Motor Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:37 pm on 12th December 1983.

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Photo of Geoffrey Robinson Geoffrey Robinson Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 6:37 pm, 12th December 1983

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) on choosing this subject for debate. It is a hardy but necessary annual, because every hon. Member is aware of the continuing central importance of the motor industry to the economy. Over the last 10 or even 20 years of British industrial performance, it is staggering to see the extent to which the decline in the whole area of manufacturing industry, especially the mechanical engineering sector, has been a function of the massive decline in the British motor industry. That decline has continued under Governments of both persuasions—that has been agreed by both sides of the House—throughout the past two decades. Sadly, since 1979, because of high interest rates and the intolerable level of sterling, the decline has accelerated. We hope that with more modest and less monetarist economic policies, we shall see some improvement in the industry's performance.

From 1979 to 1982 we saw the devastation of the west midlands and the city which I represent and about which my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park) spoke so forcefully. Factory closures, the spate of redundancies and the harsh reality of the lengthening dole queues throughout the west midlands have left scars not just on managers and the work force, who put in many decades of dedicated work in assembly lines and machine shops and who served their apprenticeships in the great tradition of the industry, but on generations of youngsters who are now coming out of school without any prospect of obtaining work. When I hear the Minister say that the Government's priority for BL — the only major nationally owned motor car company producing vehicles in this country — is privatisation, I think how wrong their priorities still are.

The Minister is responsible for our great motor industry and his concern should be the future of the industry as a viable and expanding one. That cannot be encapsulated in a word such as "privatisation": it can be realised only in the hard world of internationally traded consumer goods, in which we have barely started to recover. I speak of British Leyland as a whole when I say that.

The Minister said that the recovery has only just begun; how right he was. The latest figures tell us that imports still claim 66 per cent. of the home market. The Maestro is a good car, but what percentage of the market is it claiming? The Minister would not let me intervene to ask that question but perhaps he will care to tell us before the debate ends. How does the Maestro's share of the market compare with the other leading contenders in the critical sector in which it competes for the family saloon market? It is a good car and it is doing well, but it epitomises precisely what the industry as a whole has to do. It still has to go a long way.

Privatisation, far from being the top priority for British Leyland, is a damaging irrelevance. The sooner that the Minister accepts that, the better. I hope that he will do so and tell the Right wingers within the Conservative party, who wish to return to an industrial state that never really existed, that the first priority is the health, strength and expansion of the British-owned motor car industry. The sooner he does that, the sooner the Government will be taking the approach that the whole House would want.

The Minister of State addressed himself to many of the questions that have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. On two matters he went some way towards giving us a measure of satisfaction. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East will agree that he gave a fulsome reassurance on the block exemption. However, the more fulsome the Government's reassurances and the more committed they are to doing something, the less we begin to trust them as time passes and, unfortunately, they fail to deliver the goods. That comment applies to Nissan and to imports from Spain.

The Minister may be watching closely the operation of the block exemption, but we shall be watching him closely. As he has said, it is an issue of great importance to the industry. However, we are at an early stage in the negotiations and we cannot prejudge whether the Minister is likely to do any better than he has done on other critical issues which are of topical, as opposed to historical, importance, and which were featured in the wide sweep of the industry to which we were treated by the hon. Member for Northfield.

Among the topical factors is the proposed deal with Nissan. Does the Minister agree that he and the Secretary of State have kow-towed long enough? I realise that the hon. Gentleman is only the lady in waiting to the chief geisha girl, but it is two and a half years since we heard the Government's announcement. The hon. Gentleman was one of the occupants of the Government Front Bench when the announcement was made, for he was the Under-Secretary of State. The then Minister of State, who has become the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, announced with a great fanfare of trumpets that the deal had been clinched.

We were told that by November 1981 we would have the full details laid before us. The Minister said that it was a great deal for British industry and one that would create many jobs. He went so far as to say that various Members would be clamouring to have the Nissan development situated in their constituencies. I remember the occasion extremely well. The Minister told my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), the then shadow spokesman on these matters, that he could be sure that the development would not go to his constituency. It seems that we can now be sure that it will not go to any Member's constituency.

I have had my experience of negotiating with the Japanese. I do not wish to make the Minister of State's job any more difficult, but what can he tell us about the negotiations? It is no good continuing with vagaries and platitudes. We need to know, so that we may end a prolonged and unnecessary period of uncertainty in the industry, whether the negotiations are to be concluded. If they are, will they be on the terms originally envisaged, which involves local content and exports?

The Minister will be well aware that the potential of the Datsun affair and the benefits that it could bring to British industry have been grossly exaggerated, while the negative effect that it could have on present domestic production has been grossly underestimated.

Apart from home-based component manufacture and the projected level of exports from the United Kingdom, is there within the agreement any provision for a real exchange of production and product technology? That seems to be the most important issue of all, and I noted that the Prime Minister nodded when I made the point when the deal with Datsun was announced. If the Nissan project is to be of any real benefit—the same applies to the Austin-Rover and Honda project—it must involve a meaningful exchange of manufacturing, engineering and product engineering technology.

We can project marvellously propitious sets of economic circumstances for a renascent British motor car manufacturing industry, but unless we have sufficient resources in manufacturing and product engineering we cannot have an industry. That is the base of the industry and that is the base on which the Japanese have built an industry that leads the world. They lead the Germans, the French and the Americans.

In a study undertaken by the director of manufacturing of Ford of Europe, an Englishman—he is the only Englishman to have that level of operational executive responsibility within the Ford organisation — reported that there were two eras in the history of motor cars. He said that there were BJ and AJ—before Japan and after Japan. That formed the title of his report and that is the way in which Ford sees the threat to the massive Ford motor car company with its enormous international strength. We need to know whether we are to have access to the technology of Japan. Will there be a similar and full exchange of technological information between Austin-Rover and Honda?