With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about British Steel.
It was announced this morning that the court has granted an application by the directors of British Steel to enter an insolvency process. Control of the company will now pass to the official receiver, an employee of the Insolvency Service, who will run a compulsory liquidation. The official receiver has made it clear that British Steel employees will continue to be paid and employed, and the business will continue to trade and to supply its customers while he considers the company’s position. In fact, employees were paid early, with the May payroll being run yesterday through cash being advanced by the company’s lenders.
As the House will recall, I made a statement on
Without this facility, British Steel would have faced a financial pressure of over £600 million—the ETS liability, plus a £500 million fine. This would not only have placed British Steel in an insolvent financial position, but the charge attached to its operational assets would have been likely to prevent any new owner from acquiring these assets in the future. This transaction demonstrated the Government’s continuing willingness to work closely with all parties to secure the long-term success of this important business.
Following this agreement, the Government have worked intensively with the company for many weeks to seek solutions to the broader financial challenges it has been facing. The Government and individual Ministers can only act within the law and this requires that any financial support to a steel company must be made on a commercial basis. In the case of the ETS facility, this was based on the security of future ETS allowances.
To provide liquidity to the business in the face of its cash-flow difficulties the Government were willing to consider making a cash loan to the company and worked hard to investigate exhaustively the possibilities. However, the absence of adequate security, no reasonable prospect that any loan would have been repaid and the shareholder being unwilling to provide a sufficient cash injection itself meant that this did not meet the required legal tests.
I am placing in the Library the accounting officer’s assessment of these proposals, drawing on professional and legal advice, which concludes:
“It would be unlawful to provide a guarantee or loan on the terms of any of the proposals that the company or any other party has made or any others we have considered. You must note that such an offer cannot be made legally and that by making it you would be in breach of the Ministerial Code.”
The insolvency removes Greybull from day-to-day control of British Steel. Given the Government’s willingness to help secure British Steel’s future, demonstrated in the ETS facility, and the discussions that have taken place in recent weeks, the Government will work closely with the official receiver and prospective new owners to achieve the best outcome for these sites.
The Government have provided an indemnity to the official receiver, who is now responsible for the operations. We will take every possible step to ensure that these vital operations can continue, that jobs are secured and that the sites at Scunthorpe and Skinningrove and on Teesside continue to be important centres of excellent steel-working. During the days and weeks ahead, I will work with the official receiver, the special managers and a British Steel support group of trade unions, management, suppliers, customers and the local communities to pursue remorselessly every possible step to secure the future of these valuable operations.
This is a very worrying time for everyone associated with British Steel. Each one of British Steel’s sites has a proud record of steelmaking excellence, and I am determined to see it continue. Britain and the world will continue to need high-quality steel, and British steel is among the best in the world. Today is a very big setback for these operations, but it is far from being the end and we will take every step possible to secure a successful future for these vital assets, both people and plant.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
This is indeed very worrying news for the workers, their families and the communities who rely on British Steel directly in Scunthorpe, Skinningrove and Teesside and all the way through the supply chain. At least 25,000 people will be worried sick this morning, wondering whether they will have a job this time next week.
As the Secretary of State knows, however, the sector is critical to our manufacturing base and is strategically important for Government procurement from rail all the way through to defence. It is therefore imperative, given that the Government now have some control via the official receiver, that this business is stabilised and confidence is given to customers, workers and businesses right across the supply chain. The message from the Government today must be that British Steel is one of the linchpins of our industrial strategy and to that end they will move heaven and earth to ensure business as usual continues.
It is reported that the owner, Greybull Capital, was asking the Government for a loan of £30 million. The shadow Minister for steel, my hon. Friend Gill Furniss, asked for more information yesterday, but we were given none. Can the Secretary of State confirm today what the asks of British Steel were in the negotiations? Were they just the reported £30 million or was that part of a wider package of measures to support steel production?
I welcome the publication of the accounting officer’s assessment, but can the Secretary of State confirm Greybull Capital’s reasoning in asking for a loan, while reportedly being unwilling to put money on the table and simultaneously investing over £40 million in a French steelworks last week?
