Economic Development (Barnsley)
Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I was going to go on to say that one of Barnsley’s problems is that it continues to lag behind national and regional survival rates for new small businesses. That, of course, limits increases in the business stock and, in the end, job opportunities for local people.
On the supply side of the equation, there are currently 6,962 jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Barnsley. That is a rate of 4.7%, which is significantly higher than the national figure of 3.9%. Among young people, the figure is particularly high, with 12.1% aged 18 to 24 on JSA, compared with 7.8% nationally. Perhaps most startlingly of all, 20.7% of the working age population are claiming some form of out-of-work benefits, compared with 14.5% nationally.
At this point, I remind the Minister of my earlier comment that nowhere was the fight to save jobs in the 1980s more intense than in Barnsley. So please let us not assume that the high level of benefit claimants in Barnsley means that the area is somehow populated by the workshy, because that just is not the case. Indeed, I would argue that the opposite is true, and that the struggle to find work in an area such as Barnsley must be deeply dispiriting for a people who are for the most part proud of their community and their work ethic.
So what needs to be done? Well, the first and most important thing to say is that Barnsley needs a plan for jobs and growth from central Government. In other words, we need to get the economy moving again, and the Government could help to deliver the required stimulus in a number of ways. They could, for instance, support the development of the affordable and sustainable housing that the country so badly needs. They could also support more consistently the development of renewable technologies and the industry’s building around those technologies. Barnsley has around 30 solar-tech companies that employ hundreds of people in semi-skilled and skilled well-paid work. Yet, what we see at the moment is the pursuit of an appeal at the Supreme Court against the sudden and damaging reduction in the rate for the feed-in tariff scheme. We need more clarity and consistency from the Government and more awareness of the impact on business of sudden and damaging decisions, such as the one we saw in relation to FITs.
We also need the Government to reinstate the grant for business investment scheme that allowed small and medium-sized enterprises to make capital investments in plant and machinery where linked to company and job growth. That would be a more focused and useful means of supporting job creation than the regional growth fund, which is rapidly being discredited as it gets tangled in red tape. The regional growth fund is also failing to deliver the private sector leverage promised by the Deputy Prime Minister when he launched it. The biggest award so far has gone to a company in Chelmsford and is estimated to lever in just £3.70 for every £1 of RGF money allocated by the Government, compared with the £5 promised by the Deputy Prime Minister. Incidentally, Barnsley has not seen much of that money so far.
The Government also need to address the void left by Business Link Yorkshire. A national website is no substitute for the intensive and tailored support offered by Business Link, and we are worried that the gaps in provision may result in a higher than normal business failure rate. The Government also need to consider how best to deal with the problem of access to finance for SMEs in Barnsley, because business in the area is seen as inherently higher risk. Therefore, it is more difficult for companies to access finance for investment and expansion on sensible terms. The Minister’s commitment to at least
look at that issue would be welcome. In other words, if businesses generally in this country are finding it hard to secure funding at sensible rates from banks, let us imagine how hard it is for businesses in Barnsley, where it is generally judged that they have a harder job to survive.
The Government also need to look at the work of UKTI in attracting inward investment. If the Government are serious about rebalancing the economy, we need to see every part of what they do dedicated to that task. There is no better place to start than UKTI. Why not prioritise regions such as Yorkshire, particularly areas sorely in need of investment such as Barnsley, for UKTI investment—or rather for the investment that UKTI manages to secure from overseas sources? Why should the Government not put Barnsley first for a change, rather than London and the south-east?
Finally, we need more support for skills development in the borough. We need modern apprenticeship systems that are built on a long-term compact between labour and employers. Germany does that, and its youth unemployment rate is one third of the OECD average.
Barnsley is a proud town, which should have a prosperous future. It has been prosperous in the past. This country would not be what it is today if it had not been for the efforts and the sacrifices made by generation after generation of coal miners in places such as Barnsley—there is no doubt about that. Barnsley does not deserve to be where it is today. It deserves the support of the Government. The people living in Barnsley do not want to be dependent on benefits; they want a vibrant, diverse local economy. They want a Government who are committed to jobs and growth. They want a Government who are prepared to invest in a highly skilled work force—the work force that Barnsley needs for its future. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s view on how best his Government can deliver what is necessary to achieve that.