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My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) stressed his constituents concernswhich he clearly sharesin respect of the local NHS and hospital closures. Many people have to face hospital closures: for example, the Royal Edinburgh Hospital
for Sick Children in my constituency is to be relocated to another part of the city. That is exactly the right decision, but I recognise that circumstances may be different in other constituencies. I shall make sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is aware of the concerns that have been expressed.
The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) spoke about yesterdays verdict by the assistant deputy coroner in the inquest into the death of Sergeant Steve Roberts. Obviously, we all need to ensure that the necessary lessons are learned, and it is important that our fighting troops have the equipment that they require. However, I know that some expert witnesses from the Army conducted a board of inquiry into the matter, with the full co-operation of the Ministry of Defence, and that the results were available to the coroner.
The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) raised Britains relationship with Saudi Arabia, which was touched on by other hon. Members. Obviously, what happened to his constituent was unacceptable. I am glad that he took the opportunity to raise that in the House, and I will remind my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary of his concerns about it.
The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), in what I thought was a particularly caring speech on a sensitive issue, highlighted the pressures created by the number of people claiming asylum in Britain and stressed that his council, working with Government authorities, was doing its best to cope under a great deal of strain. His concerns will be drawn to the attention of the appropriate Minister. I certainly heard his plea for resources.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) raised a number of issues. I will come to post offices in a moment. He spoke movingly of the plight of farmers. I was brought up in a rural area in the borders, and I feel strongly about the plight that he so eloquently talked about. He also mentioned Gibraltar and welcomed the fact that flights there have resumed. I pay tribute to him and to the all-party group on Gibraltar for the great work that they have done in bringing Spain, us and our Gibraltar citizens together. He also mentioned trains and expressed support for the armed forces, which we all share.
The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), as well as inviting my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock to stay with himI hope that he takes him up on itspoke of rural issues but also about the 50-year copyright rule. He made some powerful points on that. It is not just about the rich and famous. No one should deny Sir Cliff Richard his dues, but I am sure that he is fighting mainly for people he knows who have had one-off successes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on setting up the Waterloo partnership between Sierra Leone and Liverpool. She is also a champion of engineering, and, sadly, one of the few engineers in the House. She spoke of the work of the British Council. I am a parliamentary ambassador for the British Council so I well know, as do most hon. Members, the valuable work that it does in schools.
Several other hon. Members have raised important points. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink)
made a plea for two areas. He referred to social housing and the need to invest in it. He at least had the decency to admit that one of the flaws in the policy of selling council houses was not allowing councils to reinvestthe money in new social housing. The hon. Gentleman also raised Essex county councils poor record on statementing, which I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
Many hon. Members mentioned post offices. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) stressed his concerns about post offices. He also mentioned policing. I have a common solution to those issues. He mentioned the problems of crime and of getting police officers. May I commend to him what my Labour council in Edinburgh did? It part-funded 70 extra policemen and policewomen with the chief constable. I am afraid that that was opposed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on the council, but those police officers have made a great change in my constituency. On post offices, my advice to hon. Members is that it greatly helps if councils pay the premium to make sure that all citizens can use post office services. The city council in Edinburgh allows people to pay rent, council services bills and trade waste bills in post offices. I am afraid that in Conservative and Liberal Democrat Aberdeen the council does not pay the premium. That is why the number of closures has been far higher in that part of the country. These are the important issues.
I have had only a short time available to me, but that has allowed everyone to speak. I have not been able to cover everything. Many good things were said, and I commend the work of all Members of Parliament. Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I give you, all hon. Members and all staff of this great House my best Christmas wishes?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The Ministers good wishes and those expressed by all other hon. Members are reciprocated by the occupants of the Chair and, indeed, all thosevisible and invisiblewho serve us.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to bring to the Houses attention the matter of the proposed closure in December 2007 of the General Electric lighting factory in Leicester. This is our last debate of 2006 and it really is an eleventh hour appeal to get the factorys corporate management to reconsider its proposals.
I would like to thank the Minister for Industry and the Regions, whom I have known for the past 30 years and who is, in my view, one of the best and most accessible Ministers in the Government. I also welcome the hundreds of hon. Members who are watching this debate on their television monitors. This is, of course, the last parliamentary day of 2006.
The GE Lighting factory on Melton road in my constituency employs in the region of 400 people, many in skilled and irreplaceable jobs. However, merely citing the number of job losses does not properly project how devastating the closure of the factory would be to the community and the local economy. The factory has been in the same location for 60 years and many of its employees have worked there all their adult lives. Those are not just statistics; they are men and women with husbands, wives and children to support. Many have given their all to the companypeople such as Stuart Will, the plant manager, Mike Flay, the human resources manager, Eustace Richardson, the Amicus union representative, Aruna Patel, Linda Haulett, Rafiq Lohar and Bipin Misby. They are all hard- working, honest, loyal and dedicated people, whose employers have given them the worst Christmas present imaginable. Their hard work is rewarded not by the mega-bonuses that their bosses in New York will be receiving, but by potential unemployment and a very uncertain future.
