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Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab):
Is not one of the best ways of securing economic growth in the area, and of helping Teesside and Teesport, to ensure that the Government go ahead with the Hitachi project, which will create 800 direct jobs in my constituency? It will create thousands of jobs, not only in the region but
throughout the country, and be a great export market for us. It will also ensure that we have growth and an ability to rebalance the economy in the north-east of England. We have waited months for a decision from the Government. Does my right hon. Friend see a new trend developing in the coalition Government of an inability to make decisions?
Mr Brown: It is true that the new Government seem to find difficulty in making decisions and giving clear-cut answers. As Minister for the north-east, I met representatives of Hitachi in Downing street and worked closely with my hon. Friend to ensure that the programme was understood right at the heart of the Government. We engaged as fully as we could with the Government office of the region, the development agency and the Department involved, and did everything we could to bring those private sector arrangements to fruition on Hitachi's preferred site-it was of the company's choosing, not the Government's. Getting that programme would be a tremendous win for his constituency, and I urge Ministers to do everything they can to bring this to a conclusion and to bring the Hitachi programme to the north-east. The company has chosen the site, not the politicians, although if my hon. Friend and I were choosing, we would have chosen the same one.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are reliant on their supply chains. When those are public sector supply chains, SMEs will be hit by public expenditure constraints. SMEs are particularly significant to the north-east labour market. The arrangements for the public sector to work with them are being reduced dramatically, and their chances of making successful bids to the regional growth fund are practically non-existent, because the fund will not entertain bids of less than £1 million.
There is now no coherent interface with the private sector in the region. The Government closed its regional office, and the subsequent announcement that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will open six new departmental offices for the 10 English planning regions to deal with administration is truly pathetic. No doubt the office covering the north-east will be somewhere in Yorkshire.
Mr Kevan Jones: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the way in which the Government are dealing with European structural funds is an absolute scandal? Some £160 million is sitting there, ready for investment in the north-east, but because of the withdrawal from the region of match funding, it looks as though we might lose it?
Mr Brown: My hon. Friend is right that we cannot get the match funding, but, worse than that, we cannot start any new projects because of the constraints that the coalition Government have placed on what is left of the development agency. The RDA still has an unallocated sum-I think about £80 million or £90 million-but it is not allowed to spend it on anything new. As time goes on, that is something of a constraint.
My contention is that private sector economic development should be private sector led. It is ironic that I, as a former Labour Minister, advocate the structures that the CBI believes have served the north-east well, and that a Conservative-led Government are arguing that what is left of those functions should be led by local authorities.
Economic development in the north-east now has the wrong departmental lead. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should lead, but in fact the Department for Communities and Local Government is leading. The local enterprise partnerships look as if they will be staffed by the wrong people-the correct skill set is professional economic development officers, as employed by One North East, not local government officers. Local enterprise partnership boards have the wrong executive lead. What is needed is representatives of private sector business, not local councillors. The geographical areas covered by LEPs are wrong: there should be one agency for the region, not multiple agencies duplicating effort and overlapping. Multiple agencies could also be too small to be effective.
James Wharton: I do not wish to depart too much from the largely consensual nature of this debate, but I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman on LEPs. There was great demand in Teesside for the LEP that we have secured, as is evidenced by the fact that Teesside moved to create the LEP before a regional agreement on the LEP approach was reached. I do not like the term "Tees valley" and prefer to say "Teesside", and we could argue about the exact boundaries of it, but the Tees valley LEP is a welcome development that will help to grow the economy on Teesside.
Mr Brown: I am not going to quarrel with the hon. Gentleman about nomenclature. I understand that the local representatives of communities in Teesside want to do their best for their local communities, and I have no quarrel with that at all. Anytime they need my help or the help of other Members of Parliament for the north-east of England, it will be willingly given. They are our friends, neighbours and colleagues, and we want to help them get through what we understand are some of the most difficult and intractable of problems.
These are not local problems. The whole point of my address is that the big strategic issues that stand to be dealt with are best done so at the regional level, with the region acting as an advocate to national Government, and with national Government taking a direct interest, preferably through a dedicated Minister who has responsibility for standing up for the whole region. I think that that is the best structure. I know that the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) is advocating the LEP proposition, but even he must see that it is ironic that the approach that I am advocating is the private sector-led regional approach endorsed by the CBI, while the one that he is advocating is led primarily by locally elected Labour councillors. There is a rich irony in that. I hope that he can at least appreciate that point.
James Wharton: I will keep it brief. My understanding of LEPs is that their boards will be business-led-they will have a 50:50 ratio of representatives of local authorities and business, with a business chair-so I do not agree with the supposition that they will be local authority-led. LEPs will be business-led, which is one of the reasons I believe that the Tees valley LEP will be such a success.
