Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Stephen Crabb.)
Good morning, Mr Hollobone, and welcome to the Chair. It is a great honour for you to be here to share our Welsh discussions. I am pleased both to have had the luck to secure this debate, and that we have a strong showing from Members representing north Wales constituencies. We also have my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who is on the Front Bench.
This debate offers us an important opportunity to discuss the north Wales economy, for my colleagues and me to promote what is good and strong about north Wales to the rest of the United Kingdom, and for us to look at some of the key issues that can help our economy grow even faster and stronger and improve the living standards of our north Wales constituents. It is also an opportunity for us to press the UK Government to be an active Government who are engaged in promoting the economy and are not standing back. They should work closely with our colleagues in the Welsh Assembly to achieve economic growth and be active as a part of a wider Europe. In the run-up to the European elections, we need to emphasise strongly how important Europe is to the north Wales economy. I will emphasise our economy’s cross-border nature. The Deeside hub is a key economic driver for north Wales and for north-west England, the Wirral, Liverpool and Cheshire. Many of my constituents work in England and many people in England work in north Wales, and that cross-border working is extremely important to our economy.
The economy of north Wales was worth a staggering £10.6 billion last year, which represents £15,500 per person. That is 72% of the UK average, but that is because constituencies such as that of the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) have a high retirement population that drags down the figure. Our economy is still growing, leading the charge for the UK economy as a whole. In north Wales, we have a number of economic success stories in renewable energy, such as West Coast Energy in my constituency, Mostyn docks and the wind farms off the north Wales coast, such as Gwynt y Môr.
I would rather see them as giant economic growth drivers. Only last week, we had a great announcement for Hull, with Siemens bringing manufacturing to the United Kingdom. In north Wales, we have a strong renewable energy offer and lots of expertise. We have wind farms and the potential for more wind farms offshore, and a good opportunity to build on our economic success in that area. We also have strong manufacturing in the paper sector, with Kimberly-Clark and SCA in my constituency. We still have, despite many years of contraction, a strong steel-making industry with Tata Steel in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami).
It is good news, and I welcome the investment in apprenticeships. Other companies, such as Airbus, do the same in our area. We also have a strong automotive industry, and this week Toyota made a strong case for engagement with Europe to ensure that we can export models from the United Kingdom to Europe.
North Wales has the strongest manufacturing base in the UK, and I shall focus on Airbus, which employs between 1,500 and 2,000 people in my constituency, with more employees coming from across north Wales. It is a vital manufacturing industry for UK economic growth. A potential 30,000 new aircraft will be built between now and 2032, representing a staggering $4.4 trillion-worth of business. Airbus has the opportunity, with active Government support, to secure a key part of that market. That is important, not just for the 7,000 people who work at Airbus, but also for many others, including those who are part of the UK supply chain. Airbus has spent £180 million on that supply chain in north Wales. The strong site at Broughton was developed with active support from the Labour Welsh Assembly and the previous Labour UK Government, and with the new wing development we have the potential to grow the site further.
We also have strong sectors in other areas. Tourism is a key activity for north Wales. We have a great tourist offer, which we can grow still further. Millions of people are within a two-hour drive or train journey of our tourism economy. We have a strong agricultural sector with sheep and cattle farming, as well as milk production. Food production and distribution are growing in importance. For example, we have food festivals in Mold in my constituency. That industry has a £3 billion value to Wales as a whole, according to a briefing I obtained yesterday from NFU Cymru. We have strong local and national Government, with many people putting their wage packets, through employment in the health service and the county council, into the economy. We have a particularly vibrant small business sector, which is extremely important in growing our economy. Many wage packets come into north Wales via the car manufacturers, such as Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port, the banking sector in Cheshire and the Deeside north Wales hub, which is one of the strongest areas in the United Kingdom.
The lesson that we must learn is that we need active Government engaged in all those issues, particularly the Deeside enterprise zone in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside, which has the active support of the Welsh Assembly and has invested through a capital programme in schools and colleges in our constituencies. In my own county, £64.2 million of that programme is going into four facilities in my county of Flintshire, one of which is the community learning campus at Holywell high school. The theme I am developing is active Government. That investment is finding its way into construction and supply in the private sector, which is building and developing those facilities.
North Wales continues to benefit from EU funds. It is important, in the run-up to the European elections, that we do not allow people to take the stance that the EU is bad for Wales, because more than 8,000 new businesses have been created, and £665 million of contracts have been won. Some 13,000 businesses are supported in Wales, and north Wales has a considerable number of those businesses.
We face some key challenges, however. In Flintshire, wages have fallen in real terms by £3,000 per family on average since the economic crisis in 2007. A TUC study has shown that north Wales has suffered the biggest wage cut in Wales, with an average drop of £57 a week. The latest figures show that the number of unemployed people in my constituency has increased in the past year and that the number of unemployed young people is still rising. In my county, 1,567 people are each losing £880 because of the changes to the Government’s spare room subsidy—the so-called bedroom tax.
The cost of energy bills is also hitting the north Wales economy hard, with the cost of energy rising by some £300 over the past three years, meaning that money is taken out of the economy instead of being spent on creating jobs and services for the future. Although we do have strong sectors, such is the lack of recovery in the area that only yesterday Creative Foods, which is operated by Brakes, announced that it would consult on the loss of some 150 jobs and the closure of its food manufacturing plant in Flint. The consultation will end in late May. Will the Minister contact the Welsh Assembly and the company to see whether the factory can remain viable or whether an alternative buyer can be found? Brakes has operated in Flint for the 20 years in which I have been a Member of Parliament, and it is a vibrant factory. Aaron Shotton, leader of Flintshire county council, has arranged for the council’s enterprise department to meet Brakes to examine the situation.
In addition, this week I received a notification from Aviva as part of the Budget submissions. The letter states:
“Wales had one of the lowest levels of confidence in general economic conditions over 2013”.
Although our manufacturing, tourism, renewables, businesses and agriculture are strong, both the Welsh Assembly and the UK Government should use business policy to develop our offer and improve and grow our economy still further.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way a second time. Does he agree that the lack of business confidence may be due to the Conservative coalition Government always running down Wales, the Welsh economy, the Welsh health service and Welsh education, using that as a political tool for their election strategy?
It does not help. I hope that the Minister will not only focus on the positives but listen to the Members here today who represent north Wales. Every Labour Member from north Wales is present, along with the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) and the hon. Member for Aberconwy—the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) is not present—so we have a strong cross-party group that is trying to back north Wales.