The Secretary of State has said in his press statement today that he will
“pursue remorselessly every possible step to secure the future of the valuable operations in sites at Scunthorpe, Skinningrove and on Teesside”, and I welcome that. I also welcome the indemnity he has referred to, but can he outline exactly what other possible steps he will be pursuing in the coming days? Do they include bringing British Steel into public ownership as Unite the union and the Labour party have called for? Do they include discussions with other interested stakeholders to examine options for saving the company, including with Network Rail, which procures 95% of its rails from the Scunthorpe site? It is clear that we simply cannot countenance warm words and no real action as was the case with the SSI steelworks almost four years ago.
The truth of the matter is that the cost of British Steel collapsing is far greater than any short-term outlay the Government must make now. The Institute for Public Policy Research has estimated that British Steel’s collapse could lead to £2.8 billion in lost wages, £1.1 billion in lost revenue and extra benefit payments and that it could reduce household spending by £1.2 billion over 10 years. This is a significant economic disturbance, if the Secretary of State would like to dust off his state aid handbook.
We know Network Rail sources 95% of its rails from Scunthorpe. Last year, Network Rail signed a £200 million contract with the company. The loss of this supply could have serious consequences for Network Rail’s cost base and the quality of the steel used to maintain and upgrade the British rail network. Notwithstanding the great commitment by Network Rail to British Steel, however, we also know the Government’s wider public procurement of UK steel has been disappointing, with only 43% of steel used in Government projects traced to firms based in the UK, according to UK Steel analysis. So will the Secretary of State confirm today what steps he is taking to positively procure British steel for more of our key infrastructure projects?
Finally, there is no doubt that the UK steel industry is in a difficult place. Uncertainty about future trade with the EU and the dangling prospect of no deal are having a severe impact. Domestic issues like uncompetitive electricity prices, business rates and lack of support for steel in the so-called industrial strategy are also undermining the sector’s ability to compete, but UK steel has a proud history in the UK and there is no reason why this cannot continue. The ball is in the Government’s court: they can take action now to save British Steel and support the wider industry, or they can accept that their legacy will, yet again, be industrial decline. We in the Opposition know which side of history we want to be on, and I hope the Secretary of State wants the same thing.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the spirit in which she approached her response to the statement, recognising that there is a total common purpose across both sides of the House to provide the confidence for new investors to be able to take on these assets, and we all, wherever we sit in this Chamber, want this to be a change of ownership rather than something that puts a stop to steel production.
The hon. Lady was right to refer to SSI, and she will recall—as will her colleague Andy McDonald—the situation with Corus in 2010. One thing we know about steel assets is that they are not like other kinds of facilities; once they close, it is very difficult for them to come back into life. So it seems to me that we have a special responsibility to make every effort to ensure there is no interruption whatsoever in production. That is my purpose, and I see it reflected in what the hon. Lady said.
I agree with the hon. Lady about the strategic importance of steel. It presents a strategic opportunity as well, because this country and the world will always need steel and British steel is among the best in the world, so we should be looking to supply it. I think my commitment was demonstrated in the move I made to provide £120 million to make sure that the liability under the ETS was addressed. Crucially, if we had not removed that liability, it would have hung over the assets, preventing any new partner from taking them on.
The hon. Lady also asked about the reports of the £30 million facility. The assessment of the accounting officer gives more information on that. In fact, that £30 million was not for a permanent refinancing of British Steel; it was a contribution to an administration only. The assessment was that the contribution from all parties would not be enough to withstand the cost requirements during that administration. She will see clearly set out the assessment of the proposals that were given. I have been exhaustive in pursuing the possibilities with British Steel over many weeks. If she is in government, she will find that she is obliged to follow the ministerial code, under which we are not allowed to make a decision that would be illegal, immensely frustrating though it is. I would have much preferred to have given the opportunity of this loan rather than go down the route that has been taken, but that is the requirement and there is no possibility of setting that aside.
On the motivation of Greybull in investing its cash in other facilities in France, one of the requirements in the case of any company failure is that the official receiver conducts an investigation into the reasons for the failure and the lessons to be drawn from it. I very much look forward to seeing the official receiver’s report. I dare say that the Chair of the Select Committee will also want to inquire closely, on behalf of her colleagues, into this as well.