But the representative business organisations in the north-east are organised on a regional basis. I have no quarrel with local business people and local councillors wanting to do their best for the local
communities, but I simply say, on the basis of considerable experience, that it is unfair to ask local representatives to deal on their own with a problem of such scale. They have no money and very little in the way of powers. It is not clear where their advocacy, which is the principal thing they will be doing, will be directed. Who is the responsible Minister? Will it be at Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State level or Minister of State level? Will it go to the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills or both when this regional office is opened somewhere in Yorkshire-for the paper to rattle around in? There will be a lot of talking, but the ability to do something seems to be receding. That is a very dangerous thing for our region.
Engagement with the private sector in the region by Government is now very weak. This is part of a national problem. Even very large private sector businesses are finding it difficult to know where and how to speak to Government, and I would urge the Minister to take that point back and reflect on it. There must be better ways of dealing with these things than those currently in place. I also think that it is a mistake by the Government to have ended the pre-legislative scrutiny arrangements that we had in place under the previous Labour Government. That was a relatively open process which was widely welcomed, particularly by business, as was the opportunity to express a view before proposals were firmed up as legislation.
The Government have a poor strategy for disposing of One North East's residual responsibilities. Of course, everyone wants the assets, but there are liabilities and continuing investments that have not yet come to fruition. Default responsibility seems to be ending up in the Department. There is now no integration of economic development with transport strategy, and no forum for discussing port strategy, although, as I mentioned, we have some very exciting developments at Tees port, with a relatively new distribution business, with Tesco and Walmart. There is real potential in the region.
Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned the importance of transport. He knows as well as I do that one of the ways to unlock the economic potential of the eastern part of the region is to upgrade the A19 around the Cobalt business park and to allow the development north of the Tyne. Was he surprised to read in The Journal that the Government's answer to securing the funding is that half of it should come from local businesses? Is he aware of any businesses in our region that have the £74 million-in small change-that the Government would like them to chip in to allow the upgrade to happen?
Not immediately. I am more than happy to ask around on behalf of my hon. Friend and the Government, but I suspect that the response that I will get from local businesses is: they pay their taxes and they are entitled to road improvements from those tax payments in just the same way as other parts of the country expect these things. The local authorities and representatives of regional organisations were particularly strong on the importance of the A19 corridor, and they were aware of the potential for a bottleneck in the dualled tunnel under the Tyne and its effects at the Silverlink roundabout, as well as at the roundabout
further north. I was able, in the last Labour Government, to secure an agreement with the Secretary of State for Transport that any underspend in what was then our little regional pot could be carried over and spent on the improvements that my hon. Friend has just advocated-perfectly correctly, because they are important to the flow of traffic. All that-local discretion and end-of-year flexibility-has been taken away. The idea that local business men should put their hands in their pockets and pay for that themselves will be met with outrage, if the Government ever get round to asking them.
Sir Alan Beith: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I recognise the personal efforts that he made as the regional Minister. However, as well as being the regional Minister, he was a senior Minister in a Government who found by the end of their time in office that they had engaged in a massive overspend and had to make severe reductions in capital spending, as well as cuts on a scale comparable to that on which the coalition is now implementing its cuts, albeit on a slightly different time scale. He cannot really talk as if we are in the same financial situation now as we were five years ago.
Mr Brown: I accept that, and I am making two points-perhaps I have not made them very well. I accept that we are in a different economic climate: times have changed and things have moved on. Although I believe that what we put in place-particularly the administrative structures-was cost-effective, efficient and focused, and delivered well for the region, it would be more rational, even for the Conservative-led coalition Government, to do more to preserve the consensus that we used to have in the region. They could do that by appointing a regional Minister to keep the core functions of a perhaps scaled-down One North East; it could then handle its own residual functions, apart from anything else. We could keep a presence from the major Departments in the region, not embark on the LEPs and keep the private sector engagement that is so important to getting the private sector-led job creation that we all seek for the region, rather than the structures now being put in place.
Therefore, as well as defending what we were able to do when we were the Government, I am also-and separately-making a plea for a much more rational use of what few resources are available under the current regime. I do not agree with scaling them back as far as they have been, but even if I did accept that-I did not intend to embark on the broader quarrel that the right hon. Gentleman tempts me to pursue-I would say that whatever resources are available could be spent in a better, more focused way and bring about better outcomes. That is my key point.
Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab):
I, too, commend my right hon. Friend for securing this debate on such an important issue to all us MPs from the north-east. Does he share my concern that,
with the swift and fairly draconian-or should that be Maoist?-manner in which the regional development agency has been dismantled, we run the risk of causing a huge dispersal from the north-east of the talent and expertise that has built up there over the years? He gave the example of European regional development funding and the complexities of how such funding is drawn down. We run the risk of losing €139 million that could be invested in the north-east because we have simply dismantled the procedures for drawing down that structural funding without putting anything in their place.