I want to discuss four or five areas where the Government can help to grow the economy. We have discussed transport infrastructure with the Minister before, but real opportunities exist for us to improve connectivity between north-west England and north Wales and between north Wales and the economic driver that is London. I want to put on the record my support for High Speed 2 and for Sir David Higgins’s decision to draw the Government’s attention to fast development at Crewe. I also support attempts by the Government and the Assembly to develop electrification between Crewe and the north Wales coast. I do so not for the sake of speed—an extra 10 or 15 minutes off journey times would be nice—but for the sake of capacity, which is crucial to our economy. HS2 will bring vital extra capacity to the area for tourists, for freight and for businesses.
My right hon. Friend highlights the importance of the European Union and of transport infrastructure, but the two are combined. North Wales lies on the trans-European network as a link between Dublin and London, so there is a strong business case for Ireland, Britain and the rest of Europe to work together to ensure that north Wales gets the best connectivity.
That is an extremely valid point. The link from Holyhead in my hon. Friend’s constituency along the north Wales coast and down through my constituency into north-west England, and even the links across to Humberside, down to London and to mainland Europe, are extremely valuable. I know that the Minister supports that, but I think that he wants to be sure that he has the support of Opposition Members who represent north Wales to go forward with HS2 and to try to make those links in a positive way.
This is not only about electrification and links to HS2 and the south, but about the links between north Wales and Merseyside and Manchester. My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and I are meeting the Secretary of State for Transport regarding the Halton curve, which is a link to Merseyside and Liverpool airport that will provide access for business. A direct link to Manchester airport should also be considered. Two great airports lie within 40 miles of my part of Wales and while Assembly investment at Cardiff is fine, it does not serve the needs of the north. I hope that the Minister will be able to liaise with others on that.
Transport and rail infrastructure are key, but I also want to stress the importance of Europe. My part of north Wales does not benefit from European structural funds, but much of north Wales does. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) played an active role over many years in developing that funding with two former Secretaries of State for Wales, my right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and for Neath (Mr Hain).
My hon. Friend predicts my thoughts, because I was going to say that although my constituency does not depend on European objective 1 funding, the fact that many businesses in Flintshire such as Toyota and Airbus, and Vauxhall, which is nearby, are able to sell goods to the European market without tariffs is vital to the area’s economic growth. I want the Minister to commit to supporting a strong European Union.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that uncertainty is the enemy of investment? Even now, the Conservative party’s commitment, for internal party political reasons, to a referendum on EU membership in 2017 is negatively impacting on investment in our communities.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We may plan for five-year electoral cycles, but businesses plan investment over longer periods of time. Important business decisions on increasing investment will depend on whether companies see the UK, and north Wales in particular, as part of a vibrant wider Europe. I hope that the Minister can comment on that.
I have mentioned transport and Europe, and I want to touch on the cross-border nature of investment. I sadly could not participate in the Wales Bill’s Second Reading debate yesterday, but I hope that in taking forward the Bill’s proposals, the Minister is cognisant of the fact that the economy of my part of north-east Wales is linked directly to that of north-west England. Development agencies, infrastructure stakeholders, businesses and local councils on the English side of the border should be consulted on the Bill’s measures just as much as those on the Welsh side. The Welsh Assembly and the UK Government should work in tandem to develop both sides of the border. Some 400 of my constituents work for Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port, and it is sometimes quicker to get there than it is to get to places on the Welsh side of the border. We must accept and understand how integrated the United Kingdom is, and its cross-border issues.
The active issue for the Government relates to construction. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) will talk about investment in the prison shortly, but there are a couple of other key issues that we should examine. We need a regional plan for north Wales and north-west England, with connectivity across the board; but we also need to think about three other issues that are particularly important. To raise the level of investment and economic activity in north Wales, we should seriously consider working towards a living wage. Local authorities should be involved in that, and we need an active Government to promote it. Money spent locally by people who earn a living wage will help to regenerate high street small businesses in places such as Holywell, Flint and Mold in my constituency. The money will not be lost to north-east Wales but reinvested in local small businesses and shops, and the community. I should welcome a commitment to a living wage; I know that my hon. Friends would give that commitment.
There is also a need for apprenticeships and training. Airbus in north Wales is key to that issue. Tomorrow other hon. Members and I will meet Airbus apprentices in the House of Commons. Capital-led investment by an active Government in colleges, schools and infrastructure will generate business in the economy. That is why I particularly welcome the Labour commitment to invest in new homes and try to build 200,000 of them by 2020. I hope that a future Labour Government will keep to that pledge and invest in public sector homes, and consequentially enable the Welsh Assembly Government to do so too. That will kick-start the construction industry and help people who are not now on the housing ladder.
Labour’s commitment to cut business rates for small firms, for the first two years of a Labour Government if we are elected in May 2015, is also welcome. That would also kick-start the local economy. The Labour party leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), has taken key action on energy prices, which are vital to the cost base of many industries, particularly paper, steel and renewables. The ability to reduce and freeze energy bills will be a great help to the economy of north Wales.
I am pleased to have started the debate. I have tried to talk about some of the many positive aspects of our economy, but we must never be complacent. There are challenges, even with respect to big companies such as Airbus. There is a world out there trying to steal our markets and take our customers. Other parts of the world want to grow their economies, and we must be ever vigilant. There are things that the Government can do—I hope that a future Labour Government will do them—to strengthen transport links, improve infrastructure investment, provide a living wage, and help to secure the continual growth of an economy that is strong and diverse in several key sectors. That economy is of central importance not just to north Wales and the north-west, but to the whole UK.
Order. I do not want to call the Front-Bench spokesmen later than 10.40 am. Six hon. Members want to catch my eye and I do not want to impose a time limit, because I know you are a well-behaved lot with huge respect for one another. If you each speak for no more than seven minutes there will be time for the odd intervention and everyone will get in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Hollobone. I shall try to keep my remarks to seven minutes.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson). I agreed with many of the points he made in his positive speech. As to transport, I fully accept that we need to push for upgrades to the north Wales main line. I would like electrification of the line; slight upgrading of train speed is certainly needed, because that will result in greater capacity. I use the A55 regularly, as do my constituents, to get to work. We should recognise that it is on a Euroroute, and apparently it is the only Euroroute that still has a roundabout on it. There are two, and they are both in my constituency, at Llanfairfechan and Penmaenmawr, so in due course I would welcome any upgrades to the A55, especially in my constituency.
The big picture is that north Wales can expect exciting times. There has been concern about economic figures, in relation to employment, but in Aberconwy unemployment figures have fallen by 13%. Most importantly, the youth unemployment figures have fallen. I am sure that every right hon. and hon. Member in the Chamber would welcome 18 to 24-year-olds finding jobs. It is positive for those individuals, and for the economy of north Wales.
