HC Deb 03 April 2000 vol 347 cc629-42 3.31 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Madam Speaker, I wish to ask a question of which I have given you prior notice.

The future of Rover is becoming a question of the future of the Secretary of State—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady should ask the private notice question, and then reply to the Secretary of State's statement.

Mrs. Browning (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will make a statement about the latest developments in respect of Rover.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers)

I think that we now know the first sentence of the hon. Lady's response to my statement, even before I have made it.

Thousands of individuals and their families have been affected by the decision taken by BMW in relation to Rover. Whole communities also will have to deal with the consequences. Those individuals and their families and communities are the focus of the Government's efforts.

On 16 March, the BMW supervisory board announced that it had entered into an agreement with Alchemy Partners to negotiate for the disposal of Rover Cars within six weeks. The following day, it announced that the heads of agreement had been reached with Ford for the sale of Land Rover, at Solihull. The same day, I established a taskforce involving all the partners in the areas most affected by BMW's decision to advise me on how we can support those affected. The taskforce is led by Alex Stephenson, who himself has personal experience as a former Rover director.

The Longbridge taskforce has three objectives: first, to assess the impact of any reduction in activity at Longbridge on the people, businesses and communities of the region; secondly, to advise on the public and private resources that are already available to help deal with those consequences; and, thirdly, to draw up proposals for action by local partners and by central Government. The taskforce is working hard on an interim report, to be submitted in the next few weeks.

I have asked the taskforce to take a wide remit, looking at what measures it will best use to regenerate the area and to replace economic activity lost at Rover. I have committed £129 million to support the taskforce's recommendations. The taskforce is looking at everything, including the implications for the supply chain and what we can do to support it; at training; and at infrastructure, including transport links. The taskforce has already issued a questionnaire to 5,000 companies, including 450 direct suppliers of Rover, to quantify the scale of impact on the supply chain. It will feed its recommendations in to me.

At this stage, I am not ruling anything out—I shall await the report. I can, however, say that I will do everything we can to encourage job creation and economic activity in the area—not only by stepping up my Department's action on attracting new inward investment to the area, but by supporting the development and growth of home-grown companies.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has taken action to help those affected by any redundancies at Longbridge. The Employment Service has established a unit to offer help and assistance. A jobshop is in place at Longbridge to help those workers affected to find new jobs. Anyone made redundant at Longbridge will qualify for fast-tracking of benefit claims and early access to training and Employment Service programmes such as new deal and jobfinder services.

The taskforce, with the jobshop, has launched a freephone advice hotline, supported by BT, to advise supply chain companies with difficulties and to pool information on vacancies currently available in the car industry. The local training and enterprise council is also looking at specific training to meet the needs of those affected.

On 23 March, I met BMW representatives. We agreed that we needed to look forward and plan for the future. During our discussions, BMW agreed to minimise the job losses resulting from its decision. I explained that we felt it important that BMW should co-operate with the taskforce. BMW responded positively to this proposal.

Over the next few weeks, our objective is to manage the changes that will flow from BMW's decisions in a way that minimises the number of jobs to be lost, whether directly, or indirectly in the supply chain or dealership network. We shall also need to put in place a programme of economic regeneration and job creation.

When I met workers on the assembly line at Longbridge the day after BMW's decision, their anger and shock were clear, but so were their commitment and strength of character. The west midlands has come through difficult times in the past. I am confident that the area will do so again. The Government will do all that we can to ensure that together we can meet the challenges that lie ahead.

Mrs. Browning

In the seven months since the Secretary of State announced the deal that he had brokered at Rover-BMW, he has failed to come to the House to make a statement, despite many requests—not just during the crisis—from the Conservative party, to get him to answer questions. It is clear that he knew in December that Rover was in jeopardy. Only last Wednesday, when asked by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister refused to deny that BMW told the Secretary of State in December: We may have to reconsider our whole investment in Britain altogether. The details of the Secretary of State's meetings and discussions have been the subject of a cover-up. If the situation that faces BMW-Rover is now a crisis, it has been exacerbated by the way in which the Secretary of State has dealt with the matter. His incompetence has added to the turmoil in which the company finds itself today.

