HL Deb 13 November 2000 vol 619 cc6-8

2.52 p.m.

Lord Taverne asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the prospects for Japanese-owned firms in Wales.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, since devolution, attracting and retaining inward investment in Wales has been the responsibility of the National Assembly for Wales. The Welsh Development Agency works in partnership with other members of Team Wales and with Invest UK. Through Invest UK, the UK Government are responsible for promoting the whole of the UK as a location for inward investment. We regret recent announcements of job losses at Sony and Panasonic. However, we recognise that, where companies operate on a global scale in such a competitive sector, they must reassess and restructure their operations. This Government will continue to maintain the long-term economic stability which Britain enjoys today and which, in turn, will allow businesses to invest and plan ahead with confidence.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, given the assurances from Japanese companies, it would be wrong to panic in the face of those job losses. However, will the Government recognise that they should take seriously the warnings by leaders of Japanese business, and, indeed, business leaders elsewhere, about the longer-term consequences of our staying outside the eurozone? Although such developments take time, will the Minister recognise that continuing to stay outside the zone is likely to have an adverse effect on foreign investment and, indeed, on jobs in Wales and in the rest of Britain?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, is of course right to say that we should not panic. There is no reason to panic. We continue to do well in attracting investment from Japan and from other countries. Indeed, of the total investment from Japan in the whole of Europe, 46 per cent comes to this country. I have read what some Japanese business leaders have said. However, JETRO, the Japanese External Trade Research Organisation, carried out a survey in April this year of the views of Japanese firms in Britain. Those firms did not have anything like the same fears about our present policies with regard to the euro as those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is always a tendency for firms to drift towards areas where labour is cheap? That is certainly the case at present in Czechoslovakia and Poland. However, is it not rather interesting that Toyota in Flint in North Wales is about to recruit another 300 workers for its engine plant?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Islwyn is right. In policy terms, it is important that we continue to encourage investment at a high level of skill and to encourage investment in research and development activities. We are particularly good at that and it will counteract any tendency for lower-cost activities to go to lower-cost countries.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that all multi-national companies have in common a total determination to obtain ever-increasing sums of money from host governments? Does he also agree that the threat to leave a country is taken seriously only by the naive?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, of course multi-national companies will try it on when they can. However, effective policies are in place across the United Kingdom to ensure that competitive bidding for more and more public subsidy does not occur within the United Kingdom. In the end, the European Commission has a part to play in that.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, is it not true that, measured by earnings, less than 1 per cent of our inward investment comes from Japan, whereas 66 per cent comes from the United States of America? Is it not also true that the pound is now standing at an eight-year low against the dollar and that 60 per cent of our foreign trade is dollar related? Does that not put a new perspective on the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, given that the noble Lord's Question is about Japanese investment in Wales rather than about the United States, I do not have the figures with which to challenge those put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. They sound implausible. However, if they are correct, I shall write to him about it.

Lord Brookman

My Lords, as we are talking about Wales, is not the recent news that the Government have obtained Objective 1 status for Wales of great importance to the valleys and, indeed, the people of Wales?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Brookman is not only right, he is too modest. Not only have we obtained Objective 1 status for west Wales and the valleys, but in the 2000 spending review the Government also announced that they will provide full funding for that purpose.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the low euro is not the only factor taken into account by Japanese companies in deciding the future location of their production facilities? High fuel costs and higher taxes in the United Kingdom have been referred to by Sony as detracting from their competitiveness. Therefore, will the noble Lord urge the Chancellor to act in those areas to boost the competitiveness of British-based companies and to help to maintain the prosperity on which his strategy depends?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I made it clear in an earlier answer that I agree that the weakness of the euro is not the only reason for difficulties arising for inward investors in this country vis-à-vis Europe. However, when the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, talks about taxation levels, I hope that he will recognise that, as has become clear, our levels of corporate taxation are among the lowest in G7 countries.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I declare an interest as President of BREMA, the electronic manufacturers' association, of which both Panasonic and Sony are members. Is the Minister aware that those companies paid tribute to the high quality of both the Welsh workforce and the research and development (to which the Minister referred) in the television industry in particular in Wales? Therefore, does he agree that there is ample opportunity for joined-up government in a vigorous campaign for an early switch-over to digital technology, which would provide a market for high value-added electrical goods built in Wales?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am glad to have the support of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in this matter. He will know that Sony and Panasonic are members of the Welsh Electronic Forum Task Force—rather a lot of trendy words in one title!—and that they agree with him and with the Government that the more advanced television technology, particularly plasma and projection technology, are enormously important and are best carried out by the highly skilled workforce which we have in Wales. I believe that it is doubtful that the changeover to digital technology could be made to contribute more to that because such a changeover might move the electronics industry to more low-cost manufacturing.