The opportunities presented by Wylfa Newydd are also part of the big picture. We cannot overestimate the potential of a new nuclear power station to transform the economy of north-west Wales. I am delighted about the partnership between Gwynedd council, Isle of Anglesey county council and Conwy county borough council, to work to ensure that young people in north-west Wales will have the relevant skills for that exciting industry. Those who have the skills relevant to Wylfa Newydd will also have the skills relevant to the wind farm developments that are happening, and to other forms of energy generation.
I will. I will not allow any party politics to stand in the way of the fact that that was a welcome decision. I also welcome the commitment by further education colleges, local authorities and the business sector to making that happen. It will provide young people with an opportunity to plan for a career in north Wales. I also welcome yesterday’s decision by the green investment bank to invest £220 million in the Gwynt y Mor facility. Every councillor in Conwy, including every Labour councillor, voted against that development, but the key thing is that the decision was made, and we need as much local value to be drawn from the development as possible.
To be fair, it is important that we should reflect on the concerns of the tourism sector in Aberconwy, and Conwy in general, in relation to the wind farm development. The concern was reflected strongly by local representatives of all political parties in Conwy. Denbighshire councillors saw things differently, but the key thing now is to build on those successes.
The successes of north-east Wales are not for north-east Wales alone. Constituents of mine work in the Airbus factories, and people travel from my constituency to Deeside in 30 or 35 minutes on the A55, if there has not been a crash or an overturned caravan. The economies of north-east and north-west Wales are linked, and things work both ways because a significant number of people from north-east Wales are more than happy to spend their weekends in my constituency, and further west in that of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd).
I think things are moving in a positive direction. My constituency has the highest dependency on small businesses of any constituency in north Wales. If it were not for the small business community, the economic situation there would be dire indeed. We are experiencing confidence, investment, and the willingness of people to invest in their businesses, whether those businesses are new or are being refurbished. There are recent successes that we should all welcome. The one I am most pleased about is a small coffee shop in Llandudno Junction. In terms of economic change, it is not a big issue—four new employees in a small coffee shop in Llandudno Junction—but that business was funded through crowdfunding. It is the first business that I have seen in my constituency that sought crowdfunding because of the reluctance of banks to lend, which continues to be a big problem. That resulted in a brand-new coffee shop employing people in the Junction. That is the type of innovation from young people that will be key to the success of the north Wales economy.
My interest, which I share with the hon. Gentleman, is in finance for business. Would he support a regional bank for north Wales that was much more attuned to the regional economy, able to understand our local business community and therefore able to make the right decisions on investment?
There is certainly an argument for that, but let us be fair: our big problem in Wales is the fact that Finance Wales has been such a disastrous failure. Had it stepped into the breach as a lender of last resort supporting businesses, perhaps we would not need a regional bank. Businesses in my constituency, such as those in the Church Walks enterprise hub, which has 40 employees in the high-technology industries, were being charged 7% above base by Finance Wales. That is the type of lending that HSBC and other high street banks have been guilty of charging. When we see a publicly supported bank doing that, I have real concerns.
We are certainly seeing real signs of investment in my constituency. A vital investment has been the refurbishment of the Eagles hotel in Llanrwst. No small town can do without a key hotel, and the closure of the Eagles hotel caused concern about the future of Llanrwst. I welcome its reopening with significant new investment. Furthermore, on Friday, I was in Betwys-y-Coed, reopening the Pont y Pair inn—seven new employees, a significant £150,000 investment and, from what I saw, a guaranteed success. Even better, that investment means that we are selling the local brew, the Conwy Brewery beer; that shows how tourism can interlink with the food and agricultural community. That is the other issue that I want to touch on.
We sometimes forget when talking about the economy of north Wales how important agriculture and the food sector are. In my constituency, we see the links, because there is significant investment in the Bodnant food centre, which is supported by European regional funding; indeed, it is one of the 0.5% of European-funded projects led by the private sector. It is a success; European regional funding might have even greater success if more such projects were led by the private sector, rather than by the dead hand of bureaucracy. The food sector in my constituency is going from strength to strength. The Bodnant food centre is a fantastic success story, but it is building on top of the success of companies such as Blas ar Fwyd and Siwgr a Sbeis. Those companies are delivering for and serving the tourism sector—cafés, restaurants and hotels—and it is as if all the sectors of the economy in my constituency are coming together to give tourists and visitors a distinctly Welsh feel when they come to north Wales.
There is real, large investment in Llandudno, the queen of Welsh resorts, which gave a warm welcome to the Welsh Labour party over the weekend—we were delighted to see them, obviously. For a long time, it has had two large derelict hotels, which have been a stain on the town: the Clarence on Gloddaeth street and the St Tudno hotel, which can link the high street to Parc Llandudno. The good news is that both are being refurbished in multi-million pound investments, and there will be hotels, shops, other retail outlets and cafés in both locations, one at the top end of the high street and the other at the bottom end. They are significant, multi-million pound votes of confidence in the economy of Llandudno. Clearly, we are turning the corner. There will be employment growth and, more importantly, the slight decay that we saw on both sides of the town will be dealt with positively. I pay tribute to Mostyn Estates, to the investors and to the local authority for ensuring that we are dealing with those problems quickly.
The Government are also doing things. They are giving a huge vote of confidence to small businesses. In my constituency, a small partnership business, such as a husband and wife running a guest house, will be able to post a £20,000 profit without paying tax. That money will go back into the business, because running a guest house is like running the Forth bridge—people must keep investing to keep up standards. That tax break of the personal allowance increase is a tax break for businesses, and it makes a big difference in my constituency. The £2,000 rebate on national insurance is another vote of confidence in small businesses that want to employ staff; they will have a tax rebate if they do. Finally, the Welsh Government have seen sense on the small business rate subsidy of £1,000; that was announced by the Chancellor in his autumn statement. It took the Welsh Government four months, but I will not carp about that; I would rather see a correct decision made late in the day than a wrong decision. I welcome the fact that the Welsh Government are following in the footsteps of the Chancellor by ensuring rates relief for small businesses in my constituency.
I will curtail my remarks, having given, I hope, a positive view of how things are developing in my constituency. Of course, Aberconwy is not isolated; it is part of the wider north Wales economy. There are clearly concerns if unemployment figures in some parts of north Wales are increasing. That is not the case in Aberconwy, but we need a successful economy throughout north Wales. We benefit from investment in north-east Wales, just as I am sure that it will benefit from investment in the north-west. The prognosis for the north Wales economy is positive, as long as we have a Government who understand that their responsibility is to support businesses where they can and, most of the time, simply get out of the way.
It is a great pleasure to take part in the debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson). As I recall, he and I were elected back in 1992 on the very same day.
