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West Midlands and Coventry

Volume 537: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2011

It is a pleasure to be involved, for the first time, in a debate that you are chairing, Ms Osborne. I also take the opportunity to thank Mr Speaker for granting us the debate.

I will start with an overview of the employment situation in Coventry. Coventry suffers from high unemployment, with just less than 10,500 claimants; that is above the west midlands average, which, in turn, is well above the UK average. The public sector accounts for 23% of the total employed, which is more or less the same throughout the west midlands. In the past six months, there have been 1,648 redundancies in the public sector. Coventry was home to a number of national public bodies and has been hit harder by public sector job cuts: 155 jobs have gone at Becta, 153 at the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, with 400 more by the end of the year; and 258 at the Skills Funding Agency. Additionally, at least 620 jobs have been cut by local authorities and other public services; the main casualty so far has been Coventry city council. In the private sector in the past six months, according to Jobcentre Plus, there have been 1,237 redundancies, with 204 in the manufacturing sector and 38 in a small catering company.

Coventry is a city where many jobs can be lost and won in the space of a day. The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), will no doubt be aware of the Gateway development, which was designed to create 10,000 jobs and had secured £250 million in private sector investment to develop airport infrastructure, a technology hub and a business and distribution park. However, both bids by the local enterprise partnership, for enterprise zone status and to the regional growth fund, were unsuccessful. I understand that, despite the plans to go ahead, the project could now be in jeopardy, given the Chancellor’s recent announcement of £110 million for highways infrastructure improvements. The money from the Treasury would need to be fully integrated with the Gateway scheme, which has allocated funds to a solution for the Tollbar issue—most of the Coventry and Warwickshire MPs know what I am referring to—or else the project could be scrapped. Can the Minister update us about what he understands to be the progress in that matter?

On the problems facing small businesses in particular, I have already mentioned a small business in Coventry that was forced to lay off 38 people, and there are 9,240 small businesses in Coventry, with 44,090 in Coventry and Warwickshire county. That example is symptomatic of the problems facing small businesses throughout the west midlands; 31% of them miss out on growth opportunities because they cannot get credit from the high street banks and 70% experience late payment and have cash-flow problems. Furthermore, the Government must take steps to simplify the tax system and to introduce targeted VAT cuts for key sectors, as a temporary measure. There are also problems at big companies, and we have held various meetings with the Rolls-Royce combined shop steward representatives. In particular, we have some concern about Ansty, despite the company’s assurances.

On young people’s prospects, I have heard a lot from young people in my constituency about their employment anxieties. To take one example, highly skilled medics are graduating from the universities in the Coventry area and are unable to find work. I am concerned that we are not retaining the skills in the area that are necessary to regain a balanced economy. The Minister might be aware of Coventry’s recently launched plan for 100 apprentices in 100 days, and it is hoped that 100 firms will join the scheme. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will bring forward proposals to encourage firms to take on apprentices, with a view to giving them a full-time job?

Not all is doom and gloom in the region, however. The manufacturing sector has a vital role in the recovery of the west midlands economy. The biggest recruiter has been Jaguar Land Rover, which has two bases in Coventry and is powering ahead with a multi-million pound investment; it has taken on 525 new staff throughout its businesses. The other big recruiter has been Ricoh Arena, with 86 posts, mainly in catering. The most symbolic deal for the city has been the news that car production is set to return—we hope—to the site of the former car plant at Browns Lane.

I have listened with great interest to my hon. Friend’s comprehensive review of the situation in Coventry. I am pleased that he is emphasising some positive aspects; but, sadly, the return of any sort of car production to Browns Lane crashed when the Government turned down a bid from a local company under the regional development fund, with which we have so far had no success for Coventry city.

I was aware of that, but there are still indications that something might happen, although the possibility is pretty remote given what my hon. Friend has said.

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on securing an important debate on a serious matter, but I was interested in his remarks that not all is doom and gloom. My constituency, which is immediately adjacent to his, has over the past 12 months had a fall in unemployment of 13.2%, which we attribute to a progressive council going out to seek new businesses, bringing them in and having a constructive attitude to development. Does he think that there is some good news and that there is a way forward?

I do not know about good news. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the economy goes up and down in patches, so we cannot ever predict what the future will hold. We like to think that things will improve, but we will have to see—I do not want to diversify too much and get on to Europe, but after what happened on Friday, I will be very careful what I say about the future, frankly.

