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Steel Industry (Carbon Floor Pricing)

Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2011

Thank you, Mr Amess, for the opportunity to take part in the debate today. I am so grateful for the attendance of Members with an interest in steel, which shows the strength of feeling on the issue.

I put in for the debate after one of my regular visits to Llanwern steelworks in my constituency. There has been a steelworks plant at Llanwern since 1962. Although steel making ceased in 2001, Tata at Llanwern is still a major employer with a hot strip mill and a galvanising line run by an extremely enthusiastic work force who make a high-quality product for the automotive industry, among others.

The industry has had ups and downs over the years, with the loss of the heavy end and heavy job losses in 2001, but the dedicated work force produce a high-quality product. Tata’s investment down the road in Port Talbot, to which Llanwern is inextricably linked, means that at the moment things are looking good and employment is back up to around 700. This is a good-news story, but the threat to the steel industry from Government legislation is making the industry wary, and I want to explore that today.

I am also glad to be introducing the debate because on two occasions in the past week the issue of carbon floor pricing has been raised: in the Welsh Grand Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), and in the all-party group on energy-intensive industries. Startlingly, there was no Government response in either forum to address the industry’s concerns. I hope that today’s short debate will give the Minister the chance to hear the very real concerns and address them in person so that the industry knows where it stands.

Although “steel” appears in the glamorous title of the debate, the issues apply equally to other intensive energy users such as the paper, glass and ceramics industries, which employ about 225,000 workers in the UK. The issue that concerns the industry is the carbon floor price, which might be introduced in today’s Budget, although the Minister will know more about that than I do.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to reform the climate change levy to introduce a carbon floor price or a stability mechanism so that the total cost of carbon for generators could be more certain. A policy seems to have developed in practice that increases the cost of carbon for UK electricity generators, yet is seen as another tax on the fuel used by generators. The Government’s stated aim for the carbon floor price is to boost investment in low-carbon energy, especially in nuclear power, by putting a minimum price on carbon through taxing fuels used for generating electricity according to carbon intensity. That pushes up the cost of producing electricity from high-carbon fuels such as coal, making renewable and low-carbon means of electricity generation relatively cheaper. UK energy-intensive producers will therefore face huge cost increases that will not be borne by other competitors elsewhere in Europe or the rest of the world.

The UK steel industry’s submission to the consultation makes it clear that the carbon floor price is the wrong policy for three reasons. First, multiple regulations are trying to fix individual problems in lots of different ways. Carbon is already priced through the European Union emissions trading scheme, the climate change levy and the carbon reduction commitment, alongside the renewable subsidies. Secondly, it runs the very real risk of having a negative impact on the competitiveness of UK manufacturers—a disincentive to invest in the UK. Finally, the industry claims it is questionable whether the policy will deliver the desired outcome at all.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and for securing this important debate. Does she agree that many of the industries we are talking about are owned by foreign companies, which can choose where to invest, so if the UK adopts policies different from those of the rest of the world, that will simply drive those industries out of this country?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his well-made point, which covers the precise subject of the debate. I shall return to it.

We all know we have to reduce our carbon footprint, but industries such as steel use large amounts of power out of necessity and have no other realistic option at the moment. In the steel industry in my constituency, I see an industry that supports plans to make the transition to a low-carbon economy and is actively trying to be involved in being part of the solution to reduce CO2 emissions. For Tata, that might involve developing products and improving processes such as the £60 million basic oxygen steelmaking—BOS—gas recovery investment it has made at its Port Talbot plant, which will have great benefits for us at Llanwern, or products such as the photovoltaic project being developed in Shotton.

It is worth remembering that to build low-carbon energy sources, improve energy efficiency and drive advancements in low-carbon construction, steel will be in high demand. Steel is a high-carbon industry in its production, but an essential product for the low-carbon economy.

