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The BBC's Robin Oakley
"Stephen Byers has been under heavy pressure"
 real 56k

Wednesday, 12 April, 2000, 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK
Beleagured Byers challenges BMW

Stephen Byers insists he has been telling the truth
Prime Minister Tony Blair has stood by Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers after fresh attacks from the Conservatives on his handling of the Rover crisis.

After telling a cross-party committee of MPs he had not known about BMW's intention to dispose of Rover, Mr Byers came in for further criticism in the Commons at prime minister's questions.

It is true to say that one of the reasons why I was personally so angry was that (BMW) failed to even give an indication that the break-up of Rover was even being considered

Stephen Byers
Conservative leader William Hague called for his resignation and accused him of "doctoring and denial" of the true facts.

Challenged to back Mr Byers, Mr Blair replied: "Of course I do" before dismissing Mr Hague's comments as "nonsense".

He told Mr Hague: "What I find both pathetic and ridiculous is your concentration on trying to back BMW's claims against the secretary of state, rather than trying to make sure that those people who do face the loss of their job get a new job."

Mr Hague responded: "If Mr Byers is concentrating on the future, why is he spending his time doctoring the statements of BMW and then denying that he had made that statement in the first place?"

Committee hearing

Mr Byers was not present for the exchange after earlier facing the Trade and Industry Committee for two hours over his role in the sell-off.

The hearing came as minutes of phone calls between Mr Byers and BMW were released amid accusations from the opposition he was negligent in attempting to discover the extent of Rover's troubles.

During his evidence, he challenged comments by BMW bosses they discussed problems at the Longbridge car plant with him in January.

Mr Byers said BMW chief Professor Joachim Milberg and Rover chairman Werner Samann's recollections of conversations with him before the break-up of Rover was announced in March were "inaccurate".

Joachim Milberg: Mr Byers disputes his comments
He said: "There was no conversation whatsoever in January. I am afraid Professor Milberg's recollection is inaccurate both on when and what was said.

"The evidence that Professor Samann gave (to the committee) was inaccurate as well. There were no calls in January. It was business as usual."

The trade secretary - repeating his insistence that he only became aware of the plan to sell-off Rover when it was announced in March - said the German firm had been "playing its cards very close to its chest".

'Business as usual'

Asked if BMW had told him in December that it might sell-off Rover, Mr Byers said: "No such comment was made. This note (of the telephone conversation) makes that very clear.

"I'm pleased that Professor Milberg last Thursday actually went on the record to say that he never said those words, because it is very important that people realise exactly what was said and who said it."

Mr Byers told the committee BMW had in February insisted nothing had changed in its plans for Rover.

He said: "From all outward appearances, it was business as usual. They were pursuing a strategy which they had discussed with us last year.

"Right up until the end of February there was an absolute commitment to continuing the strategy but at the beginning of March they began to change their approach."

Mr Byers said he had no recollection that Mr Samann had said on 10 March meeting - days before the sell-off was announced - the clock was at "five minutes to 12", meaning drastic action was about to be taken.

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See also:

05 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Can Byers dodge the blows?
05 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Byers publishes BMW minutes
02 Apr 00 | Business
Blair: No rescue for Rover
03 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Byers on defensive over Rover
28 Mar 00 | UK Politics
MPs hear Longbridge evidence
29 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Blair stands by Byers over Rover
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