HC Deb 01 March 1988 vol 128 cc819-30 3.31 pm
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister of Trade and Industry (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Rover Group.

As the House is aware, it is the common objective of the Government and of the Rover Group board to work for the return of the remaining businesses to the private sector. The Rover Group chairman, Mr. Graham Day, has in recent months been considering the options for achieving this.

I should inform the House that an approach has now been received from British Aerospace plc, which has declared a serious interest in acquiring Government shareholding in Rover Group, subject to the satisfactory outcome of negotiations which are now being put in hand. British Aerospace has asked that the negotiations be on an exclusive basis, and the Government have agreed to this, provided that negotiations are concluded by the end of April. If not, we would then be free to look at other options.

I shall, of course, report the outcome of these discussions to the House at the earliest opportunity. In the meantime, I am sure that, like the Rover Group board and the Government, the House will welcome this interest.

Mr. Bryan Gould (Dagenham)

Does the Minister accept that his statement makes up in unexpectedness for what it lacks in industrial logic? What is the industrial logic behind such a merger? Is this not a further example of the sort of conglomerate merger which has served British industry so ill in the past?

What can British Aerospace bring to such a merger? It has no expertise in making commercial and motor vehicles, and its experience of selling into international defence markets hardly fits it to tackle the problem of selling into mass markets for motor cars.

Did the Minister take a hand in urging British Aerospace to the negotiating table? Will he explain what provision will be made to ensure a minimum British share in the joint enterprise? Will the minimum requirement for a 15 per cent. shareholding in British Aerospace, plus a golden share, together with the requirement that all directors be British citizens, be maintained in the joint enterprise? If so, what will be the position of Mr. Graham Day?

What is the significance of this merger for the link with Honda? If Honda withdrew, would British Aerospace be prepared to make up, through a capital investment programme, the deficiency that would be left? Have these developments been discussed at all with Honda? If so, what was its reaction?

Why has this statement been made only a matter of days before the Rover Group's annual results are expected, and what will happen to the Rover Group's accumulated debt if the merger goes ahead?

What guarantees will the Government obtain from British Aerospace about the maintenance of employment, about employee rights and about future investment plans for a new model range?

Does the Minister accept that there is more at stake than a clever solution to a short-term problem of his own creation? What is at stake is the viability of a fundamental British industry, the survival and future of a crucial British technology and the continuation of thousands of British jobs in the Rover Group and British Aerospace.

Mr. Clarke

What I have announced is the opening of negotiations between the board of British Aerospace and the board of the Rover Group. I prefer the industrial logic of those who will be involved in the negotiations to the so-called industrial logic of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), who speaks for the Opposition. He makes a comparison between the proposed merger and some of the conglomerate mergers of the past. He is no doubt thinking back to those conglomerate mergers which were arranged by Governments of which he was a supporter, which at times led to a considerable lack of success. We have moved away from the position where politicians such as he draw their grand conclusions one way or another about the desirability of conglomerate mergers.

The proposal was no result of any urging from the Government. It arose from discussions which began last month between the board of British Aerospace and Graham Day of the Rover Group, and the Government have come to Parliament at the earliest possible stage to inform the House that the negotiations are about to start seriously.

The logic of the merger was no doubt considered by the board of British Aerospace, which has obviously decided, in the interests of its company, to make this approach. It is not a surprising combination because quite a lot of similar combinations occur in the outside world among international companies in the same area. General Motors has a stake in Hughes; Fiat has aerospace interests; Saab has aerospace interests; and, as the House probably knows, Daimler-Benz is in discussions with Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm in Germany. It is for the companies to decide in the course of negotiations the extent to which their interests fit well together and their businesses will prosper.

My understanding from British Aerospace is that it is anxious to retain the services of Mr. Graham Day, but obviously at this stage he is involved with his colleagues in the Rover Group in the negotiations that are about to start.

We have informed Honda that the negotiations are about to start, by contacting the Japanese ambassador in London and by our ambassador in Japan contacting the Japanese Government. The first reaction from Honda is favourable. Certainly the Government would wish the co-operation with Honda to continue, and I believe that to be the wish of British Aerospace and the Rover Group.

The timing of the announcement was dictated by our need to inform Parliament as quickly as possible. The hon. Gentleman asked why we have made the announcement today. We made it today because it was the earliest opportunity, once we and the companies had decided that a serious process of negotiation should begin. It is as a result of those negotiations that all the other matters touched on by the hon. Gentleman will need to be addressed.

