Welsh Grand Committee

Read or watch Jonathan's contribution to the Welsh Grand Committee today.

Jonathan Edwards MP

It is a huge privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, particularly while speaking the language of heaven for the first time in the House. I hope that this principle will be extended to other Committees of the House, such as the Welsh Affairs Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Monmouth.

We meet today to discuss the dreadfully disappointing Budget. The OBR’s analysis was truly depressing: for the second Budget on the bounce, it downgraded forecasts for business investment, productivity and economic growth. The philosophy of expansionary fiscal contraction pursued by the Treasury since 2010 has completely failed. Austerity and cuts to public investment were supposed to lead to a bonanza in private enterprise and investment—that was the whole point—but of course, as we consistently warned, the reverse happened, together with cuts in infrastructure investment. All that led to chronic productivity levels—indeed, that is main story for the UK.

The chronic productivity challenge that the UK faces was the major issue in the Budget. The situation that we find ourselves in was of course totally foreseeable.

The end result was that the Treasury missed its debt and deficit targets by a country mile. That was all supposed to be under control by 2015. It was supposed to be a five-year project, but it looks like further fiscal contraction will now continue until the end of the next decade. Economic historians of the future will not look kindly on the UK Government. We face a lost generation in terms of living standards. According to the Resolution Foundation, the biggest squeeze since the Napoleonic wars is likely to continue until at least 2025. Of course, that came about as a result of the collapse of sterling.

According to economists, the collapse in the currency represents the least successful devaluation in history. Unlike the devaluation in China, which was driven by the People’s Bank of China to make the manufacturing sector competitive, the devaluation of sterling was a direct result of markets betting against the currency, which does not reflect well on what will happen following Brexit. The fact that there has been no export boom following the devaluation of the currency—as well as the fact that the currency has not rebounded after more than a year of promises, and with the British Government outlining their position on Brexit—does not bode well for the future.

Simon Hoare

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that manufacturing output and exports are at their highest for a decade?

Jonathan Edwards

The export boom that would be expected from a 20% devaluation in sterling has not occurred. That is the factual reality of the situation. The fact that the currency is not rebounding, despite the British Government apparently outlining what they want from the Brexit negotiations, indicates that the markets are betting against the British Government.


Chris Bryant

One of the biggest mistakes that the coalition Government made in 2010 was cutting capital budgets. That meant that we did not have the infrastructure in place that we need for a modern economy. That has hit productivity across the whole country.

Jonathan Edwards

The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point, and I will return to the issues he raises.

Liz Saville Roberts

Does my hon. Friend sympathise with farmers who would expect smaller sheep to sell well on the continent, even though that is not the message that I am hearing from farmers in Meirionnydd?

Jonathan Edwards

That certainly is the case. I was reading something yesterday that said that the price of sheep, and of meats in general, is expected to fall significantly if Wales finds itself outside the customs union. The risks for the agricultural sector in the very near future are huge. Our parliamentary leader raises a very valid point.

Susan Elan Jones

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman about the crisis in agriculture. Does he believe that we are talking about not only farmers, but the broader rural economy, as a result of Brexit? This truly is a crisis, is it not?

Jonathan Edwards

The hon. Lady raises a fundamental point. Agriculture is a focal point for the rural economy. If agriculture suffers, other sectors will suffer, such as tourism and others. I could make a lengthy speech about what needs to be done to protect our agricultural sector, but that might be outside the scope of the Budget. I truly believe that Brexit is such a fundamental point that this Welsh Grand Committee should meet again very soon to discuss the Government’s policy. That is the major challenge facing the Government.

The Chair

I am sure that the Government will have listened to your words. Please carry on.

Jonathan Edwards

To return to the Budget, the UK has fallen from fourth to sixth in the global economic tables; it has lost its triple A credit rating and is the worst-performing economy in the G7. The much-maligned eurozone is growing at a rate that the British economy can only dream of. In the third quarter last year, the Irish economy grew 10.5% year on year, whereas the Welsh economy faces very anaemic growth. As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, following the 2010 crash we did not tackle the structural deficiencies. What happened to the pledges to address sectoral and geographical wealth inequalities? George Osborne talked about that consistently in 2010, but they are now chronic and getting worse. No wonder Conservative Members are no longer parroting their slogan “long-term economic plan”. The truth is that the economy faces serious problems in the short to medium term.

