The Welsh economy approaches EU exit from a very strong position. Since the vote to leave the EU we have seen economic inactivity continue to fall in Wales while employment has risen to a record high. Businesses continue to show confidence in the economy, with new investment across the UK fundamental to prosperity in Wales.
Wealth inequality in the British state hits Wales hard, with Welsh gross value added just scraping 71.4% of the UK average. EU structural funds have been key to combating this home-grown unfairness. Will the Minister guarantee today continued future UK funding to replace in full the lost EU regional money?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue, and I would say that Wales has been the fastest growing part of the UK outside London since 2010. She makes an important point in relation to the future of structural funds. She will also appreciate that they are meant to be a short-term boost to the economy, but after 16 years and after £4 billion has been spent, west Wales and the valleys have 64% of UK GVA. I am sure we need to use this opportunity to be positive and do something better with similar structural support.
Does the Secretary of State’s answer to that last question imply the Government intend to change the agreed priorities for the spending of the structural funds?
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate both that his constituency has experienced some significant falls in unemployment since 2010 and that after all that money has been spent those areas voted in the strongest numbers to leave the EU. The point I am making is that the current programme has not worked and has not fitted those communities. Exiting the EU presents an ideal opportunity to revisit this and look to see what we can do better for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and other communities in Wales in need.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Wales voted clearly for Brexit and they do not need to be represented by the SNP or the Welsh Assembly Government who are ignoring their views, but will be pleased to have a Conservative Government and an excellent Secretary of State for Wales who will carry out their wishes?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments, but of course we have a close and constructive working relationship with the Welsh Government and all devolved Administrations because it is in our interests to get the strongest deal for the whole of the UK. After all, as my hon. Friend will recognise, the most important market for Welsh business is the UK market, and getting the best deal for the whole of the UK is in all our interests.
The automotive and aerospace sectors are of enormous strategic importance for the Welsh economy. Given that Brexit probably will not mean retaining full membership of the single market, will my right hon. Friend nevertheless commit to do everything he can to retain full single market-style benefits for those critically important sectors in the Welsh economy?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. He recognises the strength of the automotive and aerospace sectors, and I would point to some significant major investments the UK has landed. We are all familiar with Nissan investment in Sunderland, but it is equally important to the Welsh economy—Calsonic Kansei in Llanelli is a supplier to Nissan in Sunderland. We want to maintain the most open market arrangements, and the confidence shown by Nissan demonstrates it understands the priority we are placing on that.
This week Hybu Cig Cymru, the Farmers’ Union of Wales and NFU Cymru have all made the overwhelming case in favour of tariff-free access to the EU for our world-class Welsh red meat. What is the Minister doing to ensure the voice of agriculture is heard in government?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), was at the winter fair in Builth Wells yesterday in Llanelwedd where he met the FUW and the NFU. We are in close dialogue with the farming unions in Wales and across the whole of the UK. Clearly Welsh agriculture is an important part of the Welsh economy and of our export market, and we want to maintain the most open trading relationship possible in its interest.
Welsh agriculture is spectacularly successful in EU markets; 93% of our excellent Welsh beef and lamb exports go to EU countries. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure French, Italian, Spanish and German people continue to eat Welsh meat in the future?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I too want to ensure that those across the European Union and elsewhere have the opportunity to benefit from the excellent produce that comes from Wales, including Welsh beef and Welsh lamb. We want to be global leaders in free trade. We also want the most open trading relationship with Europe that we can possibly get, and that is our determination and focus in our negotiations.
I ran a manufacturing business in south Wales for 13 years, and it is a great place to do business. We manufactured and sold all over the world. Does the Secretary of State agree that the fall in the pound as a result of the Brexit vote makes it much easier for Welsh exporters to increase their sales?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, because it gives me the opportunity to highlight the fact that Wales now has 37,000 more manufacturing jobs than in 2010. That demonstrates the strength and vibrancy of the Welsh economy. Clearly we want to do all we can to support our manufacturers. The value of the pound will have positive results for some businesses and perhaps present challenges for others, but those exporters who want to grow are clearly in a stronger position.
