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8.14 pm

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): Thank you—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Has the hon. Lady informed the occupant of the Chair that she has the permission of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and the Minister to contribute to the debate?

Mrs. Lawrence: Indeed I have, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) for allowing me to take two minutes of his debate, as I have a constituency interest. The factory at Cardigan to which he referred employs many of my constituents from north Pembrokeshire. He spoke comprehensively about the effect that the closure will have in his constituency and I shall not repeat any of the details that he raised; but I have another concern, as the company has another outlet in Fishguard in my constituency that employs a further 120 people.

Like the hon. Gentleman, who has been in contact with the factory in Cardigan, I have been in touch with Fishguard, which was under monthly review only 18 months ago, when Marks and Spencer was having difficulties. It got out of those difficulties, the reviews stopped and we thought that things could be looking better. However, the fact that the plants at Cardigan, Lampeter and Swansea have closed is of concern to my constituents, many of whose families have worked for Dewhirst for generations—their fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers have worked for the company.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Minister can probably do very little in terms of the commercial considerations that are involved. I spoke today to Terry Jones from the company, who made it clear that Cardigan and Fishguard are highly efficient and have been well invested in. That is not the problem, however. The difficulty relates to market prices, competition, the fact that a pair of jeans costs less now then 15 years ago, and competitors outsourcing abroad.

The company is left with a choice and we are seeing the human consequences. The Government can probably do little about that, but on behalf of my constituents in Fishguard, in addition to those who worked in the Ceredigion factory, I ask the Minister please to ensure that Team Wales is immediately involved. It was put in in respect of ITV Digital in the south of our county. Can it be put in posthaste not only to look at Ceredigion, but with regard to my fears about the potential knock-on effect for Fishguard in my constituency?

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8.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): It is usual on these occasions to congratulate an hon. Member on securing the debate, but I am sure I share with the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) the wish that we were not having this debate at all. I very much regret the fact that Dewhirst this afternoon gave its staff at Cardigan notice that the plant would be closing in the autumn. That is a heavy blow to the community and in excess of 300 jobs will be lost as a consequence. He made clear the knock-on effects in the wider Cardigan community, and not only for the families of those involved.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that my officials have already been in touch with Assembly officials. I know that the Assembly, working together with the Welsh Development Agency, Education and Learning Wales, the Employment Service and other key agencies, will do everything that it possibly can to mitigate the effects of the closure and the job losses. Today's announcement also raises fears for the future of the Dewhirst plant in Fishguard, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) referred. I sincerely hope that the management of the company will find a way to retain its presence there and retain the jobs.

It might be helpful for me to tell the House what steps were taken when Dewhirst closed its plant at Swansea, when a very effective Team Wales approach helped to mitigate some of the problems. Following the announcement, a meeting was immediately set up, including representatives of the Welsh Development Agency, the city and county of Swansea, ELWa, the Employment Service and the Assembly. A strategic overview of the Dewhirst situation was issued by the company and a response in terms of what various parties could do to assist matters was then provided to Dewhirst. The main thrust of the group to which I referred was the setting up of a human resource action group, which first met to discuss the ongoing skills audit and the demographic information that is emanating from Dewhirst. That is of key importance; when jobs were lost in my constituency, one of the key things that helped us to find replacements was a skilled audit carried out by the local employment agency. We found that most helpful in getting people into work.

It is worth mentioning that Swansea college and ELWa are working together to provide basic IT skill provision and detailed job search. A matching exercise is currently under way to ensure that the redundant Dewhirst workers are given every opportunity to find alternative work. ELWa is working very hard to prepare user-friendly packs relating to the redundancy action plan, and the city and county of Swansea are currently preparing a presentation on local learning provision in order to share that information with the work force. I would hope that we will be able to persuade them; I am sure that we will, because I have met the hon. Gentleman and representatives of Ceredigion council, and I know how proactive they will be in response to this blow. Now that further redundancies have been announced, I believe that the effective Team Wales approach that has already been developed will help to mitigate some of the consequences of these job losses.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the urban regeneration companies that have been set up in other parts of the country. He makes a good point, and I certainly undertake

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to raise the matter with my colleague, the Assembly Minister responsible for economic development. The hon. Gentleman and I were at Aberporth recently, and if anything makes this issue more vital, it is this news today, because there is great potential for regenerating that part of west Wales and Ceredigion and helping to find work for those who have lost their jobs today.