I will resist the temptation to criticise once again the British Government for choosing the most economically damaging Brexit path. The predetermined strategy of leaving both the single market and the customs union will go down in history as an act of callous economic self-harm. It is not just our trade with Europe that will be perilously close to disaster if UK leaves the customs union: new trade deals will be negotiated by the UK Government rather than the EU, and given the UK’s disproportionate reliance on financial services and the power of the City of London lobby, there is a real prospect that the interest of Welsh manufacturing and agriculture will be sacrificed to gain more favourable treatment for the City of London.

Trade negotiations are a bargaining process, a negotiation between two sides. There is no doubt in my mind, looking at the personnel in the Department for International Trade, that their priority in these negotiations will be ensuring maximum access for the London financial sector to the markets of other countries. What will they want? They will want access to our food sector, of course. That will be the obvious trade-off.

A prime example of that is what happened with Chile. There is a European Union trade deal in place at the moment, and despite our protestations that leaving the customs union would result in those third countries wanting to renegotiate their arrangement with the UK, what did the British Government say? “No, it’ll be all the same; it’ll be the status quo, no problem. Nothing will change.” What did Chile want? It wanted enhanced access to our food markets. That is a foretaste of what is facing key sectors of the Welsh economy in Brexit Britannia.

Trade negotiations are a bargaining process, a negotiation between two sides. There is no doubt in my mind, looking at the personnel in the Department for International Trade, that their priority in these negotiations will be ensuring maximum access for the London financial sector to the markets of other countries. What will they want? They will want access to our food sector, of course. That will be the obvious trade-off.

A prime example of that is what happened with Chile. There is a European Union trade deal in place at the moment, and despite our protestations that leaving the customs union would result in those third countries wanting to renegotiate their arrangement with the UK, what did the British Government say? “No, it’ll be all the same; it’ll be the status quo, no problem. Nothing will change.” What did Chile want? It wanted enhanced access to our food markets. That is a foretaste of what is facing key sectors of the Welsh economy in Brexit Britannia.

As was set out in the Welsh Government’s recent paper on trade deals, many of the poorest areas in Wales are the most dependent on either manufacturing or the agricultural industry—areas prime for the UK Government to negotiate away their protections in search of trade deals.

I must make the point that the Welsh Government’s statement on trade yesterday was deeply disappointing, with the First Minister refusing to ensure that the Welsh Government would have a full say in what trade deals were signed in future. The reality that Wales will face as a country is that Wallonia, a region of Belgium, will have greater say over European Union trade deals than Wales will have within the British state over future UK trade deals—

The Chair

Order. I think the hon. Gentleman has got a bit ahead of himself and thinks he has been given the second debate on Brexit and the European Union. We need to stick to the Budget.

Geraint Davies


The Chair

I am sure that the hon. Member for Swansea West is going to intervene on the Budget.

Geraint Davies

On the Budget’s implications for agricultural trade, is the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr aware that the World Trade Organisation struck down and penalised the EU when it said it would not allow hormone-impregnated beef into the EU? Still, the EU has resisted hormone-impregnated beef. Does he not think that, if we stand alone against the United States and it wants to impose hormone-impregnated beef on Welsh consumers, with the WTO behind it, we will have to like it or lump it?


Jonathan Edwards

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The hon. Member for Caerphilly and I were in the United States a few years ago, and we had a very interesting discussion with the food lobby there. I guarantee that it carries a lot of weight, and that is a clear indication of some of the problems we will face in future.

I shall return to the Budget.

Monetary policy is another danger. The ultra-loose monetary policy of the central bank has sustained the economy since 2010, and the area of cheap money will gradually be removed as interest rates begin their journey to normalisation. During that period, economic growth has become even more reliant on consumer spending as a percentage of GDP. Failure to rebalance from an economy sustained by household debt will be a significant barrier in years to come.

Personal debt is reaching the level it was at before the great crash of 2008. That should be of great concern to us all.