Has my hon. Friend seen scrap metal being recycled in an electric arc furnace? An element powered up to 2,000° of heat plunges into it and recycles instantly, but that requires a huge amount of electricity and energy. I understand where the Government are coming from, but unless they find a solution to the problem, their proposals might have the perverse effect of making that unprofitable, and their welcome focus on manufactures and exports—there is a demand—might come to nought. For the first time in 17 years as MP for Rotherham I am desperately worried about the future of electric arc furnace steel manufacture in our country. We must find a tweak and a solution to the problem, so I welcome my hon. Friend securing the debate.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s intervention. Steel making is an incredibly beautiful process. His point is that we must ensure balance and that the new tax does not drive heavy industry out of this country.

Steel is a high-carbon industry in its production, but an essential product for a low-carbon economy. Surely we all want the UK’s low-carbon economy to be built with steel produced in the UK, not imported from China, Russia, Ukraine and other steel-producing countries that do not face the same regulatory restraints.

The industry would say that there is consensus for some regulation in this area, but that current policies are complex and over-burdensome. As I have said, if carbon floor pricing goes ahead, there will be four prices on carbon—the carbon floor price, the climate change levy, the carbon reduction commitment emissions trading scheme, and the renewable subsidies—but no consistent way of measuring carbon as between those. The industry argues that if the Government are to price carbon, they must make it simpler for everybody involved.

The major issue, to which the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) alluded, is competitiveness. The debate takes place in the context of escalating costs for UK steel producers from existing UK and EU climate policies that are eroding their international competitiveness. Nobody else in Europe or the world will face those costs, which is a threat to UK steel. The Government are asking the private sector, especially manufacturing, to create jobs, but that will not happen if we impose certain conditions and have carbon leakage. Manufacturers will choose to go to parts of the world where they can get away with less stringent conditions. They will be able to produce steel with the same amount of emissions and we will have lost the industry. Where is the sense in that? That applies not only to some developing countries, but, most worryingly, to Europe. No other EU Government are making similar proposals, and many have taken steps to reduce the impact on trade-exposed industries precisely to avoid the problem.

The figures are quite stark. Tata Steel estimates that by 2020 the cost of carbon floor pricing will add at least an extra £20 million per year to its energy bill. I also draw the Minister’s attention to the Waters Wye report, which documents the cumulative impact of all climate change policies on heavy energy users.

My hon. Friend has secured a very important debate and she is making an excellent argument for the steel industry. Is she aware that we now have a 14-month high in the inflation rate, with the retail prices index running at 5.5%? That is pushing sterling to a much higher rate than previously. Coupled with current commodity prices, particularly for coke and iron ore, there is already a strain on the industry.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I am sure the Minister will address. My hon. Friend is, of course, quite an expert in this field.

Tata’s submission to the consultation on carbon floor pricing also questions the effectiveness of the measure, claiming that it will have only a limited impact on reducing carbon emissions, even though its cost is real and direct. Tata’s submission suggests better ways to achieve lower emissions, which I will not go into now, but I draw the Minister’s attention to the submission and ask that further consultation with the industry be pursued.

I also ask the Minister to address several other points. It would be helpful if he outlined how the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has worked with the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change to limit the impact on intensive energy users of the proposals for carbon floor pricing and of the wider electricity market reform. Does he accept that the Government’s proposals will have a serious impact on the competitiveness of key industries? If so, does he understand how such an impact will directly conflict with the Government’s policies on private sector growth and an export-led recovery?

How do the Government intend to ensure that these measures do not impact on the competitiveness of UK manufacturers? Given that there was only a very short time for consultation—I believe it was about six to eight weeks over Christmas—will the Government at least commit to carrying out a comprehensive assessment of the impact on energy-intensive industries of their proposals for electricity market reform and a carbon floor price? Many organisations raised fears about the proposals during the consultation, including the Engineering Employers Federation, the CBI, the TUC and the Energy Intensive Users Group. Has the Minister taken their views on board and are the Government listening?

Finally, in fairness to the steel industry, I must say that I believe that it is continuously looking for ways to improve its CO2 performance through improvements to processes, products and investment, particularly in research and development. The UK steel industry wants to be part of the solution to climate change, but it needs the Government to understand that it must compete on a level playing field around the world to do so. Otherwise, we will face a situation where companies could make long-term investment decisions based on the Government’s policies and take their investment plans abroad. As an MP with a steel interest, I certainly do not want that to happen, so let us make our steel industry part of the solution to climate change. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Thank you very much, Mr Amess, for calling me to speak. It is good to see you in the Chair.

