2019 09 – Parliamentary Notes

Parliament Notes

British Steel

24 July 2019

Anna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the sale of British Steel.

The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Greg Clark) As hon. Members will recall, I made a statement to the House a few hours after British Steel entered insolvency on 22 May. This was, and still is, an uncertain time for the British Steel workforce, their families and their communities, for the customers and suppliers of the business and for everyone who believes, as I do, in the importance of excellent steelmaking and manufacturing in the UK.

In my statement, I said that, although the independent official receiver is solely responsible for the operation and sale of the British Steel business, I would, both personally and on behalf of the Government, do everything that I possibly could within my powers to help secure a good future for the whole of British Steel’s operations.

Following a visit to the Scunthorpe plant the following day and to Skinningrove and Lackenby on Teesside the day after with local MPs, including the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), we formed a British Steel support group to work together immediately and actively to pursue that aim. I chaired the group with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), which has included British Steel management; trade unions Community, Unite and the GMB; the Mayor of the Tees Valley and the leader of North Lincolnshire Council and their officers; the chairs of the Humber, Greater Lincolnshire and Tees Valley local enterprise partnerships; UK Steel; Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation, on behalf of suppliers and customers; the Federation of Small Businesses; Government officials and other local MPs, including the hon. Lady, my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). The support group has now met eight times, usually in Doncaster, and sub-groups on the supply chain have met separately, as have local partners.

I wish to pay tribute to the hard work, tenacity and dedication of this group and the extraordinary commitment of the workforce who, during this time, have worked magnificently, not only to continue but to increase steel production.

Often in insolvencies, customer orders dry up, suppliers withdraw their services and the workforce drifts away, precipitating a rapid failure. In this instance, the opposite has been the case. The confidence that the support group has built, coupled with a Government indemnity to the official receiver, has allowed trading to continue, orders to be won and production to increase. This is without precedent in my experience.

Although all decisions are for the official receiver, I have been active, as Members know, in visiting prospective buyers in many parts of the world to make it clear that the UK Government will, within our legal powers, work ​with a good long-term owner of these important assets to see how we can help them to realise their vision for the company.

I am pleased to say that the official receiver has said that he is encouraged by the interest in purchasing British Steel and his special managers, EY, are currently in further discussions with potential buyers. The official receiver has made it clear that, given the complex nature of the operations, any potential sale will take time to deliver.

I said in May that I was determined to see the proud record of steelmaking excellence continue. The world needs steel, and British Steel is among the best in the world. To secure that will require, in my experience, the continued active participation of everyone that I mentioned earlier without interruption during the critical weeks ahead. In particular, whoever stands at this Dispatch Box will need to devote themselves unstintingly to achieve a great outcome for everyone concerned with British Steel, which I believe, although not certain, is certainly within grasp, and that is the flourishing of British Steel’s operations for many years to come.

Anna Turley Let me begin by putting on record my thanks to the Secretary of State—not only for his response just now, but for the way in which he has responded to this crisis. We find ourselves in a fundamentally different position from the situation in 2015, where, either by design or flat-footedness, the Government failed to respond, with devastating consequences. This is a completely different scenario, and I am grateful to the Secretary of State for stepping in and helping to secure the asset, enabling the business to continue and ensuring that the workforce were paid. Through the indemnity that the Government have given to the official receiver, the Secretary of State has given us a very good chance of ensuring the future for British Steel in this country. I also thank him for his efforts in going around the world to help secure a buyer.

Of course, the situation remain precarious. In the past few weeks, we have seen the new Prime Minister running around the country waving kippers in the air; by contrast, 5,000 dedicated, highly-skilled workers in British Steel have been putting their shoulders to the wheel in Scunthorpe, Skinningrove and Lackenby, despite their livelihoods being in the balance. They have been producing at record levels and working with every effort they have to ensure that the business continues to produce the best steel in the world and to flourish. I pay tribute to all those working within British Steel. They deserve a Government who will be straining every single sinew to ensure that the business survives.

