I am absolutely delighted to have the opportunity, which comes around once every couple of years, to speak as Chair of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs about an issue that we think is particularly important. Today, that subject is inward investment in Wales and the Welsh economy.
The timing of this debate is a little unfortunate. As hon. Members will know, the Leveson report is being released at this very moment, so I apologise to Lord Leveson if we keep him off tomorrow’s front pages. I accept that some Members will have even more interest in Leveson than in the Welsh Affairs Committee, so I will try to keep my speech as brief as possible to be fair to those who also find that issue of interest.
When we published our report on inward investment in Wales in February, I think that I can fairly say that it was well received and comprehensive. We took evidence from a range of witnesses in business, as well as economists and politicians. We met Ministers from the UK Government and shadow Ministers from the Welsh Assembly Government. We would, of course, have liked to meet Ministers from the Welsh Assembly Government, but the Minister with responsibility for this area did not see fit to appear before the Committee, which was a shame. As well as being a little discourteous to the Committee—I can take the insult—that risks sending out the negative message that the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government are not working well together, which we do not want to happen.
We recognise that there is a problem with inward investment in Wales. Looking back, we can say that the ’80s and early ’90s were something of a boom era. Despite the fact that Wales has less than 5% of the UK’s population, we were getting about 15% of inward investment projects. By the late 1990s, however, things had started to decline. Between 1998 and 2008, some 171 foreign-owned companies closed their sites in Wales, with the loss of 31,000 jobs, and now things are getting worse. A parliamentary written answer from this Monday shows that the number of inward investment projects in Wales has declined from 68 in 2009-10 to just 26 in 2011-12, despite the fact that the UK as a whole remains the No. 1 destination for foreign direct investment in Europe.
There has been a shift in FDI away from Wales and towards London and the south-east of England, and the Committee wanted to know what we could do to improve the situation. We were, of course, clear that the
traditional routes for attracting investment—low labour costs, grants and help with infrastructure—can no longer be relied on. We certainly do not want to compete on labour costs with countries such as China or India. It is important that we can offer a good standard of infrastructure so that we make Wales as appealing as we can for companies that might want to come here.
Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint, the Minister for Trade and Investment, told us that countries and overseas companies weigh up certain factors systematically, as if building up a grid, before deciding where to invest. Our report focused on three of those areas, the first of which was education, which obviously is devolved to Wales. It would merit its own inquiry, if we could find a way to conduct one without causing offence to the Welsh Assembly.
The Government’s response to recommendation after recommendation in the Committee’s report is:
“This is a matter for the Welsh Government, who may wish to respond.”
Does not the hon. Gentleman think that his report has been weakened by the Committee’s trespassing beyond its own responsibilities? The Welsh Assembly Government are likely to respond negatively. The report would have been far better and more incisive if it had concentrated on matters that are the responsibility of this Parliament.
The Welsh Affairs Committee is perfectly entitled to have an interest in anything affecting Wales. Although some in the Welsh Assembly might take the view that they are not willing to talk to the UK Government about things that they consider to be their own prerogative, it is noticeable that our Committee has considered such issues as defence, which the Ministry of Defence could say was its responsibility. We have also considered broadband, which is cross-cutting and affected by both UK Government and Welsh Assembly Government policy. We consider anything. I am proud to be Welsh and proud to be British, as hon. Members can see from my cufflinks. I make no apology for the fact that the Welsh Affairs Committee would be perfectly happy to consider anything affecting Wales.
Throughout the long history of Denbighshire county council, its longest ever meeting, which went on beyond midnight, was to decide the council’s policy on the war in Vietnam. That might have seemed to be a sensible thing to do, but I do not think that it had a great effect on world opinion or the conduct of the United States at that time. Does the hon. Gentleman think that his Committee is likely to end up in a position where it takes up any subject, whether or not it has any influence on or knowledge of it?
First, although I was a mere boy at the time, I seem to remember that the hon. Gentleman was either a member of, or involved in, Newport council at the time when I lived there, and that he used to help with discussions of whether Wales should be a nuclear-free zone, so perhaps he has experience of long discussions about things over which he is likely to have little influence. Secondly, inward investment is clearly a cross-cutting issue that is affected by both Welsh Assembly and UK Government policy. I do not want this sitting to go on for as long as that meeting of Denbighshire county council—it is not a record that I am hoping to beat—so I would like to continue my speech.
Which I shall do after I have given way to the hon. Gentleman for the third time.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous. The nuclear-free Wales policy was a remarkable united expression by every county council in Wales—there were eight in 1981. “Nuclear-free” was about nuclear power, not nuclear weapons. Every county council passed an identical resolution saying that it did not want nuclear power stations in Wales but, sadly, the then Government defied that call.
