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regional select committee (south west)

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

sittings of the house

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons

Motion made,

15 July 2009 : Column 413

Hon. Members: Object.


Flooding (Surrey)

7.16 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): On 20 July 2007, we had an exceptional downpour of torrential rain, which led to flooding in many parts of our country, including in Sutton and Cheam, the constituency that I have the privilege to represent, affecting in particular those of my constituents who live in Green lane in Worcester Park. On that day, the Beverly brook flooded its banks, damaging property and causing great costs for many of my constituents and a good deal of disruption for many days after. Since that time, the Environment Agency has been working on a scheme to alleviate and minimise the risk of flooding, and it is about that scheme that I come to the House tonight on behalf of many of my constituents who have signed a local petition pressing for action now to implement the scheme.

The petition states:


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Diageo Closures

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Mary Creagh.)

7.18 pm

Des Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab): The Johnnie Walker whisky bottling plant in Kilmarnock dominates the town. As its Hill street address suggests, it sits above the centre of the town as a solid symbol of Kilmarnock's industrial history. Like the ravens in the tower of London, no matter how bad things get in Kilmarnock, as long as the Johnnie Walker plant is there, there is always hope for the future. For a community that has suffered decades of de-industrialisation and that for more than 30 years now has had a systemic higher rate of unemployment than the rest of Scotland, psychologically the imposing presence of Johnnie Walker and its 700 jobs offers some optimism that the town can rise again.

Hardly is there a family in Kilmarnock and the surrounding area that is not connected in some way to the Johnnie Walker plant or to the distribution centre in Barlieth, Hurlford. There are thousands of former Johnnie Walker workers in Kilmarnock, hundreds of present Johnnie Walker workers, and many thousands who aspire to be Johnnie Walker workers.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his campaign, which has brought together on a cross-party and cross-community basis many people in Kilmarnock and the surrounding area. Does he agree, however, that the closures would affect the whole of Ayrshire, which has already lost far too many jobs in the past few decades? The economic impact on Ayrshire would be dire.

Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a stalwart supporter of the campaign that we are conducting to try to get Diageo to change its mind. The fact that she has been so vocal in her support shows the extent to which the people of Ayrshire-and, indeed, Scotland, to a large degree-have fallen in behind the campaign. She anticipates many of the arguments that I am about to make, so perhaps I should carry on.

The plant, the distribution centre and the support services provided by local businesses contribute in excess of £20 million a year to the local economy, and that economy stretches beyond Kilmarnock. By operating the bottling plant in Kilmarnock and the distribution centre in Hurlford, Diageo contributes all that benefit to the wider community of Kilmarnock. To that extent, the people of Kilmarnock and Ayrshire are grateful for the years that it has run the plant, but the situation has been far from a one-way street, and I think that the business would accept that.

In 1819, Johnnie Walker, a local grocer, first blended his whisky for sale in his own shop. Today, the brand Johnnie Walker is the world's leading blended whisky, outselling every other whisky in volume, and outselling every other spirit in value. Workers in Kilmarnock contributed to that success story with their loyal, efficient profit-making and hard work.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and on his vigorous support of his community. Does he agree that the provenance and heritage of whisky is crucial to
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consumers at home and abroad? It is a real mistake for any multinational company to lose touch with, and lose its commitment to, the communities that produce their profits, whether they are in Kilmarnock, Glasgow or Speyside.

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and indeed for his support, to which I shall come back in a moment. The interventions reassure me that the argument that I am developing is the right one; it is being anticipated right, left and centre. It may well be anticipated further as the evening goes on. I was explaining that the situation is far from a one-way street, and that the people of Kilmarnock have contributed significantly to the success of the plant and its well-known and internationalist spirit.