I pay tribute to the trade unions, including Community and Unite; every worker in British Steel; everybody in the customer base who has continued to ensure that requests for steel have come through, including some who have even stepped up their demands; everyone in the supply chain who has continued to work so hard to supply the business; and colleagues in the Doncaster round- table. I again pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the inclusive and positive way in which he has responded. However, I do have a number of questions for the Secretary of State—for whoever will be at the Dispatch Box in the coming days, weeks and months ahead.

First, does the incoming Secretary of State understand the implications of failure? We know what 5,000 job losses could be like in areas such as Scunthorpe, Redcar ​and Skinningrove where there is no alternative employment, and we know the cost of cleaning up the site: £1 billion. Does the future Secretary of State understand the loss of a major industry in Britain that any self-respecting major economy would value and recognise to be essential? Will they recognise the role of steel as a foundation industry for our defence, automotive and construction sectors and what reliance on overseas production could mean for our economy, our independence and our self-reliance?

Secondly, will the future Secretary of State endeavour to ensure that the official receiver continues to receive the indemnity for as long as it takes to find a buyer? Thirdly, will they endeavour to give wholehearted Government support to the bids that primarily keep the business together as one industry across Skinningrove, Lackenby and Scunthorpe? Will they pledge to prevent cherry-picking, to keep asset strippers at bay so that we do not suffer the same issues that we have experienced before and to ensure that the terms and conditions of the workforce are maintained? Will they ensure that any company that the Government support will invest in the assets and ensure that they are modernised for the future of our industry? Will they invest in research and development and be committed to the long-term interests of steelmaking in this country?

Finally, I hope that whoever will be at the Dispatch Box in the weeks ahead will recognise that they have the jobs and livelihoods of thousands of men and women in their hands, as well as the guardianship of a vital, modern, innovative and potentially world-leading British industry.

Greg Clark I am grateful to the hon. Lady for asking the question that has given us the chance to talk about these issues. She has been dedicated and devoted to her constituents, as have other Members—starting the week with me in Doncaster with the colleagues I described to ensure that we can work together and join together to ensure that there are no gaps between any of the interested parties. That has had an appreciable effect, as has been noted by many prospective buyers. Certainly, many customers and suppliers have also observed the resolution and the unanimity of resolution behind this.

Many of the hon. Lady’s questions were addressed to whoever might be the Secretary of State under the new Prime Minister, so it would be presumptuous of me to answer on his or her behalf, but she has placed a clear set of requirements on the record and I endorse everything she said. Not only would the consequences of the loss of historical assets—hugely important in all the communities she mentions—be unconscionable; there would also be the loss of a substantial opportunity.

The hon. Lady, like me, believes that there is a strong strategic future for the British steel industry. As I said in my previous answer, the world is going to need steel. Through investing in infrastructure, this country has opportunities to make greater use of UK steel. We export much in the way of our scrap steel to other countries. That could be made better use of, both environmentally and in terms of industrial opportunities. If we invest—as we intend to and are doing through the industrial strategy—in the technologies that will make steelmaking cleaner, more efficient and suitable for new uses, there is every reason to think that the UK steel ​industry, including British Steel, can be a beacon showing the rest of the world how a modern manufacturing industry can flourish.

Mr Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Con) May I associate myself with the priorities outlined by my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley)? This is an opportunity to say a big thank you on behalf of the people of Teesside for all the dedication that the Secretary of State—a son of Teesside—has shown to our steel industry. It has not gone unnoticed locally how much he has gone over and above what might be called the ordinary line of duty to secure a positive outcome to this sale, so I pass on a sincere and lasting thank you.

It would be helpful to get on record what the Secretary of State has been doing to leave no stone unturned in these negotiations. In particular, will he talk about the in-principle willingness potentially to invest alongside a future purchaser?

Greg Clark I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s generous words. He has been assiduous not just in being a member of the support group, but by working in Skinningrove with the customers of British Steel to convey the assurances that are necessary. Buyers will have questions about this extensive and complex set of assets, so it is important—and will continue to be important, especially during the weeks ahead in August—that everyone is available and active in providing the answers to those questions.

