Any subsequent criminal investigation could be lengthy, because of the complexity of the allegations.
MG Rover was one of Britain’s largest private companies when it went into administration four years ago. About 6000 people lost their jobs directly, with an estimated additional 9000 other workers at suppliers and dealers also losing their jobs.
The company owners - known in the press as the Phoenix Four, were John Towers, Peter Beale, John Edwards and Nick Stephenson. At the time of the collapse they were accused of asset-stripping MG Rover.
The quartet bought the company from BMW for £10 in 2000, a price that included a £427 million loan from the German car group, and a stock of thousands of unsold cars. In the following years they took out an estimated £40m in salaries, pensions and other assets.
Their behaviour prompted the head of BMW in Britain to call them “the unacceptable face of capitalism” and led to the launch of an inquiry by the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI), now the Department for Business
The decision to call in the Serious Fraud Office will mean that the report into the company's collapse will not be made public yet.
The Times newspaper cites senior motor industry executives familiar with the Rover collapse as saying that the government might not want the report made public, citing ministers’ public support for the Phoenix Four when they bought the company, and the government’s ill-fated interventions late on in an attempt to keep the company afloat. A £6m state loan was advanced to Rover while a fruitless effort to resurrect a deal with Chinese company was made.
The Phoenix Four reacted with fury to the news of the Serious Fraud Office’s involvement.
“There has never been any suggestion of improper conduct by the directors and this was confirmed in a report by the administrators six months after they took over the running of the company,” the former directors said in a statement.
“Four years on, any suggestion another further investigation is frankly ridiculous and smacks of kicking this issue into the long grass.
“If the government has been so concerned to get to the heart of the matter why has it flatly refused more than 30 requests under the Freedom of Information Act which would have revealed correspondence and documents the directors believe would have shed some light on the government’s role in the affair?”
The former directors have said that none of the money pledged to former workers from the MG Rover Trust Fund can be paid out until the inquiry report is published. About £16 million was collected for it from asset sales.