The Secretary of State referred earlier to the importance of the automotive industry in Wales. Ford announced in September that it would guarantee around a third of the jobs in its 1,800-strong workforce at Bridgend. Those jobs are vital to the local community and to the supply chain in Wales, but we are still concerned about the lack of commitment post-2020. The lack of any plan from the Government for Brexit is exacerbating the uncertainty and causing doubts about the plant’s future, so will the Secretary of State today commit his Government to giving Ford the same deal that they gave to Nissan in order to secure the future of the Bridgend plant and Ford’s presence in the UK post-Brexit?
The hon. Lady has raised an important point. My understanding of the situation is that Ford is continuing with more than £100 million-worth of new investment in the plant. That demonstrates the confidence that Ford has, not only in the Bridgend plant but in the UK economy. This builds on the strength of the automotive sector, which is extremely important to the Welsh economy and to the UK economy as a whole.
The Welsh economy remains fundamentally strong, highly competitive and open for business. We are part of a strong United Kingdom, and leaving the EU offers Wales an unprecedented opportunity to forge a new role for ourselves in the world, to negotiate our own trade agreements and to reap the benefits of foreign investment.
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the First Minister about the potential loss of links and connections that have been built up through organisations such as the European Committee of the Regions, and how will he seek to maintain those connections after Brexit?
The Welsh Government and I have a warm working relationship. Only last week, two Secretaries of State and two other Ministers met at the British-Irish Council that took place in my own constituency of Vale of Glamorgan. Of course we have strong bilateral relationships, and it is right that we use the Joint Ministerial Council to form the basis of the negotiations as we exit the European Union. I want to maintain the warmest and most constructive relationship possible with the Welsh Government, with all the devolved Administrations and with the Crown dependencies.
But does my right hon. Friend accept that this is not just about manufacturing, and that it is not only the exporters of Welsh Black beef who are important? One of the biggest exports for Wales is tourism. People tell me that, with the lower value of the pound, there are more foreign visitors in Snowdonia than ever before and that overseas companies are making more inward investment in Welsh hotels and marketing.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Wales has a fantastic record of attracting inward investment projects. He has focused on tourism, which gives me the opportunity to highlight the fact that north Wales has been named by Lonely Planet as the fourth top place in the world to visit in 2017. It is the only part of the United Kingdom to have been chosen, and that is something that we should celebrate and market to ensure that more people come not only to the UK but to north Wales.
Inward investment is a key driver of decisions to invest in particular areas, and the manufacturing powerhouse of north-east Wales needs inward investment not only from the private sector but from the Government. Will the Secretary of State put his money where his mouth is and commit the UK Government to matching Welsh Government investment in new infrastructure, including road and rail, in north-east Wales?
The hon. Gentleman shows a close interest in the Mersey Dee area and has shown particular interest in the north Wales growth deal, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor mentioned in the autumn statement. We are keen to progress it and are waiting for details of the bid. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the major success of that part of the world being chosen for the global F-35 repair centre, which will inject billions of pounds over decades into north-east Wales and MOD Sealand. We should recognise and celebrate that.
More than £2 billion of capital investment has been made over the past decade across Wales in social housing, transport, energy, water and education through the European Investment Bank. What plans has the Secretary of State put in place to mitigate the potentially disastrous consequences of leaving the EU on pre-existing EIB loans to organisations and public bodies in Wales? Crucially, what plans does he have to replace the funding that the EIB has been able to provide?
Our negotiations with the EIB will run in parallel with our negotiations with the European Commission. The hon. Lady has a responsibility to try to instil confidence in investment in Wales, not to undermine it. Only last week, the Chancellor announced a further capital injection of £436 million. I would hope that the hon. Lady would want to welcome that, not undermine investment, employment and jobs—it really does not become her.