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House of Lords Hansard
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Brexit: North-East of England
09 May 2018
Volume 791

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to undertake further work on the impact of Brexit on the economy of the north-east of England.

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My Lords, we are committed to getting the best possible deal for the United Kingdom, a deal that works for all parts of the UK, including the north-east. The Government are undertaking a wide range of analyses, looking at the implications of UK withdrawal from the EU. We continue to engage with businesses and industry bodies from all sectors of the economy and all regions and nations of the UK in order to inform our negotiations.

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My Lords, only a year or so ago the Brexit Secretary was saying that he could get a deal that would deliver exactly the same benefits as those we enjoy under EU membership, yet we now know from the Government’s impact assessments, which they sought to hide from us in February, that the picture is very different. The north-east, in particular, is forecast to be the worst hit, taking an 11% hit to its economy even under the Government’s preferred approach and, if we exit without a deal, incurring an 18% hit. These figures have been backed by the London School of Economics, Birmingham University, the Durham University Business School and others. So the question is very simple and straightforward: does the Minister accept his Government’s assessment of the situation and the consequences of his approach to Brexit on the region of the country that both he and I belong to?

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Of course, I share with the noble Baroness ambitions for the north-east of England. I thought she was being unduly pessimistic. She might have recognised that unemployment in the north-east is down to 5.2%, the lowest rate for 40 years. The north-east economy is doing extremely well. It is an exporting area: exporting to Europe, yes of course, but also to other parts of the world. We are committed to getting the best possible deal for frictionless trade. The analysis that she referred to was an incomplete analysis. Importantly, it did not analyse the type of deal we are seeking, which is a full and comprehensive free trade agreement, the most ambitious anywhere in the world, with the EU.

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My Lords, does my noble friend welcome the proposal from Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of Teesside, for a free trade zone in that area, and other exciting ideas that are being developed for the north-east?

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It is an excellent idea put forward by Conservative colleagues in the region who are setting the agenda for the north-east becoming a global manufacturing hub exporting to all parts of the world. I think it is an excellent proposal and we are looking at it very closely.

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My Lords, is the Minister aware that a few days ago the Business Secretary spoke in the north-east of England and said that he favoured,

“a soft Brexit that does not hurt businesses in the region”.

He advocated a trading relationship free of tariffs and free of frictions. Does the Minister agree with the Business Secretary? Will he tell the House how the Government plan to achieve this outside the single market and a customs union?

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Of course, the Business Secretary comes from the north-east of England, as does the noble Lord. I totally agree with him that we want an agreement that brings the lowest possible tariffs—if possible, no tariffs at all—and frictionless free trade. That is good for the north-east, as it is for all parts of the United Kingdom.

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My Lords, we have been pouring money into the north-east ever since Lord Hailsham went up there in his cloth cap and I fought Emanuel Shinwell in the 1960s in Easington, and yet nothing much seems to change. Surely that can only get better after Brexit.

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Things are getting better for the north-east of England. I cited the unemployment figures. I would have thought that the Labour Party, as the party that is traditionally supposed to be concerned about these issues, would have welcomed—I will repeat it—the lowest unemployment for 40 years. It is a record that the coalition Government and the Conservative Government should be proud of. The area is booming under a Conservative Government.

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My Lords, whenever the Government attack on the economy, they always cite the employment figures. They seem to have forgotten their elementary economics. Employment is a lagging indicator, reflecting demand for labour in the past. If they looked at current and leading indicators such as growth and investment intentions, they would see a very bleak picture. As the Minister no doubt knows, growth is less than 0.5%, whereas it is 3% on average in the European Union. The most recent CBI Investment Intentions Survey showed that 48% of companies had cut back their investment intentions from two years ago and only 2% had increased them. These are very serious matters. Do the Government not look at these matters and think that they are in some way responsible for the decline in the British economy as a result of their disastrous Brexit policies? If not, what is the cause of this divergence between our economic experience and that of the rest of the European Union?

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My Lords, I make no apologies for talking about our record levels of employment in a region of which I am proud to be a part. I am sorry that the noble Lord does not seem to recognise that. Unemployment is continuing to fall. There are record levels of investment. Last year, Nissan announced a new £57 million investment in the region, to last for 25 years. It said it was going to continue to produce cars in the region for many years to come. The region is booming; it is doing well. Unemployment is falling, and I am sorry that the Labour Party does not want to recognise that.

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My Lords, the Minister sought to rubbish the figures given by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, on the basis that they represented an incomplete analysis. Can he tell the House whether the Government have produced a complete analysis and, if so, what does it show?

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I did not rubbish the noble Baroness’s figures. They are contributing to the debate. I said it was an incomplete analysis and did not model the preferred economic outcome that we are seeking. We are continuing to conduct a range of economic analyses of all exit scenarios for all parts of the United Kingdom, and we will share all the appropriate analysis with Parliament when we have negotiated a final deal.

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My Lords, is my noble friend aware, apart from the fact that the short-term economic forecasts put out by Project Fear have already been proven to be false, that serious academic studies have shown that medium and long-term economic forecasts are not worth the paper they are written on? Is he aware that I was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time that Nissan had to decide where it was going to put its European headquarters? I remember the discussions very well, and Nissan was not at all concerned about our membership of the European Union. It was concerned about the quality of the workforce, our regulatory system and, above all, our tax system. It decided to come to this country, which has been a huge success for it.

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The people of the north-east of England will be profoundly in debt to the noble Lord and of course to Baroness Thatcher for the role that they played in bringing Nissan to the north-east in the first place. The Labour Party might want to disparage that, but it was another tremendous achievement for the region, carried out under a Conservative Government. As a resident of the north-east, I am grateful to the noble Lord, as are many other people. I am sorry that opposition Peers want to laugh at him for that.

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Will the Minister join me in saluting the wisdom and shrewdness of the people of the north-east who, generation after generation, have sent huge numbers of fine Labour MPs to the House of Commons and who voted 58% to leave the European Union?

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I can agree with the noble Lord’s latter point, but am maybe not so keen on his former one.