On the question of new possibilities, I understand that there are buyers who have already made contact. The hon. Lady is right to say that important stakeholders such as Network Rail, which has been very supportive in recent weeks and has pledged to continue to be supportive, will work together. That is why I have invited everyone with an interest in this, including colleagues on both sides of the House, to work together so that we can make a demonstrable and clear case that the cross-party and cross-House of Commons consensus that reflects the importance of the steel sector is available to any new investor.
Finally, I agree with the hon. Lady’s assessment, relating to the report she mentioned, that the consequences are important not only for the workforce and those in the supply chain, vital though they are; they are also important for whole communities and indeed for the country. This furthers my resolve, which I know she shares, to do everything we can in the days and weeks ahead to ensure that there is continuity in these operations.
I put it to my right hon. Friend that we ought to go on following his non-partisan line, but we ought also to remember what happened to steel production and steel employment during the last Government. Will he also tell us what can be done on energy costs, which form a large part of steel production costs?
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that this is an industry in which the worldwide steel cycle has a massive impact? The House will be grateful to him for doing all that he can to mitigate its effects on this country.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I was unaware that he had had that early experience in the steel sector. I do not want to make a partisan point, so perhaps I can take this in a historical sense to illustrate that the steel sector has been through periods of turbulence and difficulty in this country and around the world, and it is clearly going through one now. It was the case that steel production fell by 50% between 1997 and 2010, as did employment in the sector, but I do not blame that on the Government of the day. It was a feature of the market at the time, but I think that we should learn the lessons from some of the decisions that were taken then. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Middlesbrough reminds us from a sedentary position that the blast furnaces at Redcar were mothballed, which made it difficult to return them to service. They did come back with SSI, but it was very difficult to do that. The point is that we should have the maximum possible continuity, and attend to the lessons from that time. Criticisms were made at the time of the approach being taken both there and in SSI, and in the present situation we should learn the lessons and ensure that we have maximum continuity.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement.
Since I was sworn in as a Member of this House four years ago, I have watched two Tory Prime Ministers and two Business Secretaries fail the steel sector across the UK. Time and again, they have refused to level the playing field for steel in relation to energy costs and to rates in England. I have been happy to show solidarity with those in the steel sector who face the prospect of not having a job and with those who work in the supply chains. We cannot keep on repeating this.
The UK Government need to achieve a sector deal for steel and, by their actions, fully commit to the steel industry’s future across the UK. A first step would be to listen to the industry and its concerns on Brexit, and I am glad to hear the Secretary of State say that he will do that. The inaction and apathy of this Government and this Prime Minister towards industry are reminiscent of another Tory Prime Minister. We are still recovering from the damage that Margaret Thatcher did to the steel industry in Scotland. Do this Tory Government recognise the danger inherent in pursuing their current policy regarding industrial strategy?
In 2015, by contrast, the SNP Scottish Government saved the Scottish steel industry. They saved the Dalzell works in my constituency and the Clydebridge works in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West constituency. Indeed, I am going there on Wednesday to sign the UK steel charter with the Scottish Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation. Will the Secretary of State look to what was done by the SNP Scottish Government in setting up a Scottish steel taskforce, and commit to saving steel across the UK? The Scottish steel taskforce was a model committed to saving those works, and it did so because it started out with that commitment as its sole objective, in contrast to the UK steel summit that we had in 2015. Minister, you have a grave responsibility here and I hope that you will come back and tell us that you have achieved what we all want for British Steel.
