UK says Brexit talks with Bentley Motors must remain confidential

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain has declined to release details of talks held last year with luxury carmaker Bentley Motors about a new investment decision ahead of Brexit, telling Reuters any disclosure could harm its ability to get a good deal with the European Union.

FILE PHOTO: Bentley EXP 12 Concept car is seen during the 87th International Motor Show at Palexpo in Geneva, Switzerland, March 7, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo

The Volkswagen-owned VOWG_p.DE firm, which built over 11,000 luxury vehicles at its central English plant last year, is due to make a decision connected to the production of future models at the start of 2018.

In December a meeting was held between the firm and junior Brexit minister David Jones, according to a log posted on the government’s website, but in response to a freedom of information request from Reuters the department said it was not in the public interest to release any of the correspondence.

“Part of the negotiation and exit process requires the UK to be able to effectively pursue and protect our interests abroad. Prematurely publicizing information will prejudice our ability to successfully conduct that business,” it said.

The Department for Exiting the European Union said that releasing any commercially sensitive information could make firms reluctant to speak to government in future.

“The potential lack of this key exchange of ideas, or the release of the information, may in turn weaken the government’s position in these negotiations and make it harder for the UK to secure the best possible deal with the EU.”

Bentley declined to comment on Monday. Reuters intends to seek a review of the government’s decision.

Britain’s largely foreign-owned car industry is worried Brexit could add tariffs to imports and exports, make it harder to move staff between sites and lead to border checks on the movement of components which would slow down production, risking the viability of their plants.

In March, Bentley’s chief executive Wolfgang Duerheimer told Reuters he would be seeking guarantees from the government in the months ahead.

“You can get commitments and I count on commitments also from the UK government and, as I understood, they already gave commitments to other brands at certain times so when we come closer, we will see what we have in our hands,” he said.

A Brexit deal with Japanese carmaker Nissan 7201.T met with some political concern last year after the firm said it would build two new models at its English plant following a call for compensation in the event of tariffs.

An industry source said that the decision was secured with a government promise of extra support to counter any Brexit-induced loss of competitiveness.

Business minister Greg Clark declined to publish a copy of a letter sent to the carmaker, telling lawmakers in December they would only release it once commercial confidentialities no longer apply.

Clark’s department took over four months to respond to a freedom of information request made by Reuters requesting correspondence between Nissan and the government. The standard response period is up to 20 working days.

However, it did eventually provide a number of partially redacted emails and letters including one document showing the firm discussed with Clark how to boost the uptake of electric cars. Several government initiatives have since been announced.

Last week Britain's biggest vehicle engine maker Ford F.N, which runs two plants, said that a transitional deal with the European Union was crucial to determining its future in Britain, and suggested it would also be asking for government help.

“We are spending a lot of time thinking and talking about how we need to change our operations and what support we need from the government and other entities, not only in the UK, to make sure (trade) friction doesn’t get created,” Ford of Europe’s chief executive Jim Farley said.

Editing by Greg Mahlich