This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
My Lords, It is a great honour and a great pleasure to address your Lordship’s House for the first time. I do so with some trepidation as it has quickly become apparent that I have a great deal to learn about the workings of your Lordship’s House, not to mention its nooks and crannies! However, that learning process has been made easier and more pleasant by the warmth of welcome from the staff and from all sides of your Lordship’s House – and particularly from so many old friends and colleagues - and by the excellent induction programme provided by officers of the House and my Noble Friends.
I am also most grateful to my two sponsors, my Noble Friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank and my Noble Friend Lord McNally for their support and encouragement. In one sense it was my Noble Friend Lord Rodgers who first got me into all of this. It was in his victorious byelection campaign in my home town of Stockton-on-Tees way back in 1962 that I first cut my political teeth. And that process was aided and abetted later in that decade by my Noble Friend and former student flat mate, Lord McNally with whom I was actively engaged in student politics - among other things!
It was a great honour and pleasure later in my life to represent Stockton in the Other Place. I thought it might be wise before speaking today to look up the Maiden Speech I made nearly 40 years ago. I’ve got to tell Noble Lords, the only thing it reminded me of was my age!
The North East and its history has been responsible for moulding my politics and my attitudes from my earliest days. From up there Leeds and Manchester are down South. The scourge of unemployment has left an indelible scar on myself and many others over the generations – not least the first Noble Earl Lord Stockton, who, as Harold McMillan, served as the town’s MP between 1924 and 1945. The region has been transformed in the past few decades and has many vibrant new industries, but it is profoundly depressing that after all these years, the unemployment rate still remains the highest in the United Kingdom.
I have spent most of my life trying to do something about that, serving on bodies like the Northern Development Company, the Northern Way, the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, as Chairman of the Northern CBI and, latterly as Deputy -Chairman of the Advisory Panel for the Government’s Regional Growth Fund. I’m sure if it hadn’t been for these and the work of many other bodies like One North East and the new LEPs, things would have been worse than they are today.
When my electorate passed a vote no confidence in me in 1987 I started a new business career in London and the North East. After a few years of working in industrial property, a partner and myself launched UK Land Estates. It has become one of the biggest investors and developers of industrial and commercial property in the North East with over 2,000 businesses as tenants. I declare an interest in that company and in my own business, the Durham Group.
I also had the pleasure of Chairing the Port of Tyne until last year. It supports 10,500 jobs and contributes £500m to the Region’s Gross Value Added. Over recent years it has grown to become the largest Trust Port in the UK by turnover and profit, overtaking others like Dover some time ago. It is one of the UK’s major trading gateways connecting UK businesses to five continents via the major European ports. Which brings me, my Lords, to the subject of today’s debate, introduced so ably by my Noble Friend and fellow Northumbrian, Lord Shipley. The North East region is the only UK region showing a balance of trade surplus. A large proportion of that surplus is in the £7bn of exports handled by the Port of Tyne. Most significantly it is the 4th largest vehicle import/export terminal in Europe. The main reason for that is that
virtually all the vehicles exported by Nissan from the UK are shipped through the Tyne. The Nissan plant at Sunderland is the largest and most productive vehicle manufacturing facility in the UK. It is now producing over half a million cars a year, 80% of which are exported. They directly employ 6,400 people plus many more in the supply chain. Since they came to the UK in 1986 they have invested £3.5bn in the plant, and are investing more today. It’s contribution to the North East and to the national economy is massive. It is not surprising therefore that Nissan have said that Britain’s membership of the European Union is ‘very important’ and that it wants to see the UK remain part of the single market with its uniform standards and tariffs. I remember the battles that took place back in the 1980’s to get Nissan and other inward investors to come to the UK. I have no doubt that the UK’s membership of the EU was a major factor in their decision.
I believe their view very much reflects business sentiment across the UK. The most recent Chambers of Commerce survey showed that most businesses think that withdrawal from the EU would be bad for Britain, but they want to see reform, particularly in the areas of employment and health and safety laws. 71% of CBI member businesses report that the UK’s membership of the EU has had a positive impact on their businesses, including 67% of SME members.
All my business experience tells me that CONFIDENCE is the most important ingredient in any investment or spending decision. I’ve worked in two banks, served on the boards of many companies, large small, public, private and co-op, and I sometimes think the political community do not understand the vital importance of confidence in the business world. Nothing undermines confidence more than uncertainty and there is uncertainty at the moment over our country’s future in the EU.
If that uncertainty increases, confidence will be damaged. But the consequences will not be the immediate plant closures. It will be decisions to build the next model in Spain and not to build it in Swindon, or Solihull, or Halewood, or Sunderland. That will lead to the plants gradually declining and the jobs decreasing. And who will suffer? The national economy of course. But most directly it will be those 6,400 people at Nissan and others like them. And even more tragically it will be those without jobs, whose hopes will be dashed and whose families will continue to suffer. Talk of referenda and other issues in Westminster are all very well and may be unavoidable. But I hope, my Lords, we will never forget the potential consequences for many vulnerable people.