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Wednesday, 15 March, 2000, 18:56 GMT
'Keep your word to the workers'

Richard Burden: "For nearly two years the future of Longbridge has hung in the balance"
By Richard Burden, Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield - home of the Rover Longbridge plant

Since I was elected MP for Birmingham Northfield in 1992 I have always known that at the heart of the manufacturing economy in the West Midlands is Longbridge, Rover's giant car plant which lies in my constituency and employs thousands people across the region.

It simply is not acceptable for BMW to play games behind closed doors with the lives and jobs of thousands of workers and their families.

For nearly two years now, the future of Longbridge and of the region's economy has hung in the balance.

Until, that is, the government and BMW came up with a groundbreaking investment and aid package which would secure the modernisation of Longbridge as a plant for the 21st century.

Fear and uncertainty revived

When the story leaked on Tuesday night, via a south German newspaper, that BMW may be planning to sell Rover Group, the uncertainty and fear that has blighted the lives of workers across the West Midlands - and all those other parts of the UK for whom Rover is of strategic importance - was once more revived.

Rumours in the press are nothing new. Indeed, the most damaging thing for Rover over the past year has been constant rumour, speculation and counter-rumour.

Rover's Longbridge plant employs thousands across the West Midlands
What astonishes me now is that the latest reports circulating in the German press have not been denied by BMW. They have confirmed that the sale of Rover Group or parts thereof is indeed a possibility that is up for discussion at their board meeting on Thursday.

Throughout the last two years BMW has assured me personally - and, more importantly, the many thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on it - that they are committed to Rover for the long term.

They have backed that up with an investment strategy which to date has brought 500m per year into Rover. Their plans to invest 1.4 billion in the Longbridge plant, backed up by 152m of government help, are a further example.

BMW needs Rover

Of course, BMW and Rover face substantial difficulties. The strength of sterling has hit them as it has hit all manufacturers with Europe as a big export market. But let us remember that BMW is also a pan-European company with the weakness of the euro helping its imports to the UK.

The pound and the euro are also competitive with the dollar and BMW should certainly investigate export of classic Rovers such as the 75 into the US market.

BMW's investment programme for Longbridge and the new model to be built there was not an act of charity. To meet European emissions standards as a company, they need a small to medium car within the group. BMW needs Rover and it would not make sense for them to pull out now.

The infrastructure, including a substantial building programme, has already been built at Longbridge to facilitate the production of the new Mini and BMW, and productivity at the site has increased hugely in the last 12 months.

Partnership has been the key to the huge progress that Rover has made so far and BMW itself has constantly stressed its commitment to such partnerships - with employees, with local bodies such as Birmingham City Council and with the government.

It simply is not acceptable for BMW to play games behind closed doors with the lives and jobs of thousands of workers and their families.

Political opportunism

This is not a time to apportion blame or to play games. The stakes are too high in this instance

On the subject of playing games, the Tories decided on Wednesday to cancel their scheduled opposition day debate for Thursday and replace it with one on Rover.

A cynic might see this political opportunism at its worst. Let's hope this is not the case. As I have said on many occasions before, this is not an issue for party political wrangling and point-scoring.

It is possible that the Eurosceptic element will blame the European Commissioner's inquiry into the aid package for delaying the process and giving BMW a chance to get "cold feet" about Rover.

This argument does not stand up to scrutiny, as BMW have known about the inquiry since Christmas, have always known the likely timescales involved and have never intimated before that this might cause them to pull out.

Others may well take the opportunity to blame the Department of Trade and Industry for somehow "failing" to satisfy the commissioner, before the inquiry has even been completed.

What I would say to them is that the government still intends to hold true to its promise to the workers and provide the 152m aid package. This government has faith in Longbridge and the people who work there to transform Rover into a modern and prosperous concern.

End the speculation

This is not a time to apportion blame or to play games. The stakes are too high in this instance and the people of the West Midlands will not take kindly to people playing politics with their livelihoods.

Throughout these last two years of uncertainty, Rover's workforce in Birmingham, Oxford, Solihull and elsewhere have kept faith with BMW by agreeing new working practices and by raising productivity dramatically.

It is absolutely intolerable that they should have to hear rumours leaked through a German newspaper.

BMW owe it to them to state their position openly and honestly and discuss their plans with those who have kept faith with them. That is why I am calling on BMW to put an end to the speculation and to reaffirm their commitment to Rover.

In doing so, I am asking them to do no more than to keep their word to me, to the British government and the 50,000 people whose jobs depend on Longbridge.

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See also:

15 Mar 00 | Business
Rover's troubles
15 Mar 00 | Business
Rover's options
15 Mar 00 | Business
The Rover breakdown
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