Today the House of Commons held its annual St David’s Day debate and I spoke about Brexit, steel and the boundary review.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for securing this debate.
On 23 June 2016, the UK, Wales and indeed my constituency of Aberavon voted to leave the EU. I accept and respect that result, but not unconditionally. Brexit must be made to work for Wales. That means fighting tooth and nail against a crippling Brexit on WTO terms. The tariff barriers alone would cost £6 billion a year, destroying the automotive sector and crippling our steel industry.
Indeed, just yesterday, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said, we heard about the job threats at Ford in my neighbouring constituency of Bridgend. This means that the UK Government must protect funding for Wales, so I call on the Government to commit to securing funds through to 2030, on a pound-for-pound match basis, based on current EU structural funding. The current guarantee up to 2020—the year after we are due to have left the EU—is simply not good enough.
The challenges facing my Aberavon constituency serve to demonstrate why the stakes could not be higher, and how desperately the United Kingdom needs a project of national renewal. Such a project must be rooted in the steel industry, because each steel job supports three others in the local community and the country; because each steel job supports a family and the community; and because each steel job supports a way of life and a way of being.
That is why, two weeks ago, the men and women of Tata Steel swallowed a bitter pill to secure the future of their industry, guaranteeing steel production at Port Talbot and across Tata’s operations for the foreseeable future. The vote to close the British Steel pension scheme, transferring it to a defined contribution scheme alternative, was a hard decision, but it was one for the workforce themselves alone. That is why Plaid Cymru’s crude attempt to score cheap political points, manufacturing conflict between the workforce and the unions with a view to securing votes in May’s local elections, was such a shameful spectacle. There can be no excuse for such political opportunism, and I deeply regret Plaid Cymru’s attempts to play politics with steelworkers’ livelihoods. Thankfully, our steelworkers are far too smart to fall for Plaid Cymru’s crass grandstanding and mind games, and they chose to ignore that ill-founded advice.
The workforce have shown their willingness to make real sacrifices to save their industry; Tata has made commitments to secure the industry; and the Welsh Assembly Government have offered £60 million in support and created an enterprise zone to help with business rates, but the Westminster Government have done nothing. They have done nothing on Chinese dumping, energy prices, procurement or skills retention or training, and nothing to help to secure the deal between Tata and the unions. I therefore ask the Government to commit unequivocally today to heed the cross-party “Steel 2020” report—amazingly, I have a copy here—and to a sector deal for steel.
My hon. Friend is talking about the Westminster Government’s inaction, but is the position not slightly worse than he suggests, in that when there were calls to reform the lesser duty rule, far from doing nothing, the Government were at the head of a blocking minority, which prevented that reform?
My hon. Friend is right. The British Government are notorious for being the ringleader of a group of member states that consistently blocked the European Commission’s attempts to give the anti-dumping regime more teeth. That is a matter of great regret, which reflects the “China first” policy, rather than a Wales first policy, that the Government have pursued.
A thriving steel industry must also be a catalyst for the regeneration and development that will happen if the Government get on and approve a city deal for the Swansea Bay area. That will help to regenerate and manage the impact of de-industrialisation. It also makes sense for the Government to give the green light to the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, an idea whose time has clearly come. The lagoon would create and sustain thousands of jobs and meet 11% of Welsh energy needs with a clean, green, reliable source of sustainable energy.
The Government’s parliamentary boundary review has rather less support in Wales. It disrespects local communities. It proposes to slice Port Talbot town centre in two, leaving the high street and adjacent shopping centre in different constituencies. It is absurd. The review disregards the 2 million people who registered to vote in the referendum campaign and seeks to stifle the voice of Wales by removing more than a quarter of Welsh seats. All that is taking place while the UK Government seem intent on using Brexit to turn the UK into a European version of the Cayman Islands.
With all our constitutional problems—a grossly bloated House of Lords, not enough Members in the Welsh Assembly and the constitutional chaos that will flow from Brexit—is it not astonishing that the Government are interested in only one reform, which will give them more Members here?
My hon. Friend is right—it is a barefaced gerrymander, which we regret.
I urge the Government to take action on steel and economic regeneration, and to rethink the boundary reviews. I wish all hon. Members a happy St David’s day.