HL Deb 19 February 1986 vol 471 cc632-7

3.39 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to repeat in the form of a Statement the reply to a Private Notice Question on British Leyland being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The Statement is as follows:

"As I told the House on Monday other proposals for the future of the Land-Rover, Freight Rover and Leyland Trucks businesses, which are the subject of current discussions between British Leyland and General Motors, would be considered on their commercial merits. I named those who were willing to have their interests made public. Since then there has been no material change in the position.

"As I said on Monday, it is in the interests of all concerned in the industry that these negotiations should come to a successful end as soon as they conceivably can, so that damaging uncertainty can be removed. Accordingly, those companies indicating an interest in one or more of these businesses have been asked by the British Leyland board to indicate by 4th March whether they have a firm intention to make an offer".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for that reply to a Private Notice Question which was asked in another place. Is it not a fact that this deadline of 4th March to which the noble Lord referred was known as far back as 14th February last? Why could not the Government come to the House then and say what the deadline was? Will the noble Lord also confirm that these discussions with GM have been going along for nine months? Will the noble Lord say whether these matters have been brought before the full Cabinet during that period of time? My information is to the contrary. Will the noble Lord also confirm the statement made in another place only last evening by the Minister responsible? I quote: I have always understood that the House was sovereign; the House has total and complete control over what happens. If the House decides to go in a particular direction, that is the decision of the House".—[Official Report, Commons, 18/2/86; col. 291.] Will the noble Lord therefore confirm, as was said in another place last evening, that before any decision is arrived at, and before anything is finalised, Parliament will be consulted and parliamentary consent will be obtained? While the noble Lord is pondering that, will he please bear in mind and convey to his colleagues in the Government that it is open to the next government by Act of Parliament to alter the 30-year rule in order that these murky matters over the past few months can be thoroughly exhumed?

Lord Ezra

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for his Statement, I should like to ask him whether the Government have fully realised the growing concern at these developments in relation to Britain's motor industry and to our manufacturing industry. This is in no way to suggest that when circumstances are right parts of enterprises should not be disposed of and, indeed, foreign interests could well be involved. But what is happening here seems to indicate that a serious weakness could result in the whole of the British manufacturing scene.

Can there not be more of a partnership in these arrangements to ensure that we safeguard British manufacturing interests as well as benefit from whatever foreign interests might bring to bear on the scene? The concern is that if these essential parts of British Leyland, and in particular the potentially very successful Land-Rover part of British Leyland, fall into the hands of a multi-national company, which for prefectly good reasons might vary the emphasis of its operations from year to year, from one country to another in which it operates, this could lead to serious difficulties for the British motor industry and its employees.

Without in any way restricting the commercial freedom of British Leyland I hope that the Minister can give us some assurance that these national interests are being considered, and that in any arrangement made for the disposal of these assets we shall be seeking to ensure that employees, management and the public in general will be safeguarded against the possibility of the dilution of a major segment of our manufacturing sector.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for their receipt of this Statement. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, I can confirm that the General Motors negotiations have been going on for some time—something like nine months. Indeed I think there has been public knowledge of these matters, certainly reported in the press, for a considerably longer period. With regard to the deadline of 4th March, this is a matter which the board of British Leyland has decided upon as being in the best interests of its company, its dealers and its workforce—in fact, all those involved—so that any uncertainty may be limited.