In November last year, I wrote an article in The Independent, sparked by the disturbing news about wage levels in Dwyfor Meirionnydd: 40% of people in full-time work were earning less than the living wage, which is considered unacceptable where there is no help from tax credits and so on. In the article, I noted that rural poverty is just as grinding as urban poverty. What is most disappointing is that the area that I have the honour to represent was once an industrial area central to the cementing of Wales’s position as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. The question is about not the quantity of jobs, but their quality, and our problem is the low-wage economy that we all struggle with in north Wales. That is not a political point; it is something that we all need to aspire to get rid of. There are disparities within the UK, which is probably the state with the greatest disparities in the European sector.
There is hope and no lack of ambition, however, as the right hon. Member for Delyn said. Last October, I hosted a parliamentary day for Meirionnydd, alongside the Farmers Union of Wales, showcasing the constituency’s small businesses, which are thriving in a time of austerity. Cutting business rates, lending to businesses, and apprenticeships for young people lie at the heart of my party’s plan for the north Wales economic recovery. Indeed, that will benefit the whole of the Welsh economy, as the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) said. We have long called for a living wage to ease the squeeze on people’s pockets. It would make a substantial difference to living standards in constituencies such as mine, and across the whole of north Wales. Fair pay is essential. We need to put an end to exploitative, zero-hours contracts. I will not enter the political arena on this issue, because I am not sure where my friends in the Labour party stand on it—there is one view in Cardiff and one here—but in any event, such contracts should have no place in a modern economy.
Transport links, as the right hon. Member for Delyn said, are essential for any development of the north Wales economy. We still await notification from the UK Government of the electrification of the north Wales main line. The Secretary of State has indicated that he is in favour of it, but has had remarkably little success so far in persuading his Cabinet colleagues. Wales still does not have a single mile of electrified track; it is comparable with Albania, in European terms. The trans-European network, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said, is another area where the UK Government, as well as the Welsh Government, have to get moving. The rail line to Holyhead has been left off the European top-tier corridor projects, thanks, unfortunately, to the UK Government illogically guiding the route to Liverpool for the ferry to Dublin, rather than along to Holyhead, which is the most obvious route. That decision needs to be looked at again.
Away from transport links, we in Plaid Cymru have been focusing on the need to develop the small and medium-sized enterprises sector in Wales. SMEs are the backbone of the Welsh economy. It is often said, and I believe it is true, that about 90% of employment in Wales is in the SME sector. Gone are the days of inviting large international companies to bring in a massive factory and showering them with cash, only to see them leave a few years later. We must build from within. Plaid Cymru has put forward a range of proposals on business rates and financial support for SMEs. Discussions are ongoing in the National Assembly on that issue, and Plaid Cymru and others are playing our part.
The right hon. Member for Delyn rightly referred to tourism, which is a vital part of north Wales’s economy. We have many things to brag about, such as the iconic Snowdon and the Snowdon railway, our lakes and the unique charm of Portmeirion. Last week, Antur Stiniog in Blaenau Ffestiniog opened a mountain bike circuit, and the following day there was a UK championship with 2,000 competitors. Coed-y-Brenin is another of the premier mountain bike venues in Wales and beyond.
Yes. When I represented the valley, I used to help him as well. I got him started, so I can take part of the credit. I am pleased to join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating his constituent. It is a great pleasure to see a business such as his succeed. We have fishing, climbing, sailing, hiking—the whole lot. Of course we need to increase footfall, but the main thing we need to address is the need to increase the visitor spend. We need to up our game, but it is not beyond our knowledge and ken to do that.
Other measures that can improve the north Wales economy include a private sector-led industrial development authority to leverage investment into the Welsh economy. That is not dissimilar from the suggestion that the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) made. I still believe it was a mistake to do away with the Welsh Development Agency. Yes, it was a quango, but it did a good job and it was a brand that was known worldwide. But it went, and with it went the Development Board for Rural Wales, and nothing has been put in its place. The small business sector in rural Wales has lost that important arm of assistance, which was always there and was effective.
We believe that we need a public development bank to lend to SMEs and help develop local industries. Five years on from the crisis, SMEs are still being squeezed and the banks are still not giving them fair play. We should focus on the productive economy, rather than using funding for lending to asset-lend in the form of mortgages and pumping up another house price bubble.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Not only that, but the four major clearing banks have an understanding that they will not support tourism enterprises unless they are heavily persuaded. Think of the effect that has on the Welsh economy.
We need a Welsh public development bank, which could be geographically tied to Wales, similar to the Sparkassen and Landesbanken in Germany. Plaid Cymru has been calling for that for years. I am pleased that the Minister, Edwina Hart, has moved on that issue and has called for another review. I hope the Welsh Government in Cardiff will give priority to it, because it is vital to enable the SME sector to trade out of the recession. It could assist us all, and give a massive boost to the Welsh economy. It is the main sector that we need to concentrate on.
Finally, although I have a high regard for the right hon. Member for Delyn, I disagree with him on having ever closer links with the Chester-Liverpool region—although my legal chambers are in Chester, so who am I to say that? The problem with the Wrexham-Chester-Liverpool city region is that Welsh interests may be drowned out and become subservient to those of the north-west. That is the likelihood, if the numbers living on both sides of the border are compared. The super-prison in Wrexham—we will hear from the hon. Member for Wrexham shortly—demonstrates that point. It is a priority for an England-centred justice system: a gigantic Tory-style, “lock ’em up and throw away the key”-type prison to house offenders from all over the north-west of England. There will be 500 prisoners from Wales, and 1,500 unfortunate people imported in. Strategically, it answers the needs of the north-west, not those of north Wales. I agree with much of what the right hon. Member for Delyn said about transport links, the living wage and many other things. However, when I hear talk about that sort of axis, I fear the likelihood is that we will come off second best.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). On a lighter note, both mentioned the zip-wire project. Would it not be a great opportunity for both to have a go on it, as Boris Johnson did?
I could not possibly comment.
This is an important issue. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who has been a great advocate for his constituency, for north Wales, and, when he was a Wales Office Minister, for the whole of Wales. I give credit to him and his team for the dualling of the A55 across Anglesey, which was unfinished business. He and his team did much good for the north-west of Wales and, in particular, my constituency.
I welcome the fall in unemployment in Wales. For the first time in my political career as an activist and a Member of Parliament, average unemployment is lower in Wales than in the rest of the United Kingdom. When I first became a political activist in the ’80s, my constituency was top of the wrong leagues. It had double the average unemployment of the United Kingdom, but that has been transformed. According to the House of Commons Library, between 1997 and 2007, my constituency created an extra 7,000 jobs. My area has gone from the top of the unemployment league to below the average figure. That is a good news story, but it did not happen by accident. There was a lot of direct Government intervention, and I pay tribute to the Welsh Government for their intervention in job creation.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy is absolutely right that it is essential for our economy and our future that we get young people into training and work. That has been happening in Wales at a greater rate because of the jobs growth fund in which the Welsh Government are directly involved. It is due to that fund that we are seeing historically lower average unemployment in Wales than the rest of the United Kingdom.