Obviously, the long-term employment prospects in the company depend on the success of the Rover business and its success in the market place. We will be in a position to judge, when the negotiations are completed, whether the merger is to proceed; we will then be in a position to judge whether it is in the interests of the business for the merger to go ahead.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. May I remind the House that we have a heavy day in front of us, with an adjourned debate on Irish affairs, which must end at Ten o'clock? Will hon. Members put one question at a time?

Mr. Michael Grylls (Surrey, North-West)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that most sensible people will wish the negotiations well: that the long-suffering taxpayers have had to hold on and support this very expensive baby for far too long; and that the sooner the remaining 97 per cent. shareholding is returned fully to the private sector, the better it will be for everybody concerned?

Mr. Clarke

The Government have always made it clear that it is our view that the company should be returned to the private sector as soon as possible, so I agree with my hon. Friend: if the negotiations come to a successful conclusion I have no doubt that all those with a serious interest in the well-being of the British car industry will be satisfied with the outcome.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

But has the Minister forgotten that last year British Aerospace needed Government money to finance the development of the Airbus? What assurances will he request to ensure that taxpayers' money is not recycled to buy the new Rover Group?

Mr. Clarke

I am astonished that Opposition Members, who allegedly have an interest in British industry, should suddenly start making denigrating remarks about British Aerospace — the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) did that, too. British Aerospace is, I believe, the major exporter of manufactured goods from this country. It received launch aid from the Government last year as part of the launch of a new range of Airbus products. They are selling well, and it is an extraordinary reaction for the Opposition suddenly to start attacking — for some reason — the management or business prospects of one of our major industrial companies. In the end, it is for the two companies to decide for themselves what is in the best interests of their businesses; I prefer their judgment to that of those on the Opposition Front Bench or Back Benches.

Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove)

While welcoming the early announcement to the House and the early action being taken by the Government to return the company to private ownership as a company, may I ask the Minister to make it clear that the deadline of 30 April is only for the exclusive period of negotiations with British Aerospace and that any other offer made, before or subsequently, would have to he considered by the Government?

Mr. Clarke

That is the case. British Aerospace asked to have exclusive rights of negotiations. It was the opinion of the Rover Group board that it was in the interests of its business that there should be exclusivity in the negotiations, and the Government agree. Before any deal is finalised, if one emerges from the negotiations, we should have to consider any other offers that were forthcoming.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

British Aerospace, which must have been watching the Saab advertisements on television, might be a perfectly acceptable bidder for the Rover Group if it could put forward a reasonable scheme that will help the company, but the exclusive arrangement gives rise to many worries. Is it the Government's view that there is no other bidder around that might be able 'to put the British car industry on a sound footing? If there is, why should it be kept out? If there is not, why the exclusive deal?

Mr. Clarke

I share the hon. Gentleman's view that British Aerospace could be an acceptable bidder in everyone's interest — those of the taxpayer, and of Austin Rover as a business, and hence of its employees, too. Because of that, the negotiations are starting and we must all await their outcome. I have just explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Miller) the background to our agreement that negotiations should be exclusively with British Aerospace at this stage. We believe that that would be in the interests of the Rover Group business in particular, and that is also the view of the board.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, contrary to the moanings of Opposition Members, there will be a feeling of excitement among the many car workers throughout the west midlands at the announcement that the negotiations are to go forward? Is he aware that they will look on this as an opportunity of bringing together two excellent engineering disciplines to make a formidable engineering force in this country, and think it will be a great opportunity for both industries?

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

Where is the logic?

Mr. Clarke

I share my hon. Friend's reaction. Car workers in the west midlands will be amazed to hear a few snide remarks made about British Aerospace, coupled with cries from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) of, "Where is the logic?" That is the Opposition's reaction to the announcement.

In other countries, these sorts of business have come together with great success. British Aerospace is seeking to diversify its business, as it showed by its successful acquisition of the ordnance factories. We must now see whether the negotiations produce an acceptable result, which we shall consider in due course.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Is it not true that the British Leyland group was a private enterprise disaster that was rescued by over £2.5 billion-worth of taxpayers' money? If the Rover Group is on the road to success, why should the taxpayers be denied the fruits of that success, having poured billions of pounds into the venture? Why should they be denied the fruits of their investment? Will the Minister say how components suppliers will be involved in these negotiations? Will they be involved in the negotiations at all? Hundreds of thousands of jobs are involved, including those at Hepworth and Grandage, which is in my constituency and which supplies 95 per cent. of the Rover Group's pistons? Will it be told to stand on the sidelines while a large part of its market is frittered away in these negotiations?

