Byers cleared of doctoring account in Rover sale

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The Independent Online

Stephen Byers was cleared of blame yesterday for his part in the Rover crisis, although MPs said there was "some failure" by the Government.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was told that there was no evidence to substantiate Conservative claims that he had "doctored" accounts of talks he had held with Professor Joachim Milberg, the chairman of BMW, Rover's owner.

In the report by the Trade and Industry Select Committee, BMW was accused of "excessive secrecy and incompetence" in the run-up to the announcement of the Rover sale on 16 March.

The findings came as a relief to Mr Byers, whose Cabinet position had been brought into question by his handling of the Rover débâcle. The report said BMW went about the sale of Rover, which will result in thousands of job losses in the Midlands, in a "chaotic, incomplete and incoherent way" and had provided "worthless and misleading" information to the Government.

However, the DTI and its civil servants were not spared from criticism and the department was attacked for "ineffective liaison" with BMW and other car makers, which Mr Byers should, it said, urgently review. The committee's chairman, Martin O'Neill, said the committee did not believe Mr Byers was guilty "of anything".

Pressed about conflicting statements issued by the DTI and BMW at the end of March about plans for Rover's Longbridge plant, Mr O'Neill said there had been no attempt to "doctor" anything. He added: "If there was gossip going round the cafés of Munich it should have reached the DTI. We got the impression that the gossip didn't get to the ears of officials. If it did get to their ears, it was not acted upon."

John Butterfill, one of the three Tories on the committee, said: "Our conclusion is that it was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. There was no intention on the part of the Secretary of State to deceive but there were times when the department should have acted on intelligence."

Mr Byers will seek to move on from the storm over his handling of the crisis by announcing help today for the supply firms who are facing sweeping job losses as a knock-on effect of Rover's break-up.

The Secretary of State said:"In the last few weeks two serious allegations have been made in relation to my dealings with BMW and Rover. I am pleased that all members of the committee have cleared me over these matters."

BMW had taken a last- minute decision to abandon Rover before their March annual meeting when they realised that the losses on their "English patient" could soar to £1.5bn, putting the whole group at the risk of a takeover.

Mr Byers was given some advance warning in early March but, the MPs said, BMW's plans "bore no relation to what the board decided on 16 March - there was no suggestion that Longbridge and Cowley were for sale, let alone Land Rover, nor that BMW had begun hawking them around the world's car makers".

The committee announced it will be launching a full-scale investigation into the future of the British motor manufacturing industry. The Tories on the committee want the inquiry to focus on the level of sterling.