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Passenger Cars

Volume 78: debated on Wednesday 1 May 1985

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2.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what proportion of the United Kingdom market for passenger cars is now taken by imports; and how this figure compares with that for 1978.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and industry
(Mr. John Butcher)

In the first quarter of 1985, 57·9 per cent. of the United Kingdom passenger car market was taken by imports. In 1978 the figure was 49·3 per cent.

Does the Minister agree that those figures prove that the Government are not defending the interests of the British motor components industry, given that in the 1970s it employed 1 million people but that figure has now dropped to 400,000? Will the Secretary of State now get on his cycle and defend the interests of people working in the motor industry by ensuring that multinational companies manufacturing in this country do not import complete vehicles from abroad? Will he also inform the Japanese that local content means United Kingdom, not European, content? Is he aware that the British motor industry will otherwise be decimated? What do the Government intend to do about that?

The hon. Gentleman has chosen the dates of his survey with conspicuous cunning. He is aware that between 1974 and 1979 imports of motor vehicles doubled from 28 per cent. to 56 per cent. It is this Government's duty to ensure that the more malignant trends of that period are put into reverse and that our motor industry becomes more competitive.

Of course we are anxious to see the maximum British content in British-built cars. That is why we stipulated certain measures in the Nissan deal and why we are anxious to support the flagship British motor industry builder, British Leyland, to the tune of £1·43 billion during the lifetime of this Administration.

To what factors does my hon. Friend ascribe the reluctance of the British public to buy British cars? Will those factors be taken into account when Austin Rover next wishes the taxpayer to subsidise it?

My hon. Friend should note that very good strides have been made by British vehicle builders. It is unfortunate that a large number of people in the United Kingdom have acquired the habit of buying foreign cars. They are not looking, as they should, at the better model range and increased quality now coming forward from British vehicle builders. I hope that they will reacquire the habit of at least looking again at British products.

In view of that answer, will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that the Government, by refusing to allow British Leyland to put a new engine into production, are forcing it to buy Japanese engines, with a consequent loss of 5,000 jobs, mainly at the Longbridge factory in Birmingham?

As a Member for a distinguished constituency employing many car workers, the hon. Gentleman has a responsibility not to spread alarm and despondency by such questions. The matter that he has raised will be considered, among other matters, in the time-honoured tradition as part of the corporate plan. At the moment, I can say that the hon. Gentleman's question is pure conjecture.

I thank my hon. Friend for confirming that the Government are not yet prejudiced against the future of Austin Rover. Will he confirm that it would be in the best interests of the British motor industry if we had a British engine? Will he further confirm that if it was good enough for the mines to lose money, the modest extra sum of a comfort letter would help the British motor industry and save more than 5,000 jobs?

The whole question of future product development must be considered in the context of our discussions on the corporate plan. Of course, we appreciate BL's wish to see a design capability retained in the United Kingdom. Part of its submission is to be able to exercise that choice.

Will the Minister confirm what is known throughout the country—that the corporate plan includes a proposal to build a replacement for the A-series engine, costed at £250 million? Have not the Government refused to endorse BL's request? Is not the Department of Trade and Industry at war with Austin Rover over that project? Will the Minister end the uncertainty caused by the Government's reluctance to support the only remaining independent British vehicle manufacturer and stand by British industry, rather than force it into the hands of the Japanese?

Relations between BL and the Department of Trade and Industry are in their usual excellent shape. There is no confrontation or warfare. There is no formal bid for additional funding in the corporate plan. The question of BL's future product development strategy is one of the major matters to be considered as part of the discussions on the corporate plan. As previous Administrations have done, we shall place our conclusions before the House at the appropriate time.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the ways to improve British car market penetration, and so reduce import penetration, would be for hon. Members—when both inside and outside the House—to condemn practices such as industrial disputes, go-slows, demarcation disputes and excessive wage demands? Would not that improve the quality, productivity and delivery of British cars on to the British market?

My hon. Friend is right in identifying some of the past causes—[Interruption.]—of the British motor industry's difficulties. I am bound to say to him, if Labour Members will allow me to finish my sentence, that many of the malignant trends are being put into reverse and that British consumers should look yet again at the British product. In concentrating on BL, hon. Members may have missed an important target. There has been a significant increase in productivity and improvement in working practices within Vauxhall Motors and Ford. Vauxhall Motors is selling only 50 per cent. of its total production in the United Kingdom from the British-built source. It has only a 50 per cent., or less, British content in the cars which it manufactures. We are concerned that Vauxhall Motors and Ford should start cranking up their British content. British sales and British build.