The House only needs to look at the £16 million recently given to Meritor in Cwmbran, or the £30 million given to Celsa at the beginning of the pandemic, to see our commitment to Welsh manufacturing. The Government have provided over £11.35 billion in direct and indirect support for businesses in Wales to tackle the pandemic.
The news in recent days that the Serious Fraud Office has launched an investigation into Liberty Steel will be really concerning for workers in Newport and Tredegar, and for all of us who want to see a rescue deal. However, given that global steel production is actually increasing, the industry can clearly be viable and it is, of course, critical to our supply chain infrastructure for so many industries. May I therefore urge the Government to come forward in the next few days with a clear plan and to confirm that they will do whatever it takes, including the option of public ownership, to secure UK domestic steel capacity and the jobs they support, including in my constituency of Warwick and Leamington?
I am sure the hon. Member will understand if I do not get drawn into any questions about Liberty, particularly given the case he mentions, but I hope he will be reassured by the fact that my earlier reference to Celsa—we were able to step in at short notice and help a company for exactly the reasons that he rightly points out—is a demonstration of exactly how committed we are to a sustainable steel industry in Wales.
Way back in 2012, in the good old days, the Conservative-led Government promised to build a western rail link to Heathrow that would benefit not only my Slough constituents, but the many Welsh businesses and families who would have a shorter, more direct route to our major national transport hub. So can the Secretary of State tell us when we can finally expect work to begin on that line? Can he also guarantee that Welsh and other UK steel manufacturers will be at the front of the queue when the line is being built?
I would be a beneficiary of that line, so I am with the hon. Member in terms of our ambition to always try to improve on our infrastructure links. It is good for the economy and particularly good for the supply chain economy, as he rightly points out. Plenty of businesses in Wales could benefit from that. I hope the recent announcement on procurement in the Queen’s Speech will give him and others encouragement that we are taking that extremely seriously.
North Wales is part of an integrated cross-border economy that stretches from Wrexham and Flintshire to my constituency on the banks of the Mersey. Covid-19 has devasted key local manufacturers across the area, including the Vauxhall car plant in Ellesmere Port and many companies located in the Deeside enterprise zone. Can the Secretary of State inform the House what steps the Government are taking to expedite the proposed Mersey Dee Alliance fiscal stimulus package, which will help manufacturers across north-east Wales and the Wirral to build back better and greener in the wake of this terrible pandemic?
I hope I can give the hon. Gentleman some encouragement. We are enthusiastic about the Mersey Dee Alliance and everything it stands for. We are keen to continue to work with it, looking at ways of recognising that the economic area stretches way beyond the geographical borders of Wales and England—we absolutely recognise that point. We are determined to make sure we get further progress and deliver on some of the commitments we made on manufacturing and other industries in Deeside that he referred to.
The Port Talbot and Bridgend area could lend itself fantastically to the establishment of the UK Government’s first freeport in Wales, creating up to 15,000 jobs in the process. Does my right hon. Friend have an update on this initiative in Wales, and can he confirm whether the UK Government will start the freeport process alone if the Welsh Government continue to ignore this fantastic opportunity?
My hon. Friend is right to point out how enthusiastically the freeport scheme has been welcomed across the whole of Wales, and it is a source of some frustration that we have yet to get it over the line. He is right to ask whether we could do that. Clearly, we would like to do it in collaboration with the Welsh Government, which is where the blockage currently resides, but we can and, if necessary, will proceed to deliver on our manifesto commitment come what may.
Trade agreements with other countries can provide new opportunities to promote our excellent Welsh manufacturers around the world, but we must ensure that these deals do not end up undercutting our industries in the process. The Welsh Automotive Forum has said that current trading arrangements between the UK and Europe are leading to disruption to Welsh companies due to new checks on imports and rules of origin, and I have heard that from local companies in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, too. What has the Secretary of State done personally to address this and will he guarantee that Welsh agricultural producers do not lose out from the proposed deal with Australia?
We have regular meetings with the automotive sector, and with stakeholders, the supply chain and others, to try to ascertain exactly what the issues are and how they can be speedily resolved, so we are engaged on that level. As for the rumours about the Australia free trade agreement, I should point out that no deal has been done, but if and when it is done, it will include protections for the agricultural industry and it will not undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards.