Inward Investment in Wales Speech

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
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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. The hon. Member for Swansea West (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.

Paul Flynn: 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”?

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Jonathan Edwards: 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.

2.30 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Rosindell. First, may I apologise to Members for rudely interrupting proceedings to perform my telling duties in the series of close votes we have just had in the main Chamber?

Before the Divisions, I was remarking on the importance of transport links, which is clearly emphasised in the report. Wales is located at the centre of one of the most important trading routes in the European Union, so it is vital, with the ongoing negotiations among our partners at a European level, that there is at least a southern link running through south Wales and linking the Republic of Ireland with Britain and Europe. Personally, I would also like to see a northern link going through north Wales, which would then fund the improvement of transport infrastructure there. I welcome the fact that the Government are actively looking at that, and I am glad to put that on the record.

I want to touch briefly on the bilateral negotiations on funding for the Welsh Government and on the recent Silk commission, which reported as I left on my honeymoon. Both those things impact directly on the Committee’s report. First, on the bilateral negotiations, I was disappointed that there was no reform of the block grant; there was not even a Barnett floor, let alone reform of the housing revenue account subsidy scheme. On the borrowing powers that were announced, the reality is that we could not buy a packet of crisps using the current powers. The Welsh Government Finance Minister has been completely outfoxed, yet again, by the Treasury.

The conclusions of the bilateral negotiations might, however, come into play if the recommendations of the Silk commission are implemented, so their full implementation could be of value. To access the borrowing powers announced in the bilateral agreement, we need fiscal levers to raise revenue, so the more tax-sharing arrangements there are between the Welsh Government and the UK Government, the better. That is why it is imperative that we do not stick just to the minor taxes preferred by the Welsh Government—stamp duty, the aggregates levy and the long-haul airport tax—but devolve sharing arrangements for income tax, which would enable the Welsh Government to have far greater leverage in terms of their borrowing powers. Given that their capital budgets are being cut by 42%, they need those borrowing powers, not only so that they can level out peaks and troughs using fiscal levers, but so that they have power to invest. The current position of the First Minister is therefore completely bizarre, and it is a huge let-down to the people of Wales.

Fiscal powers are important with regard to political accountability, which is something that finds favour with Conservative Members, but the main reason we should have fiscal powers is that they would incentivise the Welsh Government to turn the Welsh economy around. At the moment, given that they get a block
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grant, there is no incentive for them to develop it. If they were responsible for raising their own revenue, there would be an incentive to generate wealth to invest in public services.

Geraint Davies: Is the hon. Gentleman’s position that Wales should have devolved power over income tax, and that a proportion of that could be used as a revenue stream to pay back borrowing, but that Wales should not use tolls to pay back borrowing which, as I said, is a tax on inward investment and trade?

Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman has a long-standing position on this. He has explained my position on the importance of the devolution of income tax quite adequately. The reality is that if we devolved an income tax-sharing arrangement, we would, even if we did not change the level, have huge leverage to borrow far more. Personally, I would like the Welsh Government to have responsibility for setting tax bands, but the reality is that we are nowhere near getting into that debate.

On the tolls, I would like the Welsh Government to have responsibility for the Severn bridges, because they are the major access route to the south Wales economy. There would be a leverage potential on the revenue, but that is not my primary reason for supporting this. I would like the Welsh Government to have responsibility for the tolls and to set them at a rate that would enable them, on top of maintaining the bridges, to have money to reinvest in wider Welsh infrastructure, but that rate would be far lower than at present.

I look forward to next week’s autumn statement, and plenty of progress on the bilateral negotiations and the Silk commission.

3.19 pm

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