Sheffield MP Gill Furniss interview: Steel industry would be dead by now if it couldn't adapt, it just needs a bit of help

Sheffield Brightside and Hillsbrorough MP Gill Furniss. Pic: Scott Merrylees
Sheffield Brightside and Hillsbrorough MP Gill Furniss. Pic: Scott Merrylees
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The daughter of a Sheffield steel worker, former library worker Labour MP Gill Furniss is now challenging the Government on its approach to her father’s industry as a Shadow Minister. Rob Parsons reports.

Gill Furniss has a vivid memory of a moment from her childhood when her father, a Sheffield steel worker, took her in to see his work-place.

"I remember you had the guys with the steel bars passing them from one to another and they were white hot, I remember being terrified because of the heat of it," she says. "You never see anything like that now. It would never be allowed."

As Labour's Shadow Minister for steel, the Sheffield-born MP is now well-placed to see how the industry that still employs 10,000 people in Yorkshire and the Humber has moved with the times from its days of workers handling white hot metal.

Read more: Why we must all fight to save our ‘fantastic’ steel industry from meltdown – Gill Furniss

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Sheffield Brightside and Hillsbrorough MP Gill Furniss. Pic: Scott Merrylees

Sheffield Brightside and Hillsbrorough MP Gill Furniss. Pic: Scott Merrylees

Far from the iconic image of a hard-hat wielding worker and sparks and a furnace flickering in the background, today's steel industry is much cleaner and automated, with computers and conveyor belts the order of the day. Modern-day steel workers and more specialist and well-qualified, Ms Furniss says, with an average wage of £35,000.

"It is a very vibrant industry that is used to having to change, or they wouldn't have survived this far, because they haven't exactly had it easy", she tells The Yorkshire Post during an interview at her constituency office in Sheffield.

Appointed to the brief in 2016, she took on the job at a time when the party was finding it hard to recruit to the front bench amid internal party splits in the early months of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. As a native Sheffielder and daughter of a steel worker, with previous experience at a steel works, she was an obvious choice.

And her role comes at a potentially pivotal time for the industry, with British Steel put into compulsory liquidation in May and its 5,000 workers - including 3,000 in Scunthorpe - seeing their jobs put at risk.

The company provides 96 per cent of the steel for rail infrastructure agency Network Rail, Ms Furniss says, but like other big British firms faces an uneven playing fields on energy costs when competing against foreign rivals.

An industry-backed UK Steel Charter pledging to “promote and facilitate the use of UK produced steel in construction and infrastructure projects” was signed by a Minister in the last Government but Labour says more needs to be done.

"The knock-on effect is going to be quite devastating if we lose that steel because we lose automotive, aerospace, they all depend on home-grown steel. It is very short-sighted. We as Labour have made a commitment to supporting them on the deal they want."

"The technology they are using shows they have adapted and can do it again, they just need a bit of help from government," she adds. "It would be dead by now [if they couldn't adapt], we just need the Government that's there saying 'this is a foundation industry, we will always need steel'.

"Every room you go in there is steel, when you sit in your car there is steel. People say it is a dirty metal and the carbon footprint, but what are you going to use instead for your car door, steel or plasticine?"

Born at Northern General hospital in Sheffield and growing up in the Parson Cross area of the city, the mother-of-three had a brief office job with British Steel before starting work at Firth Park library. Her career at city libraries and college learning centres led her to take a degree course in information and library studies at Leeds Metropolitan University at the age of 40.

"It was an opportunity not to be missed and I've never been one to miss an opportunity," she says. It's a phrase that crops up later in the interview as she describes her route to becoming MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough in 2016 following the death of her husband Harry Harpham.

Getting her first taste of elections after winning a seat on the governing body of Sheffield college following a merger, she later stood for Sheffield City Council in the Manor ward before becoming a councillor for the Southey area. She combined her elected role with motherhood and a night-shift position at Northern General, where she worked as a general records clerk.

Her husband Harry, the council's deputy leader from 2012, stood to be MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough in 2015 after Labour grandee David Blunkett stood down.

The decision to stand required some discussion, Ms Furniss recalls. "I decided that he was going to go for it, is probably the best way of describing it. He did actually love it when he got down there, he thought it was brilliant."

Elected in May 2015, Mr Harpham, one of the final deep coal miners ever to enter Parliament, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in October and died four months later.

His widow says the attempt to stand in his place "wasn't really a hard decision" and was supported by her three children. "If any of the children had said they didn't want me to go, I wouldn't have, but they were very keen," she said.

Her constituency is nothing if not diverse, ranging from Burngreave where 39 different spoken languages are spoken to the prosperous Hillsborough area, meaning locals bring issues to her ranging from rogue trees in the garden to severe immigration problems.

The case work dealt with since she became an MP is now pushing 12,000, often referred to her as the last port of call for constituents rebuffed by other local authorities, but she notes that her allowance for office staff is no more than in leafy Tory shires.

She meets The Yorkshire Post the day after the result of the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in Wales, where Labour's poor performance prompted further concerns about the party's slump in public support under Jeremy Corbyn.

But Ms Furniss insists it is Boris Johnson who has more cause to be concerned, adding: "Coming into a general election, we'll be fine, we've got to make sure it's not Brexit-related, you've got to be able to put a domestic argument to people.

"For people in my constituency, while Brexit is a hot topic, it's how they are going to feed their children, can they get a food bank, can they get a hospital or a GP appointment in time. It is poverty we are thinking about here, and we are busy putting agendas together to make sure we can plug the gaps and protect the vulnerable."

GPs need more training on endometriosis

Among Ms Furniss's lobbying efforts is her work on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on endometriosis, a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places.

Her committee has heard harrowing tales from sufferers of the condition, which GPs find hard to diagnose and so is likely to be under-reported. Some women have had to quit their jobs or have surgery. More research and education is needed, she says.

"The thing that amazed me about it was how common it is. We have hairdressers working down the corridor [when we did a fundraiser] and they were asking about it, we had people coming in saying 'here's a fiver, I had endometriosis'. It's amazing the number of women who have got it, you would think more would be known about it."