Returning to the Coventry situation, the city has embraced new technologies and is leading the way for the whole of the UK. A Coventry coach company has won £3 million of new contracts and taken on 40 new staff. It will produce the UK’s first electric bus—we hope so this time, although we have been down that road before. Only last week, I visited the Institute of Digital Healthcare, which was established in 2010 and is a five-year, £4 million project, which will have a real benefit for patients and their care support networks. I advise any of my colleagues that, if they get the opportunity to go up to the university of Warwick, the IDH is well worth visiting. It will address a number of health care issues, including the use of monitoring and communication devices to support people in their own homes, the development of new platforms to measure, analyse and communicate health data to support health care and to promote well-being, meeting the information and training needs of clinicians and health care technologists and improving the targeting of activities by health and social care teams.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise some of the positives, but there are some huge negatives, as he is aware. I do not know whether he read the report only the other day in the Coventry Telegraph about the massive increase, because of the rise in unemployment, in the cost to the Government of benefit pay-outs in the city, which is not out of line with what is happening elsewhere and is by no means the worst. That in itself is an indication that the Government will not get the deficit right, despite people being thrown out of work because of the austerity programme.

I saw that article in the Coventry Telegraph, and I am also aware that my right hon. Friend’s constituency is probably the top of the list; my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) is second and I am at the bottom somewhere. What I am saying is that, despite the Government’s measures, there are things happening in Coventry. That is the message that I am trying to get across.

Some hon. Members will remember the major improvements planned for the Coventry to Nuneaton rail corridor, which is known as the Nuckle project. It will help to improve accessibility and encourage increased use of the train for journeys that might otherwise be undertaken by car. When Warwickshire county council has received outline funding approval, it will aim for final approval by the end of the year or the start of 2012.

On Friargate, a recent meeting with the local enterprise partnership revealed that the project is making reasonable progress. It is an office-based project with residential, retail, car parking and delivery facilities, and an acclaimed arrival point for rail passengers. It, too, is expected to start in 2012 and has the firm backing of Coventry city council.

We have seen Coventry and the west midlands benefit from private sector investment. However, I am deeply concerned about the prospects for young people throughout the region and, more generally, about the loss of skills in various sectors. We have already seen a fall in university applications of more 19,200 in the west midlands region. We have also seen a fall in the number of skilled graduates in medicine and nursing who can find work in their qualified field because of public sector cuts, and that is against a backdrop of high youth unemployment.

I am sure that there is deep concern on both sides of the House about youth unemployment. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the coalition Government are seeking to extend opportunities for young people in particular through enhanced apprenticeships and the Work programme to ensure that we do not lose a generation of young people? All employers are being galvanised to take youngsters on and to give them experience, so that when the upturn comes, they will be able to utilise the skills that they have developed.

There is weakness in what the hon. Lady says. We have been here lately, and frankly we have seen this before. If we really want to give young people work experience, we must pay employers to take them on for six or nine months. Two or three months are not really helpful, because they do not then get another job. If I had my way, I would make it 12 months, but that is another argument.

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is making a passionate case for Coventry and on issues that affect us all more generally. Is not part of the answer to the hon. Lady’s question that many employers would like to take on more apprentices and provide more skills training, but they need demand in the economy and demand for their products to do so? The Government’s failure to achieve that demand in the economy is leaving it flatlining. We need the plan for growth that the Labour party has suggested.

I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend, but I would add that the Government, despite their protestations, must consider small businesses and help with their financial situation and their liquidity problems, perhaps with loans from the banks. If my earlier suggestion about six to nine months’ payment was adopted, they might be able to take on young people. The Government will never crack the problem unless they provide that.

To wind up, I want to ask the Minister some questions. Will he tell us what evidence-based assessment he has made of the Government’s industrial policy? What confidence can he give to global manufacturers with long-term investment horizons? What confidence can he give to companies to take on apprentices? How will the Government support small and medium-sized businesses to retain skills in the region?

I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing it. For us in Coventry, it is an important and timely debate, and we look to the Minister to give what answers he can today and some sense of a future for Coventry and similar cities in the west midlands and beyond. At the moment, with the dramatic situation in Europe, the likelihood of a further recession there and the possibility of a double dip in this country, the outlook for employment and prosperity in the west midlands particularly is grim indeed.

I want to follow my hon. Friend in saying that we are pleased to see guests and supporters from Birmingham and Oxford with us for this debate. Its national significance and relevance should not be overlooked. I shall speak first about unemployment. Coventry always seems to suffer a double whammy. The first public sector cuts were pushed through by the Secretary of State for Education, who went for Becta—the Bringing Educational Creativity to All agency—the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and the Skills Funding Agency.