I want to begin by congratulating the hon. Gentleman—sorry, the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden). There is obviously a little too much gin in the water in Westminster Hall. I congratulate the hon. Lady not only on securing the debate but on her incisive comments about the balance that we all have to strike between the environmental and business challenges. I will respond specifically to the points that she has made.

It is slightly unfortunate that today is the day of the Budget because, as right hon. and hon. Members will understand, that somewhat hampers my ability to be more specific about measures such as the carbon floor price. The Chancellor will be on his feet imminently and I am sure that he will set out some things in that regard in more detail. The hon. Lady not only has an interest in the steel industry in her own constituency but she is chair of the all-party group on the steel and metal related industry. That combination of interests was very evident in her speech and indeed in her responses to questions from Members, all of whom have a strong constituency interest in this important industry. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) is absolutely right that this is a very important industry. It is dramatic, in the way that he rightly described, but it is also fundamentally important to many other industries, particularly in manufacturing. Later today, the Chancellor will set out our framework for growth for manufacturing, which I hope Members will welcome. That framework reflects some of the long-term issues that the steel industry and similar industries face.

I should point out that I am speaking today in my capacity as the MP for Ogmore and not in my capacity as a shadow Energy Minister.

I am not asking the Minister to reveal the details of what is in the Budget. However, he just used the word “framework”. That is quite interesting, because the Energy Intensive Users Group and others have been calling for us not to pin this down, right here, right now, in the Budget, but to allow scope for further discussion. Is that what the Minister meant when he used the term “framework”?

Yes. The manufacturing framework covers issues that are broader than the issue that we are discussing in this debate. It is about all the issues of capital investment, skills and so on. However, the hon. Gentleman is quite right. What we have tried to do with the growth reviews for manufacturing as a whole—I am just going slightly beyond the purview of this debate, Mr Amess, but not too far—is to ensure that we have listened carefully to manufacturers about all the different aspects of manufacturing, so that we understand how the proposal will work. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the framework needs to be one in which the Government are a partner with industry, so that it is not simply something that we have decided is the right thing without listening to others. That will be reflected particularly in our response to energy-intensive users.

I will do so briefly, but there are some detailed responses to be made to the points raised in the debate.

I will be very quick. Is the Minister aware that this very week we have had the first full meeting of the new all-party group on energy-intensive industries? I am the vice-chair of that group and I have never been to an all-party group with a higher attendance. Every single industry that has been mentioned in this debate was represented at senior level, which illustrates the level of concern about the issue. It also supports what the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) was saying, that we need time to engage with the Government to ensure that they truly understand these issues.

I welcome that. It is very important that we have a good and thorough debate, and that Members across the House can participate in it. That is very welcome news.

The industry is crucial. We have talked about it in principle, but when one looks at the facts, last year, some 9.7 million tonnes of crude steel were produced in the UK and the industry employs 25,000 people directly. Encouragingly—and this goes back to the point that the right hon. Member for Rotherham made—about half of the UK steel industry’s output is now exported and we are now a net exporter. That is not necessarily something that one reads in the newspapers, but it is a success story, and in that context I commend both the previous Administration and the industry itself. That is quite something.

In Wales—this is particularly relevant to the hon. Member for Newport East—I believe that about 7,000 people are employed in the steel industry, with 4,000 employed at Port Talbot and 1,000 at the Llanwern rolling mills, so that is an important part of the sector. What is encouraging is that despite the fact that in 2008, the industry saw demand for its products drop by 50%, which would be devastating for any industry, it has been able, through good management of production, good co-operation and a flexible and committed work force, to ensure that there were not any major long-term job losses in those plants, which have been able to come back into production. Of course, there were some job losses, but in any industry if demand and production drop by half, that is potentially a killer. Thankfully, that did not happen.