We need such schemes and direct intervention. As the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd said, we need to change the fact that there is a low-wage economy in many areas, but I am confident we can do that. There are new schemes on the horizon—excuse the pun—such as Horizon, which in 2009 was established to build a new nuclear power station in my constituency. It was an investment of £6 billion to £8 billion—one of the biggest single investments in Wales, and as big an investment in north-west Wales as the Olympics were in London. It will have huge benefits not only for my constituency but for the whole of north-west Wales. It raises the bar for skills in the whole of north Wales, making it an attractive place for businesses to invest and for people with high skills to work. I welcome that investment.
I also welcome the £2.5 million fund announced by the Welsh Government for nuclear and energy skills training. We can become the centre of excellence for energy development in research and development, generation and other parts of the sector. It is hugely important for our energy security as a nation, and we want north Wales to be a big part of that. I welcome initiatives in offshore wind, nuclear and solar power. I also welcome the research and development that is being done in colleges and universities across north Wales. Coleg Menai in my constituency is central to that work. Decommissioning projects have gone ahead, with money set aside to train people for the future. As one wave of energy regeneration closes down, investment in skills as a result of money from decommissioning has gone into jobs for the future.
I have previously raised the matter with the Minister because I feel strongly about it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn was right to highlight the importance of the Siemens investment in Hull. As I have said many times, Welsh ports are losing out. Other people and I lobbied the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer for money from the £60 million fund to release that blockage and to get money into the ports, but the present Government decided that Wales would not benefit, other than consequentially. Ports are a reserved matter and the United Kingdom should look at all its ports equally. We are losing out because there is lack of investment in Welsh ports. Hull is developing and that is good for the United Kingdom, but I want Holyhead in the west to develop too. That would be good for Wales, for north Wales and for the United Kingdom.
Previous speakers have rightly talked about the balance between industrial development and food, farming and tourism. That balance is extremely important, because those sectors are major contributors to the north Wales economy. I recently opened a £7 million upgrade at the Glanbia cheese factory at Llangefni in my constituency. Hon. Members may eat Domino pizzas, and the toppings are likely to have been produced in my constituency. High-tech, well-paid jobs use locally sourced resources. The cheese factory uses locally sourced milk, it is a good employer and it helps to produce a UK and international brand. Those jobs are worth while.
Last Friday, I visited Llandudno to attend the Welsh Labour party’s successful conference. More importantly, my mother-in-law lives there. She has worked in the hotel and leisure industry throughout her working life. She has contributed as a self-trader and business woman for many years. It is always good to go back to Llandudno to see her. I wanted to put that on the record because mother’s day has passed and I should probably have been there on Sunday, but I was there over the weekend.
I held a round-table discussion with hoteliers at Dylan’s restaurant, which is a fantastic new facility on Anglesey employing some 40 people. It brought together farmers, hoteliers, restaurateurs and people involved in tourism alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), the shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We understand the importance to the region of the rural economy and jobs. Talking specifically about the tourism industry, I believe that there is an opportunity for the UK Government to consider reducing VAT in the hospitality and tourism sector. That call comes not just from politicians but from the business sector. Someone contacted me about the importance of doing so. They wanted to upgrade and to invest in their business.
I am happy to take an intervention if my hon. Friend wants to make one, but other hon. Members want to speak, and some hon. Members have spoken for a long time. We need to make the case for the tourism sector in north-west Wales.
The Governments in the Republic of Ireland and in France, our near neighbours, have reduced VAT to stimulate the economy. A campaigning group has carried out a study which shows that a cut in VAT in the first year would result in a loss to the Treasury, but would be cost-neutral in the second year, and result in profit thereafter.
Labour Members, particularly the hon. Gentleman, continue to use the example of France, where 1 million jobs have been destroyed. Here in the UK, more than 1 million jobs have been created, so he should be wary of harking back to the French example.
The Minister is being selective, because the majority of European countries have cut VAT. We are out of sync with many of our competitors. The Republic of Ireland is a great example of a country that is coming out of recession because it has provided a stimulus for small businesses. The Government should take that on board as we come out of recession.
My final comments are about borrowing. Yesterday, we had a long debate on the Wales Bill. It is important to have borrowing powers, and not just for the M4 relief road. We need relief roadworks in north Wales, particularly in my constituency around the Menai bridges, where there is a huge problem that delays traffic on both sides. That affects not just local traffic but visitors. I want Anglesey, north Wales and Wales to be a centre of attraction for high-quality jobs in rural and urban areas. I want that centre to be a place where people want to work, live and invest. Do not take my word for the fact that it is a beautiful place, Mr Hollobone—come and visit. Come and join the people who want to come to north Wales. It is a unique corridor between England and the Republic of Ireland and a place to do business. I want Governments to work together at all levels as we, the politicians in this debate, want to work together for the benefit of our constituents.
It is a pleasure to follow the poetic rhetoric of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and it is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) on his speech. I will not repeat many of the things he said because he gave an excellent exposition on north Wales and I accept his speech in its entirety.
Mr Hollobone, you should visit the Pontcysyllte and Chirk aqueducts in the constituency of my good friend—
Order. Several references have been made to the question of whether I have been to north Wales. I have been there many times, and on a Territorial Army exercise I swam across the reservoir at Pontcysyllte and camped on the beach at Penmaenmawr. I know the area extremely well and I recommend that tourists visit it.
We have an endorsement at the highest level. I will say no more about tourism, except that north Wales is a beautiful part of the world and tourism is an important part of its economy.
Although I promote north Wales as much as any hon. Member, I want to speak about job losses in Wrexham. We have had a difficult six months. We lost more than 500 jobs at Sharp Manufacturing UK in February, only two months ago. We lost 140 jobs at Kellogg’s in Wrexham, and just outside, in south Clwyd, more than 200 jobs were lost at First Milk. This is a positive part of the world and I will talk about the positives, but we must bear in mind the fact that substantial, well-paid and valued jobs that have been there for many years are going in our local economy. We must realise that the type of grant aid that was available in Wrexham, for example, in the 1980s and 1990s and which sometimes led to investment from outside the UK and to inward investment is no longer available.
A strong theme in all parties is that we must grow the economy in north Wales from within and develop local investment—I was interested in what the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) said about banking—and mechanisms to support local businesses. We have excellent local businesses.
