey’s claims the government has been dragging its feet over help over the last few years.

He has his own list including action to help on energy, Chinese steel dumping and changing the business rates system to reflect the investment needed in steelmaking and manufacturing.

Sajid Javid’s 15-minute speech at the Cutlers’ Feast next month is obviously an attempt to show central government is interested in manufacturing.

Master Cutler Craig McKay is at great pains to make clear he will be made welcome and the aim is to calmly and rationally talk business.

For he is only too aware that when Margaret Thatcher spoke at the Cutlers’ Feast in 1983 she encountered egg-throwing protesters outside the hall and fled, vowing never to return.

Unfortunately, Mr Javid’s own department has announced the closure of the BIS office in central Sheffield, with the loss of 247 well-paid jobs to London, so his visit will inevitably be controversial locally.

So far he hasn’t ducked an appointment – I think it is vital he shows his mettle and attends.

Two hundred years ago the Cutlers’ Feast lasted for three days, now it is confined to a single evening – May 19 this year – but it is still the most important business dinner north of London.

That’s the claim of the Cutlers’ Company in Sheffield ahead of the 380th edition, which will be attended by politicians and VIPs from industry, the civil service, the military, City of London livery companies and freemen of the Company of Cutlers.

Established in 1624, Master Cutler Craig McKay puts its age into context.

He said: “When Sir Isaac Newton saw the apple fall, the company was 42 years old. When the Titanic sank it was 288.

“It will be 400 years old in 2023. I am the 377th Master Cutler.”

The organisation has 360 Freemen’ manufacturing bosses. It may be old, but it is still relevant. Business Secretary Sajid Javid will speak at the hall in May.