I should have gone to Tata Steel meeting in India, says Sajid Javid

Sajid Javid has admitted that he should have gone to Mumbai for a crucial Tata Steel board meeting that led to the Indian company announcing it would pull out of the UK.

The business secretary told MPs that with the benefit of hindsight he should have travelled to India last month, instead of going to Australia on a business trip with his daughter.

Javid was lambasted by MPs on the business, innovation and skills committee during a fiery hearing on Thursday over his handling of the steel crisis. Iain Wright, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said it was an “absolute disgrace” that the business secretary allowed a steelworks in Teesside to close last year.

However, Javid hit back, saying: “It is easy to make those statements, but we have to deal with the reality, the facts.”

About 40,000 jobs are at risk after Tata Steel announced last month that it planned to withdraw from its UK operations, including the Port Talbot steelworks.

Javid said he had known from mid-February that Tata was considering closing the Welsh plant, but admitted he was shocked by the Indian company’s announcement after the board meeting in March because of the speed with which it wanted to offload the UK business.

Despite admitting that with hindsight he would have gone to Mumbai, the MP for Bromsgrove also defended his absence, saying: “A photo opportunity would not have helped the workers. What has helped is the work we have done since.”

He added: “I will do everything in my power to help, but that is all I can do. I cannot change the price of steel globally. This is a big economic challenge for the country. I don’t want to live in a country where we have to import all our steel.

“For the thousands of steelworkers and their families and friends affected by this, the message is that we are doing everything we can.”

The committee also heard a warning from Tata Steel UK’s chief executive that Britain faced an “economic and social disaster” if the pension issues that faced company could not be solved and a buyer not found.

Bimlendra Jha told MPs there would be “very bad consequences for the taxpayer” if the pension liabilities of almost £15bn were not dealt with.

Jha said the company had set no fixed deadline to find a buyer, amid concerns that there might not be enough time to find a saviour.

However, he warned that Tata “cannot continue to bleed” and that there remained “serious questions marks about the viability of Port Talbot”.

Jha said solving the pension problem was key to finding a buyer. Tata Steel has been pumping more than £100m a year into the pension scheme to fund its liabilities. The scheme could enter the state-backed Pension Protection Fund.

“If we don’t solve it we are staring at some very bad consequences for the taxpayer. We are staring at a huge economic and social disaster,” he added.

However, he also opened the door to Tata Steel keeping the business if it could narrow losses at the UK arm, which are believed to be about £1m a day.

“We would not be selling the business if we were not losing money,” said Jha, adding that the UK had structural weaknesses around energy prices and business rates.

The Tata boss said the company did not want to split up its UK business by selling it to different buyers. He warned that splitting off Port Talbot would cause damage to the pension scheme because more than 4,000 workers would stop making contributions. “We would not deal with somebody saying leave alone Port Talbot and give us the rest. That is not a solution that’s acceptable,” Jha said.

Javid insisted there was not “a big risk to the public purse” from the pension liabilities, although he did admit they were putting off buyers.

He admitted that the government was looking for solutions for the pension scheme, with talks under way between trustees of the British Steel Pension Scheme and the Pensions Regulator.

“A number of the potential buyers have said that ‘we won’t have much interest if we have to take over the current pension plan as it is’,” he told MPs. “It’s a very big plan, it’s expensive compared to today’s plans and it’s not unreasonable for many buyers to say: ‘Look we’re interested in the assets but this would be an issue.’”

Javid, who has said the government is willing to take a 25% state in the steel business alongside a buyer, said he believed Tata was a “responsible” seller despite the tight timeframe.

One of the potential buyers is a management buy-out backed by Welsh consortium including billionaire Sir Terry Matthews. It is understood the consortium plans to call itself “Excalibur”.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Graham Ruddick, for The Guardian on Thursday 28th April 2016 19.08 Europe/London

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