My objective in the debate is to present the case that General Electric, in proposing to shut down the factory, is making a huge mistake, and that the Government and other relevant stakeholders such as the East Midlands Development Agency must mobilise all their resources and efforts to fight this decision and encourage GE to reconsider its drastic and callous action.
I would like briefly to outline the history of the factory in order to inform the Minister and the House of the background to the closure. Following conversion from a wartime plane parts factory, production originally started there in 1947. In 1967, Thorn Lighting bought the firm and turned it into Europes biggest lamp and bulb-making plant. The lights of Europe were literally made in Rushey Mead in Leicester. As well as providing Europe and the world with lighting products manufactured on site, the factory has been involved in some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in lighting technology in the past 60 years, including inventing the first mass-production fluorescent bulb.
Only 12 years ago, in 1994, GE Lighting bought Thorn Lighting and since then has, sadly, instigated several rounds of redundancies at the factory, with the
latest round in April this year. In November, GE Lighting announced that it was considering plans to close the Leicester factory and move production to Hungary at the end of 2007.
I feel it is the ultimate duty of a local Member of Parliament to do all they can to help constituents when their jobs and livelihoods are put at risk. I have assisted employees at the factory when they faced problems before and I will do so gladly again on this occasion. It has been a centre of excellence in design, distribution and production for 60 years; with the necessary vision and investment, it could remain as such.
The factory and its committed staff can, given the chance, meet the challenges of globalisation head on. One has only to look at the success of foreign car makers in Britain to see that manufacturing in this country is not some relic of the 19th and 20th centuries, but one of the key sectors that will drive Britains economy forward in the 21st century.
The UK is one of the most competitive economies in Europe, coming fourth out of 27 in the most recent Lisbon league table for economic competitiveness. We have low interest rates, low inflation and one of the longest periods of sustained growth ever known. The infrastructure for moving goods around the country and into mainland Europe is first class, and I believe that our skills base for research and development is the best in the world. That is why it is so surprising and illogical that GE Lighting is looking to close its Leicester factory now.
The company has given three main reasons for the closure of the plant. First, it cites high manufacturing costs; secondly, declining volume; and, thirdly, the pending discontinuation of a product made at the Leicester factory. Although it is true that manufacturing costs in the newer EU countries are lower than those in the older member states, I feel it prudent to point out that, as standards of living rise in the newer member countries, so will their wage rates. One has only to look at the case of Portugala weak economy on entry to the EU in 1986, and now a thriving one, with living standards very similar to the rest of western Europe and wage levels to match. Therefore, I believe that it is extremely short-sighted for GE Lighting to abandon its skills base and loyal employees in Leicester for a relatively short period of cost advantage.
As for the declining volume of production and the pending discontinuation of a product made at Leicester, those arguments are so weak that I am surprised that they are advanced. The reason for the decline in production is that round after round of redundancies have been made by the companynot any decline in worker productivity. In the lighting industry, innovations and new products are constantly becoming available; the Leicester plant has produced them and, in fact, often provided the research and development to do so. What GE Lighting actually means when it says
a key product made at the Leicester factory is being discontinued
Leicester is renowned as a manufacturing hub, and huge investments have been made in recent years by other companies that are keen to take advantage of Leicesters excellent strategic location, superb transport links and skilled work force. For example, in 1999, International Radiators opened a new £6 million factory in Leicester, which represents the biggest investment that that company has ever made.
As the Minister may be aware, I am one of the most vocal supporters of the European Unions expansion eastwards. I believe that free trade and the Common Market are key to Europes continuing prosperity. However, one of the negatives of the expansion is that it has encouraged a certain herd mentality among employers, whereby production is moved simply because doing so is in vogue with other companies, without a more holistic consideration of other factors, such as skills, infrastructure and a countrys overall economic competitiveness. It is quite ironic that, as hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers move to the UK because of our economic competitivenessa movement that I wholeheartedly welcomeGE Lighting is proposing to move in the opposite direction by taking production to eastern Europe.
I visited the factory on 24 November this year, together with Councillor Kuldipp Bhatti, and met the employers, employees and trade union representatives. It was made clear to me while I was there that the work force were not prepared to accept the proposed closure and that they plan to do everything that they can to fight it. I promised them my full support. Since then, I have been in active communication with the head of manufacturing in Europe, Mr. Istavan Salekovics. I have asked in business questions for this Adjournment debate and have tabled a number of motions, including early-day motion 307, which has been signed by many right hon. and hon. Members and which calls for GE to reconsider its plans to close the Leicester factory at the end of 2007.
I spoke to Mr. Salekovics only yesterday and I listened carefully to what he had to say about the impact that globalisation was having on his business in Europe and the United Kingdom. I have heard all the arguments beforewhen they have been put by Ministersabout the rising power of India and China and the issue of labour costs. However, I put to him the fact that GE is a worldwide company that manufactures at a number of bases all over Europe and the world. If the proposal to close is going to go ahead, surely there must be something else that can be produced on the Leicester site that will benefit the company. I am delighted to tell the House that Mr. Salekovics has agreed to meet me in London when he comes here at the end of January, which is within the consultation period. Is my right hon. Friend the Minister also prepared to meet him to hear what he has to say about the reasons why the company felt that the closure was necessary?
