Government accused over China trade links as minister visits steel crisis plant


Ministers have been accused of prioritising trade links with China over support for the UK steel industry as Sajid Javid prepares to meet steelworkers in Port Talbot.

The Business Secretary will insist the Government is "on their side" after he cut short a trip to Australia to return to the UK in the wake of the decision by Indian conglomerate Tata to sell its UK assets including the plant in South Wales.

Much of the steel crisis has been blamed on China dumping cheap steel on European markets.

And the Government faces allegations that it has placed improving trade with China above protecting the interests of the UK steel industry.

Ex-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg blamed his former cabinet colleague, George Osborne, for the policy.

"George Osborne has put his special relationship with China above the UK's best interests," the former Liberal Democrat leader said.

"The Conservative Government have continually failed to take action and missed many opportunities to help the UK steel industry, such as taking steps to prevent dumping of cheap Chinese steel on the UK market.

"The Government must now act before more steel jobs across the UK are put at risk."

Meanwhile, the Government has been accused of "blocking" European moves to scrap the "lesser duty" rule which would allow tougher tariffs to be imposed on cheap imported steel.

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, European Steel Association spokesman Charles de Lusignan said: "We have been talking about the lifting of the lesser duty rule in particular for a long time.

"The fact is that the UK has been blocking this. They are not the only member state but they are certainly the ring leader in blocking the lifting of the lesser duty rule.

"The ability to lift this has actually been part of a proposal that the European Commission launched in 2013.

"The fact that the UK continues to block it means that when the Government says it's doing everything it takes to save the steel industry in the UK, but also in Europe, it's not.

"It's simply not true."

Mr Javid has faced calls to consider his position after it emerged he had taken his daughter on the Australian trip.

He has said the Government is "working hard" to find a long-term solution for Port Talbot and the wider steel industry.

The Government has promised that all possible ministerial, official and diplomatic influence will be exerted to secure the industry's future, but Prime Minister David Cameron has ruled out nationalisation.

Mr Javid is due to meet workers and management at Port Talbot today.

He will also meet trade union officials and members of the Welsh Government.

He will be accompanied by Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns and will promise that independent advisers will be appointed by the Government once Tata begins the formal sales process.

Mr Javid said: "I'm going to Port Talbot to meet staff and management, who are understandably extremely anxious about their future.

"I will listen to them, and I want to reassure them myself that the Government is on their side in working hard to achieve a long-term solution for them, for the region and for the wider UK steel industry.

"Whilst we can't change the status of the global steel market, we can and are playing a positive role in securing a sustainable future."

He will promise a cross-Whitehall response, working with Treasury Minister Lord O'Neill, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Letwin and Mr Cairns, as well as the Welsh Government, to find a buyer for Tata Steel's assets.

Mr Javid will also defend the response to the crisis, insisting that without the Government's intervention steelworkers in Port Talbot could have been faced with the immediate closure of the plant rather than it being put up for sale.

A spokesman for the steelworkers' union Community said: "Steelworkers across the country will be shocked that it has taken this long for the Government to finally wake up to the crisis facing our steel industry.

"Community, the steelworkers' union, has always been keen to work constructively with Government, but Sajid Javid cannot simply arrive at Port Talbot and read out his list of 'achievements' - this week's news is proof that Government action thus far has been woefully inadequate."