My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met the Wales CBI only last week, and I recently held a meeting with the Federation of Small Businesses to listen to its specific concerns. In March I shall be participating in the FSB’s national conference.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Ministers keep telling the House how much they are doing to support small firms, but why did Ministers not do more to resist the job-destroying EU agency workers directive, which was vehemently opposed by every single small business organisation?
The Government are certainly doing everything they can to help small businesses—there is no doubt about that. However, it is important to recognise that we are talking specifically about Wales, and we can point to initiatives that have been taken by the Welsh Assembly Government, such as the ProAct and ReAct programmes. We can also allude to the fact that significant sums of European money have gone into these initiatives. They are helping small businesses and the people who are directly affected by the economic downturn, so I think it is very important that, unlike Opposition Members, we take a balanced view of the European Union. I believe that, on balance, our membership of the EU is positive and helpful, and many thousands of people in Wales would testify to that fact.
My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the problems that small businesses face is getting large-scale procurement contracts from local government and, in my constituency, from the Ministry of Defence. This problem has come up at a number of meetings hosted by the Wales Office. Can he assure me that in these difficult times, and through the economic summits that we have had in Wales, we will be able to relax the rules or even explain them better to local businesses, so that they can have the opportunity to get the contracts and get the work locally?
I entirely agree with the point that my hon. Friend makes, because this issue has to be addressed. I am pleased to say that there will be a meeting on Monday to discuss precisely that point of procurement and how government at all levels can do whatever they can to help. We are also pressing strongly for the next economic summit in Wales, to which I referred, to address the issue specifically. As far as Anglesey is concerned, we will do everything possible to help sustain jobs; I am aware of the excellent work that he is doing on Anglesey Aluminium, and we stand full square behind him on that issue as well.
I am sure that empty property business rates have been a significant feature of the Minister’s discussions with the Federation of Small Businesses and others. Although we welcome the increase to £15,000 for relief, that is not enough for many of our constituents. One of my constituents faces a bill on empty properties of £30,000 a year, and that is very much compounded by the unhelpful attitude of the banks. Will the Minister continue to advance the case for raising that threshold further in his discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government and, consequently, the UK Treasury?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we have already taken action on business rates—I think it has been warmly welcomed by those people directly affected. We will take the necessary action and we will keep the situation under review. We have given an explicit commitment to doing whatever is necessary to ensure that we all move forward together as quickly as possible through this economic downturn. All those issues that he has raised will be carefully examined—this is a moving brief.
Major job losses in Wales, such as those at Corus, understandably make the headlines, but the Minister must know that the consequential impact on small businesses can be just as catastrophic, if not more so, for families and individuals. Can he explain why, despite all his summits, he and the Welsh Assembly Government are not helping businesses more directly by bringing in our proposals, such as those for a six-month VAT holiday, a cut in corporation tax and a cut in payroll taxes for companies with fewer than five employees?
Forgive me for smiling, but it is important for Labour Members, at least, to recognise that a tremendous effort has been made. The Wales Office recently published a document that itemises all the efforts that have been made and all the initiatives that have been taken by the central Government, in co-operation with the Wales Office, and by the Welsh Assembly Government. I would be more than delighted to ensure that the hon. Lady has a copy, so that she is able to avail herself of all the information that it contains. It clearly sets out the umpteen initiatives that have been taken, which have been well appreciated and, most importantly, are having a direct positive effect to help businesses in these difficult times.
I am not smiling, and I happen to have had a copy of that list, for which I am very grateful. Forgive me if I am sceptical about the Minister’s warm words, his summits and his lists. How can businesses rely on a Labour-Plaid Welsh Assembly Government who during this dreadful recession have taken decisions to cut further education budgets that would retrain workers; to hand back to Europe, because of their own bad planning, £77 million of aid for the poorest regions; and to inflict an above-inflation rise of almost 5 per cent. on business rates from April this year? The Minister may be smiling but business in Wales is not. How will such moves help small businesses or, indeed, any business in Wales?
The hon. Lady’s jokes are in bad taste and her mock humour is inappropriate. Over the past few months we have seen a strong partnership between the Welsh Assembly Government and central Government. European funds have been effectively accessed as far as the ProAct and ReAct schemes are concerned. Those programmes are in place and they have had a direct effect.
The hon. Lady might not like it, but the Welsh Assembly Government have led the way in helping small and medium-sized enterprises. Europe is playing a critical role and the best action that the Welsh Assembly Government could do is to reinforce that partnership with the European Union to ensure that money comes through the structural funds and through the European Investment Bank. The single most important thing that the hon. Lady could do is listen to her shadow Business Secretary on VAT, for example. He recognises the importance of the VAT reduction and the importance of Europe. It is a pity that the rest of his colleagues do not do the same.