Sir Andrew Cook Chairman of Sheffield-based William Cook Holdings, issued a stark warning of a “critical safety issue” arising from cheap Chinese-made steel flooding the country’s engineering markets and has voiced fears for the survival of Britain’s strategic steel industry if the government fails to take effective measures to restrict steel imports from China.
In a strongly-worded series of remarks, Sir Andrew questioned the quality of Chinese-made steel and the integrity of the nation's business practices which he characterised as the actions of a "command economy" that was seeking to establish a monopoly on the steel industry.
Referring to the situation as "madness", Sir Andrew said: “Chinese steel dumped in the UK at below cost price has already brought the domestic industry to its knees.
"What our steel industry needs is, frankly, a wholesale ban on Chinese-made steel. Not only is it causing the ruin of a major strategic industry, but there is a safety consideration too.
“It’s not just the hollowing out of our economy, or the replacement of skilled manual jobs with ‘noddy jobs’. There is also a critical safety issue. I know from personal experience that a Chinese steelworks mill certificate – the piece of paper attesting to the quality of the batch of steel – cannot be relied upon.
“Ask any sea captain about hazards to ocean navigation, and you will be told that waterlogged freight containers floating just below the surface are an increasing danger. These containers have fallen off ships in rough seas because, unsurprisingly, the sub-standard, Chinese-made steel fastenings have broken. We know the steel is Chinese because China, through its dumping practices, has cornered 100 per cent of the freight container market.”
Sir Andrew made his remarks during a critical time for the UK steel industry.
The Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate, an arm’s length body of the Department for International Trade, recommended the slashing of measures to safeguard UK steel. His comments come after Liberty Steel confirmed it was to sell its Stocksbridge facility and concentrate its focus on its green steel operations in Rotherham, placing the future of hundreds of jobs in doubt.
Sir Andrew continued: “In the British engineering industry, which is my heartland, I have discovered nuts and bolts made from Chinese steel where the actual steel is significantly weaker than its mill certificate describes. Nuts and bolts hold things together – trains, boats, cars and trucks, even planes. If they break, the results can be catastrophic.
“China had spent the last two decades building new steel mills to churn out vastly greater quantities of steel than world markets can absorb. In consequence, and deliberately, China has forced down the price of steel to well below western cost.
"This does not matter to China: its essentially ‘command economy’ is willing to sell steel at any price just to earn hard currency and at the same time put the western steel plants out of business. How can any western steel company compete with this ‘sell at any price’ behaviour? Just as with freight containers, so with raw steel. To create a monopoly, first slash prices to destroy western capability. Sooner or later, monopoly now established, China will hike the price - and the quality will still be suspect.”
Sir Andrew drew attention to the current difficulties of Liberty Steel. He said: “Much of the UK steel industry is already Chinese owned, with most of the rest being part of the Liberty Steel empire.
"At the root of Liberty’s recently topical difficulties is China’s determined policy to monopolise global steel production, entirely careless of both cost and quality. British steel plants are reasonably efficient.
"Given a level playing field, they can compete profitably world-wide. Liberty’s factories don’t need a taxpayer bail-out. That risks being money down the drain. If the British government really wants to help, it should do two things.
"Firstly, put a quota-backed 200 per cent tariff on Chinese steel imports, and secondly, legislate to require UK taxpayer-funded construction projects to use exclusively British-made steel. Look at the EU and you see Chinese steel imports are all but completely banned. This is one reason why, for example, ArcelorMittal factories in France, Luxembourg and Poland can remain profitable.”
He added “The government should ignore calls from the International Steel Trade Association to slash import restrictions on Chinese steel. This body only represents the distributors, who buy and sell the steel. They don’t make the stuff and are not strategic to the UK.
"They like Chinese steel, because the cheaper they can buy, the bigger their profits. But it is time for the national interest to come first. Britain needs a domestic steel industry: our steel mills can be profitable, and it is up to our government to give them the protection from dumped imports which they deserve.”