Unfortunately, I have had little success in arranging a phone call with Mr. Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive officer of General Electric, the second largest company in the world. My office has telephoned New York on a number of occasions to speak to him. That culminated in a rather bizarre call between my office and the head of public affairs for GE in New York. He
informed us that he was in the middle of eating his Thanksgiving turkey and therefore unable to take the conversation forward. There will be no turkey eaten with relish by my constituents in Rushey Mead this Christmas, because of the tragic news of the proposals.
The Amicus representatives from the factory have met with the management in Hungary. I am disappointed to have to inform the House that they felt that, despite making the trip to Hungary to meet the management, they were given only a rushed meeting in which the proposals were treated more as a definite plan than a possibility. Alternative plans put forward by the union were not really given much time and the company did not really pay much heed to them. Unfortunately, as I have said, that attitude reflects whatprior to the call that I had with Mr. SalekovicsI have felt has been the way in which the company wishes to discuss these matters.
The company has not consulted broadly or deeply, as it should have done, and has not shown the necessary duty of care to its hard-working staff in Leicester. It has not taken into consideration the effect on the local economy. It has not had any discussions with the East Midlands Development Agency. It has not approached Leicester city council to talk about the cost of the council tax on its business. There have been no discussions of any kind. I would like to see proper and full consultation and I would like alternative plans to be given serious consideration. I want to see substantial talks with the relevant stakeholders that show genuine concern for the contribution that our city has made to the manufacturing success of GE and before that Thorn. Genuine concern should be shown to the employees for their lifelong commitment to the company.
Mr. Salekovicss visit to London may be the opportunity to do that, but I have made it clear to him that I am prepared to travel to Hungary or the United States to assist my constituents in trying to save their jobs. Will the Minister, even at the eleventh hour on the last day before the Christmas recess, join me and call on General Electric to re-examine its proposals and instead invest in the historic factory that has so long provided lighting for the whole of Europe and whose workers are so skilled?
The factory has a long and wonderful tradition of displaying Christmas lights. Every year, children expect to see the tradition upheld. Anyone who travels from Nottingham on the M1if they can manage to get through the M1, given all the traffic that is on it these daysand comes off at junction 21A and then goes into Leicester will see the General Electric factory with a wonderful display of lights all around it. In this spirit, will my right hon. Friend the Minister consider turning on the GE Christmas lights at the factory next year? Hopefully, it would not be the last time that anyone would do so. I also urge her help and that of other hon. Members so that the lights might not go out over Leicester after all.
The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Margaret Hodge):
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) on securing the last debate before we adjourn for Christmas. I know
from my discussions with him on the issues that he has raised that he is working extremely hard on behalf of his constituents to represent them and to try to save their jobs. It is somewhat poignant and distressing that at a time when families throughout the country are turning on their Christmas lights for celebration and joy, there are plans to switch off the lights at GE in Leicester. The facility has produced lights for more than 60 years and provided stability and prosperity for those who have worked in the factory.
I completely understand the distress described by my right hon. Friend that is caused to individuals when they lose their jobs because a facility in which they have been working for a long time closes down. My right hon. Friend was right to draw our attention to the context in which the decision has been taken. The UK economy has been very successful over the past decade or so. We have had consistent macro-economic stability and 57 consecutive quarters in which there has been growth, which is unprecedented for any country in post-war times. That puts us at the top of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development league for prosperity and economic success.
We have also been one of the fastest growing economies in the G7, according to the latest statistics that I have read. The latest European Investment Monitor statistics show us that in 2005, the most recent year for which we have statistics, the UK was the top inward investment destination in Europe. GE is thus slightly bucking the trend. We had 559 investment projects in 2005 compared with 538 in France, which is next on the list.
The recent World Bank report Doing Business in 2007 examined where it is best to do business throughout the world. Again, the UK emerges in that survey as the best place in Europe in which companies could choose to invest. We are one of the top two EU countries on simplicity benchmarks for employment law. We are joint second in the EU for ease of paying taxes, and we are in the top two countries in which investors get the best protection. Overall, we come out top, so it is odd that a large company that will want to access the European market is choosing to relocate its business for what my right hon. Friend rightly described as short-term advantages.
I travelled to China, Japan and Korea in September, and I talked to people in key manufacturing industries and growing sectors, such as information and communications technology, aerospace and car manufacturing. One of the really interesting thingsthat came out of that was how many of those manufacturers see the UK as the location of choice when they are trying to find a base for a manufacturing facility that will allow them to do business in Europe and access the European market.
I do not know whether discussions with General Electric will take us further, but I think that we should lay out the enormous advantages of locating here in the UK. Simply looking at short-term wage costs, which strike me as the only factor that the company has examined, is not a sensible way to plan the long-term business prosperity of a successful enterprise.
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