Skip to main content

De La Rue: Gateshead

Volume 677: debated on Thursday 25 June 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

I am glad to have secured this debate on the Government response to job losses at the De La Rue site in Gateshead. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, take a particular interest in this debate, as you have a De La Rue site in your constituency of Epping Forest. I thank you for the concern you have expressed for the staff in Gateshead.

On 25 March 2018, I stood in this Chamber as a fairly new MP to ask an urgent question of the Home Office about the awarding of the contract to produce UK passports to Franco-Dutch company Gemalto rather than to De La Rue, which produced the passports at Team Valley in my constituency.

The De La Rue site, which quite literally prints money as well as producing passports, is one of the industrial jewels in the Gateshead crown. It produces high-quality, nationally important projects with great skill and in highly secure conditions. The staff are highly skilled and trained and well paid. These are quality jobs and staff are proud of the work they do. They do not just come from my constituency; they travel from a wide area around. Hon. Members from across the north-east will also have constituents who work at the site.

In 2018, despite huge public support for keeping passport production in the north-east and in the UK, despite newspaper campaigns and despite meetings with Government Ministers, the contract was eventually awarded to Gemalto. UK passport production was to be offshored, with blank books—a highly valuable commodity—being produced overseas and the personalisation being done in the UK.

Decisions were based primarily on cost in the procurement process that started in 2017. In my view, the Government should have taken a more strategic view from the start, as some other EU countries have done, believing that passport production is essentially a part of the integrity of our security system.

I do not absolve De La Rue’s senior management at the time for getting the price wrong, but my concern is for the staff who worked so hard and with such great pride to produce a secure quality passport for Great Britain. We must learn those lessons for the future when we reconsider the passport contract, but meanwhile, De La Rue employees are bearing the after-effects of that decision.

The loss of the passport contract meant the loss of 200 jobs as the contract came to an end, with a start date for the new contract of July 2019, but more job losses were to follow. In June 2019, a further 170 jobs were lost at Gateshead, from the currency production side. One of the two currency production lines printing banknotes was closed down as the company looked to reduce costs in the aftermath of the loss of their passport contract. Work was again transferred from Gateshead to the company’s other sites, including those in Gibraltar and Kenya.

To add insult to injury, chief executive Martin Sutherland stood down with a bonus worth more than 30% of his executive pay of £197,000, as staff pay was frozen, 48% of shareholders voted against De La Rue’s remuneration report in June 2019 and the future of the company looked very uncertain. Staff at the Gateshead site were facing redundancy. The Guardian wrote in November 2019:

“The farewell bonus for Sutherland, who finally departed last month, now looks like a wretched joke about a licence to print money.”

Sadly, it is not a joke for the staff who actually printed the money for De La Rue.

Each time I visited the site, I talked to staff, who are incredibly proud of the work they do and the responsibility that they carry. I talked to the union Unite about trying to save those jobs. Each time, top management told them that they would be looking to bring more work to Gateshead to replace the passport contract. None materialised.

Last week, as the company financial reports were released, news came of the proposal to end production of currency at Gateshead, with the loss of 255 jobs, leaving only 90 jobs in highly specialised functions at a site that just a few years ago had more than 600 jobs. For many staff not on shift when the stock markets opened, the news first reached them via the Chronicle website, social media, a text from friends or local TV and radio news. The staff deserve better than that.

Once again, work previously done in Gateshead will be moved to De La Rue’s other sites in the UK or overseas. There is a direct link between the decision to award the passport contract to Gemalto and the job losses across the Gateshead site. Because of the number of redundancies, there is now a consultation period of 45 days, so I will be working with Unite and echoing its call for this decision to be reversed and for work to be kept at the Gateshead site. Last week, I spoke to the current chief executive and chairman to let them know my anger at the decision and to support Unite’s call for it to be reversed. I will keep on pushing hard for that throughout the consultation period.

However, the Government have a responsibility in this too, and I am asking the Minister to help me and my colleagues to retain these skilled, high-quality jobs in the north-east. I want to know what the Government are going to do to ensure that jobs such as these are retained in the north-east. We simply cannot afford to lose them. These highly-skilled, well-paid jobs will help to stimulate our regional economy. We need sustainable jobs in the north-east. The Government say that they want to level up the north of England, so they must take practical and decisive action to keep those jobs and to secure more of them for our workers.

