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Sir Malcolm Thornton (Crosby): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ingram: No. The hon. Gentleman was not here for the whole debate, and as a local Member of Parliament he should have been.

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In case Conservative Members have forgotten, I want to remind the House of what has happened to manufacturing jobs. When the Government took office in 1979, there were 6.6 million jobs in the manufacturing sector in Britain; by December 1995, that had fallen to fewer than 4 million. Each year, 172,000 people were thrown on the scrap heap in pursuit of a failed and destructive policy.

What happened in the United Kingdom generally was visited on Merseyside with a vengeance. In 1983, more than 650,000 people were employed in manufacturing on Merseyside; nearly 200,000 of those jobs were lost by 1996. Today, there are 10 people chasing every job on Merseyside. There is little hope of finding alternative employment for those thrown out of work, no matter how skilled or talented they may be. Long-term unemployment is, sadly, a fact of life on Merseyside. It scars the community and damages its social fabric.

We need a united approach to Ford's closure announcement for Halewood and its proposals for the long-term future of its other operations in the UK. We all recognise that Ford is important to the UK, but set against that is the fact that the UK has been important to Ford, which has done well out of us in terms of grant aid over the years, and has been provided with a strong home market for its products and a base for its export activities.

We all want the relationship to continue, so we must look for ways in which to preserve Ford's presence in the UK at a higher and more definite level than the company currently projects. That is why the Labour party should be kept fully informed of the Government's discussions with Ford. After all, the Labour party may be in government in a few weeks' time.

The Minister for Industry (Mr. Greg Knight) indicated dissent.

Mr. Ingram: It is no good the Minister dismissing that by claiming that discussions with the company are confidential. We all know that, but the problem can be got round on Privy Council terms. If it was good enough for the Deputy Prime Minister to beat a path to the door of the Leader of the Opposition about the Greenwich millennium project, surely the current negotiations with Ford should be given at least the same priority.

The negotiations will cross over a general election period; the Government may fall, and the responsibility would then pass to an incoming Labour Government. Thousands of jobs are at stake and the car manufacturing base on Merseyside is at long-term risk. It is therefore important for the Government to get it right, which they could do by showing willingness to be inclusive and to put the country's interests before their political survival.

There can be no question about the fact that Ford has been planning its global strategy for some time. The moves it is making are born not of panic and short-termism but of what it considers its strategic need to respond to new markets and new competitors. There is strong evidence that the German and Spanish Governments have been closely involved with Ford in looking for ways of meeting that need. The same cannot be said for the UK Government.

It would clearly be wrong to overstate the power of Governments to influence corporate decisions or investment strategies, but they can have an effect if they

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try hard enough and early enough. The Spanish and the Germans have been doing that. We need to know when the Department of Trade and Industry first became involved with Ford, and what efforts it made to retain the new Escort model for the production facility at Halewood. The Minister should tell us today.

This debate will be studied not only on Merseyside but elsewhere; it will be examined by others who work in the automotive and manufacturing industries. They will want answers about why the Prime Minister claimed to be surprised by Ford's announcement, when anyone with half an inkling about the company's global strategy could have told him that such a decision was a possibility; they will want to know who did not tell him about Ford's likely strategy for its European car operations and the possible effect on the UK; they will want to know when, if ever, DTI Ministers first engaged with the company to consider ways in which to keep production of the new Escort model in the UK; they will want to know what is on offer to the company, how many jobs it will bring, and over what term; and they will want to know why the Prime Minister is prepared to put his trust in a Chancellor of the Exchequer who, when told of the 1,300 job losses at Halewood, shrugged his shoulders and said, "You can't win them all." They will want answers from the Minister today on why the country should put up any longer with a Prime Minister who does not know what is going on and a Chancellor of the Exchequer who does not care. Their actions and indifference have hurt Merseyside. The tragedy is that fewer people are likely to be working as a direct result of their mismanagement of the country and the economy.

10.49 am

The Minister for Industry (Mr. Greg Knight): I place on record my appreciation of the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), the sponsor Minister for Merseyside. I also appreciated the restrained and constructive way in which the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) opened the debate. Clearly, he is concerned about the matter, as I am. He wants to ensure that there is a satisfactory outcome, as do other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Sir M. Thornton).

On the comments of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy), I have received an explanation and an apology from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), who cannot be with us today because he has a long-standing prior engagement. My right hon. Friend took part with the hon. Lady in the delegation that visited me at the DTI, and he is clearly concerned. I have no doubt that, had death not intervened, Barry Porter, the former Member for Wirral, South would also have attended the debate.

I regret Ford's decision and the impact that it will have on Merseyside. However, the House should recognise that Ford has made it clear that its decision was commercial, and that it will allow it to put in place measures to improve the plant's competitiveness, and, I hope, to secure its long-term future.

With the hon. Member for Knowsley, South and other hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) and for East Kilbride

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(Mr. Ingram), I pay tribute to Halewood's good progress in improving productivity and quality. However, the House should appreciate that the continental plants with which Halewood is competing have not been standing still. The battle for productivity, like the battle for inflation, is never over. One must always re-examine work practices to stay ahead of the competition.

We should take encouragement from the fact that Ford has not, despite some comments to the contrary, been talking about closure. It has made it clear that it considers that the plant could become the home, and sole European source, for a new sort of vehicle at the turn of the century.

Irrespective of any grant application that might be received by the Government--we have not yet received an application--we are working with the company in assisting the plant to achieve levels of performance that would help it to compete both in the marketplace and for new investment. As the hon. Member for Knowsley, South--and, I hope, other hon. Members--know, impressive efforts are being made by the local agencies, co-ordinated by the Government office for Merseyside, to support the plant. The work on a proposed supplier park is a good example.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North): I was interested in what the Minister said about productivity. Does he agree with figures that show that it is £600 cheaper to produce the vehicle in Britain than it is in Germany?

Mr. Knight: The information that we have from Ford is that those figures are incorrect. Ford says that Halewood is more expensive than Valencia and only marginally cheaper than Germany. If transport costs are considered, as has been said, Halewood is not cheaper. According to Ford, measured by man hours per car, Halewood is 10 to 20 per cent. more expensive than Ford's continental plants. We must address that, not brush it aside.

The Government are firmly committed to supporting and developing the competitiveness of the automotive sector in the United Kingdom, at Ford and elsewhere. We are working with companies at local, regional and national level. Only last year, I officially opened the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders industry forum, which is designed to help companies based in Britain compete with other companies based in Europe and the rest of the world.

We are already listening to Ford's concerns. The House probably already knows, but I place it on record, that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and I recently met Jacques Nasser, the president of Ford Europe. My officials are discussing the possibility of financial assistance to support future investment at Halewood. Those discussions are continuing, but they are at an early stage, and I can make no promise about their outcome. We have an open mind, and are listening to what Ford says. I hope that the House will welcome that.

One of the most fundamental contributions that a Government can make is the provision of a sound macro-economic climate, with low inflation, low taxation, sound public finances and a flexible work force. When I met a delegation of hon. Members last week, I made it clear that the matter involved two issues. The first was the 1,300 job losses announced and the second was the long-term future of Halewood. I expressed the hope that

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the 1,300 job losses could be addressed in some way by Ford. That is the basis upon which we have been proceeding in our discussions.

I regret to tell the House that, at present, all discussions with the company suggest that it is unlikely to revisit the 1,300 job losses. To date, no proposals for reducing the number of job losses has been put to me or my officials by Ford.

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