How times have changed, as Labour councils now seem to be very supportive of nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations. In 1981, there were no Conservative-led councils, but today there is one in my constituency, so things change for the better.
Returning to education, however, things are not changing for the better. Hon. Members will be aware of the recent OECD programme for international student assessment—PISA—report on education across numerous developed countries. Wales was not only below average for the developed world in subjects such as maths and science, but below average for the whole United Kingdom. The Committee hopes that the Welsh Assembly Government will address that situation. Speaking personally—to take off my Chair’s hat for a moment—I do not think that it will be addressed by setting up a completely separate examination system in Wales, which the Assembly is considering.
We considered the role of further and higher education, and universities are becoming increasingly prominent in investor decisions. We believe that although a lot of good work is going on between universities and industry, a great deal more can be done.
There are numerous studies about the economic benefits of good and efficient transport links. We should be concerned about the current quality of transport links in mid and north Wales, and about connectivity with the rest of Wales. We are exploring those issues in more detail in a current inquiry and our report will be published shortly.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Welsh Assembly Government failed to make any representations for investment in the north Wales coast main line, which is the key rail infrastructure in north Wales?
I am extremely concerned about that, but I welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State for Wales that a business case will be developed for the north Wales main line from Holyhead to Crewe. If the Minister has any more to say about that, we would welcome it.
I am sure that every member of every political party represented in Wales will be delighted by the coalition Government’s decision to extend electrification of the Great Western main line to Swansea and the valleys, and I am sure that the biggest supporter will be Geraint Davies. There is much good news there.
I warmly welcome the decision to extend electrification from Cardiff to Swansea, which we recommended in our report. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what we need in Swansea, as in Cardiff, is super-connectivity, because we want a level playing field in south Wales, which has one economy? Will he, like me, press the Government to ensure that we are up and running in the Swansea city region, as well as in Cardiff, to achieve economic growth?
The Swansea bay region would be an excellent place to invest. The Government are doing a huge amount to support better infrastructure, including IT infrastructure, across the whole of Wales. Although I look forward to developments that will increase broadband speeds in cities such as Swansea, Cardiff and Newport, we have more to do to ensure that in people in rural areas such as Monmouthshire are able to get some sort of broadband.
It is important that we have Swansea city hub super-connectivity before broadband in rural Monmouthshire.
I note what the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position, but let me turn to the Severn bridge, because that affects all of us in south Wales. Our report shows that little can be done until the original amount that was agreed with Severn River Crossing is paid off, which is expected to happen in 2018. Until then, there will always be inflation-busting increases in charges on the Severn bridge because that is set according to a formula at a certain time of year. There is absolutely nothing that can be done about that because it is a matter of commercial law.
I will, but may I finish my point first, because I think that the hon. Gentleman will be likely to agree with me?
After 2018, all bets are off, and several things could happen when the money is paid off. The Government will no longer have to pay VAT so, at a stroke, 20% could be taken off the charges. They could decide to get rid of tolls and fund the maintenance themselves, although that is unlikely, because I have been given an inkling of the cost of maintaining two large bridges over an estuary—it is phenomenal. I do not have the figures to hand, but we worked out that we would need to charge at least one third of the current toll simply to cover maintenance costs, and the Government might want to take a little more just in case it is necessary to build a third bridge in the future. However, there is no doubt that there could be a huge cut in the tolls after 2018, when Severn River Crossing’s charges have been met.
At the same time, the Welsh Assembly Government are loudly demanding control over both bridges, although one is entirely in England, which seems to have escaped their attention. However, they are being rather silent about what they would do to the tolls if they were put in charge. We need some transparency. There was a lot of anger in my constituency, and probably throughout south Wales, when the latest toll increases were announced, and I believe that some of that anger could be assuaged if we had more transparency about what will happen.
I was disappointed when we were informed by one of the Minister’s colleagues in government that there was unlikely to be any decrease in charges whatsoever because of extra costs—the Committee was told that they were several hundred million pounds, but I believe that they are now around £112 million—that the Government want to recoup. I do not know what those costs are, and the first I heard of them was when the evidence was given to the Committee. We were told nothing about that when the inquiry took place, so we would like to know what those costs are and what will happen when they have been paid off. We cannot find ourselves in the 2020s with the Severn bridge being used as a cash cow to milk the public in Wales and south-west England of money that the Government should not be taking through a toll, so a little transparency would be welcome.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should commission a report from the Treasury to determine whether, if it paid all the tolls that will be due before 2018, all that money would be recovered from higher income tax receipts and lower benefit costs arising from the generation of extra jobs?
The hon. Gentleman puts me on the spot. I would certainly support a report from the Government giving more transparency over what will happen. His question seems to be fair and relevant, so perhaps that could be dealt with.
