Michelin Factory: Ballymena: 17th November 2015

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
I begin by paying tribute to those who work at the Michelin factory in Ballymena and their families during this extremely difficult time. The loss of 860 jobs in a small community is a serious and significant blow, and one that is certainly not lost on me or the Secretary of State. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) on securing the debate. Frankly, I was surprised he did not get the urgent question. That is not a criticism of the Speaker—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
Order. I know it was not intentional, but we cannot go into that or mention the urgent question.

Anna Soubry
I was trying to say that the hon. Gentleman and others made an excellent point about how, had these job losses happened on the mainland, there might have been a bit more noise in this place—although not from him, I hasten to add, because, as ever, he does a fine job fighting for his constituents. I also pay tribute to all the interventions from the hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon), for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—as ever—for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). I will come on to the specific point about energy prices later.

The loss of 860 jobs was indeed a serious blow. By pure chance, the hon. Member for North Antrim and I were sharing a taxi on the night of this dreadful news, and we did at least begin the conversation. I know he has also spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), about the situation. They share the great concern about this blow to a small community and its onward effect through the supply chain. It comes, of course, at the same time as the Gallaher factory in Ballymena is set to close—in 2017—with the loss of many jobs.

I normally try not to read from a prepared speech, because I do not think it is right, but I will in part tonight, because there are lots of facts and figures that it would be helpful to mention. I want to deal specifically with the question of energy prices. It is sad and unfortunate that we are where we are, having this debate about energy prices at this point, with Michelin having decided to go. I am aware of the statements it made, and the hon. Gentleman has already identified the reasons it gave. The cost of energy has been a difficulty for some time. As it happens, the manufacturing of tyres does not fall into the category of electricity or energy intensive industries. We could have a discussion about why. It is unfortunate that it does not do so, because we know that some form of compensation is available. Most importantly, we still seek to persuade the European Union to sign off the full compensation package, so that we can make sure that industries that use huge amounts of electricity—not just the steel industry, but a large part of our manufacturing sector uses extraordinary amounts of energy—receive compensation.​

My view—and these concerns are certainly shared by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills—is as follows. What industry wants is a level playing field—that applies to the steel industry, to ceramics, to cement or whatever. When, frankly, we are in tough times, competing not only in what we call the global race but within the EU, all people ask when margins are so tight is that we all operate on a level playing field. It has been a feature and it is a fact that a number of our businesses bear an onerous burden of what we can call carbon taxes in their various forms.

What I can say to the hon. Member for North Antrim is that this is not lost on the Government, me or the Secretary of State. We make the case for British industry—and when I say British industry, I mean all industry across our United Kingdom, obviously including Ulster—that there should be a fairness, a level playing field. If I had my way, I would go so far as saying that energy intensive industries should not have to bear any burdens excessively, although I appreciate that would not include Michelin. If we are to make the changes that we all want—I very much hope we are—the burden would therefore have to fall right the way across, including on consumers and perhaps other businesses. I agree with the hon. Member for North Antrim that people would pay that price.

There has been support for employees. The immediate focus in this situation is, of course, on the workers themselves. I join in paying tribute to the Unite union. It is astonishing—no, it is not astonishing for any of us who know trade unions; I am a former trade union official—that yet again we see trade unions and their leaders really stepping up to the mark, acting in a responsible and sensible manner and with great realism. Sometimes people think that workforces and their leaders are somehow stupid, but they are not. As the hon. Gentleman identified, they knew what was going on and they feared the worst. Unfortunately, their fears were confirmed.

I understand that Northern Ireland Executive Ministers at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, together with Invest Northern Ireland, the Department for Employment and Learning and the wider Northern Ireland Executive have said that they will do all that is possible to limit the impact of the announcement. The Department for Employment and Learning will be engaging with the company management to offer redundancy clinics to employees. Northern Ireland’s Redundancy Advice Service works in partnership with a range of bodies, including the further education colleges and HMRC to provide advice on alternative job opportunities, access to training courses and a range of other issues.

I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the £5 million development fund package launched by the company to support the retraining and redevelopment of the staff to find new work. Those are the actions of a ​company that understands its responsibilities towards its employees. We can be confident that it will do the right thing by all of that.

If I may say so, the hon. Member for North Antrim makes a very important point about the huge skills and abilities of the Northern Ireland workforce. It matters not that I have been over to Northern Ireland only once, because one picks up a lot, and in any event the fine reputation has been earned by all the workforce. They are extremely able, highly skilled, well-educated and, most importantly, extremely well motivated. Those are important features.

The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues made a crucial point about UKTI. I take away with me from this debate an absolute promise to him that I will speak to Lord Maude, and through him to UKTI, to make sure that UKTI does everything it can to promote Northern Ireland in all the work we do in promoting Great Britain. The hon. Gentleman made a very good point that there is always a danger that in some way Northern Ireland might be forgotten. It may seem impossible to believe that, given the abilities and strengths of all the Members who represent it, but the hon. Gentleman made a very good point none the less.

Let me emphasise that there are opportunities in Northern Ireland. As many Members will know, the picture is not all bleak. A medical firm, Randox, has said that it will create 500 jobs in County Antrim over four years; in July, Texas-based OneSource said that it would create 289 jobs in Londonderry; and, as recently as September, Intelling Ltd announced plans to establish a contact centre in Belfast, creating 250 new jobs. So there is some good news, although, as I said at the beginning, the effect on a community of the loss of so many jobs is not lost on me.

There is more of my speech, but I am not going to read it all, because I believe—and I hope they will agree—that I have addressed the points made by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. As I have said, the scale of this is not lost on me. I will think further about the important points that have been raised, and I should be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to discuss what more can be done. The main point is, however, that given the effect of high energy prices, the need to ensure that we have a good supply of cheap energy has never been more critical. We know what the consequences may be if we do not address that need, which is not lost on anyone in Government.

As I have said before, in my experience—such as it is, at present—all that people ask for is a level playing field. That strikes me as a very fair ask, and it is something that this Government are determined to achieve.

Question put and agreed to.