Britain changed its procurement rules to encourage public sector bodies to use British steel products as part of efforts to revive the country’s ailing steel industry and save thousands of jobs after India’s Tata Steel decided to sell its loss-making businesses in the UK.
Under the new decision, public sector bodies are to be encouraged to buy British steel for construction projects in an effort to help save the industry.
The government said councils and NHS trusts will be asked to consider the economic impact of buying from abroad.
Business secretary Sajid Javid said he was determined to ensure a sustainable future for the British steel industry and find a solution that supports workers.
“By changing the procurement rules on these major infrastructure projects, we are backing the future of UK steel - opening up significant opportunities for UK suppliers and allowing them to compete more effectively with international companies,” the Pakistani-origin minister said.
The government’s decision comes after Tata Steel announced last week that it was selling its loss-making UK plants, putting thousands of jobs at risk.
The unions said the government’s decision was “a small step in the right direction” but the measure should have been in place already.
Guidelines were introduced last year requiring central government bodies to take into account the “true value” of British steel.
Now the guidance to be extended across the public sector and public procurements involving the supply of steel will need to consider “responsible sourcing, the training suppliers give to their workforce, carbon footprint, protecting the health and safety of staff and the social integration of disadvantaged workers”.
Contractors working for the public sector will be required to advertise their requirements for steel so that UK firms can compete for business.
Authorities hope local steel firms could supply steel for huge projects like the 55-million-pound high-speed rail link, which will need some two million tonnes of steel.
It comes after heavy criticism of ministers for failing to take more effective action to prevent the “dumping” of cheap Chinese steel, seen as one of the key reasons for the problems in the UK steel industry.
The government has played down the impact of new Chinese import tariffs, that are up to 46.3%.
Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of the Community trade union, said the announcement was “a small step in the right direction” but said steelworkers “will be shocked to discover that these measures were not already in place”.
“These are bread-and-butter policies that should have been providing opportunities to UK steel producers already,” he said.