Steelworkers demand answers as Sajid Javid visits Port Talbot plant
Hundreds of steelworkers have left the Government in no doubt about their fears over job cuts as they demanded answers during a visit to the country's biggest steel plant by the Business Secretary.
Sajid Javid visited Port Talbot in South Wales after cutting short a business trip to Australia to deal with the shock decision by Tata to sell its loss-making UK assets.
As he left a meeting inside the plant, a group of banner-waving steelworkers asked him what the Government was doing to save the industry.
He said the Government was on their side, adding that steel was "absolutely vital" to the UK's industrial sector.
During a four-minute face-to-face with workers, Mr Javid repeated the Government's contention that everything possible was being done, saying there was interest in Tata's steel portfolio but specific details could not be given because of "commercial reasons".
Hot mill worker Christopher Walters, 48, said: "We all feel like we've been kicked in the guts. We knew that things were looking bad about six to eight months ago so it's a pity that all these pledges of support from the Government and Parliament were not made then.
"We have all come out in force today to show the strength of feeling about it."
Nurses linked arms with steelworkers as they stood outside the blast furnaces.
District nurse Lynne Driscoll said: "This is a close community and we all stand together in times of need - supporting each other. Many of our colleagues have family working in the steelworks.
"The health of our community is already greatly affected by deprivation, so much so that even the threat of closure has a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of workers, their families and the community."
Asked if there were any potential buyers, Mr Javid said it would be wrong for commercial reasons to name anyone expressing interest, but said: "There will most certainly be people.
"We are on your side. The time is there, meetings today have been constructive, but also with Tata management in India, they have been very responsible, they've shown in the past as a group they are a responsible company, they've had to sell things in the past, I take confidence from that and so should you."
Mr Javid said in media interviews that the Government has received confidential information from Tata about its UK assets and is now engaged in trying to find a buyer.
The Business Secretary said he "rushed back" from Australia and described his meeting with managers, workers and union officials in Port Talbot as "productive".
"We have worked really hard with Tata for a long time, making sure we can find a new buyer. Information we got from Tata is confidential."
Mr Javid maintained the Government had been leading efforts in the European Union to impose tariffs on cheap Chinese steel, one of the issues blamed for the current crisis.
"I agree the EU needs to act more quickly," he said.
It has emerged that China has imposed anti-dumping duties on "under-priced" steel from the European Union, Japan and South Korea.
The Chinese ministry of commerce said imports of grain-oriented flat-rolled steel will be charged duties ranging from 14.5% to 46.3%.
The ministry said Chinese producers have suffered "substantial damage" due to improperly under-priced foreign steel.
The Government was attacked for not taking emergency action months ago to head off the jobs crisis now gripping the industry.
Trade group UK Steel said it set out six months ago what needed to be done in the short term but it has not happened.
The Labour Party will post an advert on social media with the message: "The richest get handouts. Steelworkers get sold out."
A spokesman said: "David Cameron has failed our steel industry and failed the UK's manufacturing. It is time he acted in the national interest and protected Britain's steel industry."
German engineering conglomerate ThyssenKrupp has held talks with Tata Steel on combining their continental European steel operations, according to reports.
Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of Community, said: "It is promising that the Business Secretary has taken the time to listen directly to the concerns of steelworkers in Port Talbot.
"His colleagues should remember that this is a national steel crisis. There are thousands of worried families right across the UK who are looking to the Government to give them some hope.
"We do not need more false claims from ministers that they have done all they can for the UK steel industry. This is quite clearly not the case when they are ringleading opposition to Europe imposing higher tariffs on unfairly traded steel."
Mr Javid was handed a Save Our Steel badge as he left Port Talbot.
The Government later published a consultation on introducing an exemption for energy intensive industries (EIIs), such as the steel industry, from renewable electricity costs in a move it said could save the steel industry more than £400 million over this parliament.
The move, first announced at the Autumn Statement, will exempt all EIIs from paying £390 million a year in policy costs of the Renewables Obligation and Feed-in Tariff.
The exemption is expected to come into force in 2017.
Mr Javid said: "Help with energy costs has been one of the steel industry's key asks and, having extended last year the compensation we are paying out, I want to see progress on exempting them altogether.
"While we can't control the global price of steel, we are doing everything we can to help our steel industry, not just on energy costs but also securing flexibility on EU emissions rules and on tariffs."
Shadow business secretary Angela Eagle said: "Over 24 hours have now passed since the Prime Minister convened the so-called emergency meeting, but so far we have heard more warm words from the Government but no concrete action.
"Despite all the talk there have been no new proposals to safeguard our steelmaking capacity; no evidence of action to reassure workers; and no proof that the Government is going all out to find a potential buyer.
"For the sake of steel workers and their families who are worried sick and for the future of our economy, it's time the Government got a grip of the situation and came up with concrete steps to help save our steel industry."
Terry Scuoler, chief executive of EEF, the manufacturers' organisation, said: "Providing energy intensive industry with an exemption from the costs of renewables is hugely welcome and will help ease the pressure on these vital sectors.
"A system of permanent exemption from energy policy costs is the only long term solution that can provide these sectors with that crucial sense of certainty that is so important for future investment decisions. This is something the current system of compensation payments will struggle to do to the same degree."
David Cameron, attending an international nuclear security summit in Washington, raised the problems facing the steel industry with Chinese president Xi Jinping.
A Government source said: "The Prime Minister raised concerns about global steel industry, said we needed to work together to tackle the challenges with over-capacity and that G20 could be a good forum to address it later in the year."