Only last week, I visited Magellan Aerospace in Wrexham, which is an important part of the supply chain for Airbus: a positive picture was presented and apprentices are being taken on. I was delighted to meet Mr Darryl Wright, a governor at a local school that encourages apprenticeships in the aerospace industry. We will meet some of those apprentices later this week. I am delighted that in Wales we are doing better with apprentices than anywhere in Europe, including England, with the help of the excellent Minister, Ken Skates—he formerly worked for my good and hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami)—whose commitment is showing through and creating an enormous number of apprenticeships.
In our local economy, we must focus on the development not just of physical infrastructure but of colleges such as Coleg Cambria, to support apprenticeships, and Glyndwr university, to develop education within our region. In that way, we can support our local economy and make not just the physical infrastructure but the intellectual infrastructure world beating. The companies that I am talking about—for example, Magellan, which is a Canadian company—do not need to be based in our region and will go there only if it is a world-competitive economy and we provide the infrastructure that enables us to compete.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn made points about the development of the road and rail networks. We absolutely must argue the case for our region at Welsh Government, UK Government and European levels. Unless we do so, we will lose the benefits of those majestic companies that we have in our area. The work being done by the Welsh Government is very positive. One scheme we have not mentioned is Jobs Growth Wales, which is very important. It has been mentioned on many occasions in my constituency by employers. I visited a business the week before last called Fotofire Ltd—I visit businesses a lot in Wrexham and liaise with them closely—and I was told that the scheme had led to the employment of a number of individuals in the business. They had been assessed by the employer, which had then made judgments that they were the right people for the business. That company works in media, in the web industry, and is a home-grown business in Wrexham. It is tremendous to see that sort of business developing. I am pleased that Jobs Growth Wales is making such a positive contribution. If the Minister was to take something on board, he would look at that scheme and consider whether it could be applied across the rest of the UK.
I also want to say a word on finance. A key issue for us is financing the local economy. It is not only about the past five years; it is now seven years since the great economic crash. I attended a meeting last Friday morning of Wrexham business professionals where, again, the issue of access to finance was raised by businesses that are still having problems with our uncompetitive banking system. I have argued over a long period for the development of a model based on the German Sparkassen method, with a banking economy linked to our local industrial economy. Our economy provides 30% of the manufacturing output of Wales. A lot of money and wages is being earned in our local economy, and I believe that the people of north Wales would like to invest in their local economy through models and through a local bank. The Sparkassen method is resilient; it has worked in Germany over many years.
I am delighted that the Labour party has committed itself to regional banking. If we are to have a competitive market that provides finance for local business, I believe that that type of investment needs to come through local banking, with individuals who know the local economy. I wish that the Government would see that current banking methods are not working, that we need to create a more competitive banking system, and that they would look at alternatives that have worked in other places. That would be very welcome for businesses in my constituency and is something I would be keen to promote.
We have a positive picture in north Wales, with some of the caveats that I have indicated. There is an issue relating to wages. I would say that this Government increased VAT—they did not decrease it—taking money out of the pockets of my constituents and putting it straight into the pockets of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at a centralised level. That had a damaging effect on Wrexham and, I am certain, on other communities in Wales. Increasing VAT is a really bad policy, because it takes money out of local economies, and I hope that such a mistake will not be made again.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I could probably speak on this subject for about an hour—obviously my remarks will have to be rather shorter than that—especially as I have in my constituency the one world heritage site in north Wales, the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, but we will not boast about such things.
I would like to concentrate briefly on two things that specifically relate to my constituency, but that have close bearings to the north Wales economy. The first is the tragic closure—the final shift was yesterday—of First Milk in Marchwiel. There were 231 job losses at that plant. Many of the staff who spoke on the matter were extremely gracious in view of the circumstances; they thanked Wrexham county borough council, Careers Wales, the Department for Work and Pensions and other bodies that tried to help them get jobs.
However, my contention is that the original redundancies at the plant should never have happened in the first place. What we saw was a cursory lesson for those who seem to welcome supermarkets as a universal good. I know that the Minister and I, coincidentally, lived in the same London borough at one stage. He may remember that in parts of London there would be large anti-supermarket campaigns whenever a new supermarket was proposed. I am not suggesting that sort of approach, but sometimes in north Wales, I think we go a little too far the other way. With First Milk, we saw the board of Asda ditching an excellent supplier and causing those redundancies. I also think that a lesson can be learnt from that about the existing TUPE arrangements. There is a case to say that even if the plant had to go in the final analysis, the jobs should not have. I leave those thoughts at that.
More positively, I want to discuss Kronospan. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) spoke fantastically at the beginning of the debate about real economic success stories in north Wales. Kronospan is one of those; it is in Chirk and opened in 1970. Its creation came after most of the coal mining tradition in that area had finished. Kronospan is a wood panelling plant and is one of the top 10 manufacturing companies in Wales. It is the largest manufacturer of wood panelling products and laminate flooring in the world and the entire production of wood-based panel products is controlled from Kronospan’s site in my constituency. It employs just under 600 people, 90% of whom live in a 10-mile radius of the site itself.
Kronospan is massively important. It has a thriving apprenticeship programme supported by the Welsh Government, teaching young people real-life employment skills. It works exceptionally well with the local community and works closely with Chirk town council, with which it has a liaison committee. Their joint work has led to fewer lorries and more logs carried by train, among their many other successes.
However, it is not just a good story, and this is where I want the Minister’s help. Kronospan and I are concerned by various incentives in the Government’s renewables obligations and the new Energy Act 2013 to purchase wood for energy generation. I assure him that this is not an anti-biomass move, but we are concerned about some unintended consequences of the Act. We are asking not for special treatment but for a level playing field. We do not want to lose our Welsh Kronospan to another country. I ask the Minister whether he will meet me and representatives from Kronospan to discuss the matter, which is most important to the economy in my constituency and in north Wales.
I start with a few key facts that we may not hear from Conservative Front Benchers, because their election team are too busy running down Wales. They have declared a war on Wales in the run-up to the election.
Welsh unemployment is 6.7%—better than England. Inward investment last year went up 191%, compared with 10% in England. Jobs Growth Wales, which puts young people into training and then employment, only has a 10% dropout rate. In England, the Work programme has a 50% dropout rate. The Prime Minister was caught with his waders down in the recent floods, because in Wales, we have been investing £81 per person in flood defences as opposed to £47 per person in England.
The Prime Minister said that my town of Rhyl is neglected. Let me tell him what neglect means in my town: it means Welsh Government investment of £28 million in housing; £10 million in a new harbour; £22 million in a college; £22 million in a hospital; £12 million in putting people back to work through Rhyl city strategy; and £11 million in flood defences. Let me tell him about neglect: neglect is when his Government are closing the tax office in Rhyl; the Crown courts in Rhyl; the Crown post office in Rhyl; and the army recruitment centre in Rhyl.
