HC Deb 12 July 1982 vol 27 cc636-8
13. Mr. Race

asked the Secretary of State for Industry what assurances have been given to his Department by Hanson Trust and Berec Ltd. in respect of the future of the United Kingdom battery industry; and what action he has taken as a result.

Mr. MacGregor

Hanson Trust Ltd. and British Ever Ready Ltd. have given assurances that they will remain committed to the United Kingdom battery industry, to maintaining and improving British Ever Ready Ltd.'s position in the British market, and to developing and expanding in the United Kingdom. In the light of these assurances, and because it meets the conditions stipulated in the Industry Act and the published criteria for the office and service industries scheme, the company's application for assistance towards the cost of transferring its head office and research and development activities from London to the North-East has been approved.

Mr. Race

Given the Hanson Trust's record as a rather nasty asset-stripping company, is it not the case that those assurances are not worth the paper on which they are written, especially given the closure of the advance projects division of Ever Ready at Abingdon by the Hanson Trust? What action does the Department intend to take to monitor the commitment of the Hanson Trust and British Ever Ready to the future and continuing prosperity of the British battery industry?

Mr. MacGregor

The assurances have been given in a very straightforward manner, and we have investigated them thoroughly. The hon. Gentleman made reference to departmental monitoring. Under the office and service industries scheme, the first instalment of grant is not paid for one year after the first job has been created, and there are substantial checks thereafter, so that grant may be withheld where there is any significant change in the project being assisted or where the number of jobs expected to be created is reduced.

Mr. Chapman

Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the consequences of the Hanson takeover of Berec is that the Berec headquarters is to be moved from my constituency to the North-East? Although in the eyes of a few of my constituents that is to be condemned, it ought to be a matter for commendation by all hon. Members representing constituencies in the North-East. Will my hon. Friend use the good offices of his Department to point out to far-sighted firms that they could do no better than come to excellent working conditions in my constituency, with low rates?

Mr. MacGregor

That was a very skilful supplementary question. There is always a difficult balance in these matters. It was clear in this case that the project would not only benefit the regional economy, in the North-East but would result in benefits to the national economy, because the company made it clear that staying in London and its environs would reduce efficiency, thereby keeping overheads unnecessarily high and leading in the long term possibly to a greater number of redundancies throughout the company. Each of these cases has to be looked at carefully on its merits.

Mr. David Watkins

Is the Minister aware that it is to my constituency that the headquarters is being moved and that there is reputed to be a subsidy of the order of £2 million to Hanson Trust and Berec? Although I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about the assurances that could be given, what assurance can he give that there will be a long-term future for the project at Tanfield Lea?

Mr. MacGregor

It depends how one defines "long-term". It is impossible to give assurances about any industry in a highly competitive business over a very long term. We have clear assurances from the company about its intentions, and I have said already how the grant is payable in step with the steps that the company takes. I know from my visits to Consett that the hon. Gentleman will be delighted that these jobs are coming to an area which needs service jobs very badly.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

When taxpayers' money is involved, surely the Minister is bound to give us a fairly long-term assurance. Can he say when the Berec factory on the Staners trading estate in Newburn in my constituency will start taking on labour again, as it should be doing?

Mr. MacGregor

The latter point that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is a matter for the company. The hon. Gentleman also referred to taxpayers' money being involved. I have already said what the position is on long-term assurances. It is because taxpayers' money is involved that we look carefully at such applications. This one was scrutinised by the North-East Industrial Development Board. Because taxpayers' money is involved we are reviewing the position where there are substantial job losses in the area from where the offices or research and development facilities will come.