For many of my constituents, Johnnie Walker is woven into the weave of Kilmarnock. I have to say that until 1 July, they thought that that commitment was reciprocated. Diageo is an impressive multinational company: it provides 4,500 jobs in Scotland, leads the drinks industry across the world, and markets some of the world's best-known and leading brands. To its credit, it earns formidable amounts from exports for the United Kingdom and its shareholders. Ostensibly, it is a modern company managed according to the best 21st-century corporate practices. That means that over the years, its workers in Kilmarnock have been conditioned to understand just how much they are valued by their corporate masters, just how important their individual and collective contributions are to the corporate success, and, importantly, how seriously Diageo takes its responsibilities to them as partners, not just workers. Its workers have been conditioned to understand how much the company is committed, as part of its ethos, to cherish and preserve its legacy and heritage and to protect the communities that are its hosts.

I could paper the walls of this Chamber with corporate documentation that articulates that message of partnership. It is designed to encourage the work force to show greater efficiency and greater loyalty, and it succeeds. Yet on 1 July, those same workers were told that the need for "more shareholder value" required that their bottling plant be closed within two years, and that the distribution workers be transferred within months to a new employer-essentially, as they were told in a letter, whether they liked it or not.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is well aware that Kilmarnock workers have made a major contribution to the profits of Diageo, but so have workers throughout the rest of Scotland, particularly in Port Dundas and in Renfrewshire, where we are losing jobs, too. Independent consultants have been brought in to assist Diageo, which is a welcome move. Can he inform the House whether those independent consultants will work with the workers' representatives, the trade unions? I do not mean just talking to the trade unions, which have expertise in such matters; I mean working alongside them.

Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, as he has great knowledge of the industry. The Shieldhall bottling plant is in his constituency, and he will come to know Diageo very well as he continues to represent the area over the years.

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The mandate to carry out the work was accepted by Scottish Enterprise, but I can reassure the House that, at a meeting convened last night by John Swinney, it was made very clear that the consultants were to be engaged just on that basis. Indeed, Jack Perry, the chief executive of Scottish Enterprise, offered the representatives of the Unite and GMB unions the opportunity to contribute to and engage in the process of assessment.

Of course, this issue is broader than my constituency. I am being slightly selfish in concentrating on the interests of my constituents in this debate, although I am sure that the House will understand that, but I repeat that the matter stretches well beyond my constituency. It is unfortunate that the Port Dundas workers do not have a Member of Parliament at present to speak up for them in this House, but there will shortly be an election and that might give them a chance to get their problems aired.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): As a Glasgow MP, I can safely say that the cooperage in Port Dundas is well known, if only because of the smell in the streets in the top end of the town. It is part of Glasgow, and the people there can ill afford to lose the 100-odd jobs in Port Dundas.

Des Browne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for speaking up for Glasgow, which he does regularly in this House. I am sure that the workers are pleased that they are not being forgotten in this debate. I hope that the campaign will continue and that they will have other opportunities to make their case. However, time is always short for these debates so I shall try to make progress with the argument that I want to make for my constituents, and in respect of the wider issues at stake.

Since 1 July, much has been written and spoken about this matter, in the Scottish media and more widely. Latterly, corporate whisky has been responding to the campaign to get Diageo to think again about its proposals, and last week Diageo embarked on a counter-campaign.

Over the weekend, it was reported in the online edition of The Sunday Times that the view of the managing director of the distiller and bottler Ian McLeod and Co. was that, as a consequence of the decision, the whisky industry had

He is reported to have said:

Some of us thought that that attitude had gone out in the 1980s, but unfortunately it seems to be alive and well in corporate whisky. My message to that director is that his rather quaint and old-fashioned views mainly reinforce my concerns about where we will end up if we do not stop and think hard about the full implications of the proposals.

Far from playing at it, we are deadly serious. The workforce at both Kilmarnock and Hurlford, the Unite and GMB unions, East Ayrshire council, Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Government, Willie Coffey, who is the Member of the Scottish Parliament for my constituency, the members of the recently elected Scottish Youth Parliament, as well as wider civic society in
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Kilmarnock and Loudoun and in Ayrshire, have all joined together to speak with one voice in asking Diageo to think again. That we have sustained this campaign from a standing start for two weeks now, maintaining a consistent public presence and gathering support from across the world, is convincing evidence that the cause is just. However, it is also a sign of the degree of pain that the community is feeling and the level of fear that it has for its future.