Behind those numbers are individuals, families and livelihoods. With the loss of those jobs comes a loss of security, of safety, of hope and of aspiration. Many will be shaken and shattered by this news, and those affected will emerge from the current pandemic even more uncertain about their futures. I join with Unite, the staff trade union, in calling for the company to reverse its plans and maintain production at its Gateshead site.

As I have already said, in 2018 and 2019 the previous management of De La Rue told staff at Gateshead that they would work to bring new work to the site and that the site was important to the company. Those promises were not delivered. Empty words mean nothing to people in my constituency, so I urge the Government to act now. They can start by ensuring that De La Rue’s site is maintained and that the contract to produce passports is returned to the UK as a matter of urgency. They can also help by taking action now to help me to keep those jobs in Gateshead. We must act with immediacy not only to protect local quality jobs, but to safeguard our local economy and strengthen our place in a rapidly changing world. The staff of De La Rue Gateshead deserve no less.

I will finish with one final irony. Today, almost one full year after the new contractor was due to take on the passport contract, some passports are still being produced by De La Rue staff on the Gateshead site in Team Valley in my constituency. That work is due to end at the end of June, just a few days from now. The remaining 80 passport staff will lose their jobs and passport production will cease on the site. I thank those staff and all the staff at the Gateshead site, and end with the hope that we will see a resurgence of the high-skilled, high-quality jobs we so need in the north-east.

I thank the hon. Lady for graciously mentioning that I share her concerns, as De La Rue is a major employer in my Epping Forest constituency.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate. As she eloquently said in her speech, the workers from the site come from across the north-east, and I have quite a number in my constituency.

People might say, “Well, 255 is a small number.” No, it is not, because of the type of jobs that we are talking about. They are high-quality, well-paid jobs. The individuals who work there have worked there for many years, in some cases. They have dedicated their lives to producing top-quality banknotes, and latterly passports. It is quite ironic that, in terms of withdrawing from the European Union, the Government said much about how great it was that we were going to get the blue passports back—although when I look at them, they seem more black than blue—but we then find that they are going to be printed abroad.

In the past few days, people have been saying that the reason the Government have done this is European procurement processes. That is complete nonsense, because no other European country has done this. They have, quite rightly, seen the integrity of the passport system as critical national infrastructure and as part of their key manufacturing capability. That is what should have happened with this contract. I share some of my hon. Friend’s concerns about some of the management at De La Rue over the years.

In the north-east, we are going through dark times at the moment with the pandemic. I spoke about that in the previous debate. Unfortunately it is going to get a lot worse, not only in terms of the pandemic affecting the north-east and the higher rates of mortality than in other areas, but the massive economic impact. So this is a further blow to the north-east economy. We should be looking at this decision and seeing how we can reverse it. In the coming months and years, the Government have to step in and direct contracts and support to those regions such as the north-east that need that support. Without that, we will be in a situation where, as I said in the previous debate, we will return to the dark days of the 1980s in the north-east, where unemployment will be at record levels and the lost generation that we saw in the ’80s will be repeated again. We cannot afford to do that.

These are high-quality and very sought-after jobs. Anybody who works there will say that they are proud of working for De La Rue, because the jobs are not only well paid but highly skilled, and the terms and conditions are good. We do not lose those types of jobs in the north-east easily—they will not be easily replaced. I hear a lot from the Prime Minister about levelling up and investment in the regions. Well, he could do something about that now by reversing the decision on the passports. The north-east went through a terrible time in the 1980s and ’90s. We have turned the corner in some areas, but we are not going to do it in this current climate without some direct Government support.

It saddened me this week, for example, when I learned of the Government’s decision to award the vaccines manufacturing and innovation centre to Oxford. Why Oxford? My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) asked where the other potential site was. It was in the north-east. So where the Government can actually help the north-east, they are clearly still not doing it. This has to be changed. We cannot have a situation whereby jobs are going to be lost, but also what should be retained in the UK in terms of manufacturing should be retained in the north-east. This was a Government decision—they cannot get away from that fact—and it needs revisiting. Without that, the Government have to step in somehow to ensure that the types of jobs that are being lost are going to be replaced.

It is customary to congratulate an hon. Member on securing a debate, but I think “congratulate” is the wrong word in this case, so I am going to commend the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). It is nothing to congratulate anyone about given the job losses that we are discussing. I know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you take a special interest in this because of the De La Rue presence in Epping Forest, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for his customary courtesy in letting me know that he was going to speak in this important debate. It is also appropriate to take the opportunity to thank the hon. Lady and other Members, and, importantly, all public, private, community and voluntary sector partners across Tyneside and the north-east, for their outstanding work and support during these challenging times.