I turn to the specific issue of the carbon floor price, before addressing the energy-intensive industries strategy and thus responding to the question about what my Department is doing to mitigate the impact. We have just consulted on the issue across Government, although the consultation was of course led by the Department for Energy and Climate Change. To respond to a question from the hon. Member for Newport East, we consciously made a specific point of talking to the key industries involved, including the Engineering Employers Federation, which she mentioned, so that we have a careful understanding of the practicalities of the measure for all energy users and for particular industries.

I will be brief. I regard the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as an ally in this process while, as we know, the real enemy is across the road in the Treasury. Then there is DECC, with its open-toed sandals, greenery and all that nonsense.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) told me on the Floor of the House before Christmas that he would accept an invitation to meet a delegation, but nothing happened. I then asked him about it face to face in the Lobby, and he said, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Denis, we’ll try and sort this out”, but nothing happened. Does the Minister accept that there has not been enough consultation, especially with hon. Members, the workers and trade union employees? As this process unfolds—I think that we will be discussing this for some time; it will not be fixed for ever, either today or tomorrow—will he agree to receive a bit more input from right hon. and hon. Members, the trade unions and the work force?

My hon. Friend the Energy Minister is a very busy man, and I suspect that it will be through no fault of his own if he has not yet been able to fulfil that obligation. However, the door is not closed in this area. There is work to be done. My view, and I am sure that it is the view of my hon. Friend, too, is that we would always encourage involvement in this process. If there is an opportunity to do that at the right moment, yes, we will do so.

Let me come back to where we are on the carbon price floor, then look at the strategy as a whole and at how we mitigate some of the impacts. The aim is to encourage investment in low-carbon electricity generation, by giving greater support, yes, and also by providing certainty on the price of carbon in the power sector. Getting that right is important for the whole of manufacturing but, as Members have rightly pointed out, we must strike a balance between the environmental gain and improvements in energy efficiency, which could help all manufacturing, and doing so in a way that does not pinch key energy-intensive sectors unreasonably. Members will understand that as the price is going to be set in the Budget later today, and as I would like to continue to be a Minister of State for a little while yet, it would be unwise to pre-empt what the Chancellor will say, in what I know will be an excellent Budget.

Let me turn to the question that the hon. Member for Newport East rightly asked about what my Department is doing in conjunction with others to consider how to mitigate the impact. We are working with the Department of Energy and Climate Change on a comprehensive strategy on energy-intensive industries, including steel. The strategy is deliberately intended to look at energy costs, and to assess the incremental changes that industries have made—I will come on to some that have very successfully been achieved in Wales—and possibly the longer-term transformational changes that might help the industry to deal with the bigger, long-term issues.

The Minister has said that a line in the Budget will set the carbon floor price, but before he moves away from the issue I would like to ask him whether he is alive to the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) about the complexity of different measures. The carbon floor price sits alongside the ongoing electricity market review and other measures that are already in place. Is the hon. Gentleman, as a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, focused on streamlining, and on removing complexity to achieve the overall outcome? Is he having those discussions with his colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change to see what is the simplest, most direct and most effective way of achieving the decarbonisation objectives, and boosting renewables and potentially the nuclear industry—despite what is going on in that field at the moment—while at the same time stripping out layers of complexity and bureaucracy?

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is right. There are two challenges for the Government in this context: dealing with the low-carbon energy issue and ensuring that the lights do not go off in a few years’ time. Those two challenges do not necessarily run in the same direction, and if there is any conflict or tension we need to ensure that we get the balance right. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, as a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I want to ensure that we do not lose our competitive edge. The export roles that the right hon. Member for Rotherham referred to are very important. We must ensure that we remain competitive and continue to be a net exporter, and I would like to encourage that.

Let me come back to the strategy and explain to Members what is in it, how it works, and how we are involving the industry. The strategy is designed to deal with a number of key objectives. First, it will assess the potential for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, not just in steel but across the industries, and look at the interplay between the sectors. There are a number of subsectors, and if we are not careful we will lose the capability of the larger sector because we have not taken care of the smaller ones. That is sensitive issue of which we are very much aware, and there is a thorough technological review of the sectors and their processes, because that, I suspect, will be where the transformational change can best be achieved in the longer term. There have nevertheless been some very good short-term changes, which I will mention in a moment.

