Steel crisis: The government must save the people, but not the industry

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Rally 'To Keep The Light Burning' At SSI Steelworks
Thousands of steelworkers face redundancy as companies pull out of the UK (Source: Getty)

This has been a sobering week for Britain’s once mighty steel industry. The problems that have led to Tata’s decision to sell its loss-making UK operations have been building for decades, and as politicians take pot shots over who could have done more to save the industry in recent years, it’s worth remembering just how much it has declined.

Forty years ago, there were more than 300,000 steel workers. Today, less than 10 per cent of those jobs remain. The brutal reality is that the number is now set to decline even further.

For those affected in Port Talbot and further afield, the demise is a tragedy. When job losses of such a scale are concentrated in one industry or in such a short space of time, the political instinct to “do something” can be overwhelming.

Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell have found an issue that connects with the very reasons why they came into politics: support for workers, a belief in industrial Britain and a fight-back against the forces of globalisation.

Their calls to nationalise the steel industry are understandable and sincere. They are also wrong. An industry in terminal decline cannot be sustained by indefinite government subsidy. Using taxpayers’ money to keep an unviable sector on perpetual life-support is not a credible policy, and the government knows it.

Business secretary Sajid Javid has said previously that the government cannot control the price of steel, and David Cameron correctly recognises that “nationalisation is not the answer”. But there is a role for government in ensuring that the people affected are supported throughout the difficulties of the coming months and years.

Redundancy pay, community support and retraining will all be expensive – but not as expensive (and certainly more effective) than open-ended industrial welfare. Britain’s steel industry does not exist in a vacuum, and cheap steel imports have brought benefits to the country as well this week’s high-profile costs.

Arguments about the strategic interest of steel are not without merit, and elements of the industry and its skills base should be secured, but sooner rather than later the discussion must move away from saving the industry and towards saving the people who have worked in it.

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