Extent of the debt crisis at Hall’s of Broxburn laid bare in accounts

THE extent of the debt crisis gripping the closure-threatened Hall’s of Broxburn meat factory has been laid bare in accounts that show its parent company’s losses increased massively to more than £46 million last year.

Accounts published at Companies House yesterday showed losses at Vion Food UK more than doubled to £46.6m in the year to 31 December, 2011.

The news came as Alex Salmond insisted the Scottish Government’s objective was to help “save all jobs” at the plant, where up to 1,700 could face redundancy.

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The First Minister visited the site in West Lothian for talks with workers and unions after Vion Food UK said it was making losses of £79,000 a day.

Mr Salmond pledged he would “speak to anyone and go anywhere” to stop the factory closing and said he was “determined” to lobby to save the jobs. He said he was prepared to be “personally” involved in trying to help find a new buyer.

Vion’s accounts showed its profits had been hit as the costs of shutting down its pork processing factory in Sheffield – its work was moved to Broxburn – and chicken processing operation in Thorne, Yorkshire, hit more than £11m. The accounts also showed a £107m bank overdraft for Vion UK. Its debt shot up massively in 2011, from £30m in 2010. Turn-over fell from £1.21 billion in 2010 to £1.17bn last year.

The directors’ statement in the report said the Livingston-headquartered business had faced a “challenging year” in 2011 with “results behind target”.

Vion said its poultry business had been “disappointing”, despite shutting down Thorne. Its red meat business had also found “adverse conditions” as struggling consumers bought less or chose cheaper cuts.

Mr Salmond’s visit to the factory came as Scottish Secretary Michael Moore pledged the UK and Scottish governments would co-operate to try to save the jobs, after staff were told a 90-day consultation was to begin on the proposed closure.

Mr Moore said he had spoken to SNP finance secretary John Swinney, who has launched a government-backed emergency taskforce, involving trade unions and local politicians.

He said: “The UK government will provide whatever help we can to support the efforts to protect the future of Hall’s of Broxburn and the jobs of their workers. I have spoken with John Swinney and promised to provide the taskforce with whatever support they require from the UK government.

“This situation requires a united team-Scotland approach and that is what will happen.”

However, Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland, warned Mr Swinney needed to do more than simply set up another taskforce to save the jobs, and that he had to plan for the “worst”. He said the UK and Scottish governments, Scottish Enterprise and other development agencies should put their efforts into trying to find new jobs and training opportunities for Hall’s workers in case of the factory’s closure.

He said: “Doing nothing is not an option and there needs to be serious joined-up thinking now about where we would find job and retraining opportunities if the closure was to go ahead.

“Some thought needs to be given as to how we would be able to assist Hall’s employees if the worst comes to the worst.”

The First Minister, who spent more than two hours meeting workers, said the 1,700 jobs were “extremely important to the sustainability” of the area.

He said: “In terms of priorities and for the West Lothian area, there is no way that I’m going to walk past the door with the threat of 1,700 redundancies.

“The reason for coming here was for me to meet the shop stewards, as my view was that if you want to know what’s going on, you talk to the folk doing the jobs.”

Mr Salmond went on to warn the closure of the factory and loss of jobs would have a “devastating affect” on the area. He said: “The first objective of the taskforce is to save as many jobs as possible. The next objective after that is to save as many jobs as possible.

“There have been people here for 40 years and yesterday was the worst day of their life for some of them. It was a devastating blow and I’m angry that people have been put in this 
position.

“I will be personally involved in a whole range of ways and will give whatever help I can. I will go anywhere and speak to whoever I have to secure these jobs.”

Both Vion and unions representing employees at the factory welcomed Mr Salmond’s intervention.

Stewart Forrest, deputy Scottish divisional officer of the Usdaw union, said: “We’ve had a reasonably constructive first consultation meeting with Vion, but the company were unable to give detailed answers to any of the many questions we put to them. They have assured us that they will be in a position to start providing answers next week and we’ll be reconvening next Wednesday at the latest.”

A spokesman for Vion said: “We greatly appreciate the First Minister taking the time to visit the plant and speak to staff, 
unions and management. Our discussions were positive and productive.”

West Lothian Council leader John McGinty said: “I have taken urgent action to call a special meeting of the council executive as the potential loss of 1,700 jobs is a critical issue and the 90-day consultation period means that the clock is already ticking.”