I cannot answer the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, about what goes on in Cabinet because I am not privy to those matters. What I can say is that my Secretary of State in the Department of Trade and Industry has no proposals with regard to British Leyland at this time to put before his Cabinet colleagues. With regard to any decision in relation to General Motors or any other bidder for any part of British Leyland businesses, certainly those matters will be reported to Parliament.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who describes his view of a partnership in the motor industry. Perhaps I could remind the noble Lord that the United Kingdom motor vehicle industry has had a partnership since the 1920s with General Motors, and as I have reported on both 3rd February and 17th February both British Leyland and the Government will be ensuring that the very interests that the noble Lord mentions are taken care of in any negotiations with any company with regard to the acquisition of parts of British Leyland.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in circumstances like this the one thing that is a killer is uncertainty? For that reason the suggestion to put a deadline on people who say they might be interested to make their decisions early in March is absolutely right. From the point of view of the workforce, the ownership of the shares comes second—a very poor second—to having an efficient, competitive industry with which to work, and in removing the uncertainty you are moving in that direction. People who are interested in delaying it for what are often pure party political reasons should be completely ignored.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls for underlining what I have sought to say, now for the third time since 3rd February. I am most grateful to him.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, having regard to the noble Lord's statement that what he indicates from the Government is in the interest of all industry, what measures do the Government propose to introduce to safeguard the interests—the very important interests, the international interests—in intellectual property rights not only belonging to the company but also in regard to the rights of employees? I apologise to the noble Lord the Minister for not giving him notice of my question, but if he cannot answer it today perhaps he can answer it at some other time.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran. He will know very much better than I the safeguards for intellectual property rights. We seek in all negotiations assurances from General Motors in this case, and from others who are negotiating with British Leyland, with regard to British content, trade marks, names and the like. The noble Lord will himself know that in law there is a time limitation in respect of all such assurances.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, what arrangements are being made to consult the workforce, in view of the fact that the opinions of the workforce were held to be of significance in the Westland affair?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, as soon as British Leyland has reached some conclusion in this matter it will have something to discuss with the workforce. At the moment, albeit that negotiations are at an advanced stage with one company, there is nothing to discuss in detail with the workforce.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, accepting the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, concerning an early decision in this matter, does the Minister not accept that General Motors has been involved in negotiations for nine months? A deadline has been set for British and other interests to indicate their interests by 4th March. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be adequate time thereafter to assess and evaluate the bids that may be forthcoming from other interests?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. As my honourable friend the Minister of State said in another place, the negotiations with General Motors are a long way down the track. That has not precluded other people, over many months, putting proposals to British Leyland, since it was a declared objective of the Government to return British Leyland to the private sector as soon as possible. The board has not set any time limit by which completion of its considerations shall be made, so there is adequate time for the board to give consideration to any offer that is made by 4th March.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that there is consternation generally throughout the country, on both sides of industry, and in the City, about the large portions of British industry that are now passing into the control of the United States of America? That situation could be very serious for our future. If there should be any grievous slump, I cannot imagine for one moment that any responsible American would see to it that Americans will suffer first, before the British or anyone else.

Will the Minister explain the attitude of the Prime Minister, who, during the Westland issue, seemed to indicate that everything should be left to market forces, whereas she is now on record as saying that British Leyland should go to the Americans? Is the Minister aware that it is causing grave consternation that the head of the Government should be favouring another Government taking over control of a part of British industry?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I have made it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, and to others in the exchanges that we have had that the long-term interests of the truck and bus industry in this country and of those who work in it are of major concern to us. So far as General Motors is concerned, it has demonstrated since 1920 its interest in being part of the British manufacturing scene. We seek long-term benefits for those employed in the truck industry, and we seek to do that by considering every offer made that will advance those interests.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, will the Minister answer the question put by my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington? If he cannot do so—and one sympathises with the Minister for having to speak without the knowledge required—then perhaps he will have a word with his neighbour, the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. Is he aware that this morning his right honourable friend the former Minister of Defence, Mr. Michael Heseltine, stated publicly that during his period in the Cabinet this issue was never once raised and that he knew nothing of it? How does it come about that negotiations concerning the disposal of a British company owned by the Government on behalf of the British people are conducted for nine months without the matter ever coming before the Cabinet?

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, since the noble Lord decided to put his question to me—and so did the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington—then I am entitled to say this. Perhaps I am becoming increasingly old-fashioned, but I have always understood that what went on in Cabinet was a matter of confidentiality. That is a principle that I shall maintain as long as I live, and I intend to do it now.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, it is not I who is breaking confidentiality. If anyone has broken it, surely it is the noble Viscount's ex-colleague as a member of the Cabinet. I was simply quoting a former member of the Cabinet who stated this morning that the question had never come before the Cabinet during the period of nearly seven years that he was a member of it.

Viscount Whitelaw

Very well, my Lords—that simply reinforces my point. I am not interested in what other people say. I am interested in what I myself believe to be correct and was brought up to believe, which is what Members in all parts of this House have been brought up to believe: that if one is a member of the Cabinet one treats its proceedings with confidentiality. That I shall do as long as I remain in public life, and long afterwards.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, as the noble Viscount has been so forthcoming, will he be kind enough to answer a question of mine that his noble friend did not answer? Is it still the position of the Government as a whole that, as stated by the Minister in another place last night, Parliament is sovereign in these matters and that Parliament will be consulted before a decision is taken? Is that still the position of Her Majesty's Government?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, my noble friend answered that question. He said that naturally any such decision will be reported to Parliament. It is perfectly obvious that if a decision is reported to Parliament then it will be open to Parliament thereafter to take any such action as it may wish to take. That has been the position for a long time, and it must remain so.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that as far as all of us on these Benches are concerned we wish to support him to the end, utterly and completely, in the attitude that he has just expressed with regard to the disclosure of Cabinet discussions in the interests of good government? Having regard to that, and on a much less serious note. I invite the noble Lord the Minister to reconsider his answer when he said that he could not disclose what went on in Cabinet because he was not privy to it. I hope that it was only in the interests of not detaining the House at length that the Minister did not go on to say, "Nor would I if I were!".

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond.