By Clifford Webb
After a weekend of growing speculation on its future, British Leyland last night issued a strongly worded statement denying reports suggesting it was seeking financial help from the Government.
The statement said: “We have no information concerning the source of these rumours. The corporation has made no approaches to the Government for assistance and has no intention of doing so in the future. Our strong cash position at the end of the last financial year enabled us to cope with the problems created by the recent industrial crisis and the resources available to us meet all our foreseeable requirements.”
Sources close to the company said the present speculation was probably caused by two factors: press reports emphasizing the seriousness of the present strike at Cowley, its second largest plant, and unofficial statements by union militants that Mr Wedgwood Benn, Secretary of State for Industry and one of the strongest advocates of more state ownership of big public companies, had instructed staff to prepare contingency proposals in the event of British Leyland seeking financial assistance.
These reports suggest Mr Benn will use any such request as an excuse to inject sufficient Government capital to obtain a majority shareholding. It is further suggested that he has been impressed by the success of Regie Renault, France’s largest motor group, which has been state-owned for many years. A Department of Industry spokesman said last night that the Government had drawn up no plans for public participation in British Leyland.
He said: “We have held talks with British Leyland, as with other companies. But that is a normal procedure concerned with development proposals under the Industry Act, which provides for incentives on which industry can act. We have discussed this with British Leyland, but that is all.”
A plea for more information about the future of British Leyland was made yesterday at the annual conference in Blackpool of the Association of Professional Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff (APEX). There is little doubt that the combined effects of the Cowley confrontation and the engineering unions’ national ban on overtime are causing severe production losses In recent months the group has lost an estimated £20m worth of cars at retail prices.
To some extent, the corporation is itself to blame for the chaos at Cowley. Until soaring petrol prices, in particular, and the fuel crisis, in general, depressed world car markets, British Leyland’s overriding concern was to obtain maximum production at any cost. To do this they have operated their industrial relations policies on a very low key. This is no longer the position.