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Wrightbus (Ballymena)

Volume 664: debated on Monday 30 September 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the situation at Wrightbus in Ballymena in County Antrim.

I am deeply disappointed by the news that Wrightbus has had to enter administration. This is a real blow for the people of Ballymena. A number of redundancies have been announced. This clearly creates an extremely difficult situation for all those who have lost their jobs and for their families. Support will be provided to those affected via the Northern Ireland civil service, and I—along with my hon. Friends—will continue to do everything that I can, as I have been doing over the weekend and in previous weeks, to work with Invest Northern Ireland and Government colleagues to support any potential purchaser of the business or assets who may be identified during the process of administration.

I thank the Secretary of State for what he has said. To put this matter in perspective, the loss of those jobs is the equivalent of about 30,000 to 40,000 jobs being lost on mainland UK, so it is devastating to the Northern Ireland economy—it is a huge blow to our economy.

I thank the Government, first of all, for what they have done, and what they have indicated behind the scenes that they intend to do, for any purchaser. The Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the Business Secretary have all made that very, very clear. However, let me ask the Secretary of State the following questions. Will he spell out to any investor what Government support would actually look like in terms of research and development, soft loans or grants? Can he assure me that the party currently at the table is fully aware of the extent of the promised support and what it would actually look like to assist it in this process? Will he ensure that public transport, by way of hydro and other electric power, will receive special support to make sure that Northern Ireland and the UK’s public transport sector provides the greenest technology possible, and present itself as a huge selling point around the world? Will he recognise that arm’s—length bodies such as Translink and FirstGroup and other bus buyers need to be encouraged directly with economic assistance to buy more British-made buses? Will he ensure that in future all bus orders go through British companies, therefore supporting British jobs and British investment?

On a practical level, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure, and spell this out to the workers—our heart has to go out to the 1,200 or so workers who have lost so much and who are devastated at the present time—that practical support will be given to them. I know that about £14 million of redundancy has been paid out, but practical support is also needed, such as issuing the P45s quickly, and making sure that workers in Malaysia and here on mainland GB are brought home to Northern Ireland as quickly and expeditiously as possible.

My hon. Friend shares my desire to ensure that we get into a better place on this issue. Let me answer his questions in turn. On R&D and Government support more generally, the Government are making any potential bidders aware of what could be available, but, as he knows, this is a commercial process. It is being managed by an administrator, and many of the actions need to take place at a devolved level. None the less, we will continue—and I do continue—to speak actively to all stakeholders involved, and I am conducting meetings during the course of this week.

On buses more generally, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of Exchequer has made an announcement today to commit £220 million to buses in Great Britain, and there will be additional money for Northern Ireland coming out of that pot. We are also developing the national bus strategy, and I hope that both of those initiatives will mean that the market for buses and the opportunity for the excellent product produced in Ballymena by Wrightbus will be strong and will encourage investors to take the risk to develop the business further.

On the matter of the P45s, my understanding is that the administrator has now written to all employees to communicate the process going forward on redundancies and on the P45s. For the six workers who are currently in Malaysia, the administrator has now taken steps to get those workers home, and I stand ready to address and to help in any way any problems or issues on either of those matters.

Is my right hon. Friend able to make any comment on what seems to be an absurdly large religious donation made by the owners of Wrightbus in recent years? Although the donation was made when the company was profitable, reports cite a figure in the region of £15 million, which seems grossly excessive. Given that these are jobs that Northern Ireland can ill afford to lose, will my right hon. Friend also give some thought to how we can ensure that this matter does not fall between the two stools of its being a devolved matter and there being no devolved Assembly to pick up the reins and run with it?

I do not think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the loan. On the question of how the absence of Stormont affects these jobs, yes, not having a devolved Executive is making a big difference, but between Invest NI, the Government, the Northern Ireland civil service and a campaigning and dedicated local MP, we are showing that we can get things done. I hope that we can get some positive news out of what is currently a very difficult situation.

May I join the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) in underlining the importance of this issue? For Ballymena, the loss of 1,200 high-paid, high-skilled jobs is enormous; these jobs matter enormously.

There are a number of questions that arise. First, we need to examine the role of the administrator. In the context of British Steel, the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the then Chancellor arranged that the official receiver would take responsibility. This had the effect of keeping British Steel as a going concern. Could we take the same kind of approach to Wrightbus to ensure that there is a possibility that it can be moved on as a going concern, with the existing skilled workforce?

My second question relates to the land. As I understand it, when Japan Tobacco International Gallaher vacated the site, the land was gifted across. I also understand that one of the current drawbacks to a sale of Wrightbus is the possibility that the land will be seen as an asset by those who would make profit from it. It would therefore seem reasonable for the land to be transferred intothe public domain so that there is no question of people profiteering from what was a gift from Japan Tobacco International.