I recognise that responsibility, and the intention of the group that the hon. Lady describes is precisely what I have set out. We all need to join forces to provide the best prospect for continuity for these operations. She referred to the important steelworks in Scotland. Sometimes, for the reasons I have set out, it is necessary for a Government to participate in a sector where discontinuities and interruptions can be difficult to recover from. I think she would be generous enough to concede that the £120 million that I informed the House of on
The hon. Lady asked about energy costs. Energy-intensive industries obviously incur significantly higher energy costs than other sectors. Over the past few years, we have paid £291 million in compensation to energy-intensive sectors, including steel. The industrial strategy contains an industrial energy transformation fund to increase the energy efficiency of energy-intensive operations, and that is worth about a third of a billion pounds. That constitutes, I think, the kind of action that she would expect. We now need to ensure that that is applied to the situation facing British Steel so that it can continue to operate and, indeed, to flourish.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, which will be hugely reassuring to my constituents who work at Skinningrove steelworks, most of whom live close by. It is vital that we prevent the closure of that plant, just as it is vital that we prevent closures at Scunthorpe and Lackenby and all the other sites that are affected. With that in mind, I welcome that the Government have provided the indemnity to the official receiver to try to keep British Steel operational while a buyer is sought. Beyond that, may I emphasise the case for public ownership or, indeed, a public-private partnership in order to serve as a bridge to new ownership? The priority is to save jobs. Everything else—all matters of ideology—must come second.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to do everything we can. The situation is not entirely in the hands of the Government, because the official receiver is obviously responsible for the operations, and the trade unions and local communities want also to participate. This morning, the director general of UK Steel was asked whether he thought that the Government have done everything they can, and he said that he thought that we have. There is a recognition, which I am sure my hon. Friend will find in the sector, that we are serious about doing everything we can within our legal limits to help to give stability and a good future to this industry.
This is a desperately sad day for our steel industry and those who work in it, and I am sure that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee will want to look at what triggered the collapse of the company. The Government are now paying the wages of British Steel’s workers, which is welcome, and 25,000 jobs depend on production continuing. Will British Steel continue to take new orders under the Government’s official receiver in order to maximise the chances of the company’s survival? Will the Government guarantee to pay the wages and continue new production at the site until a new buyer can be found?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I would welcome her Select Committee, on which many Members currently in the Chamber serve, looking into this matter. There may be wider lessons to learn about how assets of such importance, where continuity is important, are held.
When it comes to paying the employees’ wages, we should be clear that the official receiver is responsible for that, not the Government. The Government have provided the official receiver with an indemnity, and his responsibility is to manage the business and to make a judgment about the business’s future prospects. He started today with a clear statement that the business continues to trade and that the workforce continue to be employed and to be paid. I hope that that was reassuring for the members of staff.
On behalf of the thousands of my constituents whose livelihoods rely on Scunthorpe, may I thank the Secretary of State for his personal interest and dedication? He has worked incredibly hard to try to find a solution here. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend Mr Clarke about not applying any ideology to the ownership model moving forward. We want to keep this site together, and we do not want any cherry-picking if it can be avoided.
Will the Secretary of State also encourage the official receiver to work with North Lincolnshire Council and the local enterprise partnership, which commissioned and paid for a study into how British Steel could make better use of other parts of the site to generate money? Some of it could be used for energy generation or for housing, but such proposals have not been taken forward by the current owners. Will he ensure that the official receiver looks closely at that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I will certainly do that. As I said, the official receiver is independent, but it is very much in his interests to maximise the opportunities on the sites that are now in his charge, and I daresay that that study will be helpful.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we should not take an ideological approach. We need to do what is right for the jobs and livelihoods of the people who work in and around those sites.
I thank the Secretary of State and his Ministers and officials for their work over a long period to get this business to where we all want it to be. I thank him for his statement, the commitments in it and his recognition of the strategic value of this industry and the business not just to the workers and families in my constituency and others but to the UK. Will he commit to ensure that these national assets are secure and to involve the workforce in all discussions through the excellent trade unions that work in the steel industry, so that they can be full partners as we take this business into a better future?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The town that he represents has a proud history of steelmaking, and I want that to continue for many years. It should be making history in the future, as it has done in the past. It is vital in that to reflect the sense of community in the steel industry, both in particular places and across the country. Through my contact with the trade unions and the workforce, I will certainly involve them in the discussions about the future, and I will encourage the official receiver, who will want to benefit from those discussions, to do the same.
The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend Andrew Stephenson, said in answer to yesterday’s urgent question that he and the Secretary of State would leave no stone unturned to save British Steel. As a former Minister in this area, I can confirm that the Secretary of State’s commitment is second to none.
