Brexit and EU funding for Wales

30555490715_85d13a6870_o.png

I secured a debate in Westminster Hall this morning on the effect of the UK leaving the EU on funding for Wales. My opening remarks are below along with a video of the debate. A full transcript of the proceedings can be found on Hansard here.

Stephen Kinnock

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect on funding for Wales of the UK leaving the EU. 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. The debate is technically about budget decisions but, as we all know, making such decisions is not simply about working out how one reallocates figures. At its fundamental essence, the debate is about the people and the constituencies we represent, and their future, and that is where I would like to begin.

At the core of my constituency is the town of Port Talbot, which is home to more than 37,000 people. Since 1902, the beating heart of Port Talbot has been its steelworks—the largest and, I confidently say, the best in the UK, producing a third of the UK’s steel. Many people do not give a second thought to steel, but when they are driving their cars, having a can of baked beans or putting in a load of washing there is a decent chance they are using a piece of steel produced in Port Talbot. Everyone here today knows that the future existence of the works, as we call them, currently hangs in the balance.

The story of Port Talbot over the past 50 years is the reason for the debate. It is a story shared by many towns and cities across the country, from Stoke-on-Trent and its potteries to Dagenham and its Ford factory or Merthyr and its coal mines. Like them, Port Talbot was truly built, and grew, on the foundation of one industry and one company. Half a century ago, the works employed nearly 20,000 people out of a population of 50,000. Every other shop and business in the town depended on the custom of those workers and did a thriving trade, especially on Thursdays, which was payday. Times were good; the town centre was bustling and huge crowds would enjoy their summer weekends on the sandy beaches of Aberavon. As the plant churned out steel faster and better than anywhere else, we also produced extraordinary talent, such as Richard Burton and Sir Anthony Hopkins and, more recently, Rob Brydon and Michael Sheen.

The decline of the steel industry in the UK over the past 50 years can be seen in the standard of living in Port Talbot. The enormous lay-off of 6,000 people in 1980 led to huge numbers signing on to benefits. Today, the works employs just 4,000 people. They are in highly coveted jobs that still provide a decent wage, but nothing has replaced the jobs that were lost or the energy and pride that the industry gave Port Talbot. Icons of our community, such as the Plaza cinema, are boarded up, and smaller shops that depended heavily on steelworkers struggle on. Unemployment is 10% higher than in the rest of the UK, with one in four people relying on benefits to make ends meet. The level of education in our community is proportionally much lower than in the rest of the country. The people of Port Talbot are as ​warm, tough, hard-working and talented as anyone we could ever wish to meet, but many are losing hope that their lives will give them the kind of security that we all want. They simply do not see that there are opportunities for them. They know that we cannot recreate the jobs and economy of half a century ago, but they are frustrated that there are not the jobs and the economy for the next half century in which they can play a role.

I have told the story of Port Talbot today because it is a town that, despite recent improvements, is in long-term crisis. The future of my constituents hangs in the balance, and unless we take concerted action their prospects will continue rapidly to decline. That is why the debate is so important. As much as iron needs oxygen to be transformed into steel, our area, and the whole of Wales, needs investment to transform its future into one where people have security and opportunity.

And we now come to the crux of the matter. For years, the EU, in various guises, has contributed an enormous amount of investment in Wales, working closely with the Labour Welsh Government. Due to the consequences of the history I have described, south Wales qualified for the highest level of European structural and regeneration funding. All in all, EU structural funds and the common agricultural policy deliver well over half a billion pounds a year, in addition to money from other key funding areas such as higher education, culture and urban development. Working with Government, charities and businesses, the investment has made an enormous difference.

Infrastructure built with EU funding is creating jobs and easier access for people and business, including through the Harbour Way road network, the new Port Talbot Parkway station and our town centre. That investment has helped to develop skills, funding 4,885 apprenticeships and 1,360 traineeships for young people, as well as programmes that have led to local people gaining 14,860 qualifications, which has prepared them for work. It has also been a catalyst for business, funding the Baglan energy park, upgrading our commercial centres and being a major investor in the SPECIFIC innovation centre. It has backed world-class industrial excellence in south Wales by being a principal backer of Swansea University’s bay campus, and has contributed to programmes—from historic gardens and activity centres to toddler play areas and community sports facilities— that have improved our family and community life, ensuring that one day Wales will once again dominate the Six Nations.

Workways+ is a project that helps long-term unemployed people and people with complex needs to develop the skills and qualifications that will help them into paid positions. The Cynnydd Project works to help young people avoid the unemployment trap. BEACON is helping Swansea University to work with industry to pioneer renewable chemicals, fuels and other materials, bringing another key future industry to the area. Those are just three EU-funded projects already under way, and many others are in the pipeline. Each one makes the lives of our constituents better.

In reality, the situation in Port Talbot, Aberavon and across Wales calls for far more investment to accelerate our recovery from decades of under-investment in the face of the impact of globalisation and deindustrialisation. Yet all that funding and all that progress is at risk after the referendum vote to leave the European Union. While the leave campaign made promises that all EU funding would continue to flow to Wales at the same levels, I think we know that those promises are about as valid as what could be printed on the side of a bus.

