Dalzell and Clydebridge Steel Plants (Update on Negotiations)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 22 March 2016.

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Photo of John Pentland John Pentland Labour

2. To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on negotiations to save the steel plants at Dalzell and Clydebridge. (S4T-01367)

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

The Scottish steel task force is doing everything within the power of the Scottish Government and involved partners to secure a viable future for the steel plants at Dalzell and Clydebridge. Discussions are on-going, but it is not possible to comment further because of the commercial sensitivities surrounding any potential deal, and further speculation at this stage would not be helpful.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I assure members that we are leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to achieve our primary objective of securing an alternative commercial operator for the sites and that we have made significant progress in a number of areas.

First, we have legislated for a business rates relief scheme at Dalzell and Clydebridge from 1 April 2016 up to the 2017 revaluation, and the state of the industry will be considered in the next revaluation.

We are working to reduce energy consumption at the sites and to reduce the cost of energy.

Skills Development Scotland has developed a £195,000 upskilling programme for key staff to safeguard future manufacturing capability across the two locations. There are 23 participants, who include a mix of process operators, tradesmen, managers and specialists, each with individual and tailored training plans. More than 1,001 training days in total have already been completed or are planned to the end of June.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency has put in place a team of specialists managed by the head of operations in the west of Scotland to ensure that the best possible advice is provided to Tata Steel and/or any new operator.

On procurement, we are implementing measures to address the barriers that prevent United Kingdom suppliers of steel from competing effectively for public sector contracts in Scotland, including in the supply chain. The Procurement Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 places sustainable and socially responsible purchasing at the heart of public procurement in Scotland.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

I apologise for interrupting you, minister. You should not have stopped for breath.

Photo of John Pentland John Pentland Labour

I thank the minister for that reply. I am sure that he will not be surprised to hear that I consider that getting people back into their jobs is the priority. Can he assure me that everything possible has been done to ensure that the election does not delay a deal in any way and that all the Government support and spending that might be necessary will be put in place to achieve the rapid re-employment of personnel and the return of production at both plants?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I will take very seriously the Presiding Officer’s warning about breathing. [Laughter.]

I absolutely agree that the priority for all of us across the Parliament is, as Mr Pentland said, to safeguard the jobs. That has always been the rationale of our primary objective, which is to secure a potential future for the sites and to continue steel operations in Scotland. It is a perfectly fair question.

As for the election timetable, political timetables and commercial timetables—sadly—often do not coincide, but I give the member the assurance that he asked for. Everything possible is being done to bring matters to a conclusion and I remain hopeful that that can be reached. It would be imprudent to go into any detail, frustrating though that may be for members, but I give my personal assurance that everything possible has been and will continue to be done.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

I call Clare Adamson. [Interruption.] I am sorry. Mr Pentland, do you want in again?

Photo of John Pentland John Pentland Labour

No. I am quite happy with that answer—especially considering that the minister might be running out of breath.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

I will try not to run out of breath, Presiding Officer.

The minister may know that I visited BRC in Newhouse on Monday and saw the preparation of the steel for the Aberdeen western peripheral route. That significant contract was awarded to BRC recently despite a bit of scaremongering that it was going to be awarded outwith Europe. Does the minister agree that we all need to get behind the steel industry in Lanarkshire and that part of that involves recognising that the Government’s significant efforts are far from being a “token gesture”, as they were described earlier?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I recognise that Clare Adamson has done a power of work on these matters, particularly in relation to procurement, including attending meetings in Brussels to make sure that the Scottish interest is not neglected. I commend her for that, and I commend the other members across the Parliament who have given their time to the eight meetings of the task force that have taken place thus far.

I agree that things are beginning to look up for the whole steel sector in Scotland and I am pleased that BRC continues to be successful, including in providing steel for the Aberdeen western peripheral route, contrary to the implication of some press speculation that was drawn to my attention.

The work that we have done on business rates, energy, the environment, skills retention and procurement is certainly not a token gesture. All our work has been in support of the main objective, which is to retain a successful steel sector in Scotland.

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative

Business rates relief has been reinstated for a limited period for the two plants on the basis of them being derelict or mothballed industrial buildings. However, can the minister confirm whether there is any reason, other than the European Union state aid regulations, why the two plants at Dalzell and Clydebridge should not receive enterprise status to help them to be more competitive?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

The key phrase there is “other than”, because I am afraid that the import of the state aid rules is to restrict to a certain sum the maximum total aid that can be granted over a period of two or three years. Margaret Mitchell and I have discussed the issue and she has pursued it persistently, as is perfectly reasonable. However, the state aid rules say that we cannot provide aid in excess of a figure, and the consequence of doing so might be that we would be in breach of state aid. If we are in breach of state aid, we risk infraction proceeding. If we risk infraction proceeding, instead of the possibility of the deal being done and going through, we would end up in a difficult situation with the European Commission, which would help nobody.

I think that it is reasonable to say—the points were made in the task force, so they are not confidential—that our efforts on business rates have been appreciated by all parties, and we have already demonstrated that we have exhausted or nearly exhausted the maximum relief that we can provide. It is perhaps not the quantum of the relief that has been appreciated by the parties that are involved but the Scottish Government’s willingness to get our sleeves rolled up and provide every single piece of help that we can. That is what businesses appreciate. It is not necessarily the precise amount of money, which, as I said, has a threshold fixed by Brussels.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

Many thanks. That concludes topical questions for this day and indeed this session.