Through the industrial strategy, the Government have established programmes to support improvement in energy efficiency, which is very important; to decarbonise industrial clusters, of which steelmaking is a prime example; and to invest in research and development. Through the industrial strategy, we have the biggest increase in R&D in the history of this country. I am making these points to prospective purchasers so that they can see that the environment is a positive one.

It would be wrong for me to comment on the individual bids, as that is legally and strictly a matter for the official receiver, but I have made myself available in this country and overseas to answer questions. I think that I have had more than 25 meetings with bidders, and it has been encouraging—to use the words of the official receiver—that serious bids have been made, but the work must continue to land them and to secure the future.

Rebecca Long Bailey (Salford and Eccles) (Lab) I do hope that this is not my last exchange with the Secretary of State, but just in case it is, I want to stress my thanks for the amazing Mini Cooper toy that he presented me with last week and to say that he should not worry because there will always be a parking space in my heart for him. We might differ in our approach to many of the structural flaws that our economy faces, but we actually have more in common on most issues than many people would realise, not least on industrial strategy. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) for securing this important update on British Steel.

The Secretary of State shares my opinion that British Steel must be kept as one entity, not splintered off to different buyers who do not have the long-term success of the company at heart. However, there have been reports this week that the Chinese Jingye Group, which was interested in the company as a whole, has pulled out. It was also reported that the deadline for bids has been moved a number of times. Indeed, an email sent from the official receiver is reported to have stated that no deadline has been set to conclude a sale process. Can the Secretary of State confirm how many prospective buyers remain, how many are interested in acquiring the entire company and what deadlines for the sale have been set? Will he also confirm, as my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, that he will only give his support to bids that support the long-term interests of the company, the workforce, the local community and the steel industry as a whole?

The Secretary of State must recognise that, as Labour has repeatedly stated, action must be taken on electricity prices, business rates, driving investment and, of course, securing a good Brexit deal, because no deal could mean no steel. Will he therefore assure the House that he will be taking steps to ensure that the new Prime Minister urgently takes action on these issues and understands the real importance of the steel industry?

Greg Clark I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for the generosity of her remarks. I have enjoyed my exchanges and meetings with her. I hope the parking space in her heart has a charging point for the electric Mini—that would be very important.

The hon. Lady invites me to comment on the bids and some of the press speculation as to who is bidding and who is not. First, this is a matter for the official receiver, and secondly, I would not want to prejudice any of the bids by commenting. The discussions, in many cases, take place under confidential terms, and it would be wrong to do anything that might disadvantage that. There is often, in situations like this, speculation in the press, and much of it is misplaced. What I can say—the official receiver has said this publicly—is that several bids have been made and he is looking for bids that consider the whole of the operation. I welcome that, as the hon. Lady does.

On long-term commitments, we do have a long-term commitment to manufacturing, and to steel in particular. I mentioned some of the funds that are available in the industrial strategy. Of course, because they would accompany substantial investments, which I hope will be in place, they require a long-term commitment from any prospective buyer.

The hon. Lady is right to raise the question of energy prices and electricity prices. This is not a new phenomenon, and it is not unique to any particular Government. In fact, the biggest increase in industrial electricity prices took place under the previous Government. In the past five years, we have contributed nearly £300 million to energy-intensive industries as a rebate towards those costs. Through the industrial energy efficiency fund that is available in the industrial strategy, we want to reduce further the costs of energy. It is very important that we should do that.

The hon. Lady asks questions about the incoming Prime Minister. I spoke to both candidates during the leadership contest to impress on them what she and I agree is the crucial role of this industry. I know that she, the Under-Secretary—my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson)—and other hon. Members have communicated not just with the current Prime Minister but with her potential successors to reinforce the resolution across all parts of the House that this is at the top of the new Prime Minister’s agenda.

Note (1): Rebecca Long Bailey is Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Note (2): On 17 August it was reported that Atear Holdings, a subsidiary of Oyak a Turkish military pension fund, is on course to buy British Steel. Trade unions, while welcoming a rescue, have concerns about the company’s record on labour relations and have made contact with sister organisations in Turkey to discuss these matters.