Government still buying tens of millions of pounds of steel from abroad

Ministers were tonight accused of failing to back Britain’s steel industry after figures showed tens of millions of pounds of foreign metal was bought for major Government projects.

Whitehall departments spent £23million on imported steel, according to research by the GMB union.

It analysed official statistics for 2018/19 on where ministries purchased products for use in major projects.

The union said at least £7million was spent buying steel from abroad to use in school building schemes.

Workers’ leaders want more orders for UK plants

Nearly £4m was spent with foreign producers on steel for railway projects.

And the Ministry of Defence spent £6.8m on foreign metal, including for the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought nuclear-armed submarines.

The Mirror revealed in 2016 how the four boats due to carry the Trident missile defence system would be partly-built with French steel.

The revelations come amid mounting fears for the future of the UK steel industry, which employs 32,000 people.

Steel giant Tata reportedly wants to sell Britain’s biggest plant, Port Talbot in South Wales – jeopardising jobs.

Tata Steel plant at Port Talbot

GMB national officer Ross Murdoch said: “These figures will come as a kick in the teeth to everyone who is working to secure a viable future for steel in the UK.

“The true picture will be even worse than portrayed, as a number of high value projects have been excluded.

“We are five years on from the closure of Redcar Steelworks and it is clear that the Government has not yet learned the lessons of the past.

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“Steel is a foundational industry which directly employs 32,000 highly-skilled workers and supports thousands more jobs in the wider supply chain.

“At a time when the industry faces crisis, the Government must step up, invest in our facilities, and ensure that public contracts are retained in the UK.”

Publishing of the “Steel public procurement 2020” document, the Business Department said the proportion of steel procured in the UK for public projects was 77% – up from 40% last year.

The reported value of contracts placed with UK suppliers has increased by 20%, from £67m to £81m.

Community steelworkers’ union operations director Alasdair McDiarmid said while more steel was being bought in Britain, “much more must be done to safeguard our steel industry through ensuring that taxpayers’ money supports British jobs”.

Ministers often claim they are forced to shop overseas because British mills do not produce specialist products needed for certain projects.

But workers’ leaders say if they are given enough time they can switch processes so they can win contracts.

Mr McDiarmid said: “Regretfully much of the steel procured from overseas was done so out of necessity because at a point in time our steel producers could not make the required steel.

“But it didn’t have to be this way and government can turn it around for the future by developing an ambitious industrial strategy with steel at its core.

“The right long-term strategy would enable our steel producers to plan and invest for future opportunities, ensuring they have the skills and capabilities to produce the steels our country requires.”

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UK Steel director-general Gareth Stace said the Government “still appears to be failing to keep track of where most the steel used in public projects comes from”.

UK Steel director-general Gareth Stace

He added: “Government figures indicate some 800,000 to 900,000 tonnes a year is required for public infrastructure projects, but just 160,000 of it is reported here.

“For years we have asked for it to be compulsory for public works contractors to report on the origin of the steel they use.

“The fact that this most basic step has still not happened begs the questions of whether the Government’s rhetoric on public procurement of steel is little more than that.

“With huge volumes of steel required for HS2, the Government’s new offshore wind ambitions and numerous other infrastructure projects in the years ahead, we cannot afford to miss out on the opportunity for jobs, economic growth and strong UK supply chains that comes from using more domestically produced steel.”

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, whose Aberavon constituency includes Port Talbot, said the figures “show that the UK government is failing to back British steelmakers”.

Aberavon MP Stephen Kinnock

He added: “It is astonishing that £23m of steel contracts are going abroad at a time when UK businesses most need government support.

“The Conservative Government has continually failed to support UK steelmakers – not least during the pandemic where the major steel companies are yet to receive a single penny of government finance.

“Britain’s steel industry underpins our entire manufacturing base.

The famous steel works
Port Talbot’s steelworks dominates the local skyline

“It will play a critical role in building a more resilient economy post-pandemic that is less exposed to forces beyond Britain’s control.

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“But the steel industry will only survive if it gains government support, and that must start by buying British at every opportunity.”

The Mirror has been campaigning to Save Our Steel since 2015 when the industry was hammered by plant closures and thousands of job losses.

Daily Mirror Save Our Steel Campaign
The Mirror has been campaigning to Save Our Steel since 2015

A Government spokeswoman said: “Almost 80% of steel procured by the Government this year was sourced by British steel producers.

“We are working with industry to support a productive, vibrant and modern steel sector in the UK, and leaving the European Union provides us with the opportunity to focus investment on our own priorities.

“Steel firms have been able to draw upon our far-reaching package of support to help businesses through the coronavirus pandemic, including the Job Retention Scheme, the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme, and tax referrals – and we continue to regularly engage with businesses across the steel industry.”


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