I have entertained hon. Members for a little too long, so let me refer, finally, to how Wales is marketed. Currently, that is done by IBW. I shall have to tell hon. Members that that is International Business Wales, because no one, except a few people in the Welsh Assembly, really knows what “IBW” is. Previously, Wales was marketed extremely successfully by the WDA, and I do not need to tell anyone that that stood for the Welsh Development Agency. The time has come for us to reconsider the way in which Wales is marketed. We have plenty of evidence, some of which is anecdotal, that IBW has not been doing a very good job. It is time for the Welsh Assembly to set up a dedicated promotional body to sell Wales to the rest of the world.
We have a good story to tell, and we still have a highly-skilled, capable and loyal work force. There is a great argument for persuading companies from across the world to come to Wales, and I look forward to working with members of the Committee, and Ministers from the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government, to try to ensure that that happens.
It is a pleasure to welcome this report, which I was pressing for. Wales sits within the UK economy and the global marketplace, and we all need to pull together in both the Welsh and the UK Governments to provide the best opportunities for Wales in a changing environment to give Wales the tools to do the job. I will cover the basic ground of the report and what we should be doing in Wales, including in the councils, focusing primarily, as has been said, on the UK Government’s responsibilities to present Wales as an accessible, adaptable and attractive location for inward investment in a global marketplace.
Obviously, we cannot compete on labour costs with China, as we did in the past, but we have electronic global market reach and clearly competitiveness is about
added value and skills. Emerging markets in China, India and south America should be seen as major opportunities for emerging consumer markets of high value products, whether arts or science-led, for the Welsh economy. We should refocus our efforts in that way.
Following the global financial tsunami in 2008, Wales is particularly vulnerable, because the proportion of people in the public sector is greater, and as the Government begin to reduce the investment in public sector jobs and wages, consumer demand is disproportionately hit. We know that the root of very low or static growth in the UK is the collapse of consumer demand, which was still going up in 2010, albeit with a deficit, but the announcement of 500,000 job cuts deflated that and we are now bouncing along. The issue is to keep money going into local economies, and to target investment in the most productive area.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the big headwind in household expenditure has more to do with the huge personal debt bubble and asset bubble built up under the last Labour Government—£1.4 trillion, and 100% of GDP? That is an incredible record and far higher than any other state in the developed world. Is that not why consumer spending is collapsing?
I was not expecting to hear cries for austerity from Plaid Cymru, but there you go. They come from all sorts of directions.
Very briefly, you will know, Mr Bone, that between 1997 and 2008 Britain enjoyed a period of more rapid growth than had been seen since the war with paid back debt, massive growth in employment, and reductions in welfare costs. After the financial tsunami of 2008, my right hon. Friend Mr Brown and Barack Obama got the fiscal stimulus going so that we did not go into a global depression, which the hon. Gentleman seems to be calling for. In 2010, we then had a deficit, which the coalition Government inherited. Two thirds of that was due to the bankers and one third was due to excess investment above earnings to pump-prime the economy and keep it growing. The current Government then decided to focus more on cuts than growth to get the deficit down, ending up with virtually zero growth, and the deficit has been growing ever since. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wants to cross the Floor to the Conservative side, but when history is written, it will be seen as a painful place to be.
On a point of information, the debt had already gone from £350 billion to £650 billion before the real financial crisis started to strike in 2008.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the real rise in debt started in 2008 after the financial tsunami, and the previous Labour Government had paid back enormous amounts of debt, partly through the sale of—[ Interruption. ] I think I had better redirect my argument. We can rehearse those arguments again, but people realise that what I say is, in essence, a factual record of what happened.
It is the case that debt is now going up. I give way first to the hon. Member for Monmouth, as he has only a small point to make.
May I direct the hon. Gentleman, and anyone else who is interested, to, dare I say it, my website? On the front page, there is a history of the debt and what actually happened, with every figure checked by the House of Commons Library. He will find that what I have put there is rather different from what he is suggesting.
I have seen the European version of his website—it is called “Mon mouth”. Moving swiftly forward, I give way to the hon. Member for Aberconwy.
On the specific point about the lack of consumer demand in the economy, we had a consumer-driven economy under the previous Labour Government—a consumer debt-driven economy, based on personal debt and Government debt. Households are now retrenching, which is one reason why there is a lack of consumer demand in the economy, but we need to rebalance the economy and not depend on further credit card-fuelled economic growth, as the previous Labour Government did.