Mr. Clarke

It is true that the company has lost an enormous amount of money over recent years, and there are accumulated trading losses on its books. I trust that the hon. Gentleman is glad to see that the financial position of the Rover Group is improving. As he knows, towards the end of last year it announced that it expected to declare a trading profit for the financial year ending in 1987.

Negotiations are now going on about the commercial future of the company. Obviously, we must see where those negotiations lead. A deal will be concluded satisfactorily if something emerges that is in the interests of the Rover Group and British Aerospace, and therefore of all those whose interests depend on it.

Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that today's announcement is a reflection of the achievement of management and workers at British Aerospace, who have enabled the company, post-privatisation, to be able to declare such an interest?

Mr. Clarke

Certainly — British Aerospace has been doing extremely well. It is one of this country's blue chip companies that should expect the support of hon. Members in its present business activities. If it puts together a good deal, it should expect that support for its continuing activities as a major manufacturing company.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East)

Will the Minister accept that the concern of Labour Members and the workers who will be affected in the car and aerospace industries is about the capital for development for car models and aerospace projects for the future? What guarantees will the Minister be seeking as an outcome of these negotiations to ensure the future of models and jobs at Cowley, Longbridge and other plants?

Mr. Clarke

It is obviously the responsibility of those engaged in the management of a company to consider the future capital needs of the business and how they intend to meet them. No doubt the management will be addressing those problems in the course of these negotiations. The capital needs of businesses of this kind are best served when they are in the private sector competing successfully as private sector companies. No doubt the future capital needs of both businesses will be very much in the minds of those taking part in the discussions that are about to start.

Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend comment further on the complementary skills that this merger might bring after successful negotiations? Will he comment on the help that it will give component manufacturers supplying British Aerospace and Austin Rover, such as those based in Coventry and Birmingham, which are now being helped by the upturn in the economy?

Mr. Clarke

Obviously, it is for British Aerospace to explain its judgment that there is a clear relationship between the two businesses and that they could successfully complement each other. I know from my contacts that British Aerospace believes that to be the case. It thinks that it is a good opportunity to diversify, and that there is a great deal of synergy between the engineering skills used by both companies. They are both major manufacturers of engineered products, and in other countries similar groups seem to have sat together very well. We must wait to see whether a successful negotiation can be concluded to bring the two companies together on acceptable terms.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Is it not clear that, despite the Government's climbdown of a couple of years ago, Mr. Graham Day was brought in by the Government more as an undertaker than a physiotherapist, to prepare for the privatisation of the Rover Group? One of the key preparations for that privatisation occurred last year when he authorised the theft of £ 80 million of workers' deferred wages from the pension fund to make the balance sheet look more attractive for this bid from British Aerospace. To repeat the question that some of my hon. Friends have asked, what guarantees will the Minister seek from British Aerospace for continuity of employment? Experience of Leyland privatisations in Coventry at Self-Changing Gears, Alvis and Climax shows that workers have paid the price in unemployment.

Mr. Clarke

Graham Day was brought into British Leyland because of his considerable and undoubted managerial and business skills. His managerial skills and those of his team are one of the assets of the company and will no doubt be considered by the other company expressing an interest in acquiring it. I should certainly very much prefer Graham Day, with his judgment and skills, to anyone who might be appointed by Opposition Members on the advice of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) to take over responsibility for a major industrial company.

In this industry, as in any other, continuity of employment depends on success in the market place; as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) pointed out, those who depend on the companies for their business well-being are going through a very satisfactory time.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend remember that commercial logic as exemplified by the Labour party's policy includes Meriden and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, and forcing Bristol Commercial Vehicles into the hands of British Leyland, which promptly closed it down? Does he not agree that it is regrettable that Opposition Members seek to denigrate British Aerospace—a company that produces goods that the world wants to buy and employs many thousands of our constituents?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend, and we must never return to the days when politicians decided that their judgments of commercial logic made more sense than those of business men and tried to draw companies together. We are now witnessing a knee-jerk reaction from Opposition Members. They are scratching about to try to find criticisms of British Aerospace to put a damper on the negotiations. We shall leave the negotiations to take their course. In the end, our decision will be based on a judgment of the best interests of taxpayer, business and employee.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

The only reason why we are discussing Austin Rover is that public money kept volume car production going in that company. Furthermore, the Minister will recall that only last week his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is sitting beside him, reminded the House that nearly £3 billion of taxpayers' money went to support Austin Rover. What guarantee can the Minister give that the taxpayer will get a decent return on the money invested before the company is privatised?

