The announcement that Tata Steel are to put all of their British steel operations up for sale is the biggest challenge for British industry in a generation and it needs a coherent response from industry, government and trade unions.
This is a proud industry, sitting at the centre of so many communities across the United Kingdom. Every Tata Steel job loss would lead to an additional four jobs being at risk in the wider economy and every plant closed undermines the country’s ability to make and manufacture. Tata’s announcement isn’t just about steel jobs and steel communities, it’s about the ability of the UK to perform in a global economy.
That’s why MPs must hold ministers to account and ensure they act decisively. We must keep all options open – support from government is vital and it appeared to be accepted yesterday they may need to intervene to protect Tata’s strategic industrial assets. The PM was less clear on that approach this morning – but they need to learn from their failure to intervene after SSI’s liquidation last year in Redcar and take a more proactive approach with this situation. A recall of parliament is also a proportionate response given the impact this could have on thousands of workers, dozens of communities and the wider British economy.
There also needs to be political pressure to ensure that Tata makes good its commitment of being a responsible seller. It is crucial that Tata takes reasonable time to work with potential buyers, engage constructively with the trade unions and provides access to government officials so they can support initiatives to secure the future of the industry.
Yes, there are many challenges facing the industry at this moment – particularly the flooding of the global market with cheap Chinese steel – but Tata has invested during their tenure in a number of UK sites over a sustained period. This means the onsite plant could be very attractive to potential investors. The workforce has played their part too. This is an industry that has worked hard to be globally competitive over many years. Unions don’t talk enough about working constructively with employers but that is what has happened in the steel industry in recent years. Yes, there have been ups and downs – and the occasional fallout – but the workers have engaged positively in steps to improve efficiency – always seeking to build a sustainable industry with decent jobs at its heart.
We’ll hear a lot things said over the next days, weeks and months. Some will try to use the situation in the steel industry to further their own political objectives – particularly in regards to the EU referendum. That should be challenged and shown for what it is – political opportunism at its very worst.
This is time for cool heads in government, it’s time for a socially responsible approach from Tata and it’s time for responsible trade union leadership as we campaign to secure a future for British steel.
Thousands of steelworkers across the United Kingdom are relying on us to collectively raise our game and the world is watching – we cannot fail.
John Park is assistant general secretary at Community, the steelworkers’ union.