I was impressed with British Steel. Some of its management was very good, as was the workforce. The trade unions had a responsible attitude, and I want to pick out Roy Rickhuss of the Community union, who is very committed to this site. It seems to me that the company has a good business plan. It produces a product that people throughout the world want to buy, but one of the main dangers, and one of the reasons behind this situation, is the threat of WTO rules and the disgraceful tariffs that this country would be lumbered with if this House was not sensible and did not vote for a deal to rule out the burden that WTO rules would have on the steel industry.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the hard work that he put into understanding and helping the steel industry during his time as a Minister. I know that it was well appreciated. I echo his tribute to Roy Rickhuss. My hon. Friend, the new Minister and I have always had a good relationship with the trade unions. I spoke to Roy Rickhuss and Steve Turner of Unite this morning, and they share the intention of everyone in this House to get the best possible future for British Steel.
One reason, although it is not the only reason, for the problems that British Steel is experiencing is the uncertainty around whether our future relationship with the European Union will involve tariffs—at least that is what the management say. Like my hon. Friend, I have a high regard for the management of British Steel, which needs to be taken at its word. We should resolve that uncertainty as quickly as possible, because that would be a major contribution that we can make to the future of British Steel.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his approach in recent weeks and for his statement today. I thank him for his comments about the difficulty of turning off steel mills like a tap, because they cannot be turned off and on like that. We are all grateful to hear that the wages will continue to be paid for the moment and that the company continues to trade. Will he say anything more about the official receiver’s capacity to keep the situation going so that a new buyer can be found?
I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman says. It is important that I should state, and that the House should recognise, that the official receiver is independently appointed by the court. The official receiver has a team of special managers from Ernst & Young who were appointed today, and their responsibility is to secure the best possible resolution for the assets they inherit. They have strict duties to the court, and they cannot be directed by me. My experience of the Insolvency Service and the official receiver is that they will want to recognise the importance of continuity, which I contend will help to secure the best value for the future of the site. From my conversations I know they have that very much in mind, but it is important to emphasise that they are independent and do not take direction from me.
I impress upon my right hon. Friend the expectation of my constituents in Corby that he must pull out all the stops to secure the future of this business. Will he advise the House of whether any other steel businesses have indicated a willingness to take on the business at this stage?
I certainly agree with, and will act upon, the first part of my hon. Friend’s question. It is a matter for the official receiver to consider but, during the course of the day—after all, it was just this morning that the company went to court—I have had some early indications of interest. I intend to be active in helping to promote these important assets to prospective investors, whether or not they are currently aware of the opportunity this may give them to invest in successful facilities in the future.
I thank the Secretary of State for engaging with me constructively on the phone this morning, which I appreciate. I also pay tribute to all those at British Steel who have worked so hard, particularly over the last three years, to try to make a success of the company. I was proud to be at the launch at the Lackenby beam mill in 2016 when, out of the ashes of the SSI disaster, we felt that British Steel would rise and be a strong, fantastic brand. Obviously, today is extremely disappointing for those workers and for others all across the country.
I implore the Secretary of State to learn the lessons of SSI from 2016. He spoke movingly today of the importance of keeping the assets going, which is the No. 1 priority. We cannot turn this off because of the consequences for individuals, for families, for communities and for local economies. We are still facing the clean-up costs, three years down the line, of a rotting, decaying site that is still toxic. That cannot be allowed to happen again. We must ensure that the assets are maintained and preserved and jobs safeguarded.
I grew up in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and I am very familiar with the landscape of steelmaking across Teesside. We need to learn the lessons of this. Across the country, including in Scotland, as we have heard, there have been times when the steel industry has been challenged. Not everything has been done in the best way each time. We should learn the lessons and apply them in this case. I hope that the official receiver will do that, and the indemnity is partly given to provide the official receiver with the confidence that the liabilities, especially the safety aspects, will be covered.
The Secretary of State will know that, for any business to succeed, it is vital to look after the needs of the customer, so will he say a little more about the steps being taken to maintain the continuity of supply to manufacturers and contractors of the excellent, high-quality products produced by British Steel?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The company benefits from very good relationships with customers, and I particularly mention Network Rail. This is important to both sides of that relationship. Network Rail has been particularly understanding and supportive during British Steel’s difficulties, and I hope very much that Network Rail will be part of the solution to resolving the difficulties facing the operations.