Mr Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but it is worse than that: we also risk losing the talents and the accumulated wisdom of some 245 employees. They have not yet been made redundant, but it is declared that they will be made redundant. All the evidence is that they are not being picked up by the local economic partnerships, which I think is a terrible mistake, but that is the way that things seem to be going. Their talents will be lost within the region as they seek alternative employment as best they can, competing with other people with similar skill sets, or they will be drawn to other parts of the country where there are jobs in the economy and a stronger labour market. That will be a real loss to our region and a real tragedy, and I regret it very much.
I want to draw my remarks to a conclusion now, because, fortunately, there is still time for other Members to take part in the debate, the previous business having come to a conclusion slightly earlier than usual-
Mr Campbell: I am sick of hearing the argument that there is no money. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that, if all the multinational companies, including the banks, paid the tax on their profits instead of avoiding doing so by hiding their money in tax havens such as the Cayman islands, we would not have this problem? We would have bags of money-billions of pounds.
Mr Brown: It is true that the liquidity crisis is largely the fault of Tory bankers rather than Labour politicians, but I am making a more modest argument focusing on economic development in our region.
Mr Alan Campbell: On the issue of the alleged overspend, does my right hon. Friend recall ever being lobbied, in his time as a very good regional Minister, by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) for more money to be spent to upgrade the A1?
I do; I recall our regional debate in Middlesbrough town hall, at which the right hon. Gentleman spoke long and persuasively about the importance of upgrading the A1 north of Newcastle. Indeed, I have a press release from the Conservative Government in 1994 announcing that it was going to take place, so perhaps there is just a delay between the announcement of the policy and its undertaking. The right hon. Gentleman would have been slightly more credible in his request had his party not been committed even before the election to cancelling all our motorway
infrastructure plans-and, indeed, all our major highway investments. Such a cancellation would present a bit of an obstacle if he wanted to advocate the greater connectivity of the great constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed with the rest of the northern region and, indeed, the rest of the United Kingdom.
I thought that we had a way forward, which would have been to try to meet the Department for Transport halfway by taking money from the discretionary regional transport fund and trying to upgrade the A1 incrementally, starting with the accident black spots, and by cutting a deal with the Department that if we paid our half, it would pay its half. That would have taken longer, but the sums of money involved would have been relatively small, year on year, and we would have got the work done. We could then have built on that, and met the right hon. Gentleman in his constituency-indeed, we would have been able to drive up there-in a timely way. So I did have a plan for taking that forward. I accept that it was not ideal, but most people thought that it was the best way to set about dealing with the problem. In less constrained times, it might be the way forward.
I want to draw my remarks to a conclusion now, because I know that other hon. Members have a few points to make. It is my view that the direct involvement of a regional Minister worked well for our region. The Prime Minister has said that he wants to appoint area-based Ministers from among his team, and I urge him to get on and do that. The structure that would work best for our region would involve a regional Minister, a single private sector-led development agency, some regional presence by large UK Government Departments, strong private sector engagement and collaborative working across the agencies. This would preserve what we had before the general election. The focus should be on private sector priorities. I urge the Government to look again at the poor use they are making of scarce resources in the north-east, and even at this late stage to consider different structures more appropriate to the particular economic development needs of the north-east of England.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) has done the House a service by having this debate and by mysteriously working out in advance that we would finish our other business early tonight, leaving more time for other Members to participate in an Adjournment debate. He put forward a number of constructive points. In that spirit, I shall not dwell on the things that I think the previous Government should have done in their time of office, although we need serious recognition that we face a very difficult financial situation in which the money is simply not there to operate on a basis that seemed feasible just a few years ago.
Those who tried hard to get the region to adopt the idea that it should make its own decisions and, indeed, have a democratic mechanism with which to do so found that the voters in the region were not persuaded,
so our attempt to have a regional assembly was firmly rejected by them. We have to take proper account of that, along with the rejection of the unitary authorities that the Labour Government went ahead and created. We have to recognise that in straitened financial circumstances the scale of the apparatus in the form of the regional development agencies and the Government office for the north-east is just not suited to the time. We cannot afford to use resources in that way. When we have much more limited resources, we have to focus more, so let me put some quick points to the Minister about what I believe the Government should do.
First, they should ensure that important development sites that One North East had in its possession remain available for development purposes, using the resources of the local authorities and the economic partnerships. Not all the sites or all the buildings owned by One North East fall into that category-it owned all sorts of properties-but key development sites purchased and assembled for that purpose must remain with organisations that can develop them in partnership with the private sector.
