GKN Automotive Plant: Birmingham — [Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:07 am on 28th April 2021.

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Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 10:07 am, 28th April 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend Jack Dromey on securing this extremely important debate on the future of GKN, a vital employer in his constituency, in a vital industry for the UK economy. He is a really energetic champion for the communities he serves, as I know very well first hand, and he gave a passionate and important speech, which set out perfectly the issues before us today and, crucially, the alternative to closure. We have heard some excellent speeches today that also made those points very clearly. I declare that I, too, am a member of Unite the union, which I will be mentioning in my speech today.

I want to express my solidarity with the workers at the plant in Erdington and in the supply chain who are at risk of losing their jobs. Yesterday, I met Frank Duffy, the Unite convener. Like so many others working at the plant, he has decades of service. The announcement of closure earlier this year came as a devastating blow to him and hundreds of families across the region who have given their lives to GKN over the decades.

I put on the record my deep and profound concern about the decision by Melrose; I hope very much that it will think again. The decision flies in the face of assurances Melrose gave to the House via the BEIS Committee only three years ago. I heard what Mark Pawsey had to say, but I disagree. This is what is wrong with corporate law and public policy in this country; it is about so much more than simply shareholder return—it is about UK plc. I will explain that a little more.

Let us be in no doubt, as tragic as the proposed closure would be for workers such as Frank, this issue is about so much more than this important and historic plant in Erdington. What is happening here is a canary in the coalmine for UK manufacturing, automotive and decent jobs that level up. How the Government respond is a huge test. Its significance cannot be overstated.

What kind of Government are they? Are they one that actively supports and, where necessary, intervenes in British industry; one that has a real and meaningful plan to transition to a green new deal in key sectors such as automotive; one in which global Britain leads the way in the development and production of new electric technologies, providing decent, high-paid jobs for the future; and one for which levelling up is about a lot more than rhetoric and piecemeal pots of cash handed out on mates’ rates? Or are they a Government—which I fear the Business Secretary wants them to be—who are unashamedly free market and laissez-faire, one in which people, place and opportunity are the fall guys for globalisation and free-market forces?

Ministers might talk the talk of sharing prosperity in every part of the country, of a global Britain, of championing manufacturing and of greening our economy, but what actions they take here will show whether they are actually prepared to walk the walk as well. Be in no doubt at all that we are in a high-stakes global race for green jobs, the technologies and the production capacity, a race in which Britain is being massively outgunned and outmanoeuvred by other countries prepared to invest and intervene on an unprecedented scale to ensure that their domestic industries and workers reap the gains of that new drive.

The status quo does not exist, as the GKN situation shows. Either we fight hard to retain the capacity, the jobs and the opportunities, or they go elsewhere. Let us not forget that GKN is a British company, now proposing to offshore its last UK automotive manufacturing base, against the commitments made by Melrose at the time. Do the Government think that Germany, France or even the US would allow the move of one of their key industrial businesses? Not a chance. This is a key test of Conservative industrial strategy—if indeed they have one.

The Government’s actions so far suggest that they do not believe in an active industrial strategy. They scrapped the Industrial Strategy Council. Through covid, they have had an aversion to sector support, and we have seen a rebranded plan for growth that does not appear to create any growth. There can be no growth for communities in Erdington and beyond if Ministers do not press the company to change course and to invest rather than close the plant.

There is an alternative here, as we have heard so well during this debate. Unite and the workforce, with industry experts, have developed a compelling alternative to closure, which involves an improved productivity plan and a major shift to new products for electric vehicles for their main customers, Jaguar Land Rover and Toyota—which, by the way, lead the way in electric and hybrid vehicles. GKN’s only remaining automotive plant specialises in technologies that are critical to the development and expansion of UK vehicle production—here, just in time, domestically produced, which would not get tied up in rules of origin and the new red tape that we are seeing.

Surely it is a no-brainer for a Government committed to British industry, to British car manufacturing and to Britain leading the way in electric vehicles to do whatever it takes to retain that capacity here in the UK. Or do they stand by and watch it move to Poland and France? This is the real test for this Government, and I really hope that it is one that they will not fail. Will the Minister tell us today, will her Government do what it takes and put pressure on the company thoroughly to explore the alternative business plan, or does she think that that is not her role?

This is also a test of what kind of economy the Government want post Brexit. We were promised the freedom to support and intervene in British industry, outside the EU and free of the constraints of state aid rules. What is the point of that freedom if it is not used? We were promised an economy that could be at the forefront of seizing new opportunities, not one in which key assets were being offshored back to the EU. We have the EU trade deal, but there are clearly issues with rules of origin and the fact that the Government’s much boasted tariff-free trade is anything but, particularly for manufacturers caught up in a web of more red tape and bureaucracy. There is no doubt that this is a factor here.

The planned closure of GKN is also a test for the kind of recovery and economy we want post-covid. If the pandemic has taught us anything about industry, it is that we need more than simply ingenuity and leading innovation; we also need domestic and resilient production capacity. We have seen that long supply chains are not resilient, and that the lack of domestic capacity is bad for our country. Automotive production is a delicate ecosystem—once one part of the system is gone, it weakens the entire thing.

That is why GKN is the canary here. If Ministers are going to follow through on creating a more resilient domestic manufacturing sector, they must protect the automotive supply chain. This plant is right next door to one of its main customers, JLR. The plant in Poland that will take over production if these plans go ahead is four and a half days away. We are seeing the impact of long supply chains already, where production at two of JLR’s plants has recently had to stop because of delays in importing microchips.

Furthermore, the economic hit we have taken during the pandemic—one of the worst in the G20—requires more intervention and stimulus to kick-start recovery and seize the opportunity of the green transition for a more productive, higher skilled, technology-driven economy. That simply will not happen by chance or by market forces. The costs and investment required are too high, and the infrastructure and skills needed would never be met by the private sector alone. All the while, our global competitors are pump-priming their recovery; just look at what is happening in the US under Biden.

The situation at GKN also tests whether the Government really do have a recovery plan, or if it is just more rhetoric. If the Government are serious about levelling up, then that has to be about safeguarding good, decent jobs in the midlands and across the country; investing in people and places; and ensuring we see a transition to green which is just and fair. Letting this plant close on the basis of short-term decisions by private equity flies in the face of levelling up.

This plant has a proud industrial heritage, with over 50 years’ history at the site. It is the only British automotive plant owned by GKN, but now it threatens its future. This is a UK company planning to close its only UK automotive plant and move the jobs overseas. Frankly, it is a disgrace. If the Government care about people and places and levelling up, then it starts with anchor industries and companies in places such as Erdington, where unemployment is twice the national average. The Government must stand up for workers in Erdington and across the country in the supply chain, not stand back and let vulture finance destroy jobs and decimate the proud history in this community.

This is also a test of the Government’s commitment to communities and places in levelling up. That is why we need deeds, not words. While the Government are high on ambition, they are low on action. Labour backs our automotive industry, and we have set out an ambitious three-point plan to safeguard the industry’s future through investment in gigafactories and measures to make owning an electric vehicle more affordable.

Make no mistake, the eyes of workers and voters across the midlands are on the future of GKN and our world-leading automotive sector. If the Government allow the plant to close on their watch, so many more jobs and businesses will be threatened going forward, from Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port to the production location of that iconic British car, the Mini, going electric. Many are watching to see whether or not the Government are really serious about their rhetoric. This is a big test for the Government, one that none of us want to see them fail. The consequences are too great.