The Johnnie Walker workers in Kilmarnock are extremely grateful to wider Scottish society for the support that they have received. The First Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland have both pledged their support. On behalf of my constituents, I should like to thank the hon. Members for Moray (Angus Robertson), for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for joining me last week to launch an all-party UK parliamentary presence in this campaign. I should also like to add our thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and the Scottish Affairs Committee for taking up our request that it investigate the implications of the decision for Scotland.

If we add to that the growing petition that is attracting support from throughout the world and the offers of support that are flooding in from all over, the House may get a sense of how important the issue is. All that will be reflected in a march and rally in Kilmarnock on 26 July, to which all those Members not on holiday-which we all know is for all but two weeks during the recess-are invited.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I am a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, and today, as I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware, we met senior members of Diageo's management. Not only I, but all members of the Committee, were angered at the management's expression of resentment at any political involvement in the decision. Currently, by legislation of course, it is a proposal not a decision, but I hope my right hon. Friend agrees that it would be remiss of any politician not to challenge such a decision. The management said today that we were using the issue as a political football, but "political football" suggests to me that politicians have fallen out with each other, and that is not the case. There is cross-party condemnation of the proposal and cross-party support for a challenge to it.

Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, although he has spoiled the whole second half of my speech. His point is important, however, and those in what I have come to refer to as corporate whisky need to hear that the path between them and us has been well beaten when they have wanted our support for their industry throughout the world. We are never short of giving that support, but on this occasion we say, "We have read your literature carefully, and you say that in the 21st century you have this relationship with your workers, legacy and communities, so can we please test this?"

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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Des Browne: A considerable number of Members wish to intervene, and I shall be happy to take those interventions, subject to leaving my right hon. Friend the Minister an opportunity to address the House at least for a few minutes, but I want first to make some progress.

It cannot be the case that all those whom I have cited and who have fallen in behind the campaign are wrong about the argument, and that the only people who are right are Diageo executives and corporate whisky. It cannot be the case that the former are the only people in Scotland who cannot see the point. My research has revealed that an embarrassment of phrases from whisky's own promotional material could be deployed to show what we all know, which is that, when a glass of whisky is raised anywhere in the world, the whisky drinker is raising Scotland in a glass.

Of all the competing brands of Scotland in a glass, Johnnie Walker is the most successful by a street because of its provenance-because of its roots stretching back to 1820. To paraphrase the words of another successful advertising campaign, it delivers what it says on the label.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I, too, was at the Scottish Affairs Committee briefing with senior Diageo management, and I was surprised that they were so surprised by our reaction. We merely reflect the reaction of our constituents, however, so can I, through the right hon. Gentleman, tell those in corporate whisky, as he calls it, that they have always received a good reception in this House because we see the connection between our communities and their business? If they are determined to break that connection, why should our communities seek to support them in the future?

Des Browne: I could not have put it better myself. I was hoping to, of course, but I could not have. I want to pose some questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister, and I shall take one more intervention at an appropriate point.

About 12 years ago, the local council, East Ayrshire council, Scottish Enterprise and the workers at Kilmarnock, supported by Donald Dewar and Brian Wilson, who were then in the Scotland Office, succeeded in persuading Diageo that that combination of efficiency, loyalty and profitability, embedded in a credible heritage and provenance, which is in the bottle, was a winning combination. Then, Diageo decided not only to continue to bottle whisky in Kilmarnock but to invest in the plant. Then, politicians intervened, and as a consequence Diageo and its Johnnie Walker plant in Kilmarnock have enjoyed a decade of improving markets and greater profitability. It is possible for politicians to make a positive contribution, and that is an example.

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