Skip to main content

Opel/Vauxhall: Sale to PSA Group

Volume 622: debated on Monday 6 March 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the sale of Opel/Vauxhall to PSA Group.

This morning the boards of General Motors and PSA Group announced plans for PSA to acquire GM’s Vauxhall/Opel operations. The proposed deal is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

The Prime Minister and I have been engaged in discussions with both GM and PSA, and with the French and German Governments, to ensure that the terms of the agreement can give confidence to Vauxhall’s UK workforce now and for the future. Vauxhall is an iconic, important and successful British car manufacturer. Vauxhall cars have been made in Britain for 113 years, and we are determined that that should continue to be the case for many years to come.

The car plants at Ellesmere Port and Luton have a proud record of being among the most efficient in Europe, with workforces that are skilled, committed and flexible. Both PSA and GM have confirmed to the Prime Minister and me a number of important commitments, including that the company will honour its agreements with the Vauxhall workforce; that Vauxhall pensioners will be in at least as good a position as they are today; that the treatment of the UK division will be equal to that of other countries in the Vauxhall/Opel group; that the identity of Vauxhall will continue to be distinct and prominent; that the strategy of the new company will be one of building on existing strengths and commitments, not on plant closures, taking opportunities to increase sales around the world; and that the company will work with me and the rest of the automotive sector to ensure that it can participate in a substantial programme of research and investment for innovation in areas such as electric vehicles and battery technology, which is part of our industrial strategy.

This morning I had a further conversation with my French counterpart the industry Minister, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and Industry spoke again to his German counterpart to agree a consistent approach. I speak frequently with Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the largest trade union at Vauxhall, and I have kept, and will keep, colleagues with particular constituency interests up to date at all times.

It is in everyone’s interests that Vauxhall should look forward to a successful future. A generation ago, the British car industry epitomised our economic woes; today that industry is a beacon of success. Companies invest in Britain because our automotive sector has a high-quality workforce and world-class efficiency, and is part of one of the most exciting places on earth for innovation and research in new technology. The future of the motor industry is bright in Britain, and we will be active at all times in doing everything that we can to make it brighter still.

I thank the Secretary of State for that positive response, but I would like further clarification on a number of issues.

First, although I welcome PSA’s promise to honour existing contracts, I am deeply concerned about the 40,000 workers who are currently employed at Luton and Ellesmere Port and in the wider supply chain, who will be worried about the future of their jobs. What assurances has the Secretary of State personally received about the future of Vauxhall’s plants and the wider UK workforce beyond existing contracts? During his discussions with PSA, did it confirm that the production of the new Astra model would take place in the UK?

Secondly, there has been some discussion about the £1 billion deficit in General Motors’ UK pension scheme, with some commentators stating that it could have jeopardised the deal. The scheme has 15,000 members and is one of the largest in the UK. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that the pensions of the UK workforce are guaranteed in full?

Thirdly, it is increasingly clear that the Government have little power to ensure that certain corporate takeovers are in the public interest and accord with Britain’s industrial strategy. Existing legislation allows intervention only when matters relate to national security or media concentration. Does the Secretary of State have any plans to broaden the definition of public interest, for example to serve stakeholders and not just shareholders? If so, when will he publish the draft legislation?

Finally, what support has been offered to PSA following Britain’s exit from the European Union? We welcomed Nissan’s decision to remain in the UK as a result of assurances provided by this Government. Has PSA been offered the same deal? If so, would it not make sense for the Government to set out their strategy for this sector as a whole, rather than enlightening businesses one crisis at a time?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. The last two weeks have been worrying times for the workforce. The statements that have been made by both parties today have been welcomed—not just by me, but by the trade unions—as steps in the right direction. It is important that we should hold the company to account on that.

On the points that the hon. Lady mentioned, PSA has said that it will honour GM’s agreements with the unions, which extend to at least 2021. In the motor industry, as she will know, new models come in at various points. We are fortunate that both the principal models in the UK are at quite an early stage in the cycle. I want, as I am sure she does, both plants to be competitive in expanding their production in the years to come.