Recessions tend to come each decade, which means that nine years after the great financial crash of 2008, we are far nearer the end of the cycle than its beginning. The failure to rebound sharply from the great crash, the failure fundamentally to rebalance sectorally and geographically, and the reliance of the economy on the life support of monetary policy do not bode well for the future.

The failure to rebound quickly from the great recession, the failure to rebalance sectorally and geographically, and the decade-long dependence on the life support of ultra-loose monetary policy do not bode well for the future.

Considering the scale of the challenge, the Finance Bill is in no way fit for purpose. Before addressing some of the measures in the Bill, I will concentrate on some provisions that are sadly missing. The UK economic model, which has been followed for decades by all the establishment parties in Westminster, is based on promoting activity and wealth in London and the south-east of England. The geographical wealth inequality should be a matter of shame for Labour and all politicians in Westminster. Nine of the 10 poorest regions in northern Europe are in Britain, as well as the richest. Unfortunately, west Wales and north Wales are among the poorest. The Treasury’s overriding aim should be to address that shameful record, but nothing in the Finance Bill will seriously get to grips with the challenges facing us.

One consequence of Brexit might be the relocation of London-based financial companies to Paris, Frankfurt or Dublin. Given that, the British Government should focus on other economic sectors, and manufacturing in particular. That should shift the focus away from London to the nations and regions.

First and foremost, Wales should be empowered to create its own economy. It is disgraceful that Scotland and Northern Ireland have stronger financial settlements than Wales. Given that, the Welsh economy will be at severe disadvantage. I cannot understand why politicians from Unionist parties vote in favour of giving more power to Scotland and Northern Ireland, but are unwilling to do so for our own nation. Putting aside the constitutional imbalances, that means that the Welsh Government are less able to intervene in our economy. If we are to have a hard Brexit, a portfolio of taxes should be devolved, including air passenger duty, VAT and corporation tax.

Infrastructure investment should be more evenly spread across Britain. Why should Welsh taxpayers’ money be spent on English projects?

Chris Bryant

We had a vote last week on what we will do about the Palace of Westminster, where lots of people were anxious about us spending so much money in London. Is there not a really important thing we could do for every region of the United Kingdom? After Brexit, we will not have the skills in this country to complete the work on one of our biggest infrastructure projects, so should we not set up a parliamentary apprenticeship scheme so that people can gain those skills in Wales, with every constituency in Wales having someone working on the project here?

Jonathan Edwards

The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point. I did not have the opportunity to make this point during the debate, but I wanted to move Parliament away from London, because that would be a symbol of the need to devolve the British states economically, too. Given that a decision has been made—I congratulate him on getting his amendment to that motion through—we should take every opportunity to ensure that that investment is spread across Britain. There is a real job to be done there, and I look to him to give leadership on that over the next few months, given that he has led the debate for remaining here.

Liz Saville Roberts

On apprenticeships, is it not time for us to get greater clarity on businesses that are headquartered outside Wales but have workers from Wales, with respect to the money that is transferred from the Treasury to Cardiff? In particular, the levy is raised on the four police forces of Wales, which can apply to their wage packets, but it does not come under the responsibility of the Welsh Government and it does not reach the police’s training budgets.

Jonathan Edwards

That is an entirely fair point. Members of our party will return to that point on apprenticeships in policing in this afternoon’s debate on the Floor of the House. The fundamental question we must ask is why Welsh taxpayers’ money should be spent on English projects while the British Government refuse to invest in Welsh projects, and renege on promises such as the electrification of the main line to Swansea. We have heard much about that already. If the British Government want to raise productivity in low-performing areas, they must redirect investment into those areas, rather than throwing everything at London.

It is widely agreed that sustained long-term investment in infrastructure is a prerequisite of economic success. In recent decades, a disproportionate amount of that investment has been made in London and the south-east of England, such as that on HS1, the Jubilee line, the Victoria line, Crossrail 1, Crossrail 2, the M25 and HS2. There has been no comparable investment in any other country or region of the UK. Why? It is due to a number of factors, including the Unionist parties’ London-centric approach. It may also be because of the economic models employed in evaluating such investments.

