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Electric Vehicle Battery Production

Volume 827: debated on Monday 23 January 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 18 January.

“Britishvolt entering into administration is a regrettable situation, and our thoughts are with the company’s employees and their families at this time. The Government are entirely committed to the future of the automotive industry and promoting EV capability. As part of our efforts to see British companies succeed in the industry, we offered significant support to Britishvolt through the automotive transformation fund on the condition that key milestones, including private sector investment commitments, were met. Unfortunately, the company was unable to meet these conditions and as a result no ATF funds were paid out. Throughout the process, we have always remained hopeful that Britishvolt would find a suitable investor and we are disappointed that this has not been possible. We want to ensure the best outcome for the site, and we will work closely with the local authority and potential investors to achieve this.

The automotive industry is a vital part of the UK economy, and it is integral to delivering on levelling up, net zero and advancing global Britain. We will continue to take steps to champion the UK as the best location in the world for automotive manufacturing as we transition to electric and zero-emission vehicles.

Despite what the party opposite may claim, we are not giving up on the automotive industry: on the contrary, our ambition to scale up the electric vehicle industry on our shores is greater than ever. We are leveraging investment from industry by providing government support for new plants and upgrades to ensure that the UK automotive industry thrives into the future. Companies continue to show confidence in the UK, announcing major investments across the country including: £1 billion from Nissan and Envision to create an EV manufacturing hub in Sunderland; £100 million from Stellantis for its site in Ellesmere Port; and £380 million from Ford to make Halewood its first EV components site in Europe. And we will continue to work through our automotive transformation fund to build a globally competitive electric vehicle supply chain in the UK, boosting home-grown EV battery production, levelling up and advancing towards a greener future.”

My Lords, 12 months ago, £100 million was made available by the Government to Britishvolt to help unlock the necessary private finance and the company’s future. Ministers were falling over themselves boasting about how they were supporting 3,000 highly skilled direct jobs and a further 5,000 jobs in the supply chain in the north-east of England. But the money never materialised, and we all now know the consequences. Does this signal the end of the Government’s green industrial revolution, at the expense of these jobs and the key role they would have played in the electric vehicle industry and the wider decarbonisation of the UK’s economy?

No, is the short answer to the noble Lord’s question. Of course, before we make any government money available, we do the appropriate due diligence. As a result of this work, the funding was designed so that agreed milestones had to be achieved for the company to draw down substantial amounts of taxpayers’ funds. In the event, it was not able to meet those milestones, so the money was not handed over. I am sure the Opposition would like us to be careful with public money. If the alternative had happened and we had handed over the funds and the company had still gone into administration, I am sure the noble Lord would have been on his feet demanding an inquiry into why we had been so careless with public funds.

My Lords, given that, as I am sure my noble friend agrees, gigafactories are a vital part of our industrial infrastructure going forward, is there not a case for publicly stating that they must be home grown and for calling together successful UK companies such as Rolls-Royce and BP, and entrepreneurs such as Sir James Dyson, to try to find a structure that will take this forward? Unless something like that happens, is it not a fact that it will result in imports from China?

The Government stand willing to talk to any manufacturers that want to establish such facilities. There have already been a number of excellent investments in the UK, supported by the automotive transformation fund. The site in Cambois that was going to be developed by Britishvolt remains available. Subject to the decisions of the administrators and the local authority, we very much hope that a project can be taken forward there.

My Lords, the collapse of Britishvolt is a symbol of the Government’s failure to create an industrial strategy to fill the void left by Brexit. It is about much more than the loss of one potential factory, because it threatens the future of the UK car-manufacturing industry as a whole. The SMMT and the Advanced Propulsion Centre estimate that we need 90 to 100 gigawatt capacity by 2030 to supply the electric vehicle industry. Current capacity is 2 to 2.5 gigawatts, so rapid expansion is urgently needed. There is a forest of gigafactory projects throughout Europe. Why does the Minister think those Governments have succeeded, while our Government have failed to create the industry needed? What discussions have the Government had in recent weeks with UK-based vehicle manufacturers, which are seriously concerned about the current void?