I pay tribute to the work that the Welsh Government have done. They have invested £1.4 billion in education, helping the Welsh economy get back on its feet and helping Welsh children to get a decent education. That includes £159 million in the Minister’s county of Pembrokeshire. I pay tribute to the work that Huw Lewis, as Education Minister, is doing in masterminding that, and to the work of Jane Hutt, who has had a positive engagement with Europe—£1.86 billion will be drawn down over the next five years. I also pay tribute to Alun Davies, the floods Minister, who is helping so much to put £240 million of anti-flood investment into the Welsh economy, protecting Welsh homes and Welsh families.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) on securing the debate, which has been excellent, and on making a very good and full opening speech. I do not wish to repeat all of that; nor do I wish to dwell too long on the issue of transport infrastructure, as we had a debate about it last November, but it is crucial that we have joined-up thinking UK-wide whenever we talk about transport infrastructure. We have to be certain that north Wales is fully connected not just to Crewe but to the north-west of England more generally—to the Liverpool and Manchester airports, and then across the trans-Pennine route to the north-east. It is also vital that we are part of joined-up thinking across Europe and that people can go right through to Holyhead and across to Ireland. Transport infrastructure remains extremely important, and I hope that the Minister will continue to stress both that and the need for investment and careful thought about how we can link the north Wales economy to the rest of the economy of the UK.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) mentioned the skills sector. The point was reiterated by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who spoke about the recent investment by the Welsh Government in that sector, particularly with respect to the energy sector. The hon. Member for Aberconwy also mentioned the reluctance of the banks to lend. That point was picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who explained the important way in which we could use a regional banking system, which would take money from the local economy and put it back into the local economy. It would make money available for local businesses to grow organically in their home towns, thereby securing that investment for many years to come. That point was broadly echoed in the call by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) for a return to something like the Welsh Development Agency, the demise of which he much regretted. Those were important points about growing the local economy.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy also referred to the modern crowdfunding for a local coffee shop and stressed the importance of the food sector.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd talked about small businesses, and I certainly enjoyed meeting people from small businesses when they came to this place. He also mentioned the issue of the low-wage economy and asked what the Labour party policy was. Our policy is clearly that we very much want to incentivise employers to move up to paying the living wage by giving them a tax break to do so. While they were getting that tax break, we would obviously be saving on the additional tax credits that would have to be paid if people were paid less than the living wage.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned zero-hours contracts. He knows full well that zero-hours contracts are zero-rights contracts. One of the key issues is that if people do not have a proper contract, they have no rights at all. We have said clearly that where there is abuse of zero-hours contracts when people are working on a regular basis, they need to be issued with proper contracts rather than being kept in that awful situation of having insecurity not only from week to week but about whether they will even keep their job. He also mentioned the need to increase the spend on tourism—in other words, to try to attract in more money per person than we have in the past.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn talked about the huge investment in the nuclear sector on his island and the importance of that to the north Wales economy, but also about the importance of wind and solar investment. Again, he mentioned the importance of skills for the energy sector. He also made a key point about ports. I know that the Minister would not like to appear partisan; he would not like to appear to be looking for money just for his own constituency port. I ask him to take up my hon. Friend’s point that we did have money secured for ports that is now not coming to the Welsh ports. If the Minister could take the point up with the Treasury and see whether he can do something for investment in the ports in Wales, that would be a welcome outcome of the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) mentioned job losses. That point was emphasised strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham—we have seen significant job losses in Wrexham. That brings me to the two major points that I want to make today. One is about the importance of giving a strong and clear message that we are fully committed to staying in the EU. I serve on the European Scrutiny Committee, and believe you me, Mr Hollobone, there are members of that Committee who wish not only to renegotiate the Lisbon treaty and go back to the Maastricht treaty, but to renegotiate the 1972 accession treaty. Those are the sorts of messages that people in Asia are getting, which is extremely damaging. If we look at the Welsh economy, we see that 150,000 jobs in Wales depend on our membership of the EU.
The uncertainty is worrying for existing firms that want to invest. They are thinking, “Shall we invest further in the UK, or play safe and invest in the Netherlands, Germany or France—in mainland Europe, where we know we will be okay and will not suddenly find ourselves outside the EU?” The uncertainty also deters new investors, particularly from outside the EU, who want access to that market. They do not want to invest in a part of the EU that might suddenly not be there any more. They do not want to think that they might face tariffs of anything from 5% to 200%. Nor do new investors want to be left out of the negotiations on the EU-US treaty. They do not want to be in a country if the head of that country is not at the negotiating table and is not at the centre of the negotiations on what will happen in the EU in future.
It is concerning that we hear all these noises and that there is talk of uncertainty right up until 2017, with the issue of a referendum hanging over people. There is a real worry about whether we will get investment in jobs in Wales, and whether there will be certainty for the companies that are currently there and for new companies to come in. Of course, that is not to mention the huge support for the agricultural sector in north Wales through the common agricultural policy, or the European structural funds, which help north-west Wales. That uncertainty is one of the key factors in this debate, and I hope that the Minister will take back that message to his party.
The other point on which we want certainty is industrial policy on energy prices and on what is happening to things such as the carbon price floor. The Chancellor has now put in a freeze, but it is rather late in the day. Manufacturers are still concerned, because they see that a unilateral tax was imposed by the UK Government and they then had to go to the EU to try to get some state aid funding to mitigate it.
The Minister says from a sedentary position that we supported it. We did not support it at the level at which the Government set it. What is important is that we try to get some help in as soon as possible, rather than having to wait another two or three years, because that will be vital for investment in some of our industries and for whether they will be able to stay in north Wales.
We have mentioned on a number of occasions the failure of the banks—the way they change their terms and conditions and do no service to many of the small businesses in our region—and the work that needs to be done to increase bank lending and foster a much more positive attitude towards local businesses.
I would like to finish by mentioning the importance of borrowing. Borrowing is important to the Welsh Government and it is important for investment in north Wales. We very much support the measures in the Wales Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, on the issue of borrowing. We hope that the Minister will not only facilitate the interim funding that is supposed to come to south Wales, but ensure that the mechanisms are in place for borrowing by the Welsh Government to improve the economy of north Wales. That will mean that we can have a vibrant economy that is supported by investment on the English side in transport infrastructure and mechanisms that will help north Wales, and on the Welsh Government’s side by investment in transport and broadband infrastructure. In that way, we can have a flourishing north Wales economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to follow the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) on securing this important debate, and for the positive, constructive and intelligent way in which he set out his case. He emphasised the positive aspects of what is going on in Wales and the need to do more to secure the future of the excellent developments and facilities that he talked about so eloquently.
