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Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I attended the debate in Westminster Hall at the end of January, as did my hon. Friend. Not only did the Secretary of State not check the rules before he announced his bid, but does she recall that the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce could not tell hon. Members who attended the debate when she or her officials had last spoken to the Commission about the bid's progress?

Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend is right. There seems to have been general complacency with regard to the matter over the summer months. I tabled some questions to the Secretary of State, as I wanted to know the details and conditions of the package that he had negotiated. He had put £152 million of public money on the table, but we wanted to know what he had got in return. We received the answer that the conditions of the aid package were "commercially confidential". It is therefore a question of whether the Secretary of State secured a good deal, or whether BMW have reneged on that deal. The relevant information has not been made available.

Mr. Byers: The hon. Lady says that I answered her questions by saying that the details were commercially confidential. Will she give one example of details of regional selective assistance being made available to the House under the previous Government?

Mrs. Browning: The Secretary of State must be used to batches of questions from me by now, but he failed to answer one in the batch about the BMW deal. He told me on 28 June that he would write to me with the answer, but he has failed to do so. In August, I was so worried at the lack of information about the deal that I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman and reminded him that he had not written to me as he had promised a month earlier.

That is indicative of the Secretary of State's laissez- faire attitude. He had his photocall and announced the good news, and then the matter was put in the pending tray. That is where Rover sat for most of last summer. When he eventually wrote to me on 2 September, he said:


That was nearly six months ago, and the money is still not forthcoming.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: I will give way just once more, as this is a short debate. Many hon. Members of all parties have a local constituency interest in the matter, which is why I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. I shall make some progress after his intervention.

Mr. Cunningham: The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is, like me, a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. Has the hon. Lady not

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consulted him? We were in Europe three weeks ago, and were told by officials that there was no problem with the aid package.

Mrs. Browning: If there is really no problem, the Secretary of State should announce today that it has been secured. According to the announcement made today, a company called Alchemy is to take responsibility for Rover. That company must know whether the money is still on the table. I hope that the Secretary of State will tell the House.

If the money is still on the table, what will it be used for? In the past, Ministers have indicated that £150 million of public money was to help the development of the R30 car. I have studied the BMW press statement and it is not clear that the R30 will be developed by Alchemy. Indeed, there is very little reference to it at all. If that is what the money was targeted on, clearly there is a question mark over whether the Commission will release that money if, for example, the R30 will not be developed in this country after all.

Mr. Byers: If the grant to BMW is so important in terms of its decision today, can the hon. Lady confirm that BMW's announcement and the comprehensive press release that followed it do not mention the grant as one of the reasons for this decision?

Mrs. Browning: I can only quote the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce, who said at the end of January how important that grant was. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but I think that the House will gain more respect outside if this debate is conducted without sedentary barracking.

Mrs. Browning: The Secretary of State and the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce have assured not only the House but the country that the deal they brokered and the £152 million on the table were going to secure the future of Rover. That was endorsed by the Prime Minister. Before the Secretary of State intervenes on me again and asks me questions, let me say that we are looking not for questions from the right hon. Gentleman, but for answers that we could rightfully have expected eight months ago when he made his first announcement.

The Government have carried out a go-slow policy with regard to the expedition of the grant. Furthermore, in the ensuing months, Government intervention has had an impact on all manufacturers, including car manufacturers and Rover in particular. Since 1994, when BMW stated that this was a good country in which to build motor cars, taxation on business has increased and it faces an additional £10 billion of regulatory costs. [Interruption.] We have seen the Secretary of State heading the "Rip Off Britain" campaign, which has stifled the retail sales of cars for more months than the car industry deserves.

The Secretary of State will recall that several months ago, during Trade and Industry questions, I urged him to make his views known on the Competition Commission report on car sales before the W registration mark came in, because retail sales are down by 12 per cent. this March compared with last year.

Mr. Sheerman: As they are in France and Germany.

Mrs. Browning: The market has been affected by a Government soundbite in which the Secretary of State and

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his friends in the Cabinet thought that they could be the consumer's friend by persuading everybody that they were being ripped off. There may be a case for examining car pricing and the way in which cars are retailed in this country. I have no quarrel with that, as I have said before. However, it is totally indefensible for the Secretary of State, or any Minister, to set up an inquiry, pre-empt the outcome before the analysis has been made and then, as they have done with the retail and supermarket sectors, damage, for the sake of a quick-fix soundbite, an industry that is already under pressure because of the Government's running of the economy. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) is a senior and respected Member of this House. He should conduct himself accordingly.

Mrs. Browning: In December, Rover announced that 2,500 jobs were to go. I believe that it was as a result of that that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove initiated her debate.

The Government deny the House the opportunity to ask pertinent questions on matters of great importance to an industry such as this and to the overall good of the United Kingdom economy. I believe that this Secretary of State, in particular, would do well to recognise that it is his duty to share information with the House. It is no good coming eight months later and saying, "Nothing to do with me, guv" when, in front of the television cameras, he took credit for what he thought at the time was a bit of good news, only to sidle off into the shadows when the news is not so good. Were it not for the fact that the Conservative party changed the subject of the Opposition day debate this afternoon, I suspect that he would be giving out yet another press release to deal with this, rather than standing at the Dispatch Box, telling the House what he believes the future of Rover will be and answering many of our questions.

BMW has said this afternoon that it will retain Land Rover, but has the right hon. Gentleman any concerns that it might be doing so simply to sell it on to another third-party purchaser? Is it his understanding that Alchemy intends to develop any further models under the Rover brand, or does he believe that when the existing models have been exhausted, it will revert to the MG brand, and the name Rover will disappear from British cars altogether? Will BMW retain the development of the R30 and, if so, where will it be developed? Will it be in this country or in Germany?

The Secretary of State presides over a Department that is in an absolute shambles. What we see today adds to the belief that nobody on the Treasury Bench understands business, let alone is capable of brokering a deal on behalf of business. The Secretary of State must make up his mind. Will he be a Secretary of State who, as he claimed on television only a couple of weeks ago, does not believe that the Government should pick winners or losers? With regard to his competition policy, will he intervene or not?

The Secretary of State seems all over the place, as is his Department. He is all over the place when it comes to competition policy and when it comes to saving British industry, in which he believes he can intervene successfully. He is all over the place in bringing legislation before the House. The Utilities Bill is a

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shambles and the Committee considering the Postal Services Bill has been suspended because the Government have not marshalled their amendments. This is all indicative of a Government who could not even run a whelk stall.


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