The Government need to buy more UK-produced steel, yet the Ministry of Defence has refused to confirm that it will buy UK steel for the Navy’s solid support ships. Less than half of the steel currently bought by the Government is from the UK. How high will that percentage be in a year’s time to help avoid recurring steel crises?
I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we have taken some major steps. First, we have published the proportion of UK steel procured for each Government Department and, secondly, we have changed the procurement rules so that social and environmental factors can be taken into account in future procurement. Thirdly, we have published a future pipeline of opportunities. We have done all those things because I agree with his contention that, where we have good-quality British steel that can be used for purposes in this country, we should be making use of it.
Like my colleagues, I congratulate the Secretary of State and his ministerial team on their efforts and on keeping Members informed. He knows north Lincolnshire well, and he will be mindful of the fact that some 200 people are employed at the port of Immingham either by British Steel or by associated companies. Can he give those businesses and their employees an assurance that, when Government decisions are made in future, those associated industries will be at the forefront of his mind?
My hon. Friend is right that the impact of an industry such as steelmaking extends beyond its own limits, and he gives a good example of that. It is important that those impacts are reflected. Obviously, because the business is trading, suppliers can count on being paid now that they have the protection of the official receiver. I hope that will give them confidence, which was perhaps knocked in recent weeks when there were widespread rumours of the company’s cash-flow difficulties.
Steelworkers in the community I represent will be very much thinking of those at British Steel sites who are affected by today’s announcement. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the uncertainty around thousands of jobs, including those in the supply chain, could pose a threat to other steel companies because of the potential weakening of the supply chain? The Government must show by their actions that they value manufacturing.
It is important that we consider and act on the impact on the wider supply chain, and the group I propose to bring together to support British Steel will include representatives of the suppliers. I will set out further details of how we might do that in the days ahead.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The ceramics industry shares the concerns of the steel industry in needing relief from high energy costs. The industrial energy transformation fund is available to the ceramics industry, and I hope it will come forward with proposals that can reduce energy consumption and, in that way, reduce energy bills, so making industry more competitive—that applies to ceramics as it does to steel.
I, too, am grateful for the Secretary of State’s approach to this challenge. Hours before the collapse, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Andrew Stephenson, said from the Dispatch Box yesterday that no stone had been left unturned in the run-up to this, which implies that the collapse was inevitable. I do not believe such a collapse is ever inevitable. As we move forward, will the Secretary of State reconfirm that he will do everything he possibly can to make sure this plant carries on trading for as long as it takes to get back on its feet? Secondly, will he do everything he can to get a sector deal, for which the steel industry has been crying out for a very long time, up and running?
I will continue to do everything I can. It is important to level with the House that I do not run these operations and these assets—they are under the control of the official receiver—but I will do what I can to interest prospective partners with a long-term interest in this. I will continue to leave no stone unturned. As with the solution to the emissions trading scheme problem, I will be creative where I possibly can be in finding solutions.
The second point was—
The sector deal was proposed in the industrial strategy. I am keen that there should be a sector deal in the steel industry, but the essence of a sector deal, as the hon. Gentleman knows from his work on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, is mutual investment by both sides. There is a good plan there, but one difficulty at the moment—British Steel is a good example of this—is that it has not been possible to see the investment coming in that is the hallmark of every sector deal. I very much want us to have that, and I hope that in talking to new partners we might have an opportunity for that sector deal to be completed, because in every sector deal we have the new investment that is required.
I entirely support what my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) have said about an innovative public-private approach to this. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State talked in his statement about the accounting officer’s assessment, which said:
“It would be unlawful to provide a guarantee or loan”.
Will he confirm what the situation would be with regard to equity capital, in the context of a public-private partnership or other innovative solutions such as those that have been mentioned?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. As I said to colleagues, we should not allow any ideology to influence these decisions, but he is right to draw attention to the accounting officer’s opinion and advice on this, which includes an assessment that makes it clear that the option of whole or partial nationalisation of the company, temporary or permanent, does not change the assessment of legality. The reason for that is that it is a question not of the ownership but of the cash needs of the company. Whether a business is owned in the public sector or the private sector, the test of commerciality has to be met for the Government to put cash in; that applies whichever sector it is in. That is the legal test on which this hinges.
