Government criticised for allowing British Steel to collapse into insolvency

A workers leaves the steelworks plant in Scunthorpe. Credit: PA

The government has been heavily criticised for allowing British Steel to fail.

The desire to proceed cautiously is understandable, the business is in such a perilous financial state that it would probably have ceased trading altogether when talks broke down were it not for the support of the Official Receiver.

Advancing £30 million of taxpayer money into a deeply insolvent company carries the obvious risk it won’t be paid back.

Although the same logic presumably applied three weeks ago when the government provided the company with a £120m bridging loan to pay a EU emissions bill.

Earlier, The Business Secretary, Greg Clark, told me he’d “strained every sinew” to save the British Steel.

The official reason for declining the latest loan request is it would have been illegal. The unofficial reason is that the government also lacked confidence in British Steel's owners, the private equity firm, Greybull Capital.

"Greybull hit a bump in the road a came straight to government for a bail out," a source close to the talks told me. "Greybull aren't owner managers, they are financial investors. They aren't in this for the long term and they weren't willing to put in more of their own money."

Greybull bought the business for £1 three years ago. Since then it claims to have arranged a "financing package of more than £500m". But much of this money was not Greybull's and none of it was cash.

British Steel failed to secure funds to secure its future. Credit: PA

Greybull advanced British Steel a loan of £154m (which accrued interest) but the rest of the financing was money that British Steel appears to have borrowed directly from the banks.

Analysis of British Steel's accounts show that Greybull paid itself £3 million a year in management fees but did not take any dividends. Greybull insists it is set to lose "millions" on its investment.

George Turner, director of Tax Watch, believes Greybull may yet break even: "If a buyer for the company is found or if the company is liquidated with the assets sold to pay creditors, Greybull's investors, and the banks, could well see their investment, or at least a substantial part of it, returned."

The taxpayer will definitely take a hit. The government claims the £120m bridging loan is secured and therefore safe but funding British Steel during liquidation will cost money.

Marc and Nathaniel Meyohas of Greybull Capital, owner of British Steel. Credit: PA

The business is being supported in much the same Carillion’s has been. The liquidation of construction company Carillion has cost the taxpayer £72m to date.

When it comes to saddling the government with insolvency bills, Greybull has previous. You may recall that the taxpayer had to stump up £60m to repatriate 100,000 passenger who found themselves stranded when Monarch went bust under Greybull's ownership in 2017.

Will this story have a happy ending? Can a buyer be found?

British Steel is a loss-making company in an industry that is deeply troubled. The queue of suitors won't be long.