YOU can say one thing about the panjandrums in politics, the civil service and public agencies in Scotland: they are not short on confidence in their ability to press square pegs into round holes.
Take the Scottish Government’s reaction whenever a major plant closure is announced: into action swings a ‘task force’, headed by a senior Minister, bent on saving the threatened jobs.
The latest ‘task force’, which has been charged with finding a buyer for the steel plants at Dalzell in Motherwell and Clydebridge in Cambuslang, met for the first time last Thursday.
Chaired by Business Minister Fergus Ewing, it comprises (along with representatives from the owner, Tata Steel and the trade unions), officials from North and South Lanarkshire councils, various Scottish government agencies and local politicians.
However, as Tata has been trying to sell the plants for 12 months without success, why does the government believe that a group composed largely of council officers and civil servants will do any better?
To try and answer that question, it might be instructive to examine the record of the last SG ‘task force’ formed to prevent the closure of a large-scale manufacturing plant.
In early July 2012, the Dutch-owned company, Vion UK, began a 90-day consultation process following its decision to close the Hall’s of Broxburn food processing factory in West Lothian, where the workforce numbered 1,700.
No sooner had the announcement been made than a ‘task force’ was raised – this time under the leadership of John Swinney, who said its aim was to ensure Hall’s remained in business.
Here’s how he was quoted at the time: “The task force agreed that its key focus is maintaining continuity of business at Hall’s of Broxburn and we are entirely committed to that exercise.
“We have drawn together all of the relevant government agencies, local agencies and political representatives to focus on ensuring we deliver a positive economic future for the workforce and community of Broxburn.
“The task force has had a positive start and will take forward a number of practical actions before reconvening on July 30.”
Consequently, had I been a Hall’s employee at the time, it might have been reasonable to infer that a good chance existed of my job being saved.
But if we fast forward to 30 July, Mr Swinney, though still bullish, was careful not to raise expectations. “I am encouraged by the progress the task force has made to date, but we are still at a very early stage in the process and it would be wrong to be complacent,” he said.
Looking back, no one could ever accuse Mr Swinney of complacency. No doubt he put much personal effort into the fight but this still begs the question as to why a public sector-led ‘task force’ ever thought it could find a buyer for a production facility that was losing £79,000 a day in an industry with “significant over-capacity” according to the Vion chairman.
Complacency, no. But perhaps a great deal of wishful thinking plus a measure of playing to the gallery in an attempt to show the public that the government was ‘doing something’?
Actually, in January 2013 a buyer was finally secured in the form of the Dumfriesshire-based Brown Food Group but the deal did not result in the continuation of production at Broxburn. Only 50 (mainly support) jobs were saved.
By March the following year the former factory was a pile of rubble. A housing development is now planned for the site.
Actually, the SG had already admitted defeat by December of 2012 when it announced a £29 million economic package to be delivered to West Lothian over the following five years. The package, it was stated, would “help create 3,000 jobs” but without any great detail being given as to how that figure might be achieved.
This in itself is not an implied criticism of the government because in the circumstances of the Hall’s closure, a case could be made for additional public money to be pumped into the West Lothian economy – not just to assist the former Hall’s workers but also the many small-businesses which relied on the former workforce spending their wage packets locally.
However, this could have all been achieved without the need to set up a ‘task force’ which clearly failed to achieve its objective.
Apart from the poor record of government-sponsored ‘task forces’, there is something slightly disconcerting about public servants with secure jobs, 37.5-hour weeks, 35 days holiday entitlement, generous sickness benefits and gold-plated pensions, bringing false hope to people in a particularly volatile area of the private sector who are facing the real threat of unemployment.
Little wonder, therefore, that when interviewed on television following the most recent closure announcements, workers at Dalzell and Clydebridge displayed an understandable dose of cynicism about the ability of the Scottish Government to secure their futures.
But undaunted by the failure to save the Hall’s of Broxburn plant, Mr Ewing said after the inaugural meeting of the latest ‘task force’ that “our primary focus is to secure an alternative operator for the Dalzell and Clydebridge plants and retain as many jobs as possible”.
The next meeting is scheduled for 13 November.
NICOLA’S NUCLEAR DILEMMA
THAT Nicola Sturgeon and Fergus Ewing have still not completely ruled out nationalising Scotland’s two remaining steel plants, suggests a possible dilemma which could cause our First Minister much angst.
According to Gareth Stace, director of the trade body, UK Steel, Dalzell is the only remaining production centre in the UK capable of rolling the quality of steel plate required for the new generation of submarines that will carry the Trident nuclear warhead.
As every man and his dog should know by now, Ms Sturgeon is a dedicated nuclear disarmer, and someone committed to the removal of “‘weapons of mass destruction” from Scottish soil.
But what if the Scottish government was to nationalise Dalzell and Clydebridge, and pitching for UK defence contracts with a direct connection to Trident turned out to be one way of keeping the former productive and, perhaps, helping it to return to profitability?
How would the head honcho of a unilateralist SNP balance her own abhorrence of nuclear weapons with the fact that an order related to the UK nuclear deterrent might actually save the jobs of Scottish steel-workers?