The Government and the WDA are working together to support the garment industry. Since 1997, the Government have made £80 million available to the industry across the UK in the form of capital investment, export promotion, research and development, innovation support, retraining, and regional support. In 2000–01, the Department of Trade and Industry invested about £8 million, which was focused principally on the technical textiles market, employment and training opportunities, help for the supply chain, design skills, the benefits of e-commerce, and export support. On support for exports, Trade Partners UK has relaxed its rules so as to allow textile industries to receive assistance to participate in more than three events.

The WDA has two major initiatives to support the garment and textile industry. The first is the WDA's garment and textile sourcing programme, in which Welsh manufacturers are introduced to new supply opportunities and encouraged to develop new customers. Since the sourcing programme was piloted in 1995, Welsh suppliers have been introduced to new sales opportunities valued at more than £60 million, which is most welcome. A wide range of companies have benefited from the programme, ranging from one-person, designer-based businesses, through cut, make and trim companies, to larger manufacturers. The service is completely free to both buyer and supplier.

The second initiative is the WDA's company development programme. The WDA recognised, as far back as 1997, that some companies required assistance to improve their competitiveness. This programme provides participating businesses with new skills, and with knowledge and experience of management, manufacturing and marketing processes. It is important to recognise that the garment industry in Wales is important; there are more than 30 companies in this sector in Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire alone. The hon. Gentleman referred to some of them in his speech. They are small and medium-sized companies, ranging from those engaged in the traditional woollen industry through those that focus on bridalwear, sportswear, knitwear and home furnishings, to specialist suppliers of naturally coloured rare breed wool, luxury mohair wool, silk blends and organic wools. There is a whole range of small companies there.

The Government recognise that it has been particularly tough for manufacturers in the last year or so, owing to the economic slowdown in the world economy and weakness of the euro. That, of course, is not confined to Wales; it hits the whole of the UK. There are signs, however, that manufacturing industry is becoming more confident. The latest Confederation of British Industry and Engineering Employers Federation surveys point to stabilisation in manufacturing output over the next three to four months, and only today I noticed that the South Wales Chamber Group has said that a number of companies are predicting an increase in profits and showing greater confidence for the next year.

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The hon. Gentleman is looking for help from the Government for the immediate problems in his constituency, and I will certainly take on board the issue of procurement policy. I shall make some inquiries on that matter and write back to him as quickly as I possibly can. I would also commend the work done by the all-party clothing, textiles and footwear group, which has had the opportunity to study the "Making it Happen" report issued by DTI Ministers a while ago.

I am pointing these things out because it is important to recognise that, although we have had this awful blow today, not everything is bleak in the economy in Wales. There are opportunities, and I see Aberporth in the hon. Gentleman's constituency as an exciting opportunity. It is right to point out that some good things are happening, and we must ensure that the people who are losing their jobs at Aberporth can benefit from new job opportunities. Our first thoughts must be with those people who are faced with redundancy today. That is what I believe Team Wales will take on board. I shall certainly take on board the remarks of the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) and follow them up.

We must seek new job opportunities for those who are losing their jobs and we must find opportunities for them to retrain and upskill. I sense the sadness in the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and he is desperately keen to get back to his constituency to do whatever he can to help, but I want him to know that the Secretary of State and I will do everything we can to help in any way possible. Please be assured that we are just at the end of a telephone

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line. If there is anything he comes across in the next day or so that he thinks the Wales Office can help with, we will certainly do all we can.

I want the hon. Gentleman to convey this to his constituents, because there is nothing lonelier for an individual, a family or a community than job losses and, perhaps, despair over where they should turn to, especially as there is high unemployment in the town of Cardigan. I want to ensure that we send that message out to people: we as the Government, the hon. Gentleman as the constituency Member of Parliament, and all the agencies will do everything they possibly can to help those people to get back into a job as quickly as possible. We face a difficult time in parts of our economy in Wales, and this is a blow to an area of Wales where we have high hopes for a brighter economic future.

The hon. Gentleman also touched on an important issue, which I know is close to his heart: the impact that the closure might have on the language. He and I discussed the Aberporth project when I was down there, and we agreed that the investment in Aberporth and the realisation of the project would help to deal with some worries that he, I and other Members have about how we protect Welsh-speaking communities by ensuring that there are jobs, good services and affordable housing.

The hon. Gentleman should be assured that we will do everything we can to help in this difficult time for him and his constituents. We will leave no stone unturned in trying to ensure that the people in Cardigan get back into a job as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

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