We do not want a debt-driven, borrowing-driven economy—obviously not. We need people to be given the opportunities to get jobs, create wealth and pay some of that back in tax. Post-1997, we had the transfer of a situation where the previous Conservative Government—history is repeating itself, of course—saw ever fewer people in jobs, paying less tax, and they were forced to cut services and increase debt and borrowing. That changed with Labour getting Britain back to work. Later, post-2008, it was a special situation, with too much borrowing and on the back of that, sub-prime debt. I agree that the sustainable future is about working and paying our way, but it is not about cutting to such an extent that we deflate the private sector so that it cannot invest in new jobs. We need the economy going along, with investment in consumer markets and productive areas. Although there is some level of agreement, we differ slightly on our interpretation of the past.
Moving back to the future, what should the UK and Welsh Governments do to give Wales the best opportunity for economic growth? An area that we touched on in the report was UK Trade and Investment’s role, and I very much agree with the report’s recommendations. UKTI has 83 offices around the world, and they are opportunities to market Wales for inward investment and trade. The coalition Government, in their wisdom, decided to close down all the regional development agencies, so when we went to see UKTI in Berlin, Dusseldorf and so on, we asked what happens now when a German company comes along and says to UKTI, “We want to build a factory, a distillery, or whatever. Where should we go?” That used to be put on a computer platform that was drawn down by the RDAs, which would compete for that investment. As RDAs were abolished, that no longer happens, and clearly, there is an opening for Wales to move in to. Wales has great, ongoing opportunities
to use UKTI to maximise the open goals that have been created by the Government taking the players off the pitch.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As he will recall, when we travelled to Brussels as part of the Committee’s investigation—I thoroughly enjoyed working with him on the report—we were shocked when we heard from both UKTI in Brussels and from representatives of the Welsh Government there that they did not see their job as being to work with UKTI and to market Welsh opportunities. Indeed, UKTI said, despite what he has just said about RDAs, that it was getting attention more regularly from some English regions than they were from organisations promoting Wales. I am sure that he would agree that that situation ought to change.
I am grateful for that intervention. When we saw the Welsh Government office in Brussels, it made its top three priorities clear. The first, as it is in Brussels, was policy in the EU, and in particular where it impacts on Wales—the common agricultural policy, and the rest of it. The second was grants and funding opportunities. Convergence funding has provided billions of pounds of investment in Wales, and that must be a key priority. We have seen it throughout Wales: recently, at Swansea university, £60 million from the European Investment Bank was invested in the second campus, and the £20 million in convergence funding for that is vital. Its third priority was the profile of Wales—to brand Wales. Those are key issues.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we asked whether a fourth priority should be inward investment and trade. I agree that it should, and the response we received was that the office would be happy to work with UKTI. My understanding is that we are moving down that track. The report is helpful in encouraging co-operation with UKTI, which has 83 offices, while Wales has much fewer. However, where Wales does have them, it should work in co-operation.
On the Welsh brand, I understand that the Welsh Government are now looking at a new marketing strategy, which again, I very much welcome. There are big opportunities to push forward the Welsh identity, and I think that castles should be considered. If Members will indulge me for a moment, having a background in multinational companies and global brands, the castles around Wales symbolise romance, history, culture, strengths and endurance, which are all qualities of Wales. It is all part of inward investment and tourism. The dragon tends to be slightly overwhelmed by the Chinese dragon, but there is hope yet. [ Interruption. ] Okay, let’s keep the dragon—sorry about that.
Moving forward, it is not only about castles; it is about having a unique, clear identity for Wales in the global marketplace. The report referred to the success of the Welsh Development Agency. Some feel that if that brand still existed, it might be able to be re-harnessed in some respect. The report also suggests that we work in co-operation with private sector practitioners on the ground. The report’s basis was to get entrepreneurs, inward investors, multinationals, academics and an array of people in the economic community to give their view on what we should do, and we should be open-minded about taking advice as the global environment changes.
The report is obviously a place in time, and a similar report will be needed downstream, because clearly, things are changing, and the role of the public and private sectors is important in providing the instruments for success in future. Few people know, when they look at some of the great global successes, such as the Apple iPhone, that some of the technology—the touch-screen and voice sensitivities—was delivered by the public sector, by a scientific foundation in the United States. Apple then took that and made it a global brand. Some people seem to think, “Oh well, it’s the private sector. They know what they are doing,” but fundamental science and innovation is vital for commercial success. The issue is to have that link between the academic, and research and development, going through to commercial success.
I mention that because it is mentioned in our report and it is alive and well in our great city of Swansea—in Swansea university, in the first instance. People there are changing the rules. Within Swansea university, instead of having a silo situation, with the engineering department here, medicine there and so on, they mix it up so that the engineers are in with the medics. In terms of life sciences, development of nanoproducts and so on, they are working with inward investors in producing global brands. They have the support of Rolls-Royce, BP and others in relation to the development of a second campus worth £200 million. As I mentioned, the investment in that from Europe has been critical. Those coalition Members—in particular, the Tories, of course—who say yah-boo to the Europeans need to realise that a joined-up approach whereby we are working together to have a strong Europe and a strong Wales within Britain within Europe is vital for the future. We cannot retrench to become fish and chip shop Britain, as many on the Conservative Benches would like to see us.