Tyneside and the broader north-east is a major industrial and manufacturing hub for the United Kingdom. It is a critical centre for the UK automotive industry, with the region typically producing over 500,000 cars a year. It is also a centre for producing medicines and healthcare products—the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the vaccine manufacturing and innovation centre in Oxford. There is much more work to do, and I am absolutely passionate and focused on working with the north-east on the future of the life sciences sector in that region.

There were two shortlisted sites, according to the response given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar): Oxford and the north-east. If the Minister really wants to level up and actually put investment into the north-east, why did not he not insist on putting it in the north-east?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. The VMIC project had already been awarded and was already happening. All I did was bring it forward by 12 months so we can have it ready by summer next year, not the year after. But I am grateful for his passion and for quite rightly holding the Government to account on what we will do in the north-east, which is also a key region for developing offshore and renewable energy technology.

We are committed to ensuring that Tyneside and the north-east remain a key manufacturing development hub. The right hon. Gentleman speaks of life sciences development. Of the £3.4 billion that the Government have committed to growth deals across the northern powerhouse, £379.6 million—almost £380 million—has been allocated to the North East local enterprise partnership area. I am pleased to say that Gateshead has benefited directly from that investment, including just under £1 million for PROTO, a state-of-the-art research and development facility for emerging digital technologies, and £5 million for the development of a new 12,500-seat arena, conference and exhibition centre on a 10-acre site at Gateshead Quays.

I would like to acknowledge the work done by the North East local enterprise partnership. Skills, employment and economic inclusion are at the heart of the North East local enterprise partnership’s strategic economic plan, which was refreshed in 2019.

I thank the Minister for his comments about the PROTO development, which I am familiar with, and the Gateshead quayside development. We are enormously pleased with and proud of both of them, with the councils working in partnership with others. However, we also need to look at our manufacturing base and ensure that those traditional jobs are not left to slide because of new developments. Will the Minister address what can be done to assist on that point?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She is absolutely right. We need to make sure that those traditional jobs are maintained, but also see where we can reskill and upskill into some of the growth industries, such as offshore wind. I know there is a big skills agenda that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is taking forward.

The LEP has co-ordinated £18.4 million of capital investment across eight projects, with a further £28.5 million from public and private funding. I thought I should just mention a few of those projects. They include, addressing the hon. Lady’s skills challenge to the Government, the successful delivery of the Gatsby good careers guidance benchmark and the launch of the North East Ambition programme, supporting 170 schools and colleges. Still these are unprecedented times for businesses and communities across the country. I am grateful to have had the opportunity recently to reflect on the challenges faced by the manufacturing sector, to which the hon. Lady quite rightly refers, with trade union representatives, where we discussed what more the Government can do to support the manufacturing sector.

I share the hon. Lady’s disappointment at the news that about 250 jobs will be lost at the De La Rue currency and passport printing facility in Gateshead. I take this opportunity to express my sympathies to those workers and their families who will be impacted. Furthermore, I call on De La Rue to act responsibly in how it approaches the forthcoming redundancies. It is very worrying that, as the hon. Lady mentioned, staff only learned the news from the Chronicle and social media. That is not the way a responsible employer would act.

I understand that there has been much speculation about the decision of Her Majesty’s Passport Office not to grant De La Rue the contract to produce the new British passport. To set the scene, between March 2017 and April 2018, the Passport Office undertook a rigorous, fair and open competition to identify the bidder that will be best able to meet the needs of its passport service and customers until 2029. That included in-depth due diligence to ensure that any bidder was capable of delivering the contract within the quality standards set out. The new contract was awarded to Thales and will deliver significant savings of approximately £140 million compared with the contract awarded in 2009 to De La Rue, which will ensure value for money for the taxpayer.

Since 2009, a proportion of blank passports have been produced in Europe, with no reason why overseas production should not continue. Thales will manufacture passports from multiple secure locations. De La Rue historically operated a blank book passport assembly facility in Malta, to supplement its Gateshead operation. All passports produced by Thales will continue to be personalised with the passport holder’s personal details, such as a named photograph, in the United Kingdom. That continues to ensure that no personal data will leave the United Kingdom.

It also extends Thales’s already significant presence in this country. Thales’s digital identity and security division operates from five sites in the UK and employs over 500 staff in this country. Since the contract was awarded in April 2018, Thales has increased its UK workforce by over 90 posts. Furthermore, it is not outsourcing the manufacturing of the British passport to a third party.

