Business secretary Savid Javid returned from Mumbai today (April 7) after talks with Tata Steel chairman Cyrus Mistry in a bid to gain assurances that the Indian steel conglomerate will sell off its UK assets responsibly.
Javid said that Tata would “impose no set time-frame” in finding a buyer for its UK steel sites, alleviating fears that the company would allow its plants to shut down if they weren’t sold in a matter of weeks – in effect, allowing the entire steel industry to collapse.
“What they have said is that they will allow a reasonable amount of time for this process to be completed,” Javid said.
But Unite national officer for metals and steels Harish Patel said steel workers wanted more than just vague commitments.
“This is an agonising time for these workers and their communities so we look forward to a fuller debrief on the next stages from the minister on his return,” he said. “Our members are sure to have questions on the details and the next steps.
“Tata has made it clear that they want to make this process as swift as possible, and while we welcome their commitment to act as a responsible seller, we now need to focus on how this industry is safeguarded for the future,” Patel added.
“We are extremely concerned that this uncertainty will have wider ramifications. We also want to discuss the supply chain implications, where Unite has thousands of members who also face an uncertain future, so we will be seeking further urgent discussions with the minister on his return.”
Straight from Mumbai, the business secretary travelled to Port Talbot today (April 7) to have talks with management and workers’ representatives.
Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke said he hoped that the business secretary learned just how important the steel industry is for the workforce and the economy as a whole from his time in Port Talbot today.
“Today was an opportunity for our representatives to impress upon the business secretary the importance of Port Talbot not just to the Welsh economy but to manufacturing across the UK,” said Burke.
“Mr Javid saw first-hand the scale of this site and could witness this dedicated workforce doing what they do best, which is delivering for British manufacturing.
“We underlined again the need to keep this business together because that is the only way to sustain the UK as a manufacturing nation, and the need to proceed to sale in a timely fashion – there must be no panic-driven fire sales,” Burke added.
“The secretary of state will have left Port Talbot today in no doubt whatsoever that this steelworks is a national asset and that this is a community that deserves a future.
“But all we know for sure is that Tata wants to sell, and that they have committed to proceed as a responsible seller,” Burke went on to say. “We now need to hear more about the next steps and what the government will do to retain UK steel manufacturing.
Burke echoed Patel in concern over the supply chain and the need for the government to help end the “agonising” uncertainty that steel workers now face over their future.
Javid confirmed yesterday (April 6) that the sales process of Tata’s UK operations would begin in earnest on Monday (April 11).
While metals firm Liberty House has emerged as the current frontrunner, Javid noted that other potential buyers had expressed interest and that he hoped many more contenders would come forward.
Swift action call
MP for Aberavon Stephen Kinnock, whose constituency covers the Port Talbot steelworks, came out yesterday to contest the notion that Britain’s largest steel plant is losing £1m a day – a figure that’s been offered up as proof that attracting a buyer would be all but impossible.
“We need to start challenging that figure,” he said. “It was something that emerged in the autumn. [The loss] has gone down by at least 50 per cent from what it was and is moving in the right direction. It’s a big challenge – no one is denying that – but there are opportunities for a fresh start.”
Beyond facilitating a sale to a responsible buyer, Unite has called for swift government action, including investment to help the sector through these tough times and dropping opposition to European Commission proposals to place higher tariffs on cheap Chinese steel.
The union also wants ministers to take action on energy costs so that UK steelworkers can compete on a level playing field with their European counterparts, and to compel British steel to be used in British infrastructure and defence projects.
Director of industry group UK Steel Gareth Stace reiterated Unite’s call for the government to step in and highlighted especially the need to combat dumping of cheap Chinese steel imports.
“While there is no silver bullet which will solve the toxic cocktail of problems affecting the steel industry, I am hopeful that government will take every opportunity to do what is necessary to support British steel making, so that it can compete on a level playing field with our competitors in Germany and France,” Stace told the Telegraph.
“We have some of the best steelworks – and the most talented steelworkers – in the world,” he added. “Securing their future requires strong support from government, and close commitment from industry and the unions. We can no longer afford to be the dumping ground for China’s woes.”