Secondly, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out and others have said, bidding for European funding remains crucial. We need some facility to do that, so it is vital that an appropriate small team of people is retained within the public sector to lead the bidding process. Whether or not my hon. Friend the Minister can yet say whether discussions on that have been completed, I do not know, but I think it vital, as I have said, to have a team located within the public sector structure to lead that bidding process and to use some of the people who were employed by One North East and developed the relevant expertise. I look to my hon. Friend to find a way of doing that.
Given the removal of One North East's tourist responsibilities, we need to encourage new, more locally based tourist organisations to work on behalf of the region. I remember just how controversial it was when One North East took over tourist responsibilities, as many small businesses in my area did not want that to happen. We have suffered from the fact that One North East did everything in-house, so the ban on Government advertising hit our region immediately, whereas other regions had contracted out the work so that advertising continued.
I welcome some of what the Government are doing. I welcome the regional growth fund, for example, but I do not believe that it will be able to stick with a £1 million threshold for all projects-that is, I am sure, just an initial stage. I also welcome the national insurance holiday.
Our region has great potential in its work force and great potential in being an area of relatively reasonable housing costs in comparison with other parts of the country. It is a beautiful region in which to live and to which to attract people, whether they be business men or future employees. We have a region with tremendous prospect, but one that desperately needs to shift the balance to a much larger private sector element, with less dependence on the public sector. There is consensus across the House that we need private sector-led growth. I look to Ministers to ensure that they direct the necessary support-in more economical ways than were possible or that, perhaps, were rather wastefully possible in earlier times-to enable that to happen.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) on securing this debate. I would like to concentrate on one private sector that is vital to the north-east economy, namely the tourism sector. It is worth £4 billion annually to the region and it accounts for some 5% of regional employment with 64,000 jobs.
I would like to congratulate One North East on its work on tourism, which provided a significant regional focus. I am sorry but the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) was wrong, as the delivery of tourism was devolved to local areas of Northumberland, Durham, Teesside and Tyneside, which worked very effectively. It galvanised the north-east's ability to promote its image not just regionally, but nationally and internationally.
The Passionate People, Passionate Places campaign was pioneered by One North East. I want to record my thanks to Stacy Hall, director of tourism at One North East, and also to someone who is very much a private sector individual-Geoff Hodgson, who chaired the North East Tourism Advisory Board and who has been one of the biggest critics of what the Government are doing to tourism in the region.
Over the past few years there has been growth in the tourism sector, which has become confident and able to promote the north-east to potential visitors not just internally but externally. All that, however, has been cast aside by the simple fact that One North East can no longer spend any money on promotion and marketing. The fantastic support given by the Passionate People, Passionate Places campaign to businesses both large and small, such as the Beamish museum in my constituency and even small bed-and-breakfast establishments in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, has been removed and has not been replaced. That has placed our region at a disadvantage in comparison with other regions which can continue to promote themselves at our expense.
I do not accept the suggestion that the north-east did not promote itself well, and nor do most people in the tourism sector to whom I have spoken. I also see no hope in what has replaced it. There is no money there. The local enterprise partnership will prove to be a mere talking shop with no real money to conduct the regional marketing campaigns that we need. I am not talking merely about competing for tourism with other parts of the United Kingdom; I am talking about international opportunities. For example, when the Emirates airline launched its successful flights from Newcastle to Dubai, One North East was able to work with it and other partners throughout the world to promote the north-east. No single LEP will be able to do that, and the opportunity will not be replaced. Businesses in the north-east and the tourism sector are already suffering as a result of the short-sighted decision to stop One North East from promoting the region as a whole.
The ability of local government to become involved in tourism has also been affected. In August last year, the Prime Minister made a speech in which he promoted the tourism industry and spoke of its importance to the economy of the United Kingdom. He said,
"Tourism is a local industry."
He said that it counted on the support of local people and could not be directed from Whitehall, and I entirely agree with him. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East pointed out, the north-east is a good example of a region in which elements have come together to promote it effectively.
Tourism is not a sector that we can dismiss. It provides jobs in not just large but small enterprises. The Prime Minister said that it was a "vital part" of rebalancing the economy of the north-east, but he also said something very ironic. He said that
"Local authorities must be allowed to invest"
"their own communities."
Meanwhile, his Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was changing the formula funding for local authorities so that it was based on foreign occupancy per night, which lost the north-east some £5.9 million in local authority grant-and guess who gained? London boroughs gained £60 million. Now Durham county council, which is so proud of its great attractions-such as the Beamish museum in my constituency, Durham cathedral and the beautiful countryside in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), to name but a few-is being asked to accept a 40% cut over the next four years. The idea that local authorities will step in to meet the shortfall is absolute nonsense.
Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the severity of the cuts in the council's budget are threatening even important facilities such as our tourist information centre, which, like those in other cities, is critical to increasing tourism?
