Rolls-Royce has been faithfully served by the communities surrounding its Barnoldswick operations for nearly eight decades. It was in this Lancastrian town that Rolls-Royce developed and built the UK’s first jet engine. That engine, which powered high-speed Meteor jet fighters in 1944, was the only allied jet fighter to see action during the Second World War and played a crucial role in the winning of the conflict.
Over subsequent years, Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick has been an integral part of the region’s economy and a source of pride for generations of families who found skilled, stable and well-paid work at the site. That is all now set to change, following the company’s announcement in August that it intends to offshore the production of its Trent engine blades from Barnoldswick to Singapore, with the loss of 350 workers.
Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick workers are currently taking three weeks of selective strike action. They are fighting to save highly skilled engineering jobs, and potentially the site itself. It is appalling that the company has left them with no other option but to take strike action, despite the huge effort that Unite the union has made to work constructively with Rolls-Royce to cope with the impact of Covid-19.
It is particularly galling that Rolls-Royce is seeking to benefit from billions of pounds of taxpayer support, yet refuses to use this taxpayer-funded lifeline to keep valuable jobs in the UK. It is also appalling that Rolls-Royce has broken the promise it made to protect Barnoldswick when workers from the site helped set up the company’s aerospace footprint in Singapore. It is nothing less than a complete betrayal of a loyal and dedicated workforce by Rolls-Royce and will only serve to further tarnish this iconic British brand.
As chair of the Unite parliamentary group in Westminster, I have written on behalf of more than 100 Labour MPs and Peers to express our solidarity with union members at Barnoldswick. It is no exaggeration to say that parliamentarians from across the political spectrum are disgusted by the behaviour of Rolls-Royce and are quite simply ashamed of how low this flagship UK firm has fallen under its current management.
In the current economic climate, these are exactly the kind of jobs the country cannot afford to lose. The Unite parliamentary group is encouraging all its members to raise awareness of this dispute and use every available opportunity to lobby for government intervention. It is clear that any financial support for Rolls-Royce must be conditional on protecting jobs at Barnoldswick and other sites. Quite frankly, it is astonishing that government has not already attached such conditions to the support provided to Rolls-Royce.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I demanded answers from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma, about why the government has neglected to do this. Unfortunately, Mr Sharma merely parroted lines from Rolls-Royce about the site remaining open. If these jobs go, however, Rolls-Royce will cease to have any meaningful presence in Barnoldswick and more than three quarters of a century of aerospace manufacturing in the town will effectively come to an end.
Next week, Sharma, along with a cross-party group of MPs, will be meeting with Rolls-Royce. It is unclear exactly which MPs have been invited to that meeting, but along with my parliamentary colleagues I will be demanding Rolls-Royce meets with Unite to secure a viable future for Barnoldswick as a matter of urgency.
If Rolls-Royce refuse to do this, the government must use the company’s current reliance on public money to incentivise it into doing the right thing. Anything less from ministers will be a gross injustice against the people of Barnoldswick and the UK’s aerospace industry as a whole.