The announcement of yet more job losses and closures in our steel industry is most worrying. The combined impact of low steel prices and high energy prices here in the UK is squeezing the owners, leaving them with big weekly bills to pay to keep works open. It is exactly what some of us feared as we campaigned against dear energy and warned that we faced industrial loss as a result. The collapse of world steel prices is accelerating the process.
The UK needs to buy substantial quantities of steel. We need them for railway lines and for vehicles, for buildings and for domestic appliances. The UK has a long tradition of making steel and of making high grade and specialist steels which command better prices. Traditionally an industrial country has a basic steel making capability as part of its investment.
So what can we do to stabilise the industry? How could we enjoy the march of the makers?
The first thing is to buy more of our own steel. The government orders many railway projects and other civil engineering structures. It buys vehicles and appliances. It needs to ensure a sufficiently high UK content in what it buys, including the steel. Other EU countries manage this for their own domestic industries, so all the time we remain in the EU we have to find similar ways to show sensible priority within the rules.
In exchanges in the Commons on Monday I pressed the government on the impact of EU procurement directives on buying UK steel. The Minister said they have been relaxed, but was unable to confirm that the UK state sector can simply require its purchasing officers to buy UK steel for all needs paid for out of tax revenue. There is still enough potential UK competition to allow sensible prices whilst specifying UK steel.
The second thing we need to do is to slash our energy bills. I have written and spoken regularly about how we can and should so this.
The third thing government needs to do is to look at its range of taxes and impositions on the industry to see if it can alleviate the burden of rates and other levies.