Thirdly, I emphasise the question of the hon. Member for North Antrim regarding investment in the technologies of the future—battery technologies and green technologies—so that Wrightbus can join the other bus manufacturers in the UK that can tour the world selling world-class products.

Having seen the situations at Bombardier, Harland and Wolff, and now at Wrightbus, one thing that is obvious is that three of the marquee names in Northern Ireland manufacturing are under pressure. We need to see an industrial strategy for Northern Ireland now, particularly given the possibility that Brexit will have a dramatic impact, especially if it is a Brexit that sees a border down the Irish sea or across the island of Ireland. We need a strategic view of the long-term future of manufacturing in Northern Ireland.

My experience in Northern Ireland from the two major issues I have been working on recently with regard to the economy—Harland and Wolff, and Wrightbus—is that the administration companies have been working very well with all stakeholders.

As with the Church loan, I do not think it is appropriate for me to comment on the matter of the land, other than to say that I urge anyone who can do anything to unlock the process of making a successful sale to a successful bidder and preserving jobs to do everything they can to be as flexible as possible.

On the matter of low emission buses and bus technology, Wrightbus is second to none in leading-edge bus technology, which is why I remain confident that we can get to a better position than we are currently in and we can protect jobs.

On the interrelationship between Brexit, Wrightbus, Harland and Wolff and Bombardier, I have made it clear since taking this role that it is in the best interests of Northern Ireland that we get a deal. That is what I am doing, and that is what the Prime Minister is doing.

We know that Wrightbus plays a crucial role in manufacturing in Northern Ireland. Once major industrial facilities are lost, they are very difficult to restore. In my experience, a combination of ministerial activism and the strong support of local constituency Members can make a difference, so I commend my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) for the efforts they have been making. I invite them to continue, with all the other things on their plates, to be absolutely tenacious in finding a buyer, and to know that they can count on my support and that of Members across the House in finding the best solution for what can be, in future, a very successful company.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that contribution and take this opportunity to pay tribute to his activist approach. It was not always of benefit to me as Government Chief Whip, but many, many companies benefited from it across the United Kingdom.

I concur with the many points made about what brilliant products Wrightbus makes and what a tragedy we are faced with. I commend the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) for securing this urgent question.

Surely the issue is that Ministers, or BEIS, must have been aware that there was a cash-flow issue within this company a year or so ago. Charitable donations were being made that far exceeded the £1.7 million loss that the company was facing. At what point were Ministers or BEIS aware of that, and what does it mean for the industrial strategy?

The important thing now is to protect jobs and to ensure that we get a successful buyer. There will be time enough to look back on what could have been done differently and what things need to improve.

As I drove through London to the House today lots of Wrightbus buses were to be seen, bought by the excellent previous Conservative Mayor. One intervention that could go ahead and make the company viable to be sold is the London Mayor buying the right bus for London, which is Wrightbus.

I do not think it would be appropriate for me to make bus-buying recommendations, but I say again that the technology of Wrightbus and the energy at Wrightbus mean that there is a good future for it if we can get a successful buyer.

Whether that is because the right hon. Gentleman does not judge himself to be a particular authority on bus-buying or because he regards reference to the matter as beneath the dignity of his undoubtedly high office—whichever it is—he has made his choice.

My friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and I were in discussions over the summer about how we could promote the manufacturing sector in buses and low-emission buses. That is his commitment to his constituency. What specific conversations has the Secretary of State had with the company, or perhaps with the family, about removing the block on the sale of the land and possibly even taking it into a trust so that manufacturing can continue there?

As I said in my statement, it is really important that everybody who thinks they could help to unlock this process does what is in the best interests of the people of Ballymena and the employees of the company.

It seems ironic on the day that announcements are made about money for new buses—I hope a significant amount of that money goes to my constituents in Staffordshire Moorlands—that we are here debating a bus manufacturer in Northern Ireland going into administration. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Sue Gray, the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland, who has worked tirelessly and I know will continue to do so to do all she can for the employees?

I am very happy to pay tribute to Sue. As colleagues from across the House know, she played a very important role in the civil service here and continues to do so in Northern Ireland.

One of the best things that the Secretary of State and the Government could do would be to encourage and fund Translink to the tune of £40 million, to enable it to buy the new buses it needs, which would enable Wrightbus to survive, thrive and retain jobs. Will the Secretary of State consider that?

The £220 million announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer a few hours ago will be of benefit to all bus companies and will ensure that the market for buses in both GB and NI will continue to thrive.

May I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working with not only Wrightbus but the Department for International Trade? As a trade envoy, I can testify to the fact that there is considerable interest in this bus in some of the high-density markets, particularly in Latin America, and with support from Government we might be able to get some of those deals over the line.

Through this process, I have become aware of the huge market for buses in South America. My hon. Friend is an exceptionally dynamic trade envoy, and I look forward to meeting him to discuss opportunities for Wrightbus buses if we can get a new buyer for them in the coming weeks.