Mr. Clarke

We shall have to await the results of the negotiations. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that when the negotiations are concluded we shall have to ensure that the interests of the taxpayer are properly protected.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Mr. Clarke

We shall accept an offer for the Government's shares only if we are satisfied that the taxpayers' interests are protected. In measuring those interests, one needs to consider the value of the business now. It is an extraordinary proposition to look back over the years and say that, because £2.9 billion was lost and had to be found by the taxpayer when that sum would otherwise have gone into public services of one kind or another, that is somehow a measure of the value of the business today. I invite the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the position and to accept my undertaking that, when the negotiations are concluded and a proposition is put to us, we shall ensure that the taxpayers' proper interests are safeguarded.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

If the discussions with British Aerospace did not come off, would the Government welcome a further approach from Ford or General Motors for the Rover Group?

Mr. Clarke

At the moment, we have agreed to negotiate only with British Aerospace. Obviously, if other companies come forward with propositions, we shall consider the options before us and, after the period of exclusivity that has been agreed — if the matter is still open—we shall consider whatever options are available.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the denigration of British Aerospace by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) is unlikely to strike a chord with the Tornado workers in Lancashire, who are working on a £5 billion Tornado contract won by British Aerospace? Surely all those in the defence industry recognise the expertise of British Aerospace and that we are now the third biggest manufacturer of defence equipment in the world. That is something from which the car industry, of which British Leyland is part, will benefit considerably.

Mr. Clarke

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I share his surprise. I suspect that the reaction of Leyland workers will be similar to his and mine when they consider British Aerospace as prospective bidder for their business. It is one of our flagship companies and the major exporter of manufactured goods from this country. It is extraordinary for Opposition Members to imply that it is not a welcome suitor for an extremely important car business.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the Minister reflect on the particular problem of the Rover-owned huge British Leyland site at Bathgate, which until 10 years ago was the biggest machine shop under one roof in Europe? To try to solve that difficult problem, would the Minister arrange for staff from his Department to meet British Aerospace, Rover, West Lothian district council and Lothian regional council before the buildings deteriorate any further?

Mr. Clarke

Bathgate stands rather as a monument to past political decisions on investment made by people who share the industrial logic of Opposition Members. I agree, however, that its closure was something of a disaster, and the redevelopment of the site and the establishment of new industry and employment for the people of the area is extremely important. That is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, but my understanding is that there is indeed a prospect of redevelopment of the former site. I shall check that information, and perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend will be in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that many people, particularly in the west midlands, will be saying that, if the £2.9 billion that was handed out as a subsidy to keep the ailing Rover Group going finds its way into the pockets of the new group — [Interruption.] It will do so eventually. Is the Minister aware that those people may well say that they ought to have some of the money for the National Health Service in the west midlands?

Is the Minister further aware that, if British Aerospace could be fattened up with £400 million before it was sold off, some people might also say that, if they are going to build one of those gull-wing cars, they ought to be asking John De Lorean for some advice?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman must realise that the £2.9 billion is not sitting there as some kind of nest egg put carefully aside by the taxpayer. It has all been lost.

Mr. Corbett

A lot of people want it back.

Mr. Clarke

A lot of people who have lost money want it back, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) points out. But, sad to say, it is not there to be got back. The people of the midlands, as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has said, will no doubt reflect on what might have happened if the money had been available for the Health Service, or indeed for many other purposes.

The point of our present position is that Britain's industrial economy is revising. The Rover Group is reporting improved financial prospects. We have a negotiation in hand that may lead to the return of the Rover Group to the private sector. All this is opening up the prospect of our never again putting taxpayers' money down the drain in the way that we did in the past, to the tune of £2.9 billion.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall endeavour to call hon. Members who have been standing, if they are brief, but I think that we must end these questions by 4.15.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Given the excellent track record of British Aerospace, and despite what has just been said, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that this is potentially excellent news for the west midlands? Is he aware that it is very important that the Rover Group should survive, not least because of the car components industry in the centre of England?

