The Government remains under pressure to take action to save Britain’s steel industry after David Cameron asked the Chinese President to tackle problems of over supply.
The Prime Minister spoke to Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a top-level dinner in Washington as up to 40,000 workers face losing their jobs if a buyer cannot be found for Tata Steel.
Business Secretary Sajid Javid said the firm’s Port Talbot plant was “absolutely vital” for the UK’s industrial future as he met with workers in South Wales.
Mr Javid faced criticism for going to Australia instead of India when bosses at Mumbai-based Tata were discussing the future of its Welsh site.
He claimed he had been talking to Tata for “weeks” prior to his trip and but had not expected “the time-frame of the sale” to be as short as three or four weeks.
The Business Secretary said he was hopeful “a new buyer that can take (the Port Talbot plant) forward” could be found but failed to shake off criticism.
His comments came on a day it emerged that China is levying up to 46% duties on a type of high tech steel produced by a subsidiary of Tata Steel in Wales.
Last autumn the EU Commission determined that China was dumping a wide range of steel products in Europe and recommended higher tarrifs to help protect similar goods made in the EU.
But UK ministers were determined to hold on to a trade principle that keeps duties as low as possible, prompting steel makers to accuse it of helping China at the expense of British industry.
The Government now faces a twin-pronged attack – accusations of not doing enough to keep Tata Steel a viable concern and not doing enough to tackle China and its policy of dumping cheap steel on world markets.
Senior sources held back from describing Mr Cameron’s chat with Mr Xi as a confrontation.
Instead, a No. 10 source told Sky News: “In the margins of last night’s White House dinner, the PM raised concerns with President Xi about the global steel industry.
“The PM said we needed to work together to tackle the challenges with over-capacity and that the G20 (which China is hosting this year) would be a good forum to address it later in the year.
“He made clear the concerns that we have on the impact this is having on the UK and other countries.”
But opposition politicians have refused to back off, with shadow business secretary Angela Eagle saying in a letter to Mr Javid: “If the Government and other EU members states now accept that steel making in the Europe is in ’emergency measures’, then it would be possible to apply ‘safeguards’ to effectively halt the flood of imports into the EU.”
She asked him: “Will you commit to picking up the phone to Beijing as a matter of urgency to discuss these proposals?”
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, meanwhile, said the UK steel industry was now paying the price for Chancellor George Osborne’s determination to woo Beijing at any price.