Secondly, what we are trying to do with the strategy is build on existing research and both public and industry initiatives, to look at how reducing emissions can be progressed further. In many ways, it is about extolling and developing best practice. Thirdly, the review looks at a whole range of ways of decarbonising energy-intensive sectors. We are examining improvements to existing processes, as well as looking at substitutes and alternatives. That is partly to do with materials, as well as with processes. Fourthly, the strategy is embedded in a collaborative process with industry, the regulators and the various experts engaged in the field, such as institutions dealing with materials, and we seek to provide evidence to make the case for the EU to move towards a 30% EU emissions reduction target, to which we committed ourselves in the coalition agreement. That is an important shift, and it comes back to competitiveness.

Lastly, we are looking to introduce, promptly but not unduly hastily, a range of policy options on which we can work with the industry so that it can make the transition, while—from my point of view—always looking at competitiveness. That is a difficult balancing act, and I suspect that we will not achieve it perfectly because of the inherent tensions and the nature of the industry, and of the steel sector in particular. We are looking at the sector leaders and the supply chain, and at engaging with them through the strategy, to ensure that it can work. Although there are natural anxieties there is some really good practice, and I want to highlight a couple of examples that I suspect the hon. Members for Newport East and for Ogmore will know, given that they are Welsh Members.

Last spring, Tata Steel in Europe completed a £60 million investment to recycle process gases from the Port Talbot melt shop. The new facility reduces Port Talbot’s carbon dioxide emissions by 240,000 tonnes a year, its particulate emissions by 40 tonnes a year and, most interestingly, cuts its energy requirement from the grid by half. As the right hon. Member for Rotherham rightly says, this is a genuinely energy-intensive industry. It is also an industry in which we need to be able to control the energy in key bursts, and therefore the ability to reduce the energy requirement from the grid by half is tremendously encouraging.

A further £185 million investment at Port Talbot was announced last August, and the project, which is due to finish in July, will involve the rebuilding of blast furnace No. 4 and will increase liquid steel capacity at the plant by 400,000 tonnes, while improving environmental performance and safety. If production can be increased and performance improved, let us see how we can roll that out and work with the rest of the industry on that best practice.

I think that that is a good argument, but if the Minister or the Government are going to propose new taxation on carbon, one option might be to recycle some of those funds into industrial programmes that would help the steel industry across the board and across the nation to do similar projects.

We are always mindful of the need to consider whether we can help the industry, particularly where there are up-front capital projects that need to be bridged, and I am always in discussions with the sector. I cannot make open tax promises at this stage as that is not my job; it is the job of the Chancellor, and rightly so. I am nevertheless always happy to talk to the industry on that basis.

The strategy, together with the carbon price floor and the fact that the strategy is founded on a consultative approach, means that we can, I think, work with the industry. As the right hon. Member for Rotherham rightly says, the Treasury, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills all need to be involved, and that is the approach that we seek to take. If we had only a single Department approaching the issue from one perspective, we would be in danger of not looking at it in the round.

As part of that, has the Minister done a full impact assessment of the effect of carbon floor pricing on intensive energy users? If not, will he make a commitment to doing so?

The lead on this is not my Department; the proposal comes from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which has been looking specifically at the impact of the price across sectors. I deal with deregulation, and impact assessment has many other, often challenging, implications. We have been looking at how it impacts on the sector, what it means and, most of all, what the practical outcomes are that the industry can use to progress. That is the key point.

In conclusion, we believe that energy efficiency and business competitiveness go hand in hand. We are trying to ensure that the challenge for the environment does not become something that is done at the expense of the economy, and we are very sensitive to the fact that particular industries, whether it is steel or—as I saw for myself recently—brick making, understand the practicalities of changing processes, changing materials and the regulatory environment, and how the carbon price floor will work, so that we can help businesses move through this period and successfully decarbonise themselves and compete at the same time.

Sitting suspended.