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Unions demand UK steel industry help as crisis summit starts

Worker casts steel ingot Image copyright Getty Images

Unions have called on ministers to take "concrete and positive" action to save the UK steel industry at a crisis summit called after a major plant shut.

Speaking as he went into the summit, being attended by business leaders and ministers, union leader Roy Rickhuss said the whole industry was threatened.

It follows the closure of the SSI steel plant in Redcar, with 1,700 job losses.

The government accepts the industry faces tough times, but warned there was no magic bullet to solve its problems.

Mr Rickhuss, general secretary of the Community union, said ministers should have stepped in to save the industrial assets at Redcar.

"I'm hoping for some concrete, positive action on what the government is planning to do - and not just government, what employers are going to do as well," he told reporters as he walked into the meeting, in Rotherham.

"The industry is in crisis and we need a response, we need action. We need to protect our steel industry because it's absolutely fundamental to the well-being of manufacturing in this country."

'Skilled jobs'

The Unite union has also called for the government to put steel at the heart of an industrial strategy.

"The steel industry is at crisis point," said Tony Burke, the union's assistant general secretary.

"Unless the government pursues an industrial strategy with a 'steel heart', then sound-bites like 'Northern Powerhouse' and 'March of the Makers' will be nothing more than empty rhetoric for communities who rely on skilled jobs in steel and manufacturing."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption As recently as the 1970s the steel industry employed more than 200,000 workers. Today that's closer to 30,000

Steel industry wish list

Help with high energy prices

Back EU action on anti-dumping/unfair imports

Reform business rates

Fair implementation of regulations

Support local content in major construction projects

What is the outlook for Britain's steel industry?

Workers say the closure will devastate Redcar, and have warned about the impact of the steel crisis on other areas.

Dale Carling, who worked at the Redcar plant for more than 30 years and who was the last to operate the coking oven on Thursday morning, told the BBC's Today Programme: "I've just laid a pair of boots and a helmet at the gates. This is where I belong.

"I'm a steelworker and I hope the government don't let my brothers and sisters down in Port Talbot and Scunthorpe. Save our steel - we need steel - it's the backbone of Britain.

Exchange rate

But the industry is facing some issues that the government cannot solve including the high pound and cheap imports.

"The pound - euro exchange rate means European steel is very competitive and hampers UK exports," says Peter Brennan of Platts.

"Anti-dumping cases are cutting off markets and the slowdown in Chinese consumption means the excess is flooding into international markets, weakening prices," he added.

In the 1970s, the UK steel industry employed more than 200,000 workers. Today that is closer to 30,000.

The jobs are often in areas of high unemployment, like the North East of England and South Wales.

So while there is unlikely to be any new money on the table at the summit, the Business Secretary Sajid Javid, who will chair the event, will be under pressure to deliver.

'Hugely difficult time'

Efforts are expected to focus on areas like procurement and infrastructure projects where the government can exert some influence.

Mr Javid did not say anything to reporters as he entered the meeting, but said in a statement earlier: "This is a hugely difficult time for the steel industry across the world - one of the toughest times ever.

"It is a worldwide problem, and while it will not be solved overnight, we will work closely in partnership with the industry to help find some answers".

"There is no magic bullet and we can't change the price of steel, but we can forensically work through all of the challenges we know the industry is facing to see what solutions there might be".

Whatever comes of the summit, it will be too late for the workers at Redcar.

On Thursday, final shifts at the plant were emptying the coke ovens before they were irretrievably shut down.

Follow John on Twitter @JohnMoylanBBC

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