What’s wrong with fish and chips?
There is nothing wrong with fish and chips—
That is kind of you, Mr Bone; thank you.
I want to mention the issue of city regions. In terms of working together in a critical mass in a global marketplace, one benefit of trying to bring together the four local authorities of Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, plus the universities and industry, to argue the commercial case as well as the social case for electrification of the railway to Swansea was that there was a refocusing on the common interests of that area.
I am very pleased that the Welsh Government have taken the initiative in doing a consultation on city region status and have given the go-ahead for the Swansea Bay city region to move forward. Swansea has always been seen to be, to a certain extent at least, in the shadow of Cardiff, so it is interesting to note that Cardiff itself contains about 300,000 people, but the continuous urban footprint of Neath Port Talbot and Swansea, going to Llanelli, is one of about 400,000 people —the biggest
urban footprint in Wales. We can work together within that and within Carmarthenshire, haloing out to Pembrokeshire and, indeed, Ceredigion—there is not really anywhere to go beyond that. Mr Williams is very welcome in the Swansea Bay region. I am talking about working together to have a diverse skills base. Working with the universities and the local authorities to get coherence, focus and value for money is very important.
I have already welcomed the rail electrification. It was regrettable that we had to work so hard to get the Government to agree to an extension from Cardiff to Swansea, but that was very good news. As I have said, the next thing that we want is to be able to say that we have super-connectivity.
Of course, the Swansea Bay brand has been created partly through football. The Minister will know that Swansea won 3:1 against West Brom last night. That sort of news is transmitted to 600 million people in 200 countries. That is important because the name Swansea is then known. Increasingly, people are hearing of Swansea who may not even have heard of Cardiff. That is amazing.
I just want to add to the excellent point being made by the hon. Gentleman. As colleagues know, I have just returned from my honeymoon in Cape Verde, and I actually watched the Swansea game against Liverpool live on TV in my hotel room.
I bet the hon. Gentleman’s wife was happy about that, with him shouting for a goal, but there we are. I wish him a long and happy marriage while watching Swansea. I thank him for that intervention, which was very welcome.
On a serious note, the Swansea brand is of course a global brand, so there is an opportunity to attach various values to it, including the fact that it is a nice family and business environment by the sea. With internet connectivity, why would people want to be in the expensive congestion of London, for instance, when they could be overlooking Swansea bay? The fact that there are sporting successes, good schools, a good health service and so on is critical to that.
I mention that point partly to move on to the regional pay issue. The Government have been considering the case for regional pay, and I will say two things about that. First, reducing the pay of people in the public services in Wales by some 20%, which is the implicit agenda, would remove even greater amounts of economic power from the consumer markets in Swansea and, again, push down the private sector; but as important or possibly more important, GPs and other public servants would think that they would be better off getting a job in Bristol, where their pay would be higher, and suddenly we would be denuded of some of the best GPs and other public servants. That would have implications for inward investors, who are being taken, for instance, from London.
Let us consider how inward investment works. UKTI promotes the UK. Someone says, “Okay, I’ll go to the UK. That sounds great in terms of stability, environment, access to Europe and everything else, but where shall I go in the UK”—that is the next decision—“and how do we have added value there?” Of course, in Wales, we have environmental opportunities. We want to increase
accessibility, skills and research and development. However, if the families going there suddenly do not have the right GP or education services because of wage deflation in Wales, that will be very bad for inward investment.
I share many of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns in relation to regional pay. Certainly, in an area such as north Wales, part of which I represent, it is a real concern—Chester is within 45 minutes of my constituency. Was there anything specific, therefore, about people working in the Courts Service that meant that the Labour Government were quite happy to see those working in Mold paid less than those working in Chester, even though there are only 10 miles between them?
That is a very well rehearsed intervention—“How can you have this, that and the other?” Obviously, there is a case for London weighting, for example. There are some cases at the margin for differentials, but in the main what we do not want is suddenly to have a free market approach to regional pay, as the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues seem to want to promote. That would undermine inward investment in areas such as his own, because people would not be paid the right rate for the job.
In a global environment, regional pay becomes even less relevant. I hope that over time the average pay in Swansea will escalate quite phenomenally because of the emergence of the second campus at the university and of satellite industries—SMEs and global companies locating beside that centre of excellence and moving forward from that. I am talking about international links from Swansea university and, indeed, the other university in Swansea, Swansea Metropolitan university, which delivers the highest proportion of SMEs that last for three years or more in Wales. It is building up digital clusters in interactive technology, animation and modern manufacturing design. If we can move to a level at which the community of people around that intellectual base evolves, so that people can get a number of jobs in the same place, the average pay may go up. What does that mean for regional pay in the public sector? We might stop that through the moves that have been set out.