I strongly believe that it was the correct choice to decide the next UK passport provider through free and fair competition, to ensure the best value for money for the British taxpayer. I also recognise that this year has been especially challenging for De La Rue. In November last year, the company reported that its half-year results had underperformed against market expectations, due primarily to reduced volumes and a reduction in margins in its currency business. That underperformance prompted the board to suspend future dividend payments and to push forward with a turnaround strategy. While we can acknowledge that the loss of the passport contract was disappointing for the business, it is clear that this alone does not account for the challenges that the business has faced.

In response to a challenging and competitive market environment, De La Rue published details of that turnaround plan in February this year. Unfortunately, that plan involved a degree of cost reduction and a concentration on its core currency and authentication divisions. In June last year, De La Rue exited the passporting and identification business by announcing the sale of its identity products division to HID Corporation Ltd. The UK passport contract was not part of the sale, but by this period, De La Rue was aware that it had not won the renewal of said contract.

Unfortunately, as part of its cost-saving programme, De La Rue announced a consultation to reduce the number of roles at the company’s headquarters and to cease all bank note printing and passport production at the Gateshead site. I note that De La Rue has said that it aims to preserve certain core services and roles at the site, and I urge De La Rue to ensure that it retains a presence in the Gateshead community. However, I recognise that this remains a tough and disappointing time for the employees of De La Rue who face redundancy, and I can assure them that the Government will do all they can to support them in this challenging period.

Due to the challenges of operating in the covid-19 environment, the Department for Work and Pensions rapid response service has adapted to ensure that we can continue to support those facing redundancy. People will be able to access redundancy help and job search advice on the Department’s new job help campaign website. There is also information on, and updated information packages are provided to employers to help them signpost employees to the support that is available.

I note the reference to the increased speed of Government agencies being able to help people, but will the Minister also acknowledge that the situation with companies such as Debenhams, where a couple of hundred staff have lost their jobs with the closure of the Metrocentre store, is adding to the pressure on the services, and what we need is real support and real action, and real opportunities for all those staff?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we need real support. There are three chapters to this challenge of covid. Chapter one was wrapping our arms around the economy and jobs, with schemes such as the furlough scheme and the bounce-back loans. Chapter two is now supporting businesses to restart and reopen; retail reopened in the middle of this month. Of course chapter three is about what stimulus we can inject into the economy, whether fiscal or non-fiscal—and the Chancellor will be saying more about this. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has conducted a deep dive with business and organisations representing business through a recovery taskforce, because we want to make sure that chapter three, which is about the recovery, is as robust and dynamic as we can make it. I assure the hon. Lady that the north-east will be very much a part of that.

The support for those losing their jobs includes connecting people to jobs in the local labour market in the north-east by helping them with job searches, including CV writing, interview skills, and where to find jobs and how to apply for them. We will also help to identify transferable skills and skills gaps linked to the local labour market, along with advice on what benefits people may get and how to claim them.

Furthermore, I can confirm that the Gateshead local authority is in touch with the company and stands ready to work with the Department for Work and Pensions, the Jobcentre Plus rapid response team and the National Careers Service to provide a package of support for any impacted employee. As I said earlier, the Government will do what we can to support these people and their families, and I believe that the Government can be proud of our record and how we have supported businesses across the north-east during the covid pandemic.

Through the coronavirus job retention scheme, we have so far protected 8.9 million workers and almost 1.1 million businesses; 24,200 people have been supported by the scheme in Gateshead alone, and due to the Chancellor’s announcement to extend the scheme back in May we can continue to support businesses and employees as they return to work over the coming months.

Furthermore, I am pleased to say that, through the various grant schemes the Government established to assist business, £36.8 million in grants has been paid out to 3,142 small businesses in the Gateshead local authority as of 21 June. We also recognise the importance of the Tyne and Wear metro to Gateshead, which the hon. Lady rightly mentioned, and the challenges it faces at present. That is why we have announced a further £7.6 million of support to keep it going on top of the £8.6 million announced on 1 May.

In the longer term, the Government have contributed £337 million of direct grants to provide a new fleet for this vital service. While I acknowledge that these are challenging times for all, I remain confident that there is a bright future ahead for Tyneside and north-east industries.

The Government recognise that this is a challenging time for all businesses. We have provided unprecedented levels of support to help business. For those De La Rue employees who, unfortunately, face redundancy, the Government will do what we can to ensure they receive the support they need.

Finally, I again thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate, and I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your patience; I know this subject is important to you, as it is to other Members of this House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.