Now that all the bluff and bluster of the referendum campaign is behind us, it is all about what the Prime Minister’s Government actually do. So far on that score, the signs have not been positive. Despite repeated requests from the First Minister for a commitment to full continued funding, so far the Government have pledged only to continue funding agreed EU-funded projects until 2020.

That is not as powerful a pledge as it may first seem, for a number of reasons. First, it is for only one additional year after we are scheduled to leave the European ​Union in March 2019. The Government have made zero assurances that funding will be retained after 2020. Secondly, the Chancellor made clear in his statement on 13 August that the pledge applied only to projects signed before this year’s autumn statement. Apparently, any projects signed after that will be assessed by a method that is yet to be revealed to us—a mystery method. Funding is therefore not guaranteed for multi-year projects signed after next month, even if they are in the current EU 2014 to 2020 funding round.

The third reason why the pledge is not as powerful as it appears is that the Government have not yet agreed with other EU Governments that UK-based applications for EU funding will be in any way affected. The EU funding programmes for 2014 to 2020 are well under way—they have either already been launched or are in the advanced stage of planning. I fear that the Government’s antagonistic behaviour towards the EU and their lack of clarity over future funding will harm the prospects of Welsh applications.

Fourthly, the Government appear to have no plan for how the underwriting of funding will work at a small business or charity level, which is so important. Fifthly, even if Westminster does replace EU funding, there are serious considerations as to how that will be done and calculated. The Government will likely be tempted simply to increase the funds available on the basis of the Barnett formula. However, as the Welsh Labour Government have made abundantly clear, the Barnett formula has disadvantaged Wales for years, and we simply cannot afford or accept such chronic under-investment any longer.

At a minimum, the chosen approach to replacing EU funds must be ring-fenced—it must be in addition to the block grant. Beyond that, a revision of the Barnett formula is long overdue. In short, there is no clarity and no confidence for the people of Wales. The Government must urgently make it clear that they will underwrite all project funds agreed in the 2014 to 2020 mechanism. They must make it clear that they will maintain EU levels of annual funding to Wales for at least a decade post-Brexit, and they must set out how the replacement of funds will work in practice for the Welsh Government and local organisations in the spectrum of Brexit scenarios.

Also, the Government must commit to including Welsh voices in the negotiations, especially with regard to other themed EU funding programmes such as the Erasmus student exchange programme or the Horizon 2020 higher education innovation partnership. Of particular concern to south Wales is the future of the UK relationship with the European Investment Bank, whose loans have helped to build the Swansea bay campus; improved the Welsh Water and Severn Trent network in 2015; and upgraded the Great Western mainline. The last loan was worth £430 million. Such institutions matter greatly to us. The head of the bank, Werner Hoyer, has already publicly made it clear that current levels of lending to the UK cannot be maintained after Brexit. Welsh voices must be heard in the negotiations as our future so ​critically depends on those relationships with the continent. The Government must make it clear whether they will seek associate status to the programmes and institutions. They must bring clarity quickly as the futures of people, communities and organisations across Wales hang in the balance.

Although it looks likely that the entirety of the UK will suffer economically in the coming years as a result of Brexit, it is in many parts of Wales where it will hit hardest, as our economic resilience is relatively low. That does not take into consideration the impact of Brexit on the steel industry, which would be hugely endangered if EU tariffs are imposed on it. If investment in Wales is not maintained, vital projects will go under, followed by businesses. People will lose jobs, and unemployment and welfare bills will shoot up. Communities will fracture. Port Talbot and its people have been through enough. That does not have to be our future.

In Port Talbot, Aberavon and across south Wales we are seeing the enormous potential to accelerate what we are doing. There is innovation. One company, SPECIFIC, has developed a steel-based paint that acts as a solar cell to generate power. It could turn every building in the country into a power station—except perhaps for Boris’s Foreign Office. The Swansea bay tidal lagoon is a world-leading project to capture wave energy. The Swansea bay city region proposal, Internet Coast, could transform south Wales into one of the best digitally connected places in the world. All that is being done without any sign of a proper industrial strategy. Imagine if we actually had one.

Alongside the Government’s Brexit negotiations, they must also present a modern industrial strategy, backing skill development, innovation, modern manufacturing, sustainability and the digital revolution. The strategy must focus on regions such as south Wales, where we have so much underdeveloped talent. When the Welsh Secretary declares that we should not simply replace EU money with Westminster money because we have to address underlying issues, we have to laugh. First, of course we need to address the underlying issues. Unlike him, I am unwilling to settle for basic skills. I am ambitious to ensure my constituents have the high skills needed for new industry to flourish in south Wales. Secondly, it seems blindingly obvious that financial support is a precondition for building such industries and developing skills. Finally, it was very nice of the Welsh Secretary to say that publicly, but it is his Government’s responsibility to come up with the solution, so he may wish to get on with it.

The Government must recognise with humility and sobriety rather than the gung-ho hubris they have shown so far that, if Wales does not continue to receive funding for crucial programmes, communities will be devastated for generations, with everything that that means for people’s lives. It will result in a lack of security, a lack of dignity and a lack of hope. I therefore hope that the Government will reassure the people of Wales quickly that they will ensure the floor is not ripped out from underneath them.