Mr Jones: Well, it is a double whammy for those areas because not only has the money gone that was devolved to them from One North East, and which was spent very effectively in Northumberland, County Durham, Teesside and Tyne and Wear, but local authorities are now also struggling to afford to fund important things like tourist information centres. It is an absolute scandal for the tourism offer for a world heritage site such as Durham not to be well packaged.
It seems that this Government just do not get it. The Minister has never been to the north-east, for example, even though the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and I asked him to visit a few months ago. They just do not get it. By way of example, I cite the idea that regionalism is bad, whether it be the regional office or One North East, and that other sectors will somehow meet the funding challenge, when in fact they will not.
I ask the Minister and the Government to listen not only to politicians, but to the people in the region who know. They are not necessarily elected officials. They might be people like Geoff Hodgson, who has a highly successful business career in the publican sector, and who knows something about what the private sector in the region needs. The Minister should listen to people like him.
Grahame M. Morris: Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the coalition Government's decision to suspend grants for business investment, which I understand brought £112 million into our region and supported 25,000 private sector jobs?
Mr Jones: Exactly, and a lot of those grants, which a lot of businesses in the tourism sector need, are actually quite small. The idea that they will benefit from any of the money from the regional growth fund is absolute nonsense. The advantage of One North East devolving money to the regional tourism boards was that they could react locally by giving small amounts of money that those types of businesses needed.
The Minister recently told me and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that we should leave it all to VisitBritain and VisitEngland. I am sorry, but my response to that is, "Forget it." I used to serve on the north-east tourism board, and my mystery shopper activity every month when I was down in London was to go to VisitBritain's tourist information office on the Strand to see what promotional material it had on areas other than London and the south-east. It had absolutely nothing. Its approach is London-centric and south-east-centric, and if anyone thinks the north-east of England gets a fair deal in promotional terms out of VisitBritain, they can forget it.
The Government must rethink their strategy. They must listen to the people in the know, who have done a very good job, and pay tribute to them for their work over a number of years in promoting both the north-east and jobs in what is a vital sector.
Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) for securing this debate, which is very important for those of us in the north-east. I also pay tribute to him for the tremendous work he did in the region as regional Minister. It was a great pleasure to work alongside him as the deputy Minister, and I can certainly confirm that he put great effort into securing investment for the north-east and trying to improve our economy even in very straitened circumstances.
All of us know the huge impact deindustrialisation had on the region's economy in the 1980s, resulting in very high levels of unemployment for many years. However, the situation had begun to change by 2005. During 2005-06, the north-east had one of the fastest growing regional economies in the UK. Its economy doubled in size over that decade, adding almost £13 billion to overall output. In the mid-2000s, the region was also experiencing very high rates of business registrations, bringing it somewhere near the UK average, and unemployment rates compared to the rest of the UK were narrowing. That is a very important statement to make, because it shows what can be achieved in the north-east with everyone pulling together and with investment being made in the right areas. That improvement was also built on upskilling our population and, in particular, ensuring that we invested in our young people.
We saw very early on that there was a need to invest in the future work force and that a great many future jobs in the north-east were
likely to come from the development of the green economy. The north-east was the first region in the UK to be designated a low-carbon economic area and that brought with it developments in the universities and the industrial sectors. That confirmed the region's huge potential to be a leader in the development of green energy, including green cars.
Mr Iain Wright: My hon. Friend has a particular passion for education and for upskilling our region so that it fulfils its potential. What impact does she think the abolition of the education maintenance allowance will have, particularly in our region?
Roberta Blackman-Woods: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it demonstrates how this Government simply do not understand the needs of regions such as ours and the needs of young people in regions such as ours. Some 67% of the young people who attend my local further education college rely on EMA and they are telling me that they do not know how they will be able to continue their courses.
The previous Government recognised that money had to be put into developing the green economy. Some good examples of that include: the £20 million invested in a printable electronics technology centre in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson); the £12 million invested in biotechnology at Wilton on Teesside; and Clipper's development in Newcastle. I name but a few, and investment also came from the private sector, mostly through Nissan. So our Government were doing their bit and they were also putting money into universities to enable them to undertake further research. Narec, a centre of excellence, and the Durham Energy Institute also do really important work on coal gasification in our region.
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): My hon. Friend was talking about green jobs and industry. Does she agree that when we lost One North East, we also lost £1 million of funding that was going into the eco-village in Weardale, in my constituency? That would have created many green jobs in an area where jobs are scarce.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We know that County Durham's economy has suffered through the recession and we see few plans coming from this Government to correct the situation.
