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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Western on securing the debate. As we have heard from him and other hon. Members the car industry is of strategic national importance. I am sure the Minister has heard that message loud and clear, so I will take the opportunity to focus on the issues facing the Vauxhall car plant in my constituency, which has lost nearly half its workforce in the past 12 months.
There is virtually no one in Ellesmere Port who does not have some connection with the plant. At its height, it employed about 12,000 people, but sadly, with recent job losses it employs only around a tenth of that number now. It is still a substantial number, however, and it does not take account of the many people employed in the supply chain and associated industries—or of the potential for much greater numbers if we were to increase from single-shift production again. The plant remains a big part of the local economy. Recent job losses there have meant our going against the national trend, with unemployment in the constituency shooting up in the past few months. Every job lost is of course an individual tragedy, but my job now, and the Government’s job, is to make sure that those jobs that remain are protected and built upon, because they are exactly the sort of jobs I want to see as a central component of our future: highly skilled permanent jobs in the manufacture of something that is a source of national and local pride.
Whatever our feelings about history and the pride that the plant generates, we cannot expect sentimentality from the new owner, the PSA Group, which has consistently said that each plant will be judged on its efficiency. If there is truly a level playing field I welcome that. As we have heard, there are many things that we can do with respect to business rates and energy costs, for example, that can help. I know that the Minister has had a quite long list of the things that we would like to happen. However, one factor may make the competition unfair altogether and render all the other good work that is done academic—and that is Brexit. We have a clear message that the current uncertainty is delaying investment decisions by the parent company. Some might say that that is a ready-made excuse not to invest; but I do not want us to be in the business of providing people with excuses. I want us to be in the business of providing people with jobs. It is important to recognise that the automotive sector is one of our most vulnerable sectors, and we need to do everything possible now, as a priority, to safeguard jobs and investment. A bespoke trade deal for the automotive sector should be considered. After all, if it has been looked at for other areas, why not this one?
Vauxhall Motors has enjoyed half a century of production in Ellesmere Port. If that is taken away, a huge chunk of our identity will go with it, but it does not have to be that way. As hon. Members have said, the Government have a big challenge ahead, but I believe there are solutions, and we have heard some of them. On behalf of everyone in the constituency, I express a sincere wish that between us we can all rise to that challenge.