Last Thursday, the Secretary of State briefed the press about the detail, having refused only that morning to brief the House. He doctored the facts that he gave to the press. He refused to tell the House the details. The Secretary of State has been negligent. On the fate of Rover, he knew it and he blew it.

Will he undertake to publish today all the details of meetings, minutes and phone calls between his Department and BMW-Rover, to give the House and the Select Committee on Trade and Industry the fullest information? Will he answer the question that he refused to answer last Thursday: when was he first aware that Rover was in trouble? What was the first date on which Rover-BMW suggested that the company was in difficulty?

Is it true, as reported in The Sunday Times, that the chairman of BMW told the Secretary of State on 22 December that Rover was "in critical survival mode" and "in serious trouble"? What action did he take in response? What action did he take when he heard that the European Union grant was in difficulty? Does he want to correct anything that he has told the House or the public to date about how he has supposedly managed the BMW-Rover deal?

Is the Secretary of State disturbed by the fact that the Prime Minister clearly no longer has any confidence in him? We do not want semantics: the Prime Minister made it quite clear last week that he believed that a telephone conversation had taken place on 22 December between the Secretary of State and BMW, yet last Thursday, the Secretary of State clung to the idea that the date was 20 December. We want to know whether it was 20 or 22 December. The workers at Rover want to know.

On behalf of thousands of workers and suppliers who will lose their jobs, we want answers and we want them now. We want to know today whether the Secretary of State will resign in recognition of his incompetence and negligence or whether he will leave the people at Longbridge under a stewardship that is not only incompetent but that, on many occasions, has failed to produce the truth when it has been asked for?

Mr. Byers

Unlike the hon. Lady, I have spoken directly to the assembly-line workers at Longbridge. I know who is on their side, and it is not her. That is the reality.

Among the rhetoric, the hon. Lady asked some specific questions, to each of which I shall give clear answers. I hope that she will listen carefully. She repeats the mistaken allegation first made in the House last Wednesday by the Leader of the Opposition, when he said that the chairman of BMW, Professor Milberg, had said in our telephone conversation that BMW may have to reconsider our whole investment in Britain altogether.—[Official Report, 29 March 2000; Vol. 347, c. 333.] I am pleased to say that last Thursday Professor Milberg made a statement. He said—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The Opposition asked for this private notice question. They might now listen to the answers.

Mr. Byers

Professor Milberg had seen the Leader of the Opposition's comments, so he had to go public. He said: Concerning the requested state aid for Longbridge…I never said that the BMW group may have to reconsider its whole investment in Great Britain altogether. The chairman of BMW made that statement on the record because he was worried about media reports that had been supported and restated by the Leader of the Opposition.

More interesting are the hon. Lady's points about the decision taken by BMW. She implied that the decision had been taken last year to pull out of Rover and the United Kingdom. We now have the benefit of the evidence given last week by Professor Samann, head of Rover in the United Kingdom, to the Select Committee. He said: "We"had to tell the public and dealers until the end of February that we would like to continue the business. The decision not to continue the business was made between 1 March and 16 March. There we have it. A conversation was conducted between me and Professor Milberg on 22 December. A decision had not been taken at that stage. Professor Samann made the point very clearly.

The hon. Lady asks a precise question: when did I know that Rover was in trouble? We have all known that it has been in trouble for a long time. In fact, I heard someone behind me say that it had been in trouble since before I was born, so we all know the situation, but, as the Chairman of the Select Committee said last week, it takes a leap of the imagination to go from a company being in trouble to a company deciding to dispose of Rover. That is the reality of the situation.

We now know that no decision was taken by BMW to dispose of Rover before 1 March this year. There was no indication that it was to pull out of Rover. That, too, is the reality of the situation. It is now about time that the hon. Lady and other Conservative Members stopped playing party politics and put the interests of the workers of Longbridge first.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

Is it not a fact that the people of Longbridge, the workers of Rover and, indeed, everyone else, were assured by BMW that it was in for the long term? It was not just in words. New plant for the new Mini was still going in at the very time that BMW made the announcement; indeed, work was still going on last week.

Is it not important that we look to the future? Is that not the real issue in the interests of workers at Longbridge and elsewhere? After the huge rally in Birmingham on Saturday, does not a message need to go to BMW that it is not acceptable to trade away the future of entire communities in secret boardroom deals, and that the long-term interests of its employees and the communities that rely on Rover must be a central part of its decisions and negotiations in coming weeks?