This morning, more people than ever before in north Wales went out to work. When we came into office in 2010, the overall employment level in north Wales was at a nine-year low. Over the past four years, notwithstanding the remarks of some Opposition Members, we have seen some really healthy growth in the labour market across Wales, but particularly in north Wales. Unemployment across north Wales is 6.3%, which is lower than the Welsh average and lower than the UK average.
One of the pleasures and privileges of my job at the Wales Office is that I get the opportunity to go out across Wales. Some of the most exciting, interesting and encouraging things that I see in the economy in Wales are happening in north Wales, so I concur with all the positive remarks made by Opposition Members about what is happening in the north Wales economy. I underline that we are seeing a sustained fall in unemployment. During the previous Parliament, unemployment in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) increased by 50%, but it has fallen by 10% since 2010. In Delyn, unemployment increased by 110% over the five years of the previous Parliament, but since 2010 it has come down by 17%. Of course, we want that to progress and go further, but the trend is positive. I will say a little more about that in a moment.
The right hon. Member for Delyn made an urgent point about Creative Foods. We are aware of that situation and have had a discussion about it at the Wales Office. In that case, as in the case of First Milk, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), and of the recent announcement by Avana bakeries in Newport, the Wales Office engaged closely with the companies to see what we could do, in conjunction with Welsh Government colleagues. It is no accident that all three of those companies, which announced significant job losses, are in the food sector. The hon. Member for Clwyd South raised an important question about supermarkets creating vulnerabilities for the food sector in Wales, and that is something that we should explore on another occasion. I reassure the right hon. Member for Delyn that we are certainly engaged on that matter.
Returning to the subject of jobs growth, there is positive growth across Wales, and particularly in north Wales. The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) said that the important thing was the quality of jobs, not the quantity. In fact, the quantity of jobs is important, because one of the ways in which we can drive up wage levels is by creating more job competition. More competition for job opportunities drives up the wages that employers will offer.
It is worth pointing out that over the past three years, average wage levels in north Wales have increased by more than 6%. They are not back to where we want them to be. There was a huge destruction of value in the economy following the crash of 2008, which happened on the watch of the Labour Government, and that fed through to wage levels. Real wage levels fell for people right across the country. With the recovery, wage levels are starting to creep back up. Of course they are not where we want them to be, but there is progress. Average wage levels in Wales are increasing at twice the rate of inflation, which also happens to be at a four-year low. There is positive growth.
I am not disputing the fact that the situation as regards wages and jobs across Wales is patchy. Of course it will be, during the early stages of a recovery, but the trend is positive and will continue, bringing in new investment and creating more jobs.
As Members in all parts of the Chamber have highlighted, manufacturing is one of the bright points of the Welsh economy; there is the involvement of companies such as Airbus, Kimberly Clark—in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Delyn—and Kronospan. Growth has not simply been generated by a housing bubble in the south-east, as the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) argued in debate last night. There is real, balanced growth across all sectors in Wales.
On energy costs for manufacturers, the package of measures announced in the Budget by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was welcomed widely across the manufacturing sector in Wales, particularly by the energy-intensive industries that are so heavily represented in the Welsh economy. The measures directly address the concerns that the industry has raised with us. Companies such as Kronospan and Kimberly Clark are classified as energy-intensive industries and will benefit directly from that package.
Will the Minister do everything he can to bring forward those measures? The message from the industry is that it does not want to have to wait one or two years; it would like help sooner. We would be most grateful for anything that he could do in that respect.
We are taking action. We are making available £240 million. We can make those substantial resources available only because of difficult decisions that we have taken to cut the deficit and to put the national finances back in order—measures that the hon. Lady opposed on every single opportunity over the past three or four years. We are taking action where we can, and those measures have been welcomed by industry across Wales.
I move on to transport, which quite a few Members have mentioned. We at the Wales Office totally understand the concerns and the desire for electrification of the north Wales main line. That is something that the Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), is personally very engaged in, and on which we are in close dialogue and discussion with the Welsh Government and the Department for Transport. The right hon. Member for Delyn is quite right, because electrification of the north Wales main line and the development of the High Speed 2 hub at Crewe will open a hugely expanded range of opportunities for travel and for the economy of north Wales. That is something that we very much support.
I cannot offer any immediate good news on the Halton curve, which has been mentioned more than once this morning. The UK Government have no immediate plans to reopen that section of line, but we want to hear the arguments. If the right hon. Gentleman is engaged in work on the business case for reopening the Halton curve, I would like to see that, and I am happy to facilitate discussions with the Department for Transport where possible.
On the point about ports, we have discussed before the £60 million fund that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) raised. I salute him for the work that he does in championing not only his local port, but the port sector across Wales. The fund that was announced was an economic development fund designed to attract wind turbine manufacturing to port areas. He will be aware that economic development is devolved to the Welsh Government, so the Welsh Government received the Barnett consequentials of that £60 million fund. They received the resources, so if it had been a priority for them, they could have initiated something similar for Wales.
The Minister is trying to say that that is an economic issue, but the Government changed the rules because they were worried about the impact of state aid rules. On port development, will he join me in condemning Stena Line, which is talking about changing wages and conditions instead of investing in the ports of west Wales—something that I know he is greatly concerned about? Stena Line wants to cut wages and conditions and race to the bottom, rather than investing for the future.
No, I will not join in criticising Stena. I met with the company recently, and it faces a really tough battle to stay competitive and keep those services. It is a good company that has invested in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in mine. We have to work with it to see that it continues to make that investment.
The question of Europe was raised by several Opposition Members, and I repeat what I said at Wales Office questions last week: the vast majority of businesses across the UK and in Wales strongly support our desire for a change in our relationship with Europe regarding the level of regulation and the burden of cost that our membership places on the private sector. Businesses do not want to rush headlong to the exit and leave the European Union, but they want change. That is backed up by comments made by those who run the Institute of Directors, the British Chambers of Commerce and the CBI.
The point about multinationals being based in Wales and using it as a springboard into the European Union is important. I received a letter this morning from one of those multinationals, in which it welcomes the action that we have taken on energy costs but raises concerns about a regulation at the European level. Small and large businesses in Wales understand our issue with the European Union, and they support the action that the Prime Minister is taking to reduce costs and the burden of regulation for Wales.
In the few seconds that I have remaining, I again thank the right hon. Member for Delyn for securing the debate. I look forward to discussing the issues again in future.
Order. I thank all Members who took part in that very interesting debate. Will those who are not staying for the next debate please leave quickly and quietly? We now move on to the important subject of Government support for grassroots football. I call Mr David Crausby.