Saving Port Talbot steel jobs should be up to Wales, not a remote and uncaring Westminster
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
The announcement that Tata Steel plans to sell its Netherlands-based operations has unsurprisingly sparked major concerns about jobs in Wales.
Jobs at the Port Talbot steel plant have been under threat for some time, and the news that the conglomerate wants to make its UK business “self-sustaining” will do absolutely nothing to alleviate anxiety. The pandemic has not helped the situation in the slightest.
Tata said its plan is to offload its European its business and keep the UK business running without financial support from India. The UK business is currently reliant on that financial support. If that stool gets kicked away, the fear is that that the UK business and the steel plant in Port Talbot along with it, will go under.
The India-based business has revealed that the Swedish steel firm SSAB initiated talks about the acquisition of its business in the Netherlands. This includes its steelworks at Ijmuiden, north-west of Amsterdam. The fear is that steelworkers in Wales will be thrown under a bus.
One of the most challenging aspects of this worrying situation is that it isn’t in Wales’ hands. I have no doubt that the Welsh Government will do what is in its power to help.
The problem is that there isn’t all that much that’s in its power. That’s why Wales needs control of its own money. Wales’ money is mostly controlled by the UK Treasury.
While Westminster holds the purse strings Wales will be helpless. Our fate will not be in our own hands. Instead, we will have to ask for our own money and be expected to show gratitude for the supposed generosity if it is handed over.
There is a lot on the line here. Around half of Tata’s 8,000 UK workers are based at Port Talbot, with several other sites around Wales and the rest of the UK.
Therefore, if the plant goes, it will be a hammer blow to the community. It would not only be devastating to the steelworkers who lose their jobs, but to all of the local businesses that are part of the supply chain.
Wales’ Economy Minister Ken Skates said the news was “extremely worrying” and he’s right too.
Things are difficult enough as it is with the economic fallout from the covid crisis.
Tata says it plans to separate the UK and Netherlands arms of the business and that it will “will pursue separate strategic paths for the Netherlands and UK business in the future”.
It added: “Tata Steel continues its dialogue with the UK government on potential measures to safeguard the long-term future of Tata Steel UK and is also reviewing all options to make the business self-sustaining without the need for any funding support from Tata Steel India in the future.”
This corporatese is enough to send a shudder through the spine.
According to Tata it is trying to negotiate a £500 million bailout to help it get through the pandemic and that it is talking to the UK Government about the business’ future.
Therein lies the problem. Its future should not be up to the Westminster establishment. Its future should be up to our own government here in Wales. We have far more skin in the game. We are far more invested in the outcome than the remote and uncaring Westminster elite.
The Welsh Government has said that it is seeking urgent talks with the Prime Minister of the UK, who is currently Boris Johnson. Given the severe financial constraints on the powers of the Senedd because of the current constitutional arrangement, that is the right thing to do.
But we should not have those constraints in the first place. We should not be shackled by the decisions of the Westminster establishment. We should not have to send begging letters to Number 10 Downing Street and the cross our fingers in hope that Boris Johnson decides to change the habit of a lifetime and do the right thing.
The situation with the steelworks in Port Talbot is just one example of this destructive culture of reliance. We should not have to wait for others in order to act, when we know it is the right thing to do.
There is far too much at stake to rely on a begging letter strategy.