26 June 2020
Adjournment Debate: De La Rue: Gateshead

Nadhim Zahawi responds on behalf of the Government to an Adjournment Debate on job losses at the De La Rue site in Gateshead.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Nadhim Zahawi)

It is customary to congratulate an hon. Member on securing a debate, but I think “congratulate” is the wrong word in this case, so I am going to commend the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). It is nothing to congratulate anyone about given the job losses that we are discussing. I know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you take a special interest in this because of the De La Rue presence in Epping Forest, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for his customary courtesy in letting me know that he was going to speak in this important debate. It is also appropriate to take the opportunity to thank the hon. Lady and other Members, and, importantly, all public, private, community and voluntary sector partners across Tyneside and the north-east, for their outstanding work and support during these challenging times.

Tyneside and the broader north-east is a major industrial and manufacturing hub for the United Kingdom. It is a critical centre for the UK automotive industry, with the region typically producing over 500,000 cars a year. It is also a centre for producing medicines and healthcare products—the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the vaccine manufacturing and innovation centre in Oxford. There is much more work to do, and I am absolutely passionate and focused on working with the north-east on the future of the life sciences sector in that region.

Mr Kevan Jones

There were two shortlisted sites, according to the response given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar): Oxford and the north-east. If the Minister really wants to level up and actually put investment into the north-east, why did not he not insist on putting it in the north-east?

Nadhim Zahawi

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. The VMIC project had already been awarded and was already happening. All I did was bring it forward by 12 months so we can have it ready by summer next year, not the year after. But I am grateful for his passion and for quite rightly holding the Government to account on what we will do in the north-east, which is also a key region for developing offshore and renewable energy technology.

We are committed to ensuring that Tyneside and the north-east remain a key manufacturing development hub. The right hon. Gentleman speaks of life sciences development. Of the £3.4 billion that the Government have committed to growth deals across the northern powerhouse, £379.6 million—almost £380 million—has been allocated to the North East local enterprise partnership area. I am pleased to say that Gateshead has benefited directly from that investment, including just under £1 million for PROTO, a state-of-the-art research and development facility for emerging digital technologies, and £5 million for the development of a new 12,500-seat arena, conference and exhibition centre on a 10-acre site at Gateshead Quays.

I would like to acknowledge the work done by the North East local enterprise partnership. Skills, employment and economic inclusion are at the heart of the North East local enterprise partnership’s strategic economic plan, which was refreshed in 2019.

Liz Twist

I thank the Minister for his comments about the PROTO development, which I am familiar with, and the Gateshead quayside development. We are enormously pleased with and proud of both of them, with the councils working in partnership with others. However, we also need to look at our manufacturing base and ensure that those traditional jobs are not left to slide because of new developments. Will the Minister address what can be done to assist on that point?

Nadhim Zahawi

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She is absolutely right. We need to make sure that those traditional jobs are maintained, but also see where we can reskill and upskill into some of the growth industries, such as offshore wind. I know there is a big skills agenda that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is taking forward.

The LEP has co-ordinated £18.4 million of capital investment across eight projects, with a further £28.5 million from public and private funding. I thought I should just mention a few of those projects. They include, addressing the hon. Lady’s skills challenge to the Government, the successful delivery of the Gatsby good careers guidance benchmark and the launch of the North East Ambition programme, supporting 170 schools and colleges. Still these are unprecedented times for businesses and communities across the country. I am grateful to have had the opportunity recently to reflect on the challenges faced by the manufacturing sector, to which the hon. Lady quite rightly refers, with trade union representatives, where we discussed what more the Government can do to support the manufacturing sector.

I share the hon. Lady’s disappointment at the news that about 250 jobs will be lost at the De La Rue currency and passport printing facility in Gateshead. I take this opportunity to express my sympathies to those workers and their families who will be impacted. Furthermore, I call on De La Rue to act responsibly in how it approaches the forthcoming redundancies. It is very worrying that, as the hon. Lady mentioned, staff only learned the news from the Chronicle and social media. That is not the way a responsible employer would act.

I understand that there has been much speculation about the decision of Her Majesty’s Passport Office not to grant De La Rue the contract to produce the new British passport. To set the scene, between March 2017 and April 2018, the Passport Office undertook a rigorous, fair and open competition to identify the bidder that will be best able to meet the needs of its passport service and customers until 2029. That included in-depth due diligence to ensure that any bidder was capable of delivering the contract within the quality standards set out. The new contract was awarded to Thales and will deliver significant savings of approximately £140 million compared with the contract awarded in 2009 to De La Rue, which will ensure value for money for the taxpayer.

Since 2009, a proportion of blank passports have been produced in Europe, with no reason why overseas production should not continue. Thales will manufacture passports from multiple secure locations. De La Rue historically operated a blank book passport assembly facility in Malta, to supplement its Gateshead operation. All passports produced by Thales will continue to be personalised with the passport holder’s personal details, such as a named photograph, in the United Kingdom. That continues to ensure that no personal data will leave the United Kingdom.