BMW should consider all credible potential bidders. The long-term interests of those communities should be one of its central considerations. Will the Secretary of State back the people of Longbridge and all Rover workers in asking for those things to be done?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate for the work force at Longbridge. I will certainly take his important points into account.

My hon. Friend touches on the decision by BMW to continue in January and February with the investment in the Mini at Longbridge, a clear sign that it was committed to Rover and to the UK. Running alongside that were further signs. BMW had a team working with the Department of Trade and Industry to submit the application for European Union aid, which went in on 24 February. It called together its UK Rover dealers and encouraged them to invest in new showrooms for the future. At the Geneva motorshow on 28 February, Professor Milberg said: We are committed and steadfast to Rover in the United Kingdom. There were all those public demonstrations, which every reasonable person would have assumed meant that BMW and Rover were in for the long haul. That is the reality of the situation. There was no indication that it intended to pull out of Rover and the UK.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

May I first express solidarity and support for the workers of the west midlands, whose livelihoods, despite the valuable measures that the Government have announced, look extremely bleak, particularly for the older and more specialised workers?

The following point is probably the only one with which the Secretary of State will agree. Does he not agree that it is pathetic for the Conservative Opposition to launch an amateur detective story about who said what to whom—almost certainly because of their inability to deal with the fundamental issues affecting manufacturing and the motor car industry as a result of their ideologically driven belief that the exchange rate, which is the price at which British manufacturers compete overseas, should always be set in the free market, and that the British economy should be delinked from the euro area, in which the British motor industry is so heavily integrated?

I have a specific question for the Secretary of State. Given how much British industry and manufacturing depend on foreign investment in this country, does he now regret that he cast doubt on the good faith of the German manufacturers, and does he doubt the wisdom of those of his ministerial colleagues who attacked the trustworthiness of foreign investors in general?

Finally, has the right hon. Gentleman rethought his belief that manufacturers considered the exchange rate to be an excuse, in light of statements from Honda, Ford, the engineering union and the CBI that the exchange rate is absolutely fundamental to the industry's competitiveness?

Mr. Byers

A number of manufacturers—including some that export into Europe—have raised with the Government the question of the relative strength of sterling against European currencies. However, it is worth re-stating that the pound has remained at par against the dollar for five or six years, and that it has depreciated in value against the Japanese yen. That leads one to think that there must be economic reform in continental Europe if those currencies are to strengthen against the pound. I happen to believe, as does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that the agreement secured at Lisbon 10 days or so ago will go a long way towards achieving that economic reform.

Interestingly, however, a number of manufacturers are being very successful, even in these difficult times. Although Honda has raised concerns about the strength of sterling, it decided 10 days ago to invest in a new plant at Swindon, which will employ 1,000 people. We heard on Saturday that Honda was planning to reduce production levels. The great irony is that that was somehow interpreted as a bad-news story, even though Honda had stated very clearly that the reduction was due to the installation of an assembly line for the new model car being developed at Swindon. There is good news in the manufacturing sector, and it is about time that people recognised that.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)

I thank my right hon. Friend for explaining clearly the role and responsibilities of the taskforce, and how it is to be funded, as much of the hopes of the people of the west midlands depend on it at this time. However, to end the paranoia of the second-rate Miss Marples on the Opposition Front Bench—

Madam Speaker

Order. That description is quite unnecessary, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will rethink it.

Mr. O'Neill

I am sorry, Madam Speaker, if that description caused gratuitous offence. I thought a reference to one of Agatha Christie's minor detectives was not inappropriate.

Madam Speaker

I know exactly who the hon. Gentleman means, but quite frankly his reference causes me offence.

Mr. O'Neill

In that case, I withdraw it without reservation, Madam Speaker.

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State save the House time and, before the end of business today, place in the Library of the House copies of the conversations that he has had with Professor Milberg?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend is Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and I certainly intend to supply the Select Committee with those details before its hearing on Wednesday. I will also make those details public more generally, provided that BMW agrees.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

The Secretary of State will know that 1,500 workers at the Longbridge factory live in my constituency. I represent them, and their jobs are directly affected by the company's decision. They, and others in the west midlands, are not impressed by the headless chicken act performed by Labour Members who are determined to blame only BMW for the problems at the plant, even though most of the failure is due to the Government's economic management and the Secretary of State's failure to get an EU loan in time for the investment to be approved.