Mr. Clarke

I can assure my hon. Friend that everyone in the Government realises the key importance of the Rover Group to the economy of the west midlands. Our desire throughout has been to try to create a climate in which the Rover Group can return to profitability in due course, and be successful as a car manufacturer. We shall look at the deal from the point of view of the interests of the taxpayer, those of the Rover Group business and everything that flows from that.

It must indeed be very good news in the west midlands that the Rover Group is regarded as a potentially attractive acquisition by British Aerospace, and that serious negotiations can now begin.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

As the satisfied owner of two Austin Rover motor cars—a rarity in the House, perhaps—and also as a pilot, may I say to my right hon. and learned Friend what an ideal merger this seems to me? Does he not agree that the financial strength of British Aerospace, its international marketing expertise and its engineering excellence make it not only the ideal but the No. 1 partner for Austin Rover?

Mr. Clarke

That is certainly the view of the British Aerospace board, and of the Rover Group. I agree that the sales record of Airbus in the civil sector, and that of British Aerospace in the military sector, show that the company is indeed attractive, and that we in this country should be proud of it.

We shall wait to see whether the merger takes place. In other countries, however, mergers between companies of this kind have been successful. I do not think that when General Motors and the Hughes Corporation of America joined up they were impeded by Socialist members of Congress crying out about the industrial logic.

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the Rover Group does not have a cat in hell's chance of succeeding as a separate, individual private company? Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain to the Opposition that the £2.9 billion has gone for ever and that the company can only succeed in the future either under the umbrella of another established company or by being irrevocably linked with the taxpayer's pocket? If the merger talks do not succeed, will my right hon. and learned Friend look actively for other partners to take part in negotiations, so that the Rover Group will have a real chance of an independent future?

Mr. Clarke

I am extremely interested in the views of my hon. Friend, who has a considerable knowledge of the car industry and engineering generally. It is certainly true that British Aerospace is small in comparison with the companies with which it competes — McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, Lockheed and so on. Rover Group is also quite a small company compared with its competitors in western Europe and elsewhere. No doubt size was one of the factors which led the two companies to contemplate entering into the present negotiations. I agree with my hon. Friend that the £2.9 billion has gone and it is a mark of past losses. We do not wish to see any repetition of that scale of loss-making.

Mr. Philip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)

Is it not a tiny little bit ironic that the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), should be whining about supposedly Government-inspired megamergers, when it was a Labour Government in the 1960s who forced together BMC and Leyland in the first place? Does my right hon. and learned Friend not prefer the industrial logic and experience of business men and industrialists to the ludicrous lack of logic of Opposition Members, most of whom have had no industrial experience whatever?

Mr. Clarke

I am entirely horrified by the prospect of the hon. Members for Dagenham and for Great Grimsby getting their heads together and deciding what suitable partners, if any, they would choose for the company. I agree with my hon. Friend that the method that we are now adopting, which is to see how commercial negotiations proceed between the boards of the two companies, is a far more satisfactory route.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

Is it not thoroughly good news that Rover may be teaming up with a British company which spends millions of pounds every year on research and development and which can attach the same importance to the technology of Rover's product development?

Mr. Clarke

It is thoroughly good news, and the deafening silence now apparent on the Opposition Benches suggests that that thought may have occurred to them after the first rather reckless 10 minutes.

Mr. David Evans (Welwyn, Hatfield)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend—

Mr. Nellist

What about the pensions?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has asked his question. He may not have had it fully answered, but he has asked it.

Mr. David Evans

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this is very exciting and positive news? British Aerospace management has the capability and expertise to design, manufacture and sell in major world markets and it will, I hope, make Rover Group a most successful company, certainly equal to British Aerospace.

Mr. Clarke

That certainly could be the outcome of negotiations. I agree with my hon. Friend that, if negotiations come to a successful conclusion, it could represent the beginning of an extremely exciting phase in the business of both companies.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for coming to the House so early to make this announcement. Does he agree that the application of British Aerospace technology and quality control will do much to enhance the recovery of the Rover Group? Does he also agree that the prospects of merger create exciting prospects for employment? As robotics reduces the demand for labour in the car industry, that skilled labour can be actively and beneficially redeployed within the aerospace industry.

