David Davis: We must fight this devastating jobs blow to aircraft workers and Britain

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NINE BAe workers cycled from Brough in East Yorkshire to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last week. The reason; to protest against BAe’s plan to slash 900 jobs at its Brough factory.

To do this, they had to cross the Pennines in the black of night, cycling into driving rain and headwind.

This was symbolic both of the tough fight they face to save their jobs and of the resilience and grit with which they are facing up to the challenges ahead.

In contrast, BAe have not covered themselves in glory. The redundancy announcement was leaked in advance. Workers at Brough first heard their jobs were under threat not through a meeting with the management, but on Sky News.

The workers who cycled to Manchester were not just protesting against the loss of their jobs. They were also fighting the demise of manufacturing at one of Britain’s longest standing aircraft factories, one which has served this country through two World Wars since aviation pioneer Robert Blackburn opened it almost a century ago.

The virtual closure of Brough would mark another nail in the coffin of manufacturing in Britain and in the North in particular, which has borne the brunt of our nation’s manufacturing decline.

Workers at Brough know this only too well. Back in the 1980s the Brough factory employed 6,500 people. If BAe get their way, that figure will soon be just 400.

For the current workforce, this is the latest in a long series of recent setbacks. In 2007, BAe missed out on a contract to build 35 Hawk aircraft, costing 450 jobs. In September 2010, another 200 Brough workers were shown the door. Last February, 62 jobs went after the Government scrapped Nimrod.

What is more, the consequences of downsizing Brough will be felt far beyond the factory gates. BAe’s decision will threaten jobs elsewhere in the region and in the defence industry.

The chief executive of the Hull and Humber Chamber of Commerce was right when he said the total job losses resulting from BAe’s decision could run “into the thousands”. The redundancies at Brough are only the tip of the iceberg.

Of course the loss of 900 jobs would be a serious setback for any region, but it is particularly galling for an area already afflicted by high unemployment. Nowhere in Britain has fewer job vacancies per thousand applicants than North Hull. In the Yorkshire and Humberside region as a whole, a quarter of a million are out of work. Further job cuts will only serve to make a bad situation worse.

Another important point is that BAe’s decision is not simply a result of low orders. It is also the symptom of a tendency for British manufacturers to transfer production abroad. This is a fate that has afflicted Brough before. In the past, BAe Hawk aircraft destined for service in the Indian air force were built in India, not at Brough. Even as they announced the latest job losses, BAe was negotiating a £5bn contract which would see up to 500 Hawk jets made in America.

This strategy is steadily eroding Britain’s manufacturing base. Rather than making aircraft in Britain and exporting them, aircraft are increasingly manufactured in the countries to which they are sold while skilled British workers at Brough stand idle. By doing this, BAe are selling tomorrow’s prospects for today’s profits. It is an industrial tragedy.

But one thing is certain; Brough will not close without a fight.

There is a compulsory 90 day consultation period, and BAe can expect their decision to be challenged by workers, businesses, trade unions and MPs. For a start, BAe will need to explain why it is closing its Brough factory despite acknowledging its workforce there as the most efficient and productive in Europe.

A few years ago, BAe started sinking cash into its Lancashire sites, and has now moved production to justify this investment. At best this implies BAe’s decision to slash jobs at Brough is driven more by accountancy than economics. At worst, as is the suspicion amongst the local workforce, it looks like the Brough’s demise has been planned for some time.

This week I, along with West Hull and Hessle MP Alan Johnson, will meet with Business Secretary Vince Cable to discuss BAe’s plans. We will also sit down with the unions and plan the details of the campaign to save Brough.

The first aim of this campaign is to try and get BAe to change their mind. We must build a case which shows BAe why it makes good business sense to keep manufacturing at Brough. We need to get the MoD to help make Brough more competitive and attractive to investors, and to win more aircraft orders from overseas.

The second aim is to work closely with the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership and local businesses to create detailed proposals for a new enterprise zone at Brough. This should include plans for superfast broadband, tax incentives, low business rates and other ideas to bring new jobs and investment to the area in case the worst should happen.

Third, we need the Government to do all it can to facilitate a deal with German engineering giant Siemens to build an £80m wind turbine factory in Hull. With up to 10,000 jobs set to be created, it is an opportunity East Yorkshire cannot afford to miss.

Right now, the future of Brough remains uncertain. But one thing is clear; every part of the local community is behind the Brough workforce. They will need and, I am certain, receive support from local businesses, local and national newspapers, universities, and everybody else among us who recognises that closing Brough would be a devastating blow not just for East Yorkshire, but for Britain.