We have already mentioned bridge tolls. My view in a nutshell is that the Severn bridge toll is a tax stranglehold on the south Wales economy. We should eliminate the toll sooner rather than later. The reason why I want the Government to evaluate immediately whether, if they paid that toll themselves, they would get the money back in jobs, in income tax from new jobs and in benefit cuts from people going off the dole is that the toll is undermining inward investment in south Wales.
The Welsh Government recently produced a report that said that £107 million was being lost from the Welsh economy because of the tolls. I suggest that that is an underestimate. Let me give a simple example. A small builder from Newport, who wants to retile roofs and do extensions, would not go across to Bristol to look for that work now because of the toll, but if there was no toll, he or she would do so. I therefore believe that we should look at that again.
As we see other city regions, such as Manchester, emerging, it would be unbelievable for the person or the group that is leading Manchester city region to suggest
a toll on the M5 to build some infrastructure. That would be unheard of. Similarly, we must look carefully at the economic impact of removing tolls. The removal of the Forth bridge toll, which was only £1, increased traffic by 13%. The Select Committee report is about what the UK and Welsh Governments can do to stimulate inward investment and growth. Getting rid of the tolls is clearly an option.
The Silk report talked about borrowing powers and so on, but frankly, the first issue to get right is ensuring that Wales has its fair share of the UK cake—though I do understand that it is a squeezed cake. We have had something like 2.5% of the transport investment in recent years, but proportionally we should get about 5%. There is a plan to spend £32 billion on High Speed 2 to connect north and south England. Our fair share would be £1.9 billion, and unless we also have a spur off the line, inward investment that would otherwise go to Wales will end up in the north of England.
Is the Silk report just a way of saying, “Actually, we’re not going to give you any more money. We don’t want to know the arguments about a fair share and Barnett and all that. If you want more money, raise it yourself from a lower tax base.”? Wales’s gross value added is about 70% of the UK average however, so it less capable of doing that. We do not need new tax raising powers and a lot of uncertainty about the future for inward investors; we need a fair share of British investment in our services, capital investment in our transport infrastructure and to deflate the costs of entering south Wales by bridge.
I shall move swiftly on, because I know others want to speak. The tax regime leads to a tax on inward investment. One small example, which leads to a significant example, is that in recent days Tata Group has announced 900 job losses in Britain, 600 of which are in Port Talbot in the Swansea bay city region. The job losses are largely due to a fall in demand in Tata’s core markets in Europe, which accounts for two-thirds of its sales. I have had discussions with Tata, and part of its decision is about a level playing field on tax. In Britain, Tata pays 50% more tax that it would in its European operations, due to the additional carbon pricing that the coalition Government have introduced.
I worked for five years in the Environment Agency Wales on flood risk management and adapting Wales to climate change—incidentally, the Government have cut investment in those areas, despite the flooding. Although I am a great supporter of investment in green technology and a sustainable future, we need a level playing field. We cannot have a situation in which steel production moves from south Wales to South America, for example, and we end up with dirtier steel production, because taxes are too high here. We all share the same environment. The European tax regime, which has carbon taxing built in to it, is the right way forward. Adding a huge amount to UK prices, which drives down jobs and clean production in Britain, is not the way forward.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that there is any link between Tata’s sad announcement of job losses in Wales last week and its concerns about energy prices. Companies that are intensive energy users, such as Tata, face a real issue. The Government
are looking at it, and we have made £250 million available to help intensive energy users. Tata’s announcement last week had everything to do with changes in international steel markets globally and nothing to do with what he is saying about the challenge of green energy.
I do not accept that at all. Certainly, the main driver of the Tata job reductions was, as I mentioned, the reduction in demand, particularly in the European market. Someone running a business clearly looks for ways to reduce costs. There are two drivers for a business—the revenue that it gets and the costs that it pays. Revenues are going down because demand is down due to the global environment, but if expenditure is going up due to excessive costs, that will also form part of the choice over how many job cuts are made. In the business mix, energy prices have an impact, and if they did not, Tata would not be talking to me about them. It is clearly also talking about the wider marketplace and the structure of the market.
I should say that a great deal of great work is going on in Tata. With Swansea university, it is developing multi-layered steel—six layers of different steel—that produces its own electricity and heat when clad on a building. It reduces carbon footprints and may become a global game changer. In addition, Tata are investing £185 million in a second blast furnace—increasing capacity production from 4 million tonnes to 4.7 million tonnes a year—alongside the Margam pit, which has particularly good coal for the production of coke for steel production. There is a strong future for Tata, but we have to get the right balance to protect our environment, while protecting competitiveness for the steel industry in Britain, and south Wales in particular.
