Outcomes of David Cameron's steel talks with China played down


David Cameron's talks with Chinese president Xi Jinping over the Asian superpower dumping cheap steel on the markets is unlikely to have achieved anything "tangible", a minister has admitted.

Anna Soubry told MPs the Prime Minister had done the right thing by raising the issue with the Chinese leader and the Government will be "like a dog with a bone" in pursuing the issue.

She was unable to say whether the talks had produced any results although she insisted Government efforts to address the crisis in the steel industry did not mean "just having conversations" because "stuff is being done".

Thousands of job cuts have been announced in recent weeks by Tata Steel and SSI in Redcar, Scunthorpe and Scotland, with cheap imports and high energy costs being blamed.

Ms Soubry's appearance at the committee followed warnings the industry is like a patient on an operating table and "likely to die" without urgent help.

Asked if Redcar had "died a death", Ms Soubry told MPs that there was unlikely to be a future for steelmaking, but there would be other opportunities for the community.

"I'm just being honest with you, I think sadly it's not going to come back. That's dreadful, of course it is," she said.

But the "fantastic" highly-skilled workforce, "great" unions and political support meant "it's got every opportunity that other things will come there that will be just as good as a very long, fine tradition of making steel".

The UK rolled out the red carpet for Mr Xi on his state visit, but the Chinese leader faced criticism over the country's policy on steel exports.

Chancellor George Osborne said the visit meant that the UK could question the Chinese about their production and "how that's distorting world prices", while Mr Cameron raised the issue during talks in Downing Street.

The select committee's Labour chairman Iain Wright asked Ms Soubry: "Did the Prime Minister achieve anything?"

She replied: "Yes. He raised it with the Chinese."

Mr Wright asked: "Are there any discernible, tangible actions as a result of raising it with China?"

The minister replied: "I honestly don't know the answer to that. I suspect it is with raising it, because we are on to it and we won't let it go, we will be a dog with a bone."

Mr Wright pushed her to find out from Number 10 what "actual tangible actions" came out of raising the issue, but Ms Soubry told him: "I don't think anything would though, would it?"

An angry Mr Wright challenged her: "What on earth is the point of raising it when nothing happened? "

Ms Soubry said: "Because everyone said raise it, so that's exactly what the Prime Minister did, he raised it. I can assure you it was the beginning of the conversation.

"Other ministers also had meetings with other members of the Chinese delegation, so it was absolutely the right thing to do."

Shortly after the MPs started the session, the Business Department issued a statement saying the steel industry will be able to take advantage of "special flexibilities" to comply with new EU rules on emissions.

Business Secretary Sajid Javid, who is visiting Brussels on Wednesday for talks on steel, said he recognised the costs the regulations could have, so he was working with businesses to agree a "flexible" way forward that does not damage competitiveness.

Ms Soubry said that the "nuclear option" of protectionist measures would be on the table in Mr Javid's talks.

"I think safeguarding, which is what we call the nuclear option, is certainly one of the options that we are at least considering," she said.

Mr Wright told her: "It just seems that the British Government, from the Prime Minister downward, is just having conversations rather than actions."

But she insisted: "We are not just having conversations. Stuff is being done."

The MPs were given a stark warning by Gareth Stace, director of trade body UK Steel about the health of the industry.

He said that a fifth of the sector's UK workforce had lost their job or were facing redundancy following a recent wave of cuts.

"If we were a patient on an operating table, we are bleeding very quickly. And we are likely to die on that table," he said.

Mr Stace told the select committee that the emissions directive was the easiest of five measures the industry wanted action on.

Other issues included reducing high energy costs and business rates, tackling unfair trade, and having more local content in orders.

Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of the Community trade union, said the current crisis in the industry seemed to be "out of control".

"We don't seem able to find a solution. We can't say we will change a working practice, or work more flexibly. It is not enough."

Mr Rickhuss revealed that unions had not been invited to take part in working groups set up after a one-day summit earlier this month.

Steel workers will lobby MPs on Wednesday as part of growing demands for Government action to tackle the crisis.

Workers from steel communities in Teesside, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, the West Midlands and south Wales will travel to Parliament ahead of a Labour-led debate on the wave of job losses in the sector.