It also extends Thales’s already significant presence in this country. Thales’s digital identity and security division operates from five sites in the UK and employs over 500 staff in this country. Since the contract was awarded in April 2018, Thales has increased its UK workforce by over 90 posts. Furthermore, it is not outsourcing the manufacturing of the British passport to a third party.

I strongly believe that it was the correct choice to decide the next UK passport provider through free and fair competition, to ensure the best value for money for the British taxpayer. I also recognise that this year has been especially challenging for De La Rue. In November last year, the company reported that its half-year results had underperformed against market expectations, due primarily to reduced volumes and a reduction in margins in its currency business. That underperformance prompted the board to suspend future dividend payments and to push forward with a turnaround strategy. While we can acknowledge that the loss of the passport contract was disappointing for the business, it is clear that this alone does not account for the challenges that the business has faced.

In response to a challenging and competitive market environment, De La Rue published details of that turnaround plan in February this year. Unfortunately, that plan involved a degree of cost reduction and a concentration on its core currency and authentication divisions. In June last year, De La Rue exited the passporting and identification business by announcing the sale of its identity products division to HID Corporation Ltd. The UK passport contract was not part of the sale, but by this period, De La Rue was aware that it had not won the renewal of said contract.

Unfortunately, as part of its cost-saving programme, De La Rue announced a consultation to reduce the number of roles at the company’s headquarters and to cease all bank note printing and passport production at the Gateshead site. I note that De La Rue has said that it aims to preserve certain core services and roles at the site, and I urge De La Rue to ensure that it retains a presence in the Gateshead community. However, I recognise that this remains a tough and disappointing time for the employees of De La Rue who face redundancy, and I can assure them that the Government will do all they can to support them in this challenging period.

Due to the challenges of operating in the covid-19 environment, the Department for Work and Pensions rapid response service has adapted to ensure that we can continue to support those facing redundancy. People will be able to access redundancy help and job search advice on the Department’s new job help campaign website. There is also information on gov.uk, and updated information packages are provided to employers to help them signpost employees to the support that is available.

Liz Twist

I note the reference to the increased speed of Government agencies being able to help people, but will the Minister also acknowledge that the situation with companies such as Debenhams, where a couple of hundred staff have lost their jobs with the closure of the Metrocentre store, is adding to the pressure on the services, and what we need is real support and real action, and real opportunities for all those staff?

Nadhim Zahawi

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we need real support. There are three chapters to this challenge of covid. Chapter one was wrapping our arms around the economy and jobs, with schemes such as the furlough scheme and the bounce-back loans. Chapter two is now supporting businesses to restart and reopen; retail reopened in the middle of this month. Of course chapter three is about what stimulus we can inject into the economy, whether fiscal or non-fiscal—and the Chancellor will be saying more about this. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has conducted a deep dive with business and organisations representing business through a recovery taskforce, because we want to make sure that chapter three, which is about the recovery, is as robust and dynamic as we can make it. I assure the hon. Lady that the north-east will be very much a part of that.

The support for those losing their jobs includes connecting people to jobs in the local labour market in the north-east by helping them with job searches, including CV writing, interview skills, and where to find jobs and how to apply for them. We will also help to identify transferable skills and skills gaps linked to the local labour market, along with advice on what benefits people may get and how to claim them.

Furthermore, I can confirm that the Gateshead local authority is in touch with the company and stands ready to work with the Department for Work and Pensions, the Jobcentre Plus rapid response team and the National Careers Service to provide a package of support for any impacted employee. As I said earlier, the Government will do what we can to support these people and their families, and I believe that the Government can be proud of our record and how we have supported businesses across the north-east during the covid pandemic.

Through the coronavirus job retention scheme, we have so far protected 8.9 million workers and almost 1.1 million businesses; 24,200 people have been supported by the scheme in Gateshead alone, and due to the Chancellor’s announcement to extend the scheme back in May we can continue to support businesses and employees as they return to work over the coming months.

Furthermore, I am pleased to say that, through the various grant schemes the Government established to assist business, £36.8 million in grants has been paid out to 3,142 small businesses in the Gateshead local authority as of 21 June. We also recognise the importance of the Tyne and Wear metro to Gateshead, which the hon. Lady rightly mentioned, and the challenges it faces at present. That is why we have announced a further £7.6 million of support to keep it going on top of the £8.6 million announced on 1 May.

In the longer term, the Government have contributed £337 million of direct grants to provide a new fleet for this vital service. While I acknowledge that these are challenging times for all, I remain confident that there is a bright future ahead for Tyneside and north-east industries.

The Government recognise that this is a challenging time for all businesses. We have provided unprecedented levels of support to help business. For those De La Rue employees who, unfortunately, face redundancy, the Government will do what we can to ensure they receive the support they need.

Finally, I again thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate, and I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your patience; I know this subject is important to you, as it is to other Members of this House.