I have discussed pensions regularly and in detail with GM and PSA. They have given an absolute commitment that no pensioner—current or prospective—will be worse off in any way. Of course, the Pensions Regulator, which is independent of the Government, is required to confirm any changes in pension arrangements.

In terms of the takeover regime generally, the hon. Lady will know that, in this case, one overseas-owned company is being taken over by another; we are not talking about a listed UK company that falls within the UK merger regime. In discussions with my counterparts in France and Germany, I have agreed that we should take a consistent approach on the assurances that are needed. The trade unions are equally in contact with their opposite numbers in other countries.

In terms of the support available to the automotive sector, as I mentioned to colleagues a few moments ago, that sector has been a great success in this country. One of the foundations of that success is the co-operation that we have had—Government to sector, and within the sector through the Automotive Council—to invest in research and development, particularly for electric vehicles and battery storage, and to make sure that we have institutions to train the future workforce. That has been a great success, and I hope that the future owners of Vauxhall will participate in the same way as other successful UK motor industry players have done.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and his engagement with those of us who represent employees in the areas concerned—in my case, Luton. I would be grateful if he indicated what reassurance has been given to PSA in recognition of the fact that part of the strength of the Luton plant arises from the quality of the supply chain and the investment that has been made in it over recent years. I hope that he can give us some reassurance, because an understanding of that position will help to secure jobs not just at Luton, but in the supply chain, which is so important to the home counties area around Bedfordshire.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. We are talking about both the workforce directly employed by Vauxhall and the substantial employment in the supply chain. Both are very important, so this has been part of our discussions. I think that there is every opportunity—I will be vigorous in pursuing it—to expand the supply chain that supplies not only the Vauxhall plants, but other plants in this country. In the context of our industrial strategy, that is one of the avenues that we intend to expand on during the months ahead.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on securing this urgent question. I welcome the Secretary of State’s initial comments regarding guarantees on pensions and short-term jobs, which are welcome. Even then, we have to appreciate that workers are clearly experiencing some uncertainty.

I know from manufacturing plants in my constituency that being efficient does not necessarily protect them from wider politics. It is quite clear from media vox pops that some of the workers are concerned about the future impact of Brexit, given the wider European plants that they are combining with. To repeat the earlier question, what guarantees has the Secretary of State got for the wider supply chain for components, given that we are now talking about a much bigger multinational company? Has he had any discussions about the effect that the UK being outwith the customs union would have on costs and component supply for UK plants? What discussions has he had with the Chancellor about the provision of R and D money out of the £23 billion so-called investment fund, which is clearly needed to do what he talked about—to support these plants, and continue the development of electric vehicles and battery storage?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. On the first point, it is evident that these discussions are about the restructuring of GM’s operations and are not tied to Brexit. With regard to the supply chain, there are opportunities. It is very clear that PSA has been talking about expanding its production, and that should create further opportunities for the supply chain, which I intend to pursue in this country. Research and development has been an area of success for us, as is recognised by companies in the sector. With the industrial strategy challenge fund, which was announced in the autumn statement, we made a specific commitment to expand our research into battery technology in particular, and that will be very attractive to suppliers in this sector.

May I ask the Secretary of State what he has learned about PSA’s plans to build ultra-low emission vehicles in the United Kingdom—whether electric, hybrid, hydrogen or indeed liquefied petroleum gas—all of which there will be increasing demand for in the future, not least as we meet our air quality objectives?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have had many discussions about opportunities for expanding the manufacture and provision of ultra-low emission vehicles. This country has a very good reputation as a hotbed of research in that area, and PSA wants to expand its exposure to that and is doing so. I am determined that we should seize the opportunity that that gives us for our sector to go from strength to strength.

