Scottish MPs condemn proposed closure of Johnnie Walker bottling plant

July 20, 2009 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

Labour, SNP, Lib Dem and Conservative MPs have condemned the decision by multi-national drinks manufacturer Diageo to close a plant in Kirmarnoch.

Des Browne, a former Secretary of State for Scotland, secured an adjournment debate on the closure of Johnnie Walker whisky bottling plant.

“It sits above the centre of the town as a solid symbol of Kilmarnock’s industrial history,” he told the House.

“Like the ravens in the tower of London, no matter how bad things get in Kilmarnock, as long as the Johnnie Walker plant is there, there is always hope for the future.

“For a community that has suffered decades of de-industrialisation and that for more than 30 years now has had a systemic higher rate of unemployment than the rest of Scotland, psychologically the imposing presence of Johnnie Walker and its 700 jobs offers some optimism that the town can rise again.”

Sandra Osborne, Labour MP for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, said that the closure would affect the entire region, not just Kilmarnock.

Mr Browne said the support services provided by local businesses contribute in excess of £20 million a year to the local economy.

Angus Robertson, SNP MP for Moray, said the “provenance and heritage” of whisky is crucial to consumers.

“It is a real mistake for any multinational company to lose touch with, and lose its commitment to, the communities that produce their profits, whether they are in Kilmarnock, Glasgow or Speyside,” he added.

“For many of my constituents, Johnnie Walker is woven into the weave of Kilmarnock,” Mr Browne said.

“I have to say that until 1 July, they thought that that commitment was reciprocated.

“Diageo is an impressive multinational company: it provides 4,500 jobs in Scotland, leads the drinks industry across the world, and markets some of the world’s best-known and leading brands.

“I could paper the walls of this Chamber with corporate documentation that articulates that message of partnership.

“It is designed to encourage the work force to show greater efficiency and greater loyalty, and it succeeds.

“Yet on 1 July, those same workers were told that the need for “more shareholder value” required that their bottling plant be closed within two years, and that the distribution workers be transferred within months to a new employer—essentially, as they were told in a letter, whether they liked it or not.”

He added: “Of all the competing brands of Scotland in a glass, Johnnie Walker is the most successful by a street because of its provenance—because of its roots stretching back to 1820.

“To paraphrase the words of another successful advertising campaign, it delivers what it says on the label.”

Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland and Lib Dem spokesman on Scotland, warned “corporate whisky” interests that they have always “received a good reception in this House because we see the connection between our communities and their business.

“If they are determined to break that connection, why should our communities seek to support them in the future?”

Mr Browne said Diageo’s 90-day consultation clock is ticking, and the unions are already embroiled in consultations.

“If those consultations are not to become simply an opportunity for the company to justify its proposal, the shape of the alternative must begin to emerge sooner rather than later.

“When the First Minister meets the chief executive officer of Diageo next week, this story must move on.

“The campaign is bringing the community that I represent together in a spectacular fashion, but behind closed doors the uncertainty is destroying its confidence in its future.

“That cannot be allowed to go on.”

Shadow Scottish Secretary David Mundell, Tory MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, said he hoped the consultation would be “genuine, one in which a counter-proposal will be listened to and properly and legitimately evaluated, rather than being a sham exercise simply endorsing decisions that have already been made.”

Mr Browne said:

“I am satisfied that the man paid to run the company is telling me the truth and that it will listen. The onus is on us to come up with the alternative to persuade it.

“I do not underestimate how difficult that will be, but we need to get the opportunity to do it, and the company needs to listen to what we have to say.”

Pat McFadden, Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills and a Scot representing an English constituency, told the House that the Scotch whisky industry is “hugely important” to the UK economy.

“Figures published last month by the Scotch Whisky Association put the value of annual whisky shipments at more than £3 billion, earning £97 a second for the UK last year,” he said.

“Overall, the equivalent of more than 1 billion bottles of Scotch whisky were shipped all over the world—to north and central America, Australia, Europe and Asia.

“Whisky also means jobs.

“About three quarters of the UK’s distilled alcoholic drinks enterprises are located in Scotland, with an estimated 41,000 people employed just in making, distilling and bottling whisky.

“Diageo is a major player in all this. It owns 29 whisky distilleries in Scotland, and houses all its maturing Scotch whisky in Scottish warehouses.

“Twenty-eight per cent. of its net sales are from Scotch whisky; that is a very large figure when one considers that it has sales of about £8 billion.

“Campaigners in Scotland have urged Diageo to consider seriously any alternative options that the workers and Scottish Enterprise can come up with, including the possibility of relocating to different sites in Kilmarnock and Glasgow if suitable proposals emerge.

“The business of devising alternative solutions involves the First Minister, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the chairman of Scottish Enterprise and many others.

“They are working on putting together an alternative proposal for the company.

“A meeting yesterday was convened by the Scottish Government’s Finance Minister, John Swinney.

“For our part, we believe that the work that the Scottish Government and their agencies are taking forward is crucial.

“I hope and believe that the company is genuine about consultation and open-minded about possibilities.

“The UK Government will continue to work with the company and my right hon. Friend, and to engage with the work force about the best way forward on this crucial issue.”


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