The right hon. Gentleman said earlier that it required a leap of imagination to know that the factory was in trouble, but Professor Milberg has insisted that he told the Department that if structural aid is not approved, the BMW Group has to reconsider its investment plans for the R30 at Longbridge. Does not the Secretary of State know that car making at Longbridge, in volume terms, depends entirely on the R30? Without the R30, there is no long-term future for volume car making at Longbridge. If he does not know that, he is either naive or ignorant. Either way, it is his fault that Longbridge now faces an uncertain future.

Mr. Byers

On occasions such as this, there will be comments such as those. It is probably more beneficial to the House to see what BMW has said about those matters.

The hon. Lady raises an important point about European aid. Let me quote from Professor Samann's evidence before the Select Committee on Trade and Industry last week, with specific reference to aid. He said: There is no direct relationship between the grant aid issue and the situation now of us selling the Rover cars and the Land Rover business…We never mentioned that the grant aid deal would lead to a survival of Rover or would be absolutely necessary for Rover. When asked specifically whether the aid last June would have made a difference, Professor Samann said: We would be in exactly the same position.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, given the promises made earlier by BMW and throughout the piece, it has used the veneer of commercial confidentiality as a cover for treachery? That is all that I can see has happened. The Secretary of State negotiated, spoke and exchanged information honestly, while not all the cards were on the table, which should not happen in international dealings of this kind.

Will my right hon. Friend further accept that Renault in France is a highly successful, light-touch state-owned industry, and that any option that we look for in Britain should not rule out the possibility of European alliances with successful car companies such as Renault? Will he give an undertaking today—given that my constituency is also in trouble with regard to the Goodyear plant, and with 100 more jobs going at the Lucas plant—that he will keep an open mind and consider every option, particularly if it keeps a British hand on Rover and lets it find stronger, better markets than it has so far been able to do?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend has already privately raised with me his concerns about the situation at Goodyear. We are engaging with the company to see what help we might to be able to give to overcome the difficulties that Goodyear may have.

On the possibility of European restructuring and consolidation, much of that has already taken place. We know, for example, that Renault has gone into a partnership with Nissan. We know that there is overproduction in the European car market, which is bound to lead to further restructuring. The only way in which the change that we are witnessing will bring benefits and new opportunities is if we can manage that change. It is a matter of great regret, as far as BMW and Rover are concerned, that because the Government were not involved, we never had the opportunity of taking BMW through the arguments and the debate about what steps it should have taken and, in the process, putting the needs of the community in the west midlands and the individuals affected first.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

I declare an interest as a member of the Rover taskforce. Should not great credit be given to the workers at Longbridge who have worked hard to reverse the previous reputation of the plant? Will the Secretary of State confirm that whatever happens, they will provide an invaluable skilled resource in the west midlands? In that regard, can he say whether in his talks with BMW, any assurance has been given that production at Longbridge will continue, at whatever level, until the sale of the company has been completed?

Mr. Byers

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for agreeing to serve as a member of the taskforce. Its deliberations will be enhanced by his presence.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the improvements in productivity at Longbridge. The figures that I saw showed that in just over 12 months, there was a 24 per cent. improvement in productivity from Longbridge workers. I have no doubt that in the months ahead that will stand them in good stead. They have shown real commitment and dedication to trying to turn Longbridge around.

In discussions with me, BMW has been guarded about negotiations with Alchemy Partners. It has made a commitment that no action will be taken before negotiations are completed, which provides some reassurance. However, job losses appear likely at Longbridge and the precise figures depend on the negotiations between BMW and Alchemy Partners. That is why it was important to have BMW give an assurance that it would do all that it could in those negotiations to minimise job losses.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South)

May I tell my right hon. Friend that we in the west midlands are not saft? We know that the blame for Rover lies with BMW, which has betrayed midlands workers at Longbridge.

Miss Kirkbride

Your Government.