The plants at Luton and Ellesmere Port are productive and efficient. They have a highly skilled workforce that any company would be proud to employ—this is not a basket-case industry—but in the face of strong foreign Government support, we need an active and interventionist Government who are determined to safeguard these competitive skills and manufacturing assets for Britain. If the new enterprise plans to become profitable through the development of products and the supply chain, and by moving the production of Opel cars on to PSA assembly lines, what specific things will the Government pledge to do both to win the new model Astra for Britain and to develop this country’s automotive supply chain?

The Chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is absolutely right. I do not think that anyone in PSA and GM, or in the French and German Governments, would think that we have been anything other than completely active in promoting the strengths of the UK. He is absolutely right: the presence of those factories in this country is not a matter of altruism; they are efficient and they make a great contribution to the performance of the company. We will build on that through the industrial strategy. I have mentioned research and development on electric vehicles, and the training and development of the workforce is a very important asset. We have a good workforce there, which we need to keep equipped for the future. He will see in the industrial strategy, as it develops, a renewed commitment to research and training in the auto sector.

My right hon. Friend outlined how the UK automotive industry has been a huge success in recent years, and he has mentioned the industrial strategy a number of times. Will he provide a little more detail about how the industrial strategy will help us to ensure that the automotive industry continues to develop and grow?

I will, indeed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. I have mentioned two areas in particular. On research and development, bringing together our universities and research institutions with the companies in the sector through the Automotive Council is very important. On the training of people who are going to work in the sector, I have had the pleasure of visiting the campus of Warwick University, where the automotive innovation centre is being built with a school for apprentices that will train 1,000 apprentices a year to work in this sector, and those are important developments. I have mentioned the supply chain, and through the industrial strategy we will make Britain even more attractive, particularly for smaller and medium-sized enterprises to service the major companies.

I thank the Secretary of State for keeping colleagues informed as matters have developed. It is clearly good news that we have a guarantee that production will continue until the end of the current Astra run at Ellesmere Port, but there is a deep concern in the community about what will happen after that. The noises that we have heard from PSA so far have been about plants being judged on their efficiency. I am very confident that, with the track record we have at Ellesmere Port of unions and management working together, we can put a very good case forward. However, there are things beyond their control, which is where the Government can step in, whether on business rates, procurement or the supply chain. I would like assurances from the Secretary of State that he will do everything in his power to ensure that we have a competitive environment for the Ellesmere Port and Luton plants.

I will indeed. I will work with any hon. Member who has an interest in securing the future of this company and others in our economy. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The fact that plants will be judged, as they tend to be in the automotive sector for new models, on the basis of competitive efficiency is a strength for us in this country, because our automotive plants are the strongest in the world. I would rather we competed on efficiency. I will work, through the Automotive Council and our industrial strategy, to ensure that all the competitive elements that have been so successful to date will continue and increase.

Like my right hon. Friend and other Cheshire Members, I want to ensure that the renaissance we have seen in the automotive sector in recent years continues for decades to come. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps he will take to improve technical skills and apprenticeships to ensure that automotive manufacturers in Cheshire and elsewhere in the north-west get the support they need in the years ahead?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute again to the workforce in both plants and in Vauxhall’s other operations in this country. They are efficient and highly committed, and they have been very flexible. As technology changes, we need to keep their skills up to date. The automotive sector is aware of that and is working with the Government on institutions to train not just apprentices, but other people in the industry. That will have my full-hearted commitment.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Luton workforce are brilliant. They produce a superb vehicle. Today’s news is very positive, but Britain is still a net importer of motor vehicle products, in particular high value added components. Will he discuss with PSA the possibility of developing more high value added production in the supply chain over here, particularly in view of the recent depreciation of sterling, which looks likely to be permanent?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his engagement over the past few weeks. He knows the workforce in Luton well and what he says about them is absolutely right. There is a big opportunity across the automotive sector to increase the supply chain. It is one of the areas where we can make further progress in what is already a successful sector. We will do that through the industrial strategy and it will have my personal engagement.