It is possible to argue that our region is well placed to become a centre of green energy production and green manufacturing, but for that to happen we need to continue to develop our skills base and there are worrying signs that that is faltering. I wrote to the Business Secretary asking what was going to happen to regional skills strategies, because they have been crucial for the north-east in developing the areas where we needed to reskill the population. The letter I received from the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning said:
"The Government no longer...expects Regional Skills Partnerships to produce skills strategies"
or even to meet. He said that instead the work should be undertaken by local enterprise partnerships, which represent the correct "geographies". A number of us would query whether LEPs are the right level for discussing the skills
needs of the region and for being able to identify opportunities for upskilling the population. This is extremely worrying, because we need to continue to invest in basic scientific research skills and in how to apply them to manufacturing.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: The hon. Gentleman has to realise that within the umbrella of green energy and manufacturing, many different skills are needed. The regional skills strategy was able to bring together universities, employers and the further education sector. They could then decide between them who was best placed to deliver those skills, but the structure that enabled that to happen has simply been removed. The Government are telling us that there is no need for those strategies, but I dispute that.
Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The North East Process Industry Cluster was set up by One North East and was an exact expression of devolution to industrialists and local authorities. In the past two years, NEPIC has engaged with large industries, as well as with small and medium-sized enterprises, to get them to take on board apprentices-something which, at the end of this week, is very important.
I want to raise a few other issues relating to the skills agenda. The Government have also got rid of the 14-to-19 commission for skills, which is absolutely devastating. That body brought together all the deliverers of vocational education and made sure that apprenticeships were promoted in the region and in the correct areas. Again, there is absolutely nothing to replace that body and it is unclear how we are to ensure that apprenticeships are delivered in the region and that enough placements are available.
Lastly, I want to discuss the abolition of RDAs. We have to recognise that even in straitened times, the RDA could have delivered funding in the key areas that have been identified, particularly green energy and manufacturing. The money that is available-£61 million in 2011-12-has to be spent on existing projects, so there will be no new investment. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East has said, all 320 employees are to be made redundant, with all that skills base going to waste. We do not know whether those people are going to get jobs in the region or will be able to pass on their expertise. That is a dreadful loss to the region and we do not think that LEPs will have the money to give employment opportunities to those people. We are all asking the Government to reconsider whether the structures they are putting in place will deliver the economic regeneration we want in the region, whether the structures are at the right level and whether too much of the infrastructure that will bring about the improvement that we all want has been removed.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) on securing the debate, and on having been such an excellent regional Minister, defending the interests of all our constituents when he had that responsibility. I want to reinforce his central point about regional economic development being operated through consensus in our region, and how valuable that consensus and those partnerships have been.
When the global recession hit our region, manufacturing suffered in particular, and it seemed deeply unfair that our constituents in engineering, for example, were losing jobs because of the foolishness of bankers in London-but thanks to the action that the Labour Government took at both macro and micro level, we saw a number of improvements in 2010. For example, the future jobs fund produced 500 jobs in Durham. There was also the investment and support for Nissan, which other Members have mentioned. That had a knock-on effect throughout the automotive sector supply chain in the region.
There was also the work of the regional development agency, and I press the Minister to take to heart its important role in securing inward investment. That is not a power that local enterprise partnerships have; it has been taken back to Victoria street. I urge him to ask his officials to have a proper presence in the north-east on inward investment, because we are not confident that when sitting in Victoria street they have a clear picture of the nature of the region and its differences.
Thanks to the previous Government's work, a brand-new Thorn electric light bulb factory has opened in my constituency, which has secured 700 jobs. It works in partnership with Durham university and other private sector partners, and makes a huge difference. Things improved throughout 2010, to the extent that a £45 million retail development site was opened in the constituency, and manufacturing is clearly past the bottom of the recession, now that customers have stopped de-stocking and things seem to be improving. I visited the Berco factory in my constituency, for example, which opened only last Friday.
However, just as things seem to have turned around thanks to all the efforts of the Labour Government, our region is facing deep spending cuts. I want to draw to the Minister's attention the impact that the cuts will have not only on the public sector, but on the private sector. In my constituency alone, Building Schools for the Future cuts amount to £100 million, which would have been £100 million-worth of business for the local construction industry. The same is true with cuts in the Home Office and Ministry of Justice capital programmes. All that will have a knock-on effect on firms in my constituency, and I could take him to those firms to show him the jobs that are likely to be lost as a result. In addition, cuts in benefits and working tax credits will have an impact on the retail sector. Cuts in tax credits will have an impact on small businesses such as those involved in child care. Those will all have knock-on effects that Ministers must take into account.
The pathetic little tweak to national insurance contributions owed far more to politics than it did to economics. Everyone knows that the big barrier to small businesses is securing equity. That is what they need, not a little reduction in their national insurance contributions. It is not surprising that that initiative did not succeed, and I support wholeheartedly the Federation of Small Businesses, which wants it to apply to all new jobs and not just to wholly new businesses.