Those good-quality jobs had been located to Coventry from London because it is central and as part of a clear-cut Government policy to promote growth and quality jobs in the region; but they were cut just like that, in a disgraceful and wanton act without notification, without warning and without consultation. The Secretary of State issued a rude letter closing them down without more ado. He then mended his ways to some extent. We had a debate about the matter in this Chamber, and told him that that was no way to behave and that we hoped he would reconsider. I note that the number of job losses is somewhat lower than was announced, but the total number is 1,237 in the private sector, plus 620 in local authorities and public services. That has created a grim situation in Coventry city, and we can do nothing about it until the Government stop the national cuts, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) referred.

There is no salvation for Coventry in isolation, although we shall make some suggestions to the Minister today about what he could, and should, do to help. But in the background is the single objective that the Government have set for their economic policy—the reduction of the deficit, come what may. Whatever cuts and deflation are necessary, that is what the Government intend to achieve. We have pointed out many times, and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South said again today, that they cannot achieve that objective with policies that are destroying so much of the economy. It is as simple as that, and until they change their policies, the outlook for Coventry and Britain is grim indeed.

Where do we stand on some of the Government’s initiatives that were intended to improve the situation? Some were referred to by my hon. Friend. First, we have had no luck in Coventry with the regional growth fund, and the Minister knows the situation with CPP, which was turned down. I do not want to reopen the matter at this stage, but we hope that it will return. It might have restarted car production at Browns Lane, but I do not think that it will, nor do I think that we will have much luck there. We tried for enterprise zone status, but failed for some reason, and I would like the Government to reconsider that and to explain the criteria that Coventry failed to fulfil.

Similarly, Coventry is suffering badly with youth unemployment, and that is the most serious aspect of unemployment. Some unemployed kids are the third and fourth generation of families that have never been in work and will never get into work because they do not know what it is about. That is why the Government were so wrong, when they came to office, to cut Labour’s scheme that was running successfully. They have now scored the unique achievement of promoting 1 million young people out of work. That came as a shock to everyone in the country, not least the Government. They are now trying belatedly to do something about it, but unless they change their economic stance and the sheer deflationary course on which they have embarked, that will simply not happen.

I turn to something else that the Government could do that would be useful to the nation as a whole and to Coventry: credit easing. Where do they stand on that? Various schemes have been suggested, and we are supposed to hear the details of the present scheme in January. Can the Minister tell us when the credit will flow from that and when it will be available in Coventry? As my hon. Friend said, many small companies that are okay at the moment could do so much better with credit easing in place; they could obtain the credit they need for working and investment capital to improve their output and their sales. It is as simple as that, but until we know the details, we have nothing to go on.

The situation with the Nuckle project, which involves transport, is similar. The paraphernalia and bureaucracy surrounding various Government investment projects were supposed to be cut back. It is a good scheme for linking the north-south train run through Coventry. It is a very good project. We have been dealing with it for about five years or more, partly because of Government bureaucracy, but this Government are even worse. I hear now—I think that my hon. Friend referred to it—that they have promised a decision this month, before Christmas. Can we at least have some indication? What assurance can the Minister give us that the decision will not only be taken, but be positive? That would be the most important thing that we could hear from him today. I hope that he will take that on board. If he cannot answer this morning, will he answer as soon as possible?

We are looking for Government action. The people of Coventry are finding it more and more difficult to respond to the situation. There is no future in cuts, in recession and in an economy that is depressed and looks like remaining so. We shall have growing youth unemployment and growing national unemployment, and we will never create the new businesses, jobs and growth that we need to put the deficit right. Coventry is a microcosm of that problem. It certainly highlights all the problem’s worst aspects in an area that has suffered so much in every recession and throughout the period since this Government took office.

I am pleased to have the chance to discuss economic opportunities in the west midlands, particularly in Coventry. I commend the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) for securing the debate. He highlighted several practical issues around job losses and questions for small businesses. I will address all of them, including the specific transport schemes that have been mentioned.

It is worth taking a step back and remembering that the west midlands is a key part of our national economy. If we look at the most recent complete gross value added figures, it accounted for just over 7% of the UK’s GVA in 2008. It is important that the area is successful and prosperous. Clearly, there have been problems. I understand that it is a difficult time for individuals caught in unemployment or facing redundancy. However, there has been positive news. I welcome the balanced view that the hon. Gentleman presented of the challenges and also the good news. The Opposition will understandably challenge what the Government are doing, but we have to be careful that we do not start to talk down Coventry or other areas and that we strike a sensible balance. We must recognise the problems, but we must also look at where the opportunities are, because I think they are strong.

