QUESTIONS remained this week over what the Government knew about Ford’s plans to close its Southampton Transit plant and whether any assurances were sought when it offered the company a £10m grant just days earlier.
The Prime Minister ducked the question when quizzed about it in the Commons, but his answer was at odds with his business sectretary’s comment to this paper last weekend.
In an exclusively interview with the Daily Echo, Business Secretary Vince Cable said he was “kept in the dark” about Ford’s intention to close Swaythling at the time the grant was approved.
And Dr Cable said if ministers had been aware, they would have gone back to Ford and asked “what on earth was going on”.
He said he felt “let down”
Ford had not given more notice of the bombshell announcement.
Ministers from the Department for Business today revealed they were also kept in the dark about Ford’s plant closure plans, despite four meetings with the company this year.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Labour MP for Southampton Test Alan Whitehead asked David Cameron when he became aware of the plans to close Southampton and whether he was aware of those plans when money from the Regional Growth Fund (RGF) was awarded to the company.
Mr Cameron replied: “Obviously these issues were discussed, and we work very closely with all the automotive companies in the United Kingdom.”
What is known is that Ford made a bid for a slice of £1 billion of RGF money between February and June.
In July an 11-strong Independent Advisory Panel, chaired by former deputy PM Lord Heseltine, met to shortlist Ford’s bid among 414 applications.
The panel met again in September to agree final recommendations to a group of ministers.
Lord Heseltine told the Daily Echo this week his panel was simply doing its job by recommending the approval of Ford’s bid, saying it looked at the applications project by project to “secure a rebalancing of the economy with long-standing sustainable jobs”. The money was to support a five-year investment of $500m in Ford’s Dagenham engine plant to become the global centre for diesel engine manufacture.
It was a group of ministers chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and including the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, Business Secretary Vince Cable and Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles. that signed the grant offer to Ford in early October.
The decision was announced on October 19 – six days before Ford announced its plan to close down its Southampton plant.
Ford insists its RGF bid and closure plan are “completely unrelated”