We have had long discussions about to what extent we should cut expenditure, as opposed to grow revenue, to get the British economy back on track. The Minister will know that the International Monetary Fund suggested that for every 1% cut in expenditure, growth would go down by 0.5%. More recently, it suggested that for every 1% cut, growth goes down by 1.7%, so expenditure cuts do not seem to be as good an idea as they used to. Our focus should be on revenue. A business person who runs a small business in Uplands, in Swansea, came to me recently and said, “I have a business, and if it makes a loss, the last thing that I am going to do is sack all my workers and sell my tools. I have to tighten my costs and focus on selling more.” That is what the Select Committee report should be about—increasing the productive capacity and commercial success of Wales in the global marketplace.
Other changes are being made that impact on consumer demand and the opportunities for people to get jobs, help themselves and help their local economy. I should say in passing, as I did in the main Chamber yesterday, that some changes to the welfare system that are designed to reduce the costs of the welfare state are likely to do the opposite, by preventing people from accessing work. I am thinking particularly of under 25-year-olds having their housing benefit cut, because 45% of such people have children. I know of a woman who has been made redundant and a man who worked for nine years—from the age of 15—but was made redundant six months ago; they have two children and could face homelessness. If they are homeless and of no fixed abode, they will not be able to apply for jobs. That does not make sense.
Under the other housing benefit change—the empty bedroom tax—a couple with two children and, therefore, three bedrooms will be suddenly charged £7.50 a week for each empty room if one child goes to university and the other has a job or goes to live with their boyfriend or girlfriend. They might say to their son or daughter, “It’s going to cost me this money, so you don’t really want to go to college, do you?” That is wrong; some people simply will not be able to pay.
People have come to me with disposable incomes of about £20 a week, after utility bills and so on. I am particularly thinking of a man with medical problems, who told me, “I use my spare room for painting. If I have to pay the £7.50 for it, I will end up with £12.50. A council tax benefit cut of 20%, will mean another £5. I will be down to £8 a week for my food, clothing and leisure.” That does not make any economic or social sense. That person will end up homeless.
I have been a local authority leader, and local authorities historically built two and three-bedroom houses for families. There is a shortage of one-bedroom properties. Everyone is supposed to go into such properties, but there are not enough, so they have to pay to go to the private sector, which costs more. It does not add up on a simple balance sheet, and it does not add up in terms of access to jobs and providing an environment for people to work in, and we want people to work. If people are not available to work for inward investors, because we have under-occupation and empty houses on the one hand and homelessness on the other due to the housing benefit changes, the system will not make sense.
We have also seen cuts to the working families tax credit. If a small company in Wales can afford to pay someone £12,000, or whatever, and that person can only afford to work for £15,000, it makes sense for the Government to provide the £3,000 difference, because we get someone a job in a growing business. People who work part-time will lose nearly £4,000, with the move from 18 to 16 hours. People will not have jobs and we will not have growing businesses, so there will be problems. We therefore need to think about the architecture of the welfare state in relation to boosting jobs and job access.
On banks and finance, there is a problem in Wales. I do not know whether the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee will agree, but we have discussed the possibility of doing a report on access to finance for small business. Since I last spoke to him about that, more and more businesses, some of them quite big, have told me that they have the bookings and can do the work, but they need the money and the banks are letting them down. Of course, that is not an issue only for Wales, but the proportion of small businesses is higher there than in England.
Wales has great opportunities for tourism. If we get the branding right, it is a great place to visit, particularly for environmental health or historical trips. Many mature people, particularly from north America, do not want to get skin cancer from lying on beaches, but speak English and want fine food, so there are lots of opportunities to build up the Welsh brand and encourage inward investment.
That naturally leads me to the Dylan Thomas centenary in 2014. He was from Swansea, of course, and there is now a great opportunity to market the Dylan Thomas festival, which runs from
enough is known about that festival—it is not like the Hay and Edinburgh festivals—but there is an opportunity next year to gear that up for the following year and to internationalise it. The Swansea bay beer festival might be moved into that week; of course, Dylan Thomas had a few drinks and enjoyed himself, as well as writing fine literature and poetry. We should celebrate that, and during that week we want Swansea to be the place to be. We need to learn from the Hay festival and others, and I am already involved in trying to make international links, perhaps without getting people from Bollywood to go. We want that to be the place to be, as a great celebration for the whole of Wales, as well as for the Swansea bay city region.
