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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. My understanding is that the wind-up speeches will begin at 20 minutes to the hour. It will therefore probably be possible to have two Back-Bench speeches on either side if hon. Members speak for less than 10 minutes apiece.

6.6 pm

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I begin by paying tribute to my Front-Bench colleagues, who rightly changed the subject of today's Supply day debate so that we might discuss the serious events at Rover. I doubt whether Ministers would have been prepared to make a statement tonight. We are not used to Ministers being forthcoming about important information that affects our constituents. Therefore, I want to say how right I think it is that the Conservative party believed it appropriate to discuss today's extremely important announcement.

It is a shame that the Secretary of State has left the Chamber because, although I have a personal regard for the right hon. Gentleman, I thought it discourteous of him not to accept an intervention from someone whose constituency includes part of the Longbridge plant--the plant's location is shared between my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden). I would not have expected such a discourtesy from the right hon. Gentleman.

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Perhaps the Minister who is replying to the debate will pay due heed to what I wanted to ask the Secretary of State. I listened very carefully to BMW's announcement today and the right hon. Gentleman's interpretation of it. His remarks contained no guarantees about the level of employment that would continue at the Longbridge factory. There was not even a guarantee that the Longbridge factory would continue to produce cars. In fact, when the right hon. Gentleman said that he would be speaking to Alchemy this evening about the plant's prospects and future, he said that cars "should" continue to be produced there. I find that a worrying use of language.

I would be grateful if the Minister could shed any light on what guarantees there are for employment at the factory. As the hon. Member for Northfield and others have said, many people are facing the potential loss of their job at the factory. [Interruption.] I am not taking any interventions, because of the discourtesy shown to me and also because of the limit on time.

I want to talk about the 9,000 jobs that are at stake--we hope that they will not be lost--as well as the wider midlands perspective that takes in 50,000 jobs, and the suppliers that face the loss of their contracts. There is no doubt that, despite the barracking of Labour Members, this is a very sad day for the midlands. It is a sad day for my constituents and for many others who have had a rollercoaster ride over the future of the Longbridge factory ever since I became the local Member of Parliament in 1997, and before that. They must have spent the night worrying about today's announcement, and I feel sorry for them. Despite today's announcement, their worries will not have ceased, because we simply do not know what the future is, irrespective of what has been announced. We know some details, including, sadly, the fact that Longbridge will lose the exciting prospect of production of the Mini to Cowley.

Alchemy, and, one presumes, Longbridge, will continue to make the MG. That is exciting, and a piece of good news, but anyone who knows anything about car production knows that the MG is an exciting niche car, not a mass-produced one, which makes it unlikely that its production at Longbridge, or anywhere else, would employ the number of people currently employed at Longbridge.

If I understood the statement correctly, the R30--the smaller version of the Rover 75, which will continue on licence at Cowley--which would have succeeded the soon-to-be outdated Rovers 25 and 35, will not be sold to Alchemy along with the Rover name. BMW will produce it in some form somewhere else under a name we do not know. But that car is extremely important to the Rover range's place in the volume car market. The fact that the brand does not go with the sale worries me.

It is hard not to be gloomy. Indeed, my gloom is shared by the unions--an unlikely alliance, perhaps--and every midlands Member must be feeling the gloom at present. The Longbridge work force do not deserve it. They had a reputation in the 1970s and before for being somewhat difficult, but they are experienced and their willingness to accept changes in practices in the past few years has been exemplary. They have done all they can to show good faith in the production of cars at Longbridge and have tried to maintain their jobs by showing the flexibility required of a modern car production factory. After all that willingness to change and to accept the new world of car

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manufacturing, today's announcement is a kick in the teeth. Their good will has been resoundingly rejected by the BMW board, and we wait to see what Alchemy will bring.

I was extremely alarmed when my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) described Alchemy's investment profile. We all know what venture capitalists are. They go in and out on property speculations of different sorts.

Mr. Butterfill indicated dissent.