Mr. Pearson

If the hon. Members for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) had been at the march on Saturday, they would have seen the men, women and young children who are worried about their future livelihoods. That might have made them start to talk some of the common sense in which their party is supposed to believe. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove should take a leaf out of the book of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) and be a little more constructive in trying to find solutions that will help people.

Mr. Byers


Hon. Members


Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend made an important point, as always. Difficult decisions and questions lie ahead, and the answers will affect individual workers, their families and the whole community of the west midlands. The people of the west midlands know where responsibility lies. An understanding was reached between the work force, the Government and BMW that, up to 2002, BMW would make losses, but would bear them and move on to break even. On that basis, we were prepared to give a commitment to provide £152 million. On that basis, working practices at Longbridge changed and productivity improved directly. That is why we all feel so badly let down—I should not be more intemperate than that, Madam Speaker—by the decisions taken in the dark by BMW without consultation or prior discussion.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

Is the Secretary of State able to say more about the security of retirement pensions for former Rover employees, particularly former employers of Land Rover in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)?

Mr. Byers

I understand the concern felt by individuals at Land Rover or Longbridge about the possible effects of decisions by new owners. We have held discussions with BMW, and with Ford, which is likely to be the new owner of Land Rover at Solihull. BMW gave me assurances about pensions being protected at a meeting on 24 March. We must continue to revisit the point as it is clearly a cause of concern for existing workers and former employees who rely on the pension. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) will doubtless continue to raise the matter, and I welcome that. We shall certainly continue to do all that we can to ensure security for those who receive a pension from Rover and BMW.

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East)

I, too, represent a constituency in which thousands of workers will be affected by the decision taken on Rover. They and their families do not look forward to facing problems in the weeks and months ahead when many of them will be laid off. I want to say to the Opposition—[Interruption.] I hope that this will be the last time that we shall hear an issue as important as Rover raised in the way in which they have raised it today. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ask a question."] May I ask—

Madam Speaker

Order. This is a very emotive issue. Members know that thousands of their constituents may be laid off. I understand the emotion felt by many Members, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to put a question to the Secretary of State. That is what private notice questions are all about.

Mr. Turner

I want to ask the Secretary of State not to rule out any possibilities; I know that he has said from the Dispatch Box today that he will not rule any out. I hope that the Government will keep an open mind on any situation that might arise where a proactive response from the Government is needed to save many of the jobs that are currently involved.

I hope that the Government will listen to the people who were with us on Saturday's demonstration, marching and telling us what they want of this House of Commons and of this Government; and I hope that the Opposition will be more positive in future, and speak on behalf of those families, as Labour Members do.

Mr. Byers

We have no intention of walking away from this problem. This Government will discharge their responsibilities to the people of the west midlands and those individuals directly affected by BMW's decision. A number of economic regeneration programmes are already in place; these can be used as they provide a range of initiatives, which may well be appropriate to the situation that we now face at Longbridge.

I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that we do not rule out any of the proposals that might emerge from the taskforce. We need a comprehensive programme of economic regeneration and job creation. In the long term, that will be the only way forward for those affected by BMW's decisions.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

The Secretary of State said in his statement that he would like to support the affected communities, so how does he think they feel when they see that he was prepared to offer BMW £152 million of state aid but that he has offered the significantly lower sum of f129 million for the rescue package for the west midlands?

Mr. Byers

The £129 million that I have pledged is the Government's contribution towards the £152 million. The remainder is made up of a local package, and I hope that the local partners might feel able to make a contribution in kind to take us up to £152 million.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I am among those who have constituents affected by BMW's betrayal, both directly and among the component manufacturers and suppliers. However, may I say to my right hon. Friend that Jaguar demonstrates that, on the back of real commitment and sustained long-term investment, the motor industry in Birmingham and the west midlands can succeed and is succeeding? To overcome this particular problem, will he consider adding, let us say, £20 million to the budget for the objective 2 status money for the west midlands, to give the taskforce time to come up with plans and proposals to ease the impact of this blow?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend refers to the great success story that is Jaguar—nearby Peugeot has also been extremely successful—demonstrating that the car industry is strong in the United Kingdom. He raises the point about additional funding for the taskforce. The £129 million has been an immediate reaction to the needs of the taskforce—money which we had identified for alternative purposes. Of course, if good programmes come forward from the taskforce, we shall reconsider whether additional resources need to be made available.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

May I push the Secretary of State on that last answer? As I understand it, the £152 million was a sum negotiated between the Government and BMW for the aid for the investment at Longbridge, and now the Secretary of State has arbitrarily plucked that figure out of the air as a sum necessary to fund the taskforce's recommendations. May I press him urgently to say that if the taskforce—about which I have serious reservations, not because of some of its members but because of its leadership—comes forward with a workmanlike programme, additional money will be available, if necessary, to undo the disaster at Longbridge?