In conclusion—[Hon. Members: “Shame!”] I know, but it had to happen. A bright future is possible if emerging markets work together. We can use our insights, as team UK and team Wales, to build a more exciting, productive, richer and fairer future for Wales. The UK Government need to think again about several issues, and I have already mentioned enabling people to work, providing easy access to markets, inward investment and encouraging success. It is important that the Welsh Government work in partnership on that and take forward their own successful initiatives, so that there is mutual learning and respect in the interests of having a strong economy for all our people.
It is a pleasure, Mr Bone, to serve under the chairmanship of the star strike bowler of the parliamentary cricket team. I had not intended to speak, so I will keep my speech brief. I will be probably more disjointed than I usually am in my parliamentary contributions.
The report is hugely important—I congratulate the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee—and has been well-received, especially by the Welsh media, who gave it significant coverage. As we know, economic growth is driven by four interconnected factors, the first of which is household expenditure, which accounts for 62% of GDP growth in the UK. That is perhaps testament to overdependence on that specific component during the Labour years. The factor second is Government expenditure. We are witnessing more than £80 billion of cuts during the current comprehensive spending review, which is a major head wind for the course of the British state. The third and fourth factors are exports and business investment, in which foreign direct investment—FDI—plays a huge part. The report was very timely.
At one time, Wales was a world leader, or definitely a leader within the UK, in generating FDI. Behind my family home in Capel Hendre is an enormous industrial estate, with companies from Korea, Japan, the US and, indeed, all over the world, which is testament to its success. There have been concerns that we are over-reliant
on foreign direct investment and not sufficiently promoting indigenous businesses, but there is now growing agreement that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Unfortunately, Wales is now among the worse-performing constituent parts of the UK in terms of FDI.
We are living in an age of reductions in Government expenditure and of contraction in household expenditure. Recently, the consumer confidence index was at minus 30 —the lowest it has ever been—showing the huge economic head winds that are being faced. Geraint Davies wanted to appoint me as an exponent of austerity, but I assure him that I do not support the experiment of cutting Government expenditure. That policy was set by the Chancellor, so concentrating on the promotion of FDI in Wales is key to our economic well-being, and it is the one element that can help to stimulate the other two components—business investment and exports.
I want to highlight some of the report’s important recommendations. First, we need to work closely with UK Trade and Investment to help promote Wales as a destination for FDI, and I agree with comments made by Members from all parts of the Chamber. I welcome the announcement, following our report, that UKTI has based an official in Wales. We were the only component part of the United Kingdom not to have such a representative, so I am glad that that has been rectified.
I want the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to instruct UKTI to pursue a similar path to Germany Trade and Invest, which has a remit to set specific targets for directing investment to the poorest parts of the state. That policy does not exist in the UK, but it would help to drive FDI into those areas, such as Wales, that are underperforming. Indeed, we could learn a lot from the example of German economic policy, which has enabled Germany to address huge wealth inequalities following reunification. It is incredible that, following 50 or 60 years of communism, its wealth levels are far more equal than the UK’s, but I shall not go down that road.
The signature recommendation in the report and the one most trailed in the press was the need to reuse the Welsh Development Agency brand. As a Plaid Cymru politician, I should take some credit for the original creation of the WDA, because it was the Plaid Cymru economic commission in the 1960s and 1970s—under Dafydd Wigley, Phil Williams and Eurfyl ap Gwilym—that first had the idea of the dedicated economic investment arm that later morphed into the WDA. I am not talking about reconstituting the WDA as it was when it was swallowed by the Welsh Government, but about reusing the brand. It is a global brand that, to this day, everybody recognises. The reality is that the successor bodies set up by the Welsh Government have nothing near the recognition of the WDA, so I want them urgently to reuse the brand.
I admire the skill of the Select Committee in choosing a day for this debate when there is no other subject to distract the media. One abiding impression of the report is that it is part of the begging bowl psychology in which we have one dominant partner in a relationship with another subservient partner, and we know which one is which. As it has come from the party, would not a more accurate title for this report have been, “One Hundred Shades of Blue”?
As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a fantastic contribution.
When I close my remarks, I should like to talk about recent announcements in relation to the Silk report and borrowing powers, but before I get to that point, let me just say that another important element of this report was the need to use convergence funding appropriately. Wales is a net recipient of EU funds, and I am wary of some of the discussions under way at the moment about real-term cuts in British contributions to the EU pot and in the EU expenditure pot, because that will have a direct impact on cohesion funding for some of the poorest communities in our country.
Finally, one of the key elements of the report relates to transport. Wales is at the heart of one of the major trading routes within the European Union. We export more to the Republic of Ireland than we do to all the BRIC countries put together, so Wales is not some sort of marginal geographical location; we are at the centre of one of those trading routes.