It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing this most important debate. Steel and the steel industry is vital to the UK, Wales and my constituency of Neath. The Tata steel plant in Port Talbot is in the neighbouring constituency of Aberavon and the Trostre plant is in the nearby constituency of Llanelli, both are places where hundreds of my constituents from Neath go to work every day.
I know personally of the community that has grown up around the plants. My father worked at the site of The Steel Company of Wales. When I was in Cynffig Comprehensive School I played hockey for The Steel Company – it was the centre of the community. The plant put food on our plates at home and contributed enormously to our social and sporting lives, the same sense of community applies today to the four and half thousand workers and their families that still work at and depend on the plants. The threat of the closure of these plants is more than I can contemplate.
One constituent of mine, Andrew, started as a Technical Apprentice in British Steel, Port Talbot in 1994 and worked his way up to the role of Laboratory Manager. Having spent his entire working life at Port Talbot, Andrew is passionate about the steel industry and is committed to its future in the local community often championing the Company and the Apprenticeship schemes.
Andrew has made a great deal of friends over the years with many of these friendships forged in a way that other industries cannot make. 12 hour shifts in a challenging environment pulls people together in a way that makes them feel more like family, and when pain is felt by your colleagues it is felt by all.
The uncertainty over the past 12 months is greater than in any time in his 21 year career. Due to the cyclical nature of the steel industry, there has always been highs and lows. Andrew told me about his personal experience of the last few months: “Back at the end of 2015 I wondered how we can continue with the losses being incurred. Time and time again, Tata asked the Government for help with trade restrictions, yet, month after month we were informed that our losses were huge. In January 2016 rumours were building of job losses. News crews are camped outside the works, the pressure was immense and you couldn’t escape it. Every conversation in work related to what the news could be, what’s the worst case? What’s the most likely? No announcement was made and our lives were on a precipice. Then it was announced that 750 jobs were to be lost in order to save the Business.”
A feeling of dread built up. As the story continued to be unveiled over the coming days and weeks the uncertainty and doom ebbed and flowed, as, even now it continues. From initial despair to waves of hope, the plant continued to operate under the most trying of circumstances. This should never have been the case.
I have asked questions in the Chamber, but, I wish to press the point again. Would the Government consider the current threat to the UK steel industry as an opportunity to change the way we do things so that new innovations and a thought through structure can be established, which would protect the steel industry for many years to come?
Innovation is already taking shape in Neath Port Talbot. SPECIFIC is an academic and industrial consortium led by Swansea University and involving several strategic partners. The project is based around the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Innovate UK, and by the European Regional Development Fund via the Welsh Government.
Specific’s vision is to deliver buildings that generate, store and release their own energy – an example of a radical and transformative energy solution using buildings as energy systems. Steel is a key element of this – Specific is working with Port Talbot Steelworks and its downstream operations to develop functional coatings for steel. This relies on high quality steel and together they are creating a pipeline of products for the future which will help ensure we have a sustainable competitive steel industry.
Additional support is required from both Welsh Government and UK government to work in partnership with academia and industry to develop products of the future.
Specific and Tata are working on innovation in construction, these products and systems are already entering the marketplace. For example solar integrated roofing products, new forms of heating systems using steel from Port Talbot and then turned into systems in Shotton.
No matter what the asset base or ownership of any future UK Steel model, technology and innovation is absolutely critical. What is equally as critical is that this technology and innovation is in close proximity to the major steel making sites, in Port Talbot and Trostre, Llanwern, Cardiff and Newport, as well as Shotton, Corby and Hartlepool. Communities, real people’s lives and the UK economy is resting on such innovations and the UK Government supporting them.