THE CONTROVERSY surrounding a public handout to Ford has reached the very top of government after David Cameron was challenged in the House of Commons.

The Prime Minister said "these issues were discussed" when asked about the motor giant's bombshell plans to shut the plant in Southampton, at the loss of 500 jobs.

This puts him at odds with Business Secretary Vince Cable, who insisted he had not been aware of the company's plans when the grant was rubber-stamped, aimed at creating jobs in Essex.

Ford announced the closure of the Swaythling plant with the loss of 500 jobs, less than a week later.

Speaking during Prime Minister's Questions, Alan Whitehead, the Labour MP for Southampton Test, said: "When did the PM become aware of the plans to close Ford plants at Southampton and Dagenham, and was he aware of those plans when his government awarded a large sum of money from the Regional Growth Fund to that company just a few days earlier?"

Mr Cameron replied: "Obviously these issues were discussed, and we work very closely with all the automotive companies in the United Kingdom."

He added: "What happened at Ford in terms of Southampton was clearly very regrettable, but we must do everything we can to help those people back to work."

Speaking afterwards, Mr Whitehead said Mr Cameron had not wanted the government to seem ill-informed, so had said that discussions had taken place.

He said: "Vince Cable has already said to the Echo that the government had no idea this was happening.

"Who is correct is rather important. The real answer would probably be that the Prime Minister wasn't briefed."

It was the second time the Prime Minister had been challenged over the Ford announcement during the half-hour questions session.

Earlier he had backed Southampton's "compelling" case to be awarded new powers and funding controls under the city deal bid being prepared with Portsmouth.

Responding to a question from Romsey and Southampton North MP Caroline Nokes, he said: "I do think it's particularly compelling that we make sure Southampton has a city deal. I understand they are on the list.

"Ultimately while the news from Ford was very disappointing, it was a black spot in what was otherwise very strong performance by the British automotive industry, and I know the Business Secretary will be working very closely with Southampton City Council to do everything we can to help people find jobs."

For all the latest on the Ford closure including video of the Vince Cable interview click here