Ultimately, this is really a question of values. In my constituency, the decent homes programme has another 1,000 homes to complete, and for that it needs only £5 million-as much as one banker's bonus. We know that the Government have failed to tackle the banks and bankers' bonuses properly, which has an impact in our constituencies. In the week when Barclays announced yet again massive billion-pound profits, it has closed a branch in Shildon in my constituency.
Tom Blenkinsop: Does the Government's flagship policy of reducing corporation tax not actually aid financiers in London far more than it will any self-employed business in the north-east, as the majority of those businesses do not pay corporation tax?
Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is right. Moreover, to cut corporation tax while cutting investment allowances is to bias the tax system against manufacturing, and I thought that everybody agreed that we needed to strengthen our manufacturing base.
One of the most important elements in economic development is for people outside the region to have confidence in us, and I have two examples of organisations that do have confidence in us. The first is GlaxoSmithKline, which wants to build a new plant. One of the shortlisted sites is at Barnard Castle in my constituency, and that would produce 1,000 jobs.
The second example is in tourism development, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned. Only this week, the director of the National Gallery said that if we could keep the Zurbaráns at Auckland castle, he would be able to lend more paintings, develop a centre of artistic excellence and build our tourism industry. How much better it would be if, in addition to such support, we had the wholehearted support of the Government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) on securing the debate and on his work when he was a Minister. From his comments, he has shown his detailed knowledge of the region where his constituency lies, and in truth Members from all parts of the House will agree that he did an awful lot of work, with some success, for the region. It is right to pay tribute to that, but I think that his skills as a former Chief Whip enabled him to ensure that his debate took place this evening, so that a larger number of Members could join in. The fact that we have had so many Members in the debate has enriched it, and I have found many contributions insightful and interesting.
I make this observation to the right hon. Gentleman, however. Sometimes, in his initial remarks, he appeared rather over-rosy about what happened under the Labour Government-as if everything was just perfect in the
north-east as a result of their policies. That is certainly not how I view the economic statistics. Equally, he was rather over-pessimistic about the future. In general, he, like many of his hon. Friends, failed to admit that this country has a huge problem with a massive deficit.
I am afraid that the deficit deniers were out in force tonight, but, when we in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had to grapple with the Budget by making our contribution to deficit reduction, we noticed and learned from some of the previous Government's plans. This has not been mentioned during tonight's remarks, but they planned to make similar reductions in the Department's spending-albeit over a slightly longer time scale, I certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that. The reductions would have been significant, however, and whenever we have debates about the Department we never hear which programmes the Opposition would have cut if they had been returned to government. That whole issue clouds the debate, and the failure to address it undermines the case that the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends make.
Grahame M. Morris: Will the Minister explain the issue of choices in connection with a point that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) made about the coalition Government choosing to fund the upgrading of the A11 in Cambridge, but not the dualling of the A1 north of Newcastle?
Mr Davey: All Governments have to make choices, and my right hon. Friend was saying that the Labour Government failed to choose to upgrade the road that serves his constituency, so again I am afraid that they do not have as good a record as some Opposition Members would like us to believe.
Mr Davey: I believe that they all do, and I will explain why. They know that this coalition Government are improving the public finances, which are vital for the stability of our economy and for investment in the north -east and other regions, and are prepared to take the tough decisions which, if one were to believe what Labour Members have said, their party would have ducked.
I share the desire of the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East to ensure that the north-east can share in sustainable, long-term economic growth. He made that case with passion, and the Government agree that we need to make such growth our overriding priority. We want to forge a new model for growth-one that is based on rebalancing the economy, both geographically and in terms of sectors, and which promotes innovation and boosts exports, not merely relying on consumption that is, in many cases, fuelled by public debt. That is why we have set up the growth review, which is a root-and-branch analysis of the barriers that impede business growth, and the structural reforms that we believe are needed to boost economic growth across the country. The initial phase is focusing on immediate priorities for business by improving the competition regime-on which I am leading-increasing exports, reforming the planning system, and cutting red tape and regulation. That will underpin this year's Budget. A huge amount of work is going on in that context.
When my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary recently made a statement to the House about the trade and investment White Paper, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said that she was worried about where inward investment would come from. I refer her to that White Paper, which talks a great deal about the importance of inward investment for all regions of our country. Many excellent firms in the north-east contribute to this country's manufacturing exports, and I believe that they will strongly welcome the policies and framework that the White Paper sets out.
