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"Opposition MPs were determined to pin some of the blame on the government."
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Geoffrey Robinson
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Thursday, 16 March, 2000, 21:14 GMT
Byers voices 'regret' over Rover

For sale: But Downing Street says it's been in the dark
Trade and Industry Stephen Byers has stressed the government's concern that Rover's Longbridge plant should continue as a centre for car production.

Mr Byers was addressing MPs in an emergency Commons debate on the future of Rover after BMW announced it was breaking up the historic motoring group.

How Rover was broken up
Mini production will go ahead at Cowley not Longbridge
Rover 75 production will continue at Cowley for Alchemy
Alchemy will take on Rover and MG
The body pressing plant at Swindon will be retained by BMW
Hamms Hall engine facility in Birmingham will be completed and retained by BMW
Earlier, the government accused BMW of failing to keep it informed of the exact nature of its plans for the break up of the Rover group.

Mr Byers said: "Today's announcement by BMW is regrettable. It is a great disappointment."

He told MPs he had spoken to the new owners of Rover and MG, the venture capital firm Alchemy Partners.

After the debate, Mr Byers met again with Alchemy's bosses as well as with union leaders.

The government's main concern was now the future of the Longbridge plant in Birmingham, which employs about 9,000 workers.

He said the government would continue to campaign for Longbridge and believed "it has a viable long term future".

"The major announcement which has been made today is one which affects the future of the Longbridge plant in Birmingham," said Mr Byers.

'Difficult question'

"The decision which BMW have taken to dispose of the Rover and MG brands to Alchemy partners will clearly have implications as far as Longbridge is concerned."

Today our thoughts must be with the workers at Longbridge, their families and the community

Stephen Byers
Mr Byers said he had stressed the importance of Longbridge, the skills of the workforce and the plant's strategic importance in the West Midlands, to its new owners.

"We will be asking them difficult question, which they will need to give answers to," he said.

"But today our thoughts must be with the workers at Longbridge, their families and the community."

He continued: "I hope Alchemy Partners will recognise as the new owners of Longbridge have a responsibility, a responsibility to a work force which has been flexible, that has improved productivity and believes that I do and the government does that Longbridge has a long term future."

The trade secretary was answering criticism from the Conservatives in an opposition day debate.

'All over the place'

Shadow trade secretary Angela Browning accused the government of "general complacency" and said Thursday's deal could result in the Rover name disappearing altogether.

She said: "What we see today simply adds to the belief that nobody on that frontbench understands business let alone is capable of brokering a deal on behalf of business."

Rounding on Mr Byers, Mrs Browning continued: "He seems to be all over the place as his department is all over the place, all over the place in competition policy, all over the place when it comes to saving British industry which he deems he can save successfully in, all over the place in bringing legislation to this House, all of this is indicative of a government which couldn't even run a whelk stall."

Earlier, the prime minister's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell refused to be drawn on whether the government was "angry" with BMW but said there had been "a difficulty in getting clear and reliable information from BMW".

Richard Burden: "BMW's responsibility"
Labour MP and former Jaguar chief executive Geoffrey Robinson attacked BMW for "reneging on their undertakings to the government and the British motor manufacturing industry".

Mr Robinson, the former paymaster general, said BMW had "cherry-picked what they wanted and walked out when it got too expensive".

Vincent Cable, for Liberal Democrats, said everyone's thoughts should be with the men and women of Longbridge and expressed concern about how Alchemy would cope with the huge responsibility taking over Rover would include.

There is here potentially a vast tragedy.

Sir Norman Fowler
Labour's Richard Burden, whose Birmingham Northfield constituency includes the Longbridge plant, said responsibility for what was happening to Rover lay with BMW.

He told MPs the workforce and the government had done their part in helping to ensure the company's future but BMW had not met its commitments to the Longbridge plant.

"That commitment has not been honoured and the responsibility is with BMW and with BMW alone."

Former Tory chairman Sir Norman Fowler, whose Sutton Coldfield constituency is in the West Midlands, said: "There is here potentially a vast tragedy".

But he said he had "some sympathy" for BMW over the government finance package because of the six month delay caused by the European Commission investigation.

Tory Julie Kirkbride, whose Bromsgrove constituency includes part of Longbridge plant, said the decision was a "kick in the teeth" for the workforce.

But she accused Mr Byers of failing to give any guarantees on the level of employment at Longbridge and whether cars would continue to be made there.

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See also:

16 Mar 00 | Business
BMW discusses Rover sale
15 Mar 00 | Business
Union anger at Rover 'betrayal'
15 Mar 00 | Business
The Rover breakdown
16 Mar 00 | Business
Alchemy seeks gold in Rover
16 Mar 00 | Business
BMW's 'English Patient'
16 Mar 00 | Business
Pulling the strings at BMW
15 Mar 00 | Business
Nice cars, shame about the name
16 Mar 00 | Business
The Rover Group
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