Stephen Kinnock MP: Ministers can no longer blame the EU for the UK steel crisis
Labour MP Stephen Kinnock tells Liz Bates that the Government has run out of excuses over its lack of support for struggling steel communities.
Last year the UK’s steel industry was on the brink of collapse, with world prices plummeting and the country’s biggest sites under threat of closure.
Ministers suggested at the time that EU rules were preventing them from stepping in and saving the sector.
A year on, as we teeter on the brink of Brexit, the Government has a chance to set out a new vision, unencumbered by Brussels bureaucracy – so where is it?
That is the question being posed by Stephen Kinnock, whose Aberavon constituency is home to the UK’s largest steel plant, Port Talbot.
He tells PoliticsHome: “The Government, after much fanfare, has launched its industrial strategy and one of the elements of the industrial strategy is these sector deals. So, these different sectors are invited to put forward proposals for getting support from the Government…
“The steel companies have come together - you’ve got Tata, Liberty, British steel – they’ve all come together and they have submitted a sector deal, which asks for policy reforms but with a particular focus on reforming the energy market as well as a proposal for a co-financed research and development investment fund. They submitted the document on the 7th of September and basically received radio silence from the Government on it.”
When the industry was plunged into crisis last year after steel titan Tata announced plans to wind up its UK operations, the Labour MP worked tirelessly to prevent closures and save jobs.
At the time, it was Chinese dumping of cheap steel onto world markets that was threatening domestic production.
Looking back, Kinnock questions ministers’ assertions that EU rules were limiting the support they could offer, and suggests that it was instead Tory trade policy that shaped the response.
“I think those comments from ministers were deeply misleading. If you take, for example, the dumping of Chinese steel - the European Commission has been trying for years to give the EU trade defence instruments more teeth…
“Basically, the bottom line is that the United Kingdom was the ring leader of a number of countries that formed a blocking minority to prevent the European Commission toughening up the EU’s anti-dumping instruments.
“The idea that the Commission was somehow blocking this was quite frankly a lie, it was Britain. Because the UK government decided that rather than support British steel workers they would rather roll out the red carpet for Beijing. And there was a deal done between China and the UK that we wouldn’t get in the way of all this dumping.”
Despite the threat the sector hung on, but with Brexit on the horizon Kinnock is once again fighting to save British steel.
Crashing out of the EU without a deal, he says, is simply not an option if the remaining plants are to survive.
“My fear is that the industry only needs one more shock, one more serious disturbance or downturn and that could be all we need to kick us back into crisis. And Brexit could well be that shock.
“Now, if we leave the EU without a strong deal in place you are going to be looking at serious tariffs and non-tariff barriers for the car industry. And if the car industry suffers a downturn the first victim of that will be the steel industry because it is a totally integrated supply chain.”
This is why he is urging ministers to engage with firms on their industrial strategy proposals, although he is sceptical about the Tories’ commitment to the cause.
He says: “I think we are talking here about areas of the country that are very well used to being neglected and ignored and left behind by successive Conservative governments. In the previous incarnation we had David Cameron who only really got interested in the steel industry when he saw that it was a brewing public relations disaster and Sajid Javid [former business secretary] who wouldn’t even let the words industrial strategy cross his lips.
“Now, there has, of course, been a big shift since then and I welcome the fact that we now have a Cabinet Secretary who has put the words industrial strategy in his job title. That is at least something, but there is a big gap between putting two words on your business card and actually delivering for our steel communities.”