British steel is at a crossroads and the government must do more

January 20, 2016 , ,

My late father, Michael Brennan, helped to build the original Llanwern Steelworks in 1962 and he stayed on to work there for the next 20 years until his retirement.

It was the type of job which allowed him to buy his own house, a car and with the help of my mother, Beryl, to bring up four children, all of whom went on to higher education. Not bad as he would say, for a boy from the peat bogs of the West Cork who left school at 14. And not bad as my mother would say for a miner’s daughter from Nantyglo.

That sure foundation of a well-paid, stable employment, which was such a platform for social mobility is now so much rarer.

That is not to say we should look at this era with entirely rose tinted glasses. By the 1970s management in the industry was inefficient, industrial relations unhealthy, and at times productivity was too low.

I realised this when as a 19 year old with a year out before University I worked for 6 months at Llanwern Steelworks. It was an awesome experience in the true sense of the word.

Llanwern was an    integrated steelworks turning iron ore into steel along a five mile long site. Lit up at night it was a humming metropolis of industry.

In the steel plant where I worked the sight of giant steel ladles lifted on cranes to pour molten metal into moulds was extraordinary. And it could be dangerous work too, several men were killed when a blast furnace leaked invisible gas, and another was killed on one of the railway lines in the time I was there.

Steel was and is not just a job but a way of life for communities like Llanwern and Port Talbot, which is why the latest round of job losses is so devastating.

Of course globalisation and competition swept away thousands of British steel jobs, but we are now at a decision point as a country.

Are we prepared to stand by and allow the remaining parts of our steel industry to be swept away by a tide of dumped imported steel being sold at less than it costs to produce?

Crippled by laissez faire ideology, Sajid Javid’s BIS department has been slow to act. That is hardly surprising when it is led by a man who will not utter the phrase “industrial strategy “. Panicked by the pressure from unions, employers, Labour MPs and shadow ministers, Javid has cobbled together some belated actions on energy prices and other measures. But his efforts fall short of the requests made by employers and workers who have developed a partnership approach to saving and developing their industry.

The Government will trumpet forthcoming anti-dumping measures against China as their doing, but in truth they have been leading a blocking minority in the EU, to stop the reform of trade defence measures to allow stronger action against Chinese dumping.

At the same time the Government has been falling over itself to persuade the EU to grant Market Economy Status to China, which would prevent action in future to stop dumping.

Let’s be clear, there is no easy solution for the British steel industry, but the government must at least set out its position on what it is the minimum steelmaking capacity it believes is in our national interest and we must use every measure at its disposal including taxation, procurement, regulation and trade sanctions to ensure that our steel industry survives.

Without steel I would not have had the opportunities denied to my parents, and which led to me becoming and MP and Minister in a Labour Government and let our steel industry be blown away without a fight.