Today we are not only celebrating a major contract for the UK offshore oil industry, with all that means in terms of jobs and manufacturing. Today, we are also celebrating the new-found strength and dynamism of the North East economy.
It gives me great pleasure to join the Amec, Shell and Exxon representatives here today. The award of this ??300 million contract is a real milestone.
The scale of it is truly remarkable. It will create 4,000 new jobs across the UK, more than half of them here in the North East. Skilled jobs - jobs for engineers, welders, pipe-fitters, electricians in Wallsend, Hartlepool and in suppliers across the country. Drawing on the engineering skills and expertise that Britain has built up over the years.
It is the largest contract Britain has ever won in the international offshore oil market in the thirty years since British industry first rose to the challenge of extracting oil and gas from beneath the North Sea. A contract to build one of the most massive constructions ever to sail up the Tyne, literally a tower of industrial engineering.
This contract also confirms Britain as a world leader in the offshore construction industry. The project is the first ever development in the deep waters offshore Nigeria. As such, it is of vital strategic importance not only for Nigeria, but for Britain. The contract will help to anchor the latest technology and expertise in the industry here and in the UK. And it will place AMEC, and many UK sub-contractors, in a strong position to secure further deep-water contracts.
We place great importance on our trade relations with Nigeria. President Obasanjo came to the UK last Autumn, and John Prescott visited Nigeria last summer. Stephen Byers has been in regular contact with the Nigerian authorities throughout the development of this contract, which helps strengthen those relationships further.
I know that today's announcement is the culmination of hard work by many people over the past few years. Shell, who have been investing in Nigeria for many years. AMEC, who showed vision and foresight to look to new export markets and develop the necessary technical capacity to compete globally. Trade Partners UK, who helped provide financial support for the bid through the Overseas Project Fund, and stand ready to build on this British success.
That is why I believe this contract is a model of how government and industry can work together to win business for Britain in competitive overseas markets.
But the significance of today's announcement goes much wider than that.
It comes a day after figures showing that the number of people claiming unemployment benefit has fallen below one million for the first time in a generation. We can and must do more. One million claiming benefit is still far too many. But, I firmly believe that full employment in the modern sense - equal opportunities for all - is within our grasp.
Here in the North East, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit has fallen by 30 per cent since 1997. Employment rose by 20,000 last year. The New Deal has helped 12,000 people into regular jobs. And labour productivity in the North East has risen significantly in recent years.
So this contract is a tribute to the North East. To the skilled workers. To the local expertise that has been developed in the North Sea. To the competitive practices of local industry. To the small and medium sized firms that have played such a pivotal role in the exploitation of our oil and gas reserves.
These are the reasons why Shell, Exxon and AMEC are investing here. These are the reasons why Nissan decided to build its new Micra at Sunderland. These are the reasons why Barclays Bank, Orange and One 2 One have announced major investments in the region in the past few months. These are the reasons why the Ministry of Defence announced on Tuesday that Vickers Defence Systems had won a ??250 million contract for armoured engineering vehicles, safeguarding 1,500 jobs in Newcastle and around the country.
The growing strength of the North East economy is based on the economic stability the UK now enjoys. When we came to office in 1997, inflation was rising, the deficit was 28 billion pounds, and national debt had doubled. The British economy was once again at risk of repeating the old all too familiar pattern of inflationary boom followed by recession.
We took tough decisions. Independence for the Bank of England. A new fiscal framework. Tight controls on spending.
Those decisions are now paying off. The lowest inflation for 30 years; the lowest long term interest rates for 35 years; more people in work than ever before; the lowest unemployment since 1975. The conditions created for the sustained year-on-year investment in our public services that this country so desperately needs. And those resources are now going in.
A new and hard won stability. The foundation for building opportunity and prosperity for all in the years to come. But it is businesses that create jobs, not governments. Businesses like Shell, Exxon and Amec. So I would like to conclude by congratulating all those involved in this contract. Today's announcement is a magnificent achievement; good news not only for Wallsend and the North East, but also for whole of British manufacturing.
Let us build on this success. These are huge opportunities out there for Britain, British industry, and the expertise we have developed in the North Sea.
Today's announcement shows the world that this is business Britain can win.