Miss Kirkbride: Perhaps my words are a little over-anxious.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Venture capitalists can be like that.

Miss Kirkbride: My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) comes to my rescue. Venture capitalists can be like that.

Clearly, Alchemy's track record to date makes it hard to see how it can take on responsibility for Longbridge. Earlier this week, the plant was considering investment of £1.7 billion in new car production facilities for the smaller range of the Rover 75. It is hard to see how Alchemy can begin to harness the optimism that we had just a few days ago. The record is worrying and we must wait for more information.

I wanted to put those remarks on the record. We must consider the feelings and thoughts of the work force and their families. How will they pay their mortgages if things go pear-shaped at the plant?

Political flak has come at us from Labour Members, but it was outrageous for the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) to claim that all the problems arose from decisions taken by the previous Conservative Government. His statement has no credibility. The problem is huge; many people have been involved. There are demand difficulties in the international car market; we realise that. Larger issues are at stake.

However, Labour Members, including the hon. Member for Northfield--who has left the Chamber--must accept that at least a scintilla of blame attaches to the Government. BMW has had to contend with the exchange rate during the past few years. Any Member who represents a midlands constituency, or has dealings with BMW, is only too aware that the company regards the exchange rate as one of its principal problems.

We also know that Rover is not the only company to suffer--although it seems to have taken the fall. There is a problem with the exchange rate, and there have been problems with the grant in aid and with the European investigation. Those matters have been raised by other hon. Members, so it would not be fair to go into them further.

Labour Members must grow up. They must realise that the situation is difficult, but that they have responsibility for their actions--it is not always the fault of somebody else. It would be nice to hear a little more reality in the subsequent contributions of Labour Members.

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6.16 pm

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill): Unlike the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), I not only represent people who work at Land Rover and Longbridge, but I drive a Rover car.

What was significant about the speech made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) was not her attempt to blame the Government for the crisis at Rover, but what she did not say. Only a few years ago, Conservative Members would have blamed all the troubles at the Rover group on the people who work there. It is significant that we have not heard that today. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) paid tribute to the people who work for Rover. For the first time in my political life, I agree with him. He is right; the people who work at Rover have transformed industrial relations there. The present crisis at Rover cannot be blamed on those who produce the cars.

Fifteen years ago, the Rover group was making a profit. What has gone wrong? My hon. Friends are right to criticise the sale of Rover to British Aerospace at a giveaway price, and to draw attention to reports from the National Audit Office, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and the Public Accounts Committee. However, those reports were produced several years ago.

It is true that British Aerospace treated the Rover group as a milk cow to get over its short-term cash-flow problem, but that was also some years ago. Then, British Aerospace sold the Rover group and split it up. Jaguar was sold to one company. The van company, mentioned by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, and Leyland Trucks were sold to DAF. We were told that was a good thing. The rest of the group was sold in a package to BMW. What happened then? DAF pulled the plug on the van factory and the truck factory. The van factory has been revived--thanks to all-party support and with help from the previous Tory Government during their dying days. That company is now a success, but when it was owned by DAF, the decisions taken in the boardroom were to protect jobs in the Netherlands at the expense of jobs in Birmingham. That was inevitable because ownership had been transferred abroad. The same thing is now happening at Longbridge.

My hon. Friends and Opposition Members are correct to point out that the exchange rate is part of the problem. It is not only in the motor industry that jobs are disappearing; there have been tremendous job losses at the Dunlop factory in Birmingham--attributed by the owners directly to the exchange rate, resulting in the transfer of much tyre production to Germany.

It is not as simple as that, however, because there is another problem. The exchange rate influences our exports, but it does not account for the slump in Rover's sales in this country. The big problem affecting the Rover group is sales and marketing. I wish my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State well at his discussions with representatives of Alchemy tonight, but the big question that he should put to the new owners of Longbridge is not how they will produce more cars, but how they will sell more of them. That is a management responsibility, and that is the question that should be put to the new managers who will take over the Longbridge factory.

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6.20 pm

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