Business reporter John Cranage spoke to Business Secretary Peter Mandelson about the threat posed to Midland firms from foreign bidders.
Lord Mandelson has repeated calls for overseas buyers of British companies to respect their heritage and the contribution they make to the economy.
They must be run with the long-term interests of the business and the UK as a whole in mind, he told the Birmingham Post.
With Cadbury under siege from United States bidder Kraft and historic car company MG and vanmaker LDV now in Chinese ownership there are concerns about these important West Midland industrial assets.
Doubts are being expressed about the ability or willingness of SAIC (Shanghai Automotive) to deliver on earlier promises to resume volume manufacturing of MG cars at Longbridge, whose assets were acquired by another Chinese company, Nanjing Automobile, in 2005.
One Nanjing executive said at the time that the plan was to create more than 1,000 jobs and to be producing up to 100,000 cars a year at Longbridge within five years.
The reality is that SAIC, which operates an engineering centre and a design studio at Longbridge, has temporarily suspended production of the MG TF and cut jobs at the old MG Rover plant.
The company says TF production will resume in spring 2010 in time for the British sports car “season” and says it will produce a British version of the recently-announced MG6 saloon car at the factory, also next year.
Car industry experts say the TF has always been a low-volume car that does not square with the original claims made by Nanjing. The company had sold 360 cars up to the end of November.
One national commentator recently doubted that cars would ever again roll off the Longbridge production line “in serious numbers”, adding: “I hope the Chinese prove me wrong but so far there have been too many broken promises.”
The future of LDV is still uncertain a week after Eco Concept, a company headed by Chinese businesswoman Dr Qu Li, bought the assets from the company’s administrator.
It is thought, though, that production of the Maxus van could be “lifted and shifted” to China, leaving small-scale production of an electric-powered version of the vehicle at Longbridge.
With the 60-day takeover clock ticking on US food group Kraft’s £9.9 billion hostile bid for Cadbury, Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Jerry Blackett has called for assurances over the future of Cadbury should it change hands.
In a letter to Kraft chairman and chief executive Irene Rosenfeld, Mr Blackett said: “It is crucial for Birmingham and the West Midlands that Cadbury continues to make a positive contribution to our business life, including maintaining levels of employment and investment in research and development.
"I would like to ascertain from you what a successful Kraft Food bid for Cadbury would do to make the business even more compelling and competitive as well as understand more clearly your plans for its West Midlands’ operations.”
Asked by the Post to comment on concerns about the likes of MG, LDV and Cadbury, Lord Mandelson said: “Britain has benefited hugely from foreign direct investment in our economy which has brought growth, jobs, rising productivity, and has expanded in its turn our own international relationships and opportunities for export.
“But any foreign investor who has taken on the ownership of a British company must understand that our expectation, rightly, will be that a foreign owner respects the legacy of our companies, corporate governance, the workforce employed in these companies and that we want to keep those companies firmly placed and a growing part of the UK economy.
“I have made that observation recently in relation to the proposed foreign ownership bids for Cadbury’s.
“ I don’t have any power to block changes in ownership, all I would say is that we expect objective, committed, respectful bids to come from overseas for our companies.
“We don’t expect short-term decisions applied to suit either asset-stripping or alignment of the interests of our British companies with those of new foreign owners with the drift away of decision-making from the interests of those companies as part of the UK economy to the interests of foreign owners based in entirely different countries. So, whilst I firmly believe that Britain must remain open to such investment, it needs to respect our interest, our needs and our values of companies based in UK.”
Asked whether he was concerned about the large equity stakes taken in Cadbury by US hedge funds, Lord Mandelson said: “It is not for me to say who should and who should not take shareholdings in British companies.
“But we expect long-term commitment not short-term profit. We expect a general commitment to the interests of the corporate governance of British companies rather than see them treated roughshod by those who have a narrow short-term interest.”
Asked whether China and other Asian markets were equally open to British companies, the Business Secretary said: “The problems don’t exist for British companies, they exist for all those wanting to export to markets like China, like India and others who not only maintain tariffs but regulatory and other less visible barriers to trade.
“I would make two points. First of all we have to maintain pressure on China, for example, to reciprocate the openness that Europe offers. We have to engage them constantly in a dialogue about their own best interests, their own model for development and how they can sustain their international trade by becoming more open to others goods.
“Secondly, we have to take a broad, long-term perspective in building up our trade relations. Of course there will be friction and irritants and sometimes appropriate evidence-based trade defence will legitimate in defending our own markets from cheap goods where those are being dumped.
“We have to protect ourselves, but not to the extent of protectionism that will simply damage Europe’s reputation with China and other countries and give them the excuse to restrict their markets to our exporters.”