HC Deb 11 March 1987 vol 112 cc277-9
3. Mr. James Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will give the up-to-date position regarding the proposed closure of the Caterpillar Tractor Co, Tannochside; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I regret to say that the company's decision to close the plant remains unchanged. Work is in hand aimed at exploring all possibilities for retaining manufacturing operation and employment facility. In this connection, officials of the Industry Department for Scotland and the Scottish Development Agency are discussing with Caterpillar the preparation of a detailed profile of the facility with a view to marketing it, if this proves necessary, to potential users within the United Kingdom and abroad.

Mr. Hamilton

Is the Secretary of State aware of reports that a circular letter has been sent to all the employees in the factory saying that if they do not stop their illegal sit-in they will receive notice to quit their jobs without redundancy payments? When will he have the meeting which he promised the workers he would have outside the factory? As it is in my constituency, I want to be at that meeting. Lastly, it is reported that two companies are interested in the factory. What is the truth of the matter and what are the prospects?

Mr. Rifkind

I do not recall agreeing to a meeting outside the factory. I told the workers whom I met last week and who invited me to visit the factory that I have no objection to visiting the factory but cannot do so while the unlawful occupation continues. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands the relevance of that consideration.

I am aware of the circular that has been distributed by the company. Obviously, the work force will wish to consider that factor. We must also consider the extent to which the attraction of alternative users of the plant, should that prove necessary, is being helped or hindered by the continuing occupation of the plant.

Mr. McQuarrie

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Caterpillar management's treatment of the work force, the Government and him especially, is disgraceful? Does he further agree, with regard to the comments that he made when he was subjected to that disgraceful treatment, that if there is any possibility of an offer being made from the work force or any other source, he will consider sympathetically giving Government aid towards getting the project off the ground and saving those 1,200 jobs?

Mr. Rifkind

The company's attitude to the work force is the cause of greatest concern because it was informed by the company that the plant had a future. I can happily confirm that if there were alternative proposals for the continued use of the plant, which would give it a prospect of viability, obviously the Government would be willing, in the normal way, to see whether some financial contribution through regional policy was able to assist the fulfilment of that objective.

Mr. Strang

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there was some surprise at the reported remarks of his hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang) that the workers should give up their occupation so that officials could visit the plant? Is he aware that when he spoke of the determined efforts of the work force when he met it last week, he was reflecting the aspirations of all Scottish people? Will he assure the House that he stands by what he said to the work force last week and will continue to support the whole of Scotland in its support for the work force's stand?

Mr. Rifkind

I stand by everything that I said to the work force last week. Indeed, there was nothing inconsistent between that and what my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale has also said. We have emphasised that if it should prove necessary to seek to find an alternative user of the plant, the presentation of a profile of the plant becomes extremely difficult if it is not possible to visit the plant because its lawful owners are denied access to it. I know that the work force is having to consider the implications of those considerations. We are all anxious to make progress in this matter and one has to consider a sensible judgment as to whether continuing occupation of the plant is in the interest of the work force itself with a view to alternative users being identified and attracted to Uddingston to provide long-term employment.

Mr. Hirst

I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that the whole of Scotland admires the vigorous way in which he has stood up to the Caterpillar management. However, if the United States management of Caterpillar does not change its mind about the closure, can he remind the House yet again that the Government will spare no effort in making resources available to find alternative employers to come to Uddingston? Does he agree that in those circumstances a prolonged occupation of the factory could deter an alternative employer?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for his opening comments and would add only that Mr. Gavin Laird and Mr. Jimmy Airlie expressed similar, if not identical, observations after my meeting with them. I certainly confirm the additional points made by my hon. Friend.

Sir Russell Johnston

May I press the Secretary of State on the question of assistance to alternatives? If, for example, no alternative buyer was found and a workers' takeover was demonstrated to be a commercial proposition, would the Secretary of State, in those circumstances, be prepared to produce money? Will he say to Caterpillar that it would be a clement act, considering the genuine criticism to which it has been subjected, if it released the tractor over which it is playing silly legal games?

Mr. Rifkind

The ownership of the tractor is a legal matter and it is not for me to comment on it. On the hon. Gentleman's earlier comments, we are interested in a long-term commercially viable proposition for the continuation of the plant and we would be interested in assisting any proposal that was likely to prove commercially viable so far as it was within our power to do so.

Mr. Dewar

In his initial reply, the Secretary of State said that the position of the employer, the Caterpillar Tractor company, remained unchanged and put considerable emphasis on the work being done to prepare a profile of the plant. Does that mean that he is still pressing the company for a change of mind? As a static position is of little help in that respect, is he taking any positive initiative to try to bring it about? As the time scale is important, given the genuine and general anxiety and, indeed, anger at the way in which the company has acted, will he undertake to come back to the House and, in the form of a statement, report progress so that we may know how negotiations with the company, if any, are progressing and, if the reply is disappointing, so that he will have a chance to outline the alternative proposals he has for the plant?

Mr. Rifkind

I have not accepted, and still do not accept, the inevitability of Caterpillar's withdrawal from the plant and I shall continue to use every opportunity to try to persuade Caterpillar to reconsider its decision. However, clearly, it would be foolish to suggest that it is likely to do so in the absence of any new information or new consideration. Nevertheless, one will seek to use any opportunity to persuade it to reconsider the decision it has reached.

It is also in the interest of the work force and suppliers to that plant to explore simultaneously other possible uses of the plant, because we must accept at least the strong possibility that there will not be a reversal of the decision by the ownership of the company. To put all our eggs in that particular basket might be an unwise proposition, most of all from the point of view of the work force itself.