THE BAD news that resounded through Britain’s steel industry in the autumn came in wave after wave, each grim announcement seeming to spell out the end of an industry that had helped to power the British economy since the Industrial Revolution.
First, Thailand’s SSI announced the closure of its Redcar works with the loss of 2,200 jobs. Then Caparo Industries put its steel operations into administration, threatening another 1,700 jobs. And finally India’s Tata Steel announced a further 1,200 job losses at plants in Scunthorpe and Lanarkshire.
Yet, despite the fact that the industry’s problems clearly did not come out of the blue, the Government appeared as shocked by the revelations as the public were and as helpless to do anything about it.
Now a report by the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has confirmed what most observers had already realised, that the Government was simply not alert to what was happening in the steel industry and allowed problems to mount up until they became too much for producers to bear.
The question of what, precisely, the Government should have done, however, is another matter. Of course, had Ministers lobbied earlier for concerted EU action, as the MPs suggest, it may have been the case that new European rules governing state aid would have been introduced last year rather than last week. Yet even that is far from certain.
Meanwhile, there is little the Government can do about China’s ability to mass-produce steel at a far cheaper cost than Britain, nor to raise global demand to the levels reached prior to the financial crash.
But what the Government could have done was to control the carbon-emissions targets faced by heavy industry and ease the crippling electricity prices that have piled up costs across the entire manufacturing sector. In full knowledge of this, however, the Government chose to polish its green credentials rather than look after manufacturers.
As the steel industry struggles, as the closure of Kellingley Colliery marks the death of deep-mined coal and the impending closure of power stations threatens to push Britain’s electricity production close to breaking-point, the impression is growing that the Government views heavy industry as a thing of the past and is content to consign it to history.
No room for complacency on economy
GEORGE OSBORNE’S promise to introduce a national living wage was a brilliant political move which pulled the rug from under Labour’s feet. Yet the Chancellor has clearly still to reassure industry that its economic costs will not outweigh its political advantages.
According to a study by the CBI, although two out of five firms are planning to increase their workforce next year, there remain severe concerns about rising labour costs and also the availability of skilled workers.
There is much here for the Government to consider, not least the way in which its plans for a living wage and an apprenticeship levy – introduced with the best intentions of boosting pay and widening vocational opportunities – will affect firms, particularly those surviving on relatively small profit margins.
Yet there is also another problem highlighted here, one which no government has been able to get a grip on, the fact that many firms can only fill skilled vacancies by employing workers from abroad while Britons remain unemployed, lacking the skills, the qualifications and, in many cases, it seems, the motivation to learn the trades that would stand both them, and the future of the British economy, in good stead.
Regardless of how tempted Mr Osborne is to congratulate himself on his undoubted political skills, there remains absolutely no room for complacency as far as the future of British industry is concerned.
MOST MOTHERS who are constantly busy juggling family life and work commitments will be looking forward to a few days’ well-earned rest this Christmas.
Not so four Yorkshire mothers who, weather permitting, will be celebrating the festive season somewhere in mid-Atlantic as they aim to become the oldest all-woman crew to row any ocean while also raising money for Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre in Leeds and the Yorkshire Air Ambulance.
We wish this intrepid foursome, members of a York rowing club, all the best as they embark on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, braving winter storms and pushing their bodies to the limit at a time when the most difficult challenge facing most of us is how much we can manage to eat and drink.
Merry Christmas and bon voyage!