We have seen, for example, the £355 million investment by Jaguar Land Rover at i54. It is not immediately within the Coventry area, but it is crucial for the whole JLR programme. We have seen the £31 million that JCB is putting forward for its next generation of engines, which will form a crucial part of the skills base in the west midlands. We have also seen investment in BMW at Hams Hall, just outside Coventry. This is welcome news because not only is it good for businesses, it is a tribute to local workers. I want to put that point on the record. The hon. Gentleman and I have met the trade unions with regard to Rolls-Royce at Ansty. I hope that conversations between unions and management will persist to ensure that is somewhere that can remain competitive.

For many of us in the coalition, it seems that there is tremendous potential for the west midlands, because of the tremendous skills base. The Minister mentioned Ansty; he did not mention the fact that in my constituency of Solihull, Land Rover is creating 1,000 jobs in addition to the ones that he has already mentioned. There is so much potential for jobs and for the development of research and technology in our west midlands area, particularly close to Coventry.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s contribution. I will come to the broader Jaguar Land Rover issue, because it is crucial for the whole network of engineering and manufacturing in the region. We must be careful to remember where the roots of the problem lie. In 1975, GVA was ahead in the west midlands—above the national average. In the first decade of this century, from 2000 to 2008, the increase in GVA per head in the region was the lowest of any part of the country. In Coventry, the decline is clear. In 2000, we saw GVA per head 10 points above the national average; by the time we get to 2008, it is eight points below, so there are significant challenges. Indeed, the west midlands was the only part of the country where the number of private sector jobs fell between 1998 and 2008, so there are real underlying issues.

We are committed to rebalancing the economy; that includes sectors and geography. I turn to the specific areas of activity that I think are relevant. First, local enterprise partnerships are crucial. In the few months that they have been in existence, the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP has established a business mentor network; it is working with the banks to unlock credit at local level in addition to what we are doing at national level, and it has also identified key development and infrastructure opportunities. If I may, I will come to the question of Tollbar End and the development of that site in a moment. I know it is very important.

We have put £248,000 into the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP to get it up and running. That is not designed to provide a vast administration. I am not sure that we want a vast administration. We want outcomes. That is why the LEP is getting its funding strategy in place; it is why it is putting in place its evergreen fund and it is why we are making sure that there is a portal in place so that it is actually able to engage with small businesses.

If the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not give way, because I want to try to answer some of the points raised. There are important issues that will advantage his constituency in Coventry as well.

I entirely agree that apprenticeships are crucial. The LEP is addressing that issue with its local project, on top of the work that we are doing to help small and medium-sized enterprises. I can direct the hon. Member for Coventry South to the new programme recently announced to make it easier and simpler for SMEs to take on apprenticeships. We are providing funding to the tune of up to £1,500 per apprentice. I agree that there is an issue around making sure that SMEs are able to do this. Accessibility will make it easier for Coventry’s SMEs.

There are 24 enterprise zones. I am aware that the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP will have been disappointed that its own bid did not make it. However, just beyond the area, the MIRA technology park will be of some importance to local businesses. On transport and the Tollbar End commitment, the Government have brought forward their intention to ensure that £110 million is available to sort out the congestion. We recognise that there are still live issues about whether the development next door could be hindered by it. I have made that clear to officials and they are engaged in discussions with the LEP to see whether we can keep the £110 million to get the investment, but not lose or unduly delay the development programme.

Members representing the whole of the LEP—from both parties—met earlier this week and will be seeking a meeting with the Minister to try to make absolutely certain that his Department is focused on that problem, because it is enormously important. Can the Minister give us a commitment to meet a delegation from the whole Coventry and Warwickshire area on that issue?

I understand the issue. Given that the Department for Transport is in the process of finalising its decision, I should not pre-empt it. If it becomes necessary for Ministers to have a meeting, I am sure that I or my colleagues will be willing to do that.

The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) said that Coventry had not had any successes with the regional growth fund. Perhaps I can bring him up to speed. In fact, £3.6 million from the second round of the regional growth fund has brought two relevant projects to the area. There is the Aston Martin body construction facility with £1.6 million of public investment, unlocking between £5 and £6 for every public pound put in. There is also, perhaps more importantly, the LNX distribution programme with £2 million of investment from the Government, which should bring some 340 manufacturing jobs directly to Coventry. I understand the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raised and that he may have been disappointed by the bid, but there has been some success, particularly in Coventry, and I hope that he welcomes that.

I welcome the points that have been raised; we need sensible dialogue about them. Parties may disagree on the bigger economic issues, but we are committed to ensuring that businesses and workers in Coventry and the wider west midlands are able to unlock their potential. We need to support them through skills and investment, to make sure that they can fulfil their potential and overcome their historical problems.