The action taken so far is welcome, but this is still clearly a disturbing time for workers and suppliers. We heard earlier that British Steel invested £40 million in Ascoval—the Select Committee may want to look at that. At the same time, the French state and local government bodies invested an equivalent sum of £40 million in that steel mill. Is there anything the Government could learn from that? May I encourage the Secretary of State to be creative in the way he was suggesting he would be, by setting up a Brexit fund that could support businesses struggling as a result of Brexit?
It is not a question of having the funds available, it is a question of the legality of being able to deploy them. The right hon. Gentleman will know, as the House will, that I have a good record of being able to invest alongside private businesses where this secures jobs and innovation. That is absolutely something that I would do in the steel sector. One legal requirement—we are meeting the legal requirements—is to show that there is co-investment from a private investor. In the situation in France, there was substantial investment on both sides. The same was not available in this case, which was one reason why the advice that I was given was of the nature that it was.
We have been here on two or three occasions, including with GKN and Bombardier, so one wonders where we are going, as the steel industry is vital to manufacturing in this country and, more importantly, to the defence industry. I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, but I can tell him that I worked at Rolls-Royce when it collapsed in 1971 and there is no worse situation an employee can find themselves in; that situation went on for weeks, until eventually the Heath Government had to semi-nationalise it. I have the feeling that you may be back here in a couple of weeks’ time if you cannot find a buyer, so you will really have to consider that. I hope you will consider that, because if you do not, you will be inflicting a lot of pain on a lot of good employees who work very hard. Once you have experienced something like that, you never forget it.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious point, but I just gently observe that I will not find a buyer and I will not be giving any consideration to this matter whatsoever.
I get the hon. Gentleman’s gist; I know what he requires. He is right to call attention to the fact that, notwithstanding the intentions that everyone in the House has expressed, today is a day that no one in Scunthorpe, in Skinningrove or on Teesside wanted to see. It is a very worrying day; people will go to bed tonight very concerned about their future. We cannot resolve this overnight, but we can resolve to do everything we practically can to make a good future possible. I am grateful for the support and commitments from across the House that we will all do precisely that.
May I join others in welcoming the Secretary of State’s commitment to do all he can to prevent the demise of one of our great strategic industries? In the light of that, will he explain something to the House? In his statement, he said:
“The Government have provided an indemnity to the official receiver, who is now responsible for the operations.”
Will he explain a little more about what that actually means, how long that will last and whether it will give the time for the official receiver to find another owner for the steelworks? Some clarity on that would be really helpful.
If I am legally permitted, and I do not see why I should not be, I will put the letter of indemnity in the Library of the House. If I am not permitted to do so, I will find a way to share it, perhaps through the Select Committee. It reflects the fact that an industrial facility such as a steelworks is a hazardous environment, with a lot of risk. Given that the official receiver is legally responsible for that site, he should be fully indemnified. So the indemnities arise, for example, through liabilities that might arise from carrying out the proper performance of his duties as liquidator in maintaining, securing and funding the ongoing operation of the company’s undertakings, and distributing its assets. So it is the work that the official receiver is engaged in that has the backing of this indemnity from the Treasury from the outset—from this morning, when the letter was sent.
It is clear from the Secretary of State’s statement that he cares deeply about the issue, but may I take him back to the question from my hon. Friend Peter Kyle on a sector deal? The Secretary of State talks about why the deal cannot take place, but may I put it to him that the industry clearly is suffering and is not cash-rich, and that could be a good reason to implement the sector deal now and take that risk to ensure that we protect jobs and the industry in the future. If there are no other reasons why the deal could not take place, that would at least give us some assurances for the future.
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says. I am keen to have a sector deal in the steel industry. The nature of sector deals is the Government investing in certain capital improvements, research and development programmes or training programmes, and the industry investing alongside them. That is the essence of the deal. As is evident in the case of British Steel, it has not been possible for it to invest, which is why it has not been possible to conclude the deal. Given that, he makes a reasonable point: perhaps separately from the sector deal, other things could be done for a sector that is going through what is evidently a challenging time, not just here but around the world.