In the meantime, we are introducing a range of policies intended to support enterprise so that companies can grow and create new jobs. Let me highlight just a few of those. We are cutting the main rate of corporation tax from 28p to 24p by 2014. We are reducing the small companies rate from 21p to 20p-not increasing it as the previous Administration had intended. We are cutting the unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy that hinders, rather than helps, UK firms. We are boosting adult apprenticeships funding by up to £250 million by the end of the spending review period to create up to 75,000 more places a year. We heard nothing about the apprenticeship scheme from Labour Members. It is a huge success. I do not know whether any of them took part in national apprenticeship week, as I did in my constituency. At many of those events, we noticed the enthusiasm of employers and their potential apprentices, with large numbers of people getting really excited about this new opportunity that the Government have provided.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: The Minister's attention was obviously diverted when I spoke about apprenticeships and the need not only to have apprenticeships but to be able to move people on into employment.
Mr Davey: I apologise to the hon. Lady if I did not listen when she was talking about apprenticeships, but I did notice her reliance on strategies for skills. What I found rather odd in several policy areas under the previous Government is that they spent a huge amount of money on forming strategies, and then, a year or two later, they were looking at another strategy. In my view, if we have a strategy we should stick to it and implement it rather than keep changing it, as happened so often under the previous Government.
We are also striving hard to bring about a renaissance in the UK's industrial base, which has had some serious problems in recent years. Sectors such as advanced manufacturing are critical in creating a more diverse, resilient economy in future. That sector, among several others, is very much part of the growth review that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will talk about in the Budget.
Tom Blenkinsop: The current GDP figures in Britain are incredibly worrying, although admittedly there has been an increase in manufacturing. However, that increase is down to inventory and raw material spending. At many manufacturing sites, short-time working agreements have been taken away, bringing the work force back to their previous contractual hours, which had been reduced.
Mr Davey: We are seeing the creation of new manufacturing jobs in the north-east. I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that. I am glad that he has noted that manufacturing and manufacturing exports appear to be picking up. We cannot be complacent about that, which is why we are determined to do the things that I am outlining.
Mr Davey: That was a good try, but the hon. Gentleman knows that I am not the Minister responsible for that decision. I congratulate him on his attempt. I would have thought that he would welcome much of what the Government are doing on matters such as apprenticeships, which I believe give businesses in the north-east a lot of the backing that they need.
The area has a proud industrial heritage, and today its firms are establishing a competitive lead in a number of 21st-century industries, as the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East said. The north-east has a strong reputation in areas from health care to life sciences, and from micro-electronics to cutting-edge low-carbon technologies. It accounts for more than 50% of the UK's petrochemical industry and about 35% of the country's pharmaceutical output. It benefits from a number of other economic assets: world-class universities, good transport links, and entrepreneurial citizens who are launching new businesses in growing numbers.
This Government's recognition that Britain cannot rely on one sector in one part of the country for its national prosperity and the resulting policies that we are implementing to rebalance the economy will free the north-east to unleash its full economic potential at last. This Government also understand that if balanced economic growth is to be achieved across the country, policies cannot be dictated from Whitehall. That is why we are encouraging the formation of local enterprise partnerships across the country, which will work with the grain of functioning local economies.
Local enterprise partnerships will bring together local business and civic leaders to power the economic regeneration of their communities by focusing on creating the right local conditions for private sector jobs and growth. That is real power shifting away from central Government and quangos, and towards local communities and local businesses that understand the barriers to growth in their areas. The partnerships are free to focus on infrastructure investment, transport, skills and a host of other issues. I think it is good news that the north-east has two local enterprise partnerships, one covering the Tyne and Wear area and the other the Tees valley. They are busy identifying the economic priorities for their areas. I pay tribute to all business leaders who
have risen to this challenge. We have also set up a £1.4 billion regional growth fund, which is open to public-private partnerships such as LEPs, to kick-start economic expansion, especially in areas where private enterprise has not previously flourished.
The right hon. Gentleman made a number of points, and obviously he was particularly concerned about the abolition of One North East. I pay tribute to much of the work that was achieved by One North East. Anyone who analyses its record can see that it did good things in many areas. However, time moves on and we now have a huge budget deficit. We have to cut our cloth according to what we can afford-a fact that seems to be denied by Opposition Members.
Members not just of this Government, but of this whole coalition have been active in working hard with business to ensure that there are jobs in the future. I pay tribute in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) for his work, with the Secretary of
State, on the problems of the Corus plant in Redcar. I hope that in due course we will have good news about the work to ensure that that plant continues and that jobs are not only saved, but extended. Much of that will be down to the work of my hon. Friend.
The Government share the right hon. Gentleman's desire to see the north-east flourish, along with the rest of the country. That is why we are going all out to create a business environment that gives companies the confidence to invest and grow, and why local communities are being freed from central control to determine their own economic future. That is the key to achieving economic regeneration and sustainable growth, both in the north-east and elsewhere.