Might that opportunity to increase the UK component of the component supply chain be increased if there is to be a change in our relationship with the internal market?

We want to make sure that we have the best possible trading relationship with the rest of the single market, but whether we were leaving or staying in the EU the opportunity to get more suppliers in this country is there, and I am determined that we should take it.

I have constituents who work in the Ellesmere Port plant and many others are reliant for their employment on local supply chains, so this is causing huge worry in the area. What can the Secretary of State say to reassure my constituents about the future, particularly given that our employment laws make it easier to sack workers in the UK compared with those who work in France and Germany, which puts them at an immediate disadvantage? What can he say to reassure them about the fact that we are leaving the EU and the single market, which again potentially puts them at a disadvantage in the competition to come?

What I would say to the hon. Lady is, first, that the reason we have a successful record in this country is that our car plants and their workforces are highly efficient, and we should not forget that. Secondly, the commitments given—they have been shared with the trade unions—are to honour agreements that include the trade unions, which I think she will welcome. In the long term, we want to expand the industry. We want to take every opportunity to work with the automotive sector to increase the number of good jobs available to her constituents and people across the country.

I welcome PSA’s assurances that it will continue to respect the commitments made by General Motors to Vauxhall’s employees and, very importantly, Vauxhall’s pensioners. Can the Secretary of State assure us that he will continue to engage and work with PSA in the weeks and months to come to ensure not only that any assurances are kept, but that PSA will continue to build on the success of both plants for the long term?

I will indeed. As soon as we heard about these proposals, my colleagues and I engaged immediately with the management and the unions of this country and with our counterparts. My engagement in our activity will not let up in the weeks ahead. These assurances are welcome, as everyone has noted, but we need to make sure that they are implemented in practice.

I echo the thanks to the Secretary of State for his efforts to keep those of us with a constituency interest involved. I am most grateful to him. Does he accept that our car industry is at a competitive disadvantage compared with those in other European countries because of the way that business rates operate, and that when new plant is installed, it increases business rate costs? Will he speak to his colleagues in the Government to see if we can find a way around this disincentive to invest?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, but I remind him and colleagues that this country is a competitive place in which to do business, including in the car manufacturing sector. Different countries will have different policies. I am determined to make sure that we are competitive and that we remain competitive so that we can expand our production in the future.

Will my right hon. Friend update us on any discussions he has had about this takeover with specific reference to steel supply chains?

I have talked about the supply chain in general, and I think that there are opportunities right across the supply chain—from individual components to materials—and I want to make full use of that. We are discussing with the steel industry a steel sector deal, part of which is to make sure that there are bigger opportunities, especially by UK customers, to make greater use of steel products.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the reassurances he has obtained from Peugeot, welcome as they are, are very limited in extent and duration, and that it would probably not take much longer than that if it were decided to close one of the British factories, which is exactly what happened at Ryton in Coventry, as the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) would confirm? Is it not therefore the case that he cannot rest on the assurances at this point, such as they are, but must push and continue to push for the only reassurance that we really have, which is replacement models for the plants in the UK?

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to stay engaged and to make sure that these commitments are delivered. I will make sure that we do that, as will colleagues in the trade unions and others. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is important that these commitments have been given very clearly in writing today, which is far better than the opposite. As for the experience of Peugeot in Ryton, he will know that I have raised the matter with the management of PSA in the past. They describe a very different strategy from that which they pursued at that time. It is a different management, and their strategy now is based on expanding production, not closing plants, which again I welcome.

The Secretary of State is right to draw attention to the transformation that has happened in the motor industry since the days when PSA was running and operating at Ryton. We now have an industry with world-leading expertise in autonomous vehicles and electric technology, which my right hon. Friend saw from Jaguar Land Rover on his recent visit to Warwick University. Does he agree that this merger provides the PSA Group with an opportunity to access the innovation and creative thinking of our designers, and the flexibility and quality of our workforce?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the big advantages of locating in this country is that manufacturers can join a vibrant consortium of people collaborating in a network, as at Warwick, which is recognised as a world-leading place to do automotive research. We want to build on that and attract more businesses to support it.