Mr. Clarke

As I understand it, British Aerospace is also interested in some of the engineering skills within the Rover Group. What the two companies are exploring is, I believe, the extent to which there is — to use the in phrase—natural synergy between the two businesses that could benefit the companies and prospects for employment within them.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the disadvantages of a board choosing its own bidder is that board members can secure their own positions? Does he agree that the Rover Group board has not exactly covered itself with glory? Would it be an advantage to allow the market to decide—in other words to allow all comers to make a bid at this stage?

Mr. Clarke

In the end, the Government are the owner of 99.8 per cent. of the shares, and we shall have to make our judgment about the sale of the shares subject to the outcome of the negotiations. We will do that at the proper time. I have already said that, if other people wish to come forward with proposals at this time, we shall have to consider them before we come to any final decision. If the current negotiations are unsuccessful, it remains the committed policy of the Government to return the Rover Group to the private sector during the lifetime of this Parliament. If the negotiations are successful, privatisation may come about very early in the lifetime of this Parliament; I am sure that my hon. Friends will welcome that.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, in any deal that may be struck with British Aerospace or any other suitor, an important feature for the taxpayer and the Government should be to ensure that contingent or direct liabilities currently falling upon the taxpayer are removed from the public sector?

Mr. Clarke

Once the business is privatised, we would obviously not be incurring any future liabilities from it. That should come as a considerable relief to the taxpayer, bearing in mind the history of the company, of which, surprisingly enough, Opposition Members keep reminding us during these exchanges.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

To what extent would the pension fund contribution to the balance sheet — referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist)—be a consideration for those who might be interested in this particular deal?

Mr. Clarke

At the moment, what I have announced is the opening of negotiations. The balance sheet is one of those things that must be looked at during the course of negotiations. To the best of my knowledge and belief, no asset in the pension fund played a significant part in the approach from British Aerospace.

Mr. Pat Wall (Bradford, North)

Will the Minister, who trumpets the revival of British industry the day after a £950 million deficit in the balance of payments, explain in more detail his attitude to the use of £80 million of the workers' pension fund to dress up the books of part of a company that had to be rescued from private enterprise in 1975? The books were dressed up to make the company more attractive for privatisation. Will the Minister give a guarantee that when he approves any merger, if it takes place, the workers' pension fund will not be used again for such activity?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman must take up the question of the accounts and the pension fund arrangements with the management of the Rover Group. A pension fund, accumulated as a result of the contributions from the employer and the employee, is used to defray the pension obligations that have been incurred by the company. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in recent years, a number of pension funds have been in surplus. As far as I am aware, the Rover Group has not done anything with its pension fund surplus that is out of line with commercial practice in other companies.

Mr. Gould

Is it not totally unsatisfactory that, throughout the past 37 minutes, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has disclaimed any responsibility for the outcome of the negotiations that he has announced today? Does he not accept that it is not just a matter of market forces and private negotiation? The Government, as the virtual sole owner of the Rover Group, cannot simply shuffle off their responsibilities in this way. Bearing that in mind, what responsibilities does he acknowledge, and how does he propose to discharge them, with regard to such items as the maintenance of employment, the protection of employee rights, including the pension rights mentioned by my hon. Friends, and the crucial maintenace of an investment programme for new models? Does the Minister intend at this stage to wash his hands of those questions, or will he now face up to his responsibilities?

Mr. Clarke

What I have announced today is that serious negotiations are about to start. I have not sought to anticipate the course of those negotiations. Obviously the Government will not come to a judgment about the outcome of the negotiations until they have made more progress and they have been completed.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

Where is the logic in that?

Mr. Clarke

We have the logic mentioned again by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby.

The hon. Member for Dagenham appears to believe that, once we announced the start of negotiations, he, in his wisdom, together with his hon. Friends, should immediately start jumping to their conclusions about various aspects that may or may not be raised. I believe that the Government have acted with the utmost propriety by notifying the House straight away that negotiations are about to start. We are waiting to see what those negotiations will produce and we will judge them at the right time. We shall judge them according to the interests of the taxpayer, Rover Group business and its employees. That is the proper way to proceed. All those who want to behave with a sense of responsibility and who have the genuine interests of the Rover Group and British Aerospace at heart should behave in the same way. I hope that, on reflection, the Opposition will do so.