We have constant discussions with UK motor manufacturers and of course, we are always available for further discussions with companies that want to bring forward projects. The noble Baroness, as usual, is completely wrong. Already there have been substantial investments in this country. On 1 July 2021, Nissan and Envision announced a £1 billion investment to create a north-east EV hub. The site will produce a projected 100,000 battery-electric cars each year. Ford has committed a total of £380 million to make Halewood its first EV component site in Europe. Pensana received an in-principle offer of government support for its £145 million factory near Hull to make metal for magnets. So, this investment is coming. Of course, it was disappointing that the Britishvolt project was not successful, but the site remains an excellent one for this investment. Subject to discussions with the local authority and the administrators, we hope it can be taken forward.

My Lords, what does the Minister anticipate the future of Jaguar Land Rover to be if there is no battery factory to supply it in the UK?

Jaguar Land Rover has an exciting future. It is an excellent company, providing brilliant vehicles that are exported all over the world. I am sure that it wants to make sure that its supply chain is appropriately robust.

What would the Government do differently in future? What have they learned as a result of this failure—or is the Minister’s position genuinely that it is just one of those things, and these things happen?

I think we acted appropriately. We agreed a grants award with this company, and we very much hoped that that project could be taken forward. It was a substantial amount of grant aid, but appropriate due diligence was done. The company produced a business plan and we set out an agreed series of milestones that it needed to meet, including securing the necessary private investment, before the public funds could be released. Unfortunately, it did not manage to achieve that. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, noble Lords would have criticised me if we had released the funds and the company had then gone into administration.

Jaguar Land Rover and Mini are iconic examples of British culture and manufacturing. How can the Minister be satisfied with new Jaguar Land Rovers only being supplied with one key because the company does not have chips, and with electric Minis being made in China? Surely this cannot be right, and the Government need to get a grip on this.

I know that my noble friend has personal experience of problems with his keys, and I hope they are resolved. That is not intended as an obscure comment—his is a genuine complaint, and I know it will be resolved. Of course, it is always regrettable if manufacturing is outsourced overseas, but the UK car industry has been successful in the past, and we have one of the biggest car industries in Europe. A massive programme of transformation is required in the industry as we move towards more electric vehicles, but I am sure that the industry will rise to the challenge.

My Lords, the Minister, given his intimate knowledge of the trade and co-operation agreement, will know that there is an important clause relevant to this. In 2024, the rules of origin for electric vehicles change, increasing the need for local content. Because batteries make up so much of electric cars, we cannot achieve that local content without batteries being built in this country. Will the Minister tell the House whether his department speaking to the other relevant departments in government to reopen this negotiation? Is it this Government’s intention to push back the commencement date of this clause, because without doing so, we have a really serious problem here?

Like the noble Lord, I am familiar with the rules of origin provisions of the TCA. There was a lot of debate about this at the time, and we continue to keep an eye on it. Of course, there are discussions across government. One of the reasons for setting up the automotive transformation fund was to attempt to get more of these gigafactories into the UK, and we stand ready to talk to any other prospective investors to do that.

My Lords, since 2016, UK car production has nearly halved. Honda has closed its factory in Swindon and BMW is moving production of its electric Mini from Oxford to China. We really need to make sure that we have good infrastructure, especially when it comes to electric batteries. With that in mind, would the Government consider bringing Britishvolt into public ownership? That is the only way to make sure we have a viable local player.

I note the noble Lord’s nostalgia for the great, successful British industries of the 1970s under public ownership, but I do not think that is a viable suggestion. Government has proved that it is not good at running businesses and industry—we should leave that to the private sector, with appropriate government support where required.

My Lords, the Minister loves the north-east, just like I do, and has noted that this is an extremely suitable site. Is not part of the problem that the return on investment is a very long way forward, so will the Government consider upping the amount they are willing to commit upfront to enable production on this site?

The amount of money on offer here was very considerable. I am not going to get into details of commercial negotiations but as I said, we stand ready to talk to any potential investor in that site or any others. The right reverend Prelate is right that this is one of the best sites in Europe for such a facility: it has the right shape, connections and location. We are optimistic it will be taken forward, but as the right reverend Prelate will understand, I am not going to get into commercial negotiations at this point.