Mr. Byers

The £129 million was available to be committed immediately because it was money that was tied to BMW's further investment in the R30 at Longbridge. Given BMW's decision to dispose of Longbridge to Alchemy Partners, that was money that was then freed up, so I can make an immediate commitment of that funding to the taskforce. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), if good proposals emerge from the taskforce that require additional funding, £129 million is not a cap; we can of course go higher if there are good proposals coming forward that will assist the economic regeneration of, and job creation in, the west midlands.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

With two notable exceptions, Conservative Members are seeking to make cheap political capital out of this issue. Their remarks do not reflect how we are feeling in the west midlands.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance that he will do all that he can to bring additional resources and new industries to the area. Will he consider holding talks with the banks and the building societies so that Rover workers and their families are spared the additional concern of losing their homes as well as their jobs?

Mr. Byers

I can fully understand the concerns of those who might be affected by a redundancy programme about how they will pay their mortgages. My hon. Friend has already raised with me the issue of trying to get the banks and the building societies to look sympathetically on people who might have short-term difficulties. Certainly, we are prepared to do that, and the taskforce will consider specifically what help can be given to firms in the supply chain to overcome cash-flow problems that many of them will have as a result of BMW's decisions in relation to Longbridge. Those are practical measures that we are putting in place. We are not being distracted from our course by the smoke and the political arguments from the Conservative party. We are committed to putting the interests of those workers and their families first and we will continue to do that. They have to be the focus of our attention at present.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

The Secretary of State has failed to deliver a crucial grant to Rover, he has upset BMW, he has upset the new owners of Rover and he has put off many people who were thinking of buying cars. It is diplomatic incompetence on a scale that the Foreign Secretary would be proud of.

Will the Secretary of State answer a simple question today? Should an individual wanting to buy a new car in this country delay their purchase for longer in the belief that the right hon. Gentleman will force further cuts in car prices, or not? The right hon. Gentleman's indecision about car prices and his incompetence about the grant is destroying Rover and is destroying the British motor industry. He has made the dog's breakfast of it. Will he now go before it gets worse?

Mr. Byers

There is a delicious irony in such an anti-European trying to make a political comeback out of the actions of a German car company. That is what is happening and people will see it for what it is. I tell Conservative Members that I feel far more secure in my post than the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) feels in hers.

On the right hon. Gentleman's specific point, I make no apology for having referred the question of car prices to the Competition Commission on the advice of the Director General of Fair Trading. We will respond to its findings within the 10-week administrative period that is laid down and we will respond before Easter. We will put the interests of consumers first for the simple reason that strong and assertive consumers build strong companies. That is the American experience; it now needs to be the British experience as well.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

May I remind my hon. Friend that, when the former Tory Prime Minister was asked about the sale by British Aerospace of Rover to BMW, he said that that was not a matter for him? In contrast, may I welcome this Government's immediate action in setting up the taskforce and making £129 million available, and my right hon. Friend's assurances that additional money will be made available if it is needed?

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will give every possible support to any credible alternative to the Alchemy deal that will maintain volume car production at Longbridge, and that he will encourage BMW to co-operate with any such proposal? Will he also consider whether it might be appropriate to strengthen the rights of British workers, so that they are not always the first to be made redundant when European and multinational car companies seek to cut back?

Mr. Byers

What is interesting in this case is that there is a European works council for Longbridge and the workers at Rover, but it was not consulted as part of the process, so clearly there are flaws in the existing structure.