It might be mismanagement or coincidence, but it looks like the collapse of the PM’s favourite bus builder—apart from himself, with the wine crates—is part of the pattern of his reverse Midas touch in London, with the ticket offices, the water cannon, the tube and the garden bridge. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, as I heard today, the overheating, three-door design of the Boris bus is unusable anywhere else in the world? How much public money was committed to the debacle that contributed to its decline, which, along with Harland and Wolff, spells grave consequences for Northern Ireland’s economy post Brexit, when a majority of people there wanted to remain?

The important message is to ensure that we get the best buyers for Wrightbus and Harland and Wolff. I do not have details on the technical aspects of the bus the hon. Lady mentions, but I think we should focus now on protecting jobs and supporting the local economy.

Like the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), I was very disappointed at this news from Wrightbus, as it is a manufacturer of quality products that I have driven and use daily—upon which you regularly comment, Mr Speaker. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will do everything he can to work with the Northern Irish civil service in the coming days to find a successful bidder, to ensure that the company can continue to manufacture quality products?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for all his work as a Transport Minister. The civil service in Northern Ireland is working very hard, Invest NI is working very hard and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working very hard, as is the local MP, and they will continue to do that over the coming days and weeks.

We daily learn more and more about the daring and distinguished exploits of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). I have regularly informed the House and those observing our proceedings that, when serving as Under-Secretary of State for buses, he was given to traveling to work by bus, to the obvious delight of his fellow passengers. What I did not know was that he was also in the business of driving buses. Is there any limit to the talents of the hon. Gentleman?

In addition to the tragic loss of 1,200 jobs, this announcement puts at risk more than 1,700 jobs in the supply chain. It has come to our attention that £2 million was paid out to shareholders, and only £1.7 million could save this company. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to recover that money and save these jobs?

The administrator is responsible for the sales process. As I mentioned earlier, there may be a number of things that the administrator and others will want to look at in the coming months, but the immediate task in hand is to find a buyer and to ensure that the Government, Invest NI and all other interested parties support that process.

Given the extent of the job losses in Ballymena and the fact that this company had orders in May for 20 hydrogen-powered buses for TfL, each worth £500,000, does the Secretary of State agree that this is a viable business, if the issue of the donations is set to one side, and that the cash-flow issue around donations to Church charities needs investigating?

The technology and the opportunity for Wrightbus, with a successful buyer and with a vision for the future, are very strong. I think we have addressed the issue of loans and other matters that are for the future.

May I first say to the Secretary of State that this is a terrible blow for workers across North Antrim, South Antrim, East Antrim and a number of other constituencies? Will he join me in congratulating Mid and East Antrim Borough Council on quickly holding a jobs fair that has identified many job opportunities for those who have been made redundant? May I also thank the Government for the announcement that has been made on spending money for public transport?

This company has a skilled workforce, it is a good product—despite the remarks of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq)—and if there is demand created through public finance, I believe there is a market for these buses. Does the Secretary of State agree that the opportunities presented when we leave the EU on 31 October and no longer have to abide by EU directives on public procurement give the Government an opportunity to make sure that that money is spent on buying British products?

I agree with my right hon. Friend about the opportunity for Wrightbus and the technology it has. I think we are both agreed that the best resolution for Brexit is a deal at the end of October.

Is it not the case that this company, with the 1,700-job loss, is a victim twice over: first, because of Brexit, the general uncertainty and the lack of infrastructure investment; and, secondly, because of the dreadful decisions taken since 2010 about the bus industry, with this Government failing to invest in regional buses? Those are the real reasons why 1,700 people have lost their jobs in Northern Ireland today.

It would be wrong to attribute this matter to Brexit, bus strategy or other issues. Very often, one of the issues in a capitalist economy is that companies do run into trouble. It is our job now to do everything we can to get this company out of that trouble.

May I thank the Secretary of State for the personal commitment he has shown to the workers of Wrightbus and, indeed, to Harland and Wolff in my constituency, which he has referred to? The last number of weeks have been a baptism of fire for him, and he will recognise the strong community support for Harland and Wolff in my constituency and for Wrightbus in Ballymena. Having engaged with Invest Northern Ireland and the Departments for the Economy and of Finance, as he has, will he confirm that the exercise of functions and the restoration of the Executive legislation permits civil servants, in the public interest, to take action that is necessary to secure these vibrant jobs and industries in Belfast?

My hon. Friend is right that there are certain powers that can be executed by the Department for the Economy, but the main powers reside with the Executive, which is why we want to get Stormont up and running. I pay tribute to the work he has done, working with the unions, potential investors and the administrator at Harland and Wolff, and I hope we will have some positive news during the course of this week.

Points of order would ordinarily arise at the end of the statement. [Interruption.] Yes, there is a statement to come. The hon. Lady is ahead of herself, which is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons. If she can contain her impatience for a matter of minutes, we will hear the product of her lucubrations before very long.