Given the concentration of employment in London, the short-term return on every pound invested in infrastructure is likely to be higher there than in other parts of the UK. That, in turn, leads to a spiral, in which ever-increasing amounts of investment in transport go to London, and the poorest regions spiral downwards. I believe there is a lesson there for us about the Welsh context. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion made the point that Welsh Government investment is targeted more and more at Cardiff and the south-east, rather than being spread across the nation.

In 2015-16, identifiable public expenditure per capita was £973 in London, compared with £444 in Wales. If the level of spending in Wales were the same as it is in London, we would receive an extra £1.6 billion per annum for investment. The wealth inequalities are so important that Treasury officials should be sent to Germany to learn how it went about addressing the geographical wealth inequalities following the fall of the Berlin wall.

Essentially, Germany made a strategic decision to deal with the wealth inequalities in the reunified Germany, which was based on operating aids and tax incentives for the poorer regions, and the deliberate redirection of foreign direct investment into the poorer parts of the state.

Failing that, give us in Wales the tools to move ahead with the job of building our own country. History demonstrates that waiting for Westminster Governments of whatever colour to deliver for Wales is unlikely to address our problems. Wales has suffered not only from the UK Government’s lack of attention and investment, but from successive Labour Governments’ ineptitude in Wales and their inability to deliver. The latest effort to create an economic strategy is remarkable in that the strategy is without any measurable key performance indicators to guide those who are to implement it and enable the rest of us to gauge how successful its implementation is.

Let me turn to some specific aspects of the Budget, which was very weak. The Treasury Committee, the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Institute for Fiscal Studies stated that the Government’s policy of a stamp duty holiday, which they were so vocal about, will push house prices up by 0.3%, and that most of the increase will come through this year. The Budget provided £3 billion to plan for Brexit. Rather than the £350 million for the health service that we were promised, we are spending almost £58 million per week on bureaucracy in the British state. The bureaucrats are not even providing the answers that the Government want to hear.

The minute increase of £2.8 billion for the NHS in Wales is too little, too late, given the stories in the press in the past few months. The winter crisis has shown the impact of the chronic underfunding of the NHS in England. It is clear that we cannot trust the Conservatives to take care of the NHS in England. However, Labour’s record in Wales is not much better. Labour Members speak warm words in Westminster, but when they are in power the story is very different indeed.

The changes to universal credit, including the plan to do away with the initial period of seven days in which claimants cannot receive payments and the reduction of the waiting time from six weeks to five weeks for most claimants, are to be welcomed, but they amount to putting a plaster on a broken leg. The chaotic way in which universal credit was introduced and the way that welfare is administered more generally is disgraceful. The involvement of private companies is immoral and irresponsible. Companies such as Capita should not benefit from the misery of others. We welcome the introduction of a tax on sales generated in the UK, which will affect companies such as Apple and Google, but we know that the Tories are opposed to making changes to our tax structure, which contains loopholes that allow for the avoidance of £13 billion of taxation.

The Budget contained no specific commitment to increase public sector pay, which has been frozen and capped at 1% since 2010. Thanks to inflation, that means that nurses have had a real-terms cut to their salaries of 14%. The Labour party, unfortunately, has not put that right in Wales, as the Scottish National party Government managed to do in Scotland, despite having the power to do so.

Wales still gets less per capita than London. It has some of the poorest communities in Europe, and there are huge cuts to budgets as a result of Brexit, and significant challenges to crucial sectors of our economy. Yet the Chancellor chooses to use statistics that would be more appropriate for one of the Foreign Secretary’s red buses, to claim an increase of £1.2 billion in the Welsh budget emerging from the autumn Budget. It was interesting that the Secretary of State did not use that figure during his opening remarks, because he knows that, as the shadow Secretary of State for Wales said here on behalf of Welsh Labour MPs, more than half of that is fiscal transactions that the Welsh Government will have to repay.

There was no mention of the electrification of rail, which has been cancelled, despite the pledge that was given; there was no talk of the tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay, and no sign of that in the Budget either; and funding for devolved services is lower by some £750 million than it was at the beginning of the decade. That is the record of the British Government with respect to Wales. The story of the Budget is clear: Westminster does not care about Wales.


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

This starts with you

They have the money but we have the people. If everyone who visits this website joins our movement, there's nothing we can't accomplish together.