On an alternative to Alchemy Partners, the Government have made it clear that if Rover has to be sold, and Longbridge has to be part of that sale, we want a new owner who is committed to maintaining the maximum number of jobs and to maintaining car production. That is the objective that we have set ourselves, and we hope that someone may come forward to achieve that. However, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, Professor Samann said in his evidence to the Select Committee last week that at present Alchemy Partners is the only show in town.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Why, in respect of the tragedy that has befallen Longbridge, has the Secretary of State been so dilatory in appearing in Parliament to brief us about the awful events at Longbridge? What lessons has he learned from the dismal, negligent way in which he has handled this matter, in respect of the hard and heavy rumours that are emanating from Ford at Dagenham?

Mr. Byers

The hon. Gentleman may like to base his decision making on rumours and speculation; I would much rather base my decision making on answers that I receive to clear questions. When I have asked BMW clear questions, I have received clear, precise replies, but none of them indicated, or even hinted, that the disposal of Rover was one of the options that it was considering. That is the reality. I am looking forward to giving evidence before the Select Committee on Wednesday, when I will have a further opportunity to go through, in detail, exactly what was said when and where.

I can understand why Opposition Members are on this detective chase: one, because they have no policies of their own which would deal with a situation such as this; and two, because they do not care about the impact on the individuals and communities affected. It is worth reminding ourselves that they are the party which in the early 1990s presided over an economic situation in which millions of manufacturing jobs were lost, tens of thousands of them in the west midlands. We shall not repeat those mistakes.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Secretary of State aware that everybody outside knows that the responsibility for this tragedy rests with BMW, and not with the Government, and therefore the attempt to make capital out of it carries no weight? At the same time, however, this is a catastrophe because some of the greatest skills in British manufacturing could be lost, and communities could be destroyed. Those of us who represented mining areas know exactly what that is like.

Are not there lessons to be learned from this to which the Government should turn their attention? Is it right that our industrial future should rest in the hands of foreign companies without any requirement from the Government to oblige them to enter into agreements with them of a kind that have been contemplated in the past?

Is it not a fact that the exchange rate, although perhaps not the only consideration, was a serious consideration in this case? I know of a potential closure in my constituency where the exchange rate was the dominant consideration. Is it prudent to have a financial policy that endangers manufacturing? Would not it be right for the Government to offer support by way of investment in shares in companies, so as to get a commitment to manufacturing?

After Harland and Wolff, Dagenham and now, possibly, Honda, is it not clear that there needs to be a plainer statement of commitment by the Government not only to workers in difficulty but to the maintenance of manufacturing industry in Britain, on which our whole past strength was built and our future depends?

Mr. Byers

I agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of manufacturing to the United Kingdom economy. The Government have already taken a number of steps to support manufacturing. There are many great successes in UK manufacturing, and the great danger when we face particular problems, whether at Harland and Wolff or, in this case, with BMW's decision about Rover, is that we will lose sight of those success stories. The manufacturing sector can learn from the strengths that exist. The skills and innovation in the UK need to be developed because that is where our future prosperity lies.

Great insecurity is felt at a time of globalisation, and there is a role to be played by Government, but I do not think that it is the role identified by my right hon. Friend. We can manage a process of change and lead people through it, but we cannot dictate the way in which multinational companies make commercial decisions. Inward investment has brought great benefits to the United Kingdom and created hundreds of thousands of jobs. We should not adopt a kneejerk reaction to events at Longbridge, because immediate steps which appear attractive at the time might lead to our no longer being a country that is attractive to inward investment. That would deny opportunities to many hundreds of thousands of people who are currently employed by companies that could have chosen to go anywhere in the world, but chose to come to the United Kingdom.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

What did the Secretary of State say to the chairman of BMW on 22 December?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

"Good morning"?

Mr. Byers

I did not say "Good morning"—or "Gluten Morgen" for that matter. I said that the grant aid would be subject to an investigation that would take four to five months; he replied that that was disappointing and that he would have to report it to his board. The conversation was all about investing in the R30 model, which is the new investment that BMW had planned for the Longbridge site.

It is interesting that, after our conversation, the chairman set up a team at BMW that worked with my Department to make a submission to the European Commission in support of the European aid; it was submitted on 24 February. Most important, the company continued its investment in the Mini: I believe that members of the Select Committee who visited Longbridge last week saw that, until a few weeks ago, the Mini assembly line was being installed at Longbridge, and it remains there. Those are clear indications that BMW was committed to Longbridge until, as Professor Samann said last week, 1 to 16 March this year, when the decision was taken to pull out.