I support the Secretary of State’s approach. He is demanding of PSA, so he will understand if we are a little demanding of him when it comes to what he is going to do. May I ask him again—as did my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson)—about the business rates regime as it relates to investment in plant and machinery? Has he asked the Chancellor to change it, yes or no?

As I said to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), the competitiveness of our automotive sector is high. I will ensure that, across the board, we retain a world-competitive—not just European-competitive—sector, and I will look into any aspect of that if it is brought to my attention.

I am sure that the whole House would like to thank the excellent Secretary of State for his efforts on behalf of Vauxhall. It was reported today that the chief executive of PSA had said that there would be no plant closures, and that jobs would be protected. He pointed out that he had never closed a plant in his life, and that he was actually seeking expansion. Might not the merger be good news for Vauxhall and its future?

I hope that it is, and we should do everything we can to make sure that it is. A company that is committed to expansion has an opportunity to ensure that that includes the expansion of UK plants. It is an area in which we are strong and in which we have a high reputation, and this should be an opportunity for us to make what is good even better.

I cannot help feeling that the Minister is being a little bit complacent. Some 76% of cars produced at Ellesmere Port are exported, but many of them are left-hand drive cars for Europe. Would it really make sense to Peugeot to continue left-hand drive production outside the EU, and not in Poland or Germany?

I persuade companies to invest in Britain; I think that the hon. Gentleman is thinking up reasons for them to be put off. I believe that the efficiency and the innovation that we have in this country are what cause people to invest here, and I will do all that I can to make this a positive and expanding industry in the future.

The Secretary of State is right to acknowledge that today’s announcement underlines the importance of reinforcing the UK’s role as a centre for research, innovation and the development of connected and ultra-low emission vehicles. What more can be done to ensure that PSA and other manufacturers—I hope the Minister will pardon the expression—take a leaf out of Nissan’s and Jaguar Land Rover’s book, and make those vehicles in the UK as well?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I have enjoyed working with him to promote the automotive sector. I think that this is an opportunity for a company—PSA—that has not had the same footprint in Britain in recent years to join in and benefit from the advantages that accrue to those that participate in our industrial strategy through the Automotive Council, prominent among which is the opportunity to participate in our research programmes, in relation not just to electric vehicles but, as the hon. Gentleman says, to autonomous vehicles as well.

The Secretary of State must support the long-term future of these very efficient plants and their highly qualified workforces by backing new models. Does he accept, however, that the long-term prospects of the plants are weaker as a result of Brexit and French ownership, and that he may have to offer an even better deal than the one that he offered to Nissan to secure their futures? Will he make that deal public, so that other industries that are also badly affected by Brexit can know what level of financial support they can expect from the Government?

I am disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman began by, again, talking about negatives when there are big opportunities for the sector. In fact, Mr Tavares himself said today that opportunities were arising from Brexit. I have made absolutely clear what is available to any automotive manufacturer and member of the supply chain in this country: working with us through the sector and investing in research and development, the development of skills, and the expansion of the supply chain. That is an invitation to manufacturers throughout the world to come and invest in Britain, and if they do, they will find a ready partner in all of us in the House and the country.

It was reported recently that the Government had offered the new owners of Vauxhall assurances similar to those given to Nissan. Will the Government commit themselves to full transparency in that regard, with full disclosure of promises made to PSA, and also place copies of any correspondence in the Library of the House?

We could not have been clearer: we have said that all companies that are part of the UK automotive sector will be able to enjoy all the benefits of that in terms of research and development, trading and the expansion of the supply chain that we will see through the industrial strategy.

