EU: Financial Stability and Economic Growth — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:50 pm on 3rd November 2011.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 3:50 pm, 3rd November 2011

My Lords, I join with others in thanking my noble friend Lord Newby for initiating this debate. My view is that a demand for a referendum on membership of the European Union was an unnecessary diversion. It was misguided and mistimed. Referendums are not flavour of the month and would simply have added to instability across Europe and the eurozone. However, Europe and the eurozone are often seen by the general public as the same thing, so I think that the reasons for our being in the European Union need much stronger explanation.

Being part of a single market is central to jobs. The UK has 500 million consumers in that single market. Ten per cent of our jobs in the UK-3.5 million jobs-rely on that single market. We export strongly to it. My own region, the north-east of England, is the only region in the UK to have a positive balance of payments, and we have it largely because of exports to the EU. We also have across the UK non-EU foreign direct investment which has come here because we are in a single market. The case for leaving the EU and imagining that growth would follow from being outside it is very badly put. It would be economic madness to withdraw from the EU, and it would cause a major rise in unemployment. Of course, collapse of the euro would devastate jobs, too, and so we have a responsibility outside the eurozone for helping to solve the eurozone crisis. It is central to what our Government should be doing because it is in our national interest so to do. But we have to be very careful.

I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord McFall, said about institutions, particularly democratic institutions, needing to give hope to the people that they represent. We have to be seen to be capable of resolving the problems in the eurozone. I want to draw two things from what the noble Lord, Lord McFall, said, which, broadly speaking, was similar to something I wanted to say myself. The first relates to youth unemployment. It is untenable for youth unemployment across Europe to stand at 21 per cent. It is 21 per cent in the UK but in Spain it has hit 46 per cent. Our 21 per cent is almost a million young people and it is simply too high. Secondly, we have to learn more from Germany because its comparative stability and growth can set an example for other countries, not least ourselves. Germany's organisation, partly through the Mittelstand but also generally through communications and systems involving employers, the education system, trade unions, and so on, has led to a highly integrated system based on long-term planning as opposed to short-term gain.

I find it quite astonishing that, despite the billions of pounds that have been spent in the UK on education and training, we still have a major skills gap. Unemployment in the north-east of England runs at 11 per cent at the moment, twice the level of the south-east of England. And yet a quarter of the north-east's manufacturing, engineering and processing companies cannot find enough skilled workers. I welcome every initiative we can take to recreate a desire in young people to learn vocational skills around technology and engineering. For that reason I welcome university technical colleges, places where people learn skills to do real jobs. One has just been announced recently in Newcastle upon Tyne. I am very grateful for the work of my noble friend Lord Baker in supporting this initiative.

It is fundamentally important that to compete in the modern world our young people have to have the skills with which to do it. The skills gap that we have would not happen in Germany. A week ago the CBI issued a report urging the Government and the City to concentrate support on the forgotten army of middle-sized companies of up to £100 million turnover a year with up to 500 employees. I hope that we can learn from that.

My final point is a question to the Minister about the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund to which he may be able to reply. I understand that the UK has never applied to the fund but that it is likely to be extended to December 2013. Will the United Kingdom support that extension? It might be necessary.