Comment: The steel industry is being wiped out

Tata Steel’s latest announcement takes the toll of job losses in recent months to over 5,000

 

The UK government’s failure to act swiftly and decisively to support British manufacturing is leaving the industry on the verge of wipe out. Tata Steel’s latest announcement that it is axing a further 1,050 jobs takes the toll of job losses in recent months to over 5,000.

Port Talbot, Llanwern, Trostre, Corby and Hartlepool have become the latest communities to be hit by the crisis engulfing the industry, while steel workers from Motherwell to Redcar and Rotherham to Scunthorpe count the cost of closures and job losses.

The knock-on effects of these latest job losses, as with the others, will be felt throughout the supply chain and the wider manufacturing community, torpedoing George Osborne’s promise to ‘rebalance the economy’. His march of the makers is in reverse and the Northern Powerhouse is proving to be a myth.

Take Tata Steel’s plant in Scunthorpe for example. One-in-four of the region’s full time jobs rely on the plant which makes over 90 per cent the UK’s rail tracks.

A source of decent well-paid jobs and a key driver for growth, British steel is some of the best in the world and a central part of all our daily lives.

Yet the government, which promised to rebalance the economy in favour of manufacturing, is devoid of an industrial and manufacturing strategy to support one of our foundations, a proud and once mighty industry.

Shamed into doing something following the closure of the steelworks in Redcar, government ministers have talked a good talk, but delivered little. Promises to compensate the industry for high energy costs have yet to be received.

Meanwhile European summits to tackle the dumping of cheap Chinese steel have yielded nothing, moving at a glacial pace as ministers consider approving China’s bid for ‘market economy status’.

Any action BIS ministers Sajid Javid and Ann Soubry have taken has been in response to the unions and the industry kicking over the traces.

When will the penny drop with government ministers that a strategically important part of the UK economy faces oblivion because of their continued failure to take decisive and swift action?

The penny dropped years ago with countries like Germany and the USA. Their governments support their steel industries either through an integrated industrial strategy or through import licences and duties.

And while UK ministers may point to recent government guidance on the procurement of British steel for infrastructure projects, it risks being just more fine words and little action. Orders are what steelmakers in the UK need and need fast, backed up with cast iron guarantees that if it’s built for Britain it uses British steel.

The ‘hands off’ approach of the government towards the steel industry needs to change. Government ministers need to implement an industrial strategy with steel running through its heart, which supports skills, communities and decent well-paid jobs.

The alternative is an ever-dwindling industrial base and a self-defeating hollowing out of skills and communities as the promise to re-balance the economy becomes a distant pipedream.

Tony Burke is assistant general secretary of Unite responsible for manufacturing

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