Hundreds in the excellent workforce at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port and many in its supply chain reside over the border in north-east Wales. Will the Secretary of State ensure that he liaises with the Welsh Government on one of their primary objectives, which is to ensure that we have tariff-free access to mainland European Union markets?

I will work with our colleagues in Wales through the Secretary of State here and the Welsh Assembly Government. I and my Ministers will shortly meet Ministers in Wales to discuss the industrial strategy, and I imagine that Ken Skates and others will want to have those conversations with them.

I commend the Secretary of State for his dialogue with the trade unions and hope he is able to give us a commitment that he will continue that. Interestingly, he does not seem to be answering the questions on Brexit head-on. Many of my constituents work at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant, and they are very concerned about this. Given the risk that thousands of high-skilled jobs of the future may go, and given the importance of the plant to the region’s economy, what are the Government doing to ensure future EU market access for this industry and other important exporting industries?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s kind words. We have made it very clear that our objectives as we start the negotiations—which obviously have not commenced yet, because we have not triggered article 50 —are about making sure that we can have access to the single market without impediments and without tariffs. But in any case, we are determined that our industry, whether the automotive sector, advanced manufacturing generally or the whole economy, will be competitive. The head of PSA himself said today that Brexit actually offers some opportunities, but the hon. Lady can have my assurance that I will do everything within my power to make sure that the terms of trade that we secure through our negotiations are as advantageous as possible.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind offer after last week to meet me later today along with colleagues representing seats along the south Wales M4 corridor to talk about what happened with Ford in Bridgend last week, but today we have another announcement. It looks as though we are going to have drip, drip, drip announcements, causing great anxiety to people in the automotive industry. I asked the Prime Minister if we could have a summit involving MPs, manufacturers and the trade unions; is it not now time to call such a summit, so that rather than companies being taken apart one by one, we can discuss this as a whole House?

I am looking forward to meeting the hon. Lady with her colleagues later today, but I do not think that is the right way to think about what has been proposed between the two companies today. It is a transfer of the assets of GM in Europe to PSA. What is needed is activism and alacrity on every one of these investments. I make that commitment to the hon. Lady with respect to Ford, and when we meet later today we can talk about what is required in terms of those discussions.

The Secretary of State knows that the efficiency of the plants is down to the industry and the policy is down to him. Does his activism go so far as he having yet instructed his officials to have conducted an impact assessment of the impact on the automotive sector of leaving the customs union?

As the hon. Lady well knows—I can tell from her smile—what she asks applies to the debate in general about our negotiating position. Of course, as a member of the Cabinet I am a part of the discussions about our negotiations, but she will know that, in terms of the automotive and other sectors of the economy, I will do what I can to ensure not only that we get the best deal in our negotiations, but that we are a competitive force in the world whatever the result of them.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement, but I would also add a word of caution. We had this situation in Coventry, in Baginton, in 2005. The then Government intervened and tried to do their best, and the workers were promised new models, but they never materialised. Jobs were brutally cut and the factories were totally cut. I do not want to pour cold water on the Secretary of State’s announcement, but he needs to be very careful, given what he is dealing with.

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s advice, based on his experience. As I said earlier today, I am cautiously optimistic. I think that the commitments go in the right direction. Actually, the language that I have used is the language that Len McCluskey has used, and I dare say that he is a veteran of negotiations such as these. I think we all need to welcome a positive future for Vauxhall, but we also need to do everything we can to ensure that it is delivered.

Is the Minister aware that he has twice—twice!—praised Len McCluskey in this House, and that he has mentioned the trade unions as though they were part of the CBI five times? Is this the same Minister who walked through the Lobby to attack the trade unions’ authority and introduce that lousy Act of Parliament?

I am not sure that Len McCluskey would want me to praise him. I think I acknowledged that we had been working together on this, as I hope the hon. Gentleman would expect. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, and every Member of this House, would want us all to put party political differences aside and to do what we can to secure jobs in every constituency in this country represented by colleagues here.