Tom Richmond: Business leaders would show more steel in a crisis

The Tata steel works in Port Talbot, South Wales, which Indian owners Tata are looking to sell.
The Tata steel works in Port Talbot, South Wales, which Indian owners Tata are looking to sell.
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SHOULD the Government step in to subsidise an industry that is losing £1m a year because of global factors? Ask this question to the ordinary person in the street and they will probably say no.

The response of the self-same person will also be in the negative if they’re asked a follow-up question; namely whether the Government should sacrifice an industry that is critical to the defence and manufacturing industries.

This is the conundrum facing David Cameron after Tata Steel threatened to pull the plug on the remnants of the UK’s once mighty steel industry because it can no longer compete with a glut of cheap imports from China.

Yet, while I do have some sympathy with the invidiousness of the Prime Minister’s position, I have no sympathy for the manner in which Tata’s decision appeared to catch the Government on the hop.

The challenges facing the steel industry, including cheap Chinese imports, high energy costs and the restrictive nature of EU state aid rules, were all highlighted at an emergency summit in Rotherham last October that was called in the wake of the closure of the Redcar steelworks. Those present included Business Secretary Sajid Javid who had to be summonsed back from Australia this week.

They were again highlighted several weeks ago in a thoughtful critique produced by the Business Select Committee headed by Hartlepool MP Iain Wright and which was presented to Parliament on February 29. His speech concluded with this warning: “The UK steel industry is on its knees. This proud sector, which should be powering the future of British manufacturing, is pleading with the Government to help and to make sure that we have a sustainable future for the steel industry.”

What happened this week? Clearly no one listened to Mr Wright. Having adopted a policy of ‘hope for the best’, the Government’s initial response was left in the incapable hands of lawyer Anna Soubry, the Minister reprimanded in the Commons for her contemptuous response to the decision of the Department of Business, Industry and Skills to shut its Sheffield office.

In car crash interviews, she tried to retain a pretence that all options were open without daring to utter the ‘nationalisation’ word; she was flummoxed on Radio Four’s Today programme when she did not know how the Scottish government had stepped in to save a steel plant north of the border and she couldn’t explain how EU state aid rules tallied with her belief that Britain’s future is best served by the European Union. All she did was blame Sir Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary from 2010-15.

Is this the best that the Government can do? The Tories have been in power for six years and Sir Vince could have been overruled if Mr Cameron – or others – were unhappy with his approach.

This country is paying a heavy price for being left at the mercy of career politicians like Ms Soubry rather than business leaders who would not only have foreseen a crisis that jeopardises 40,000 jobs in areas of deprivation, but worked ‘morning, noon and night’ to come up with a solution that did not leave Britain at the mercy of Tata Steel and China.

AS Arriva takes over the former Northern rail franchise, it does not inspire confidence that it has chosen to recruit senior executives who have mismanaged the region’s railways in the past.

They include former Northern commercial director Richard Allan who was in the firing line when the former franchise was accused of running ‘phantom’ trains on the line from Ilkley to Leeds. He blamed communication failures for screens at stations displaying trains as being ‘on time’ – cancellation announcements only came long after the scheduled time of departure.

Mr Allan’s new job title is also symptomatic of the railway industry’s bureaucratic empire-building – he is, I kid you not, the Arriva franchise’s new ‘customer and people experience director’ and will work alongside ‘performance and planning director’ Rob Warnes.

Given Mr Allan’s track record at Northern, a more apt job description might be Director of Excuses.

When a rail franchise is lost, it is usually because of poor service. Why, then, do so many executives responsible for this unsatisfactory state of affairs transfer to the new company? How about asking commuters to apply for the job? They would at least have a first hand understanding of ‘customer and people experience’.

I’M beginning to lose count of the number of Cabinet Ministers who say the Government has listened and learned following the furore over the disability cuts announced in last month’s Budget before George Osborne was forced into a humiliating retreat when Iain Duncan Smith resigned on a point of principle.

These Ministers attended a Cabinet briefing on the morning of the Budget. Did they not think to question the political wisdom of penalising the disabled while championing tax breaks for the better off? It’s their job to do so.

Once again, David Cameron should not escape censure. As he reminded Parliament, he is First Lord of the Treasury. And, as the father of a seriously disabled son, he should have known better. Let’s hope Ministers are not asleep on the job prior to future Budgets and Autumn Statements.

IF the library service is to be saved, the Government, local councils and community groups are going to have to start thinking outside the box.

Libraries have been supplanted by the high-street coffee shop where people meet up and surf the internet on their own devices. How about these chains being given incentives to open branches in libraries – or bookshops like Waterstones being given a discount on their business rates if they can find a way of providing some form of lending service?

GOOD luck to the Yorkshire cricketers playing for England in tomorrow’s World Twenty20 final. I’m sure they will make their county, and country, proud if they continue to play with the same verve that has taken them this far. Particular praise must go to Joe Root, who is now regarded by luminaries such as Andrew Flintoff and Brian Lara as the best batsman in the game because of his ability to adapt to all formats and circumstances. I would go further. The Sheffield tyro has done us all a favour by making the following two words redundant from the cricketing lexicon: Kevin Pietersen.

tom richmond@ypn.co.uk