Our country’s human capital is becoming more vital to our growth and there is an increasing return to skills in jobs across the world. To have a flexible modern economy, it is vital we have a functional labour market in which there are clear signals about what skills we need and where we need them. The idea, in this day and age, that we can have a one-size-fits-all deal for all locations and all performances across the country is wrong.
We face growing international competition—interestingly, Opposition Members made no mention of what is going on around the world and the competitive pressures we face. Countries such as China, Brazil and India are developing highly skilled people, and the UK’s labour force is already 11% less productive than the G7 average. Western competitors such as Canada, Germany and Sweden are reforming their labour markets. In the 1990s, Sweden abolished national pay scales and gave everybody individual contracts. Salaries in professions that were short of supply rose, so kindergarten teachers’ and tax inspectors’ salaries went up. That did not happen overnight, but the change allowed for the adjustment. Places could get the workers they needed with the skills they needed. The contracts were supported by the unions, even though they had trepidations at first. Once individual contracts were in place, the unions acknowledged that they were a good thing.
There have been extensive labour market reforms in Germany, including the introduction of mini and midi-jobs and exempting small companies from labour regulations. Huge labour market reforms and a highly devolved system of wage bargaining were introduced in Canada in the mid-1990s.
Countries such as Sweden and Canada are not pay-the-bottom-price countries, but countries with highly skilled and flexible labour forces. That is what this country should aim for, rather than a one-size-fits-all model. Under the previous Government, there was greater centralisation, with the exception of academies. There was a national agreement on teachers’ pay and conditions in 2003, which made it much more difficult for schools to organise their work forces. The GP contracts signed in 2004 were disastrous. Such national pay bargaining has made our country’s labour force inefficient and damaged regional economies.
We have skill shortages in key professions. Schools in my constituency struggle to recruit maths teachers. They are subject to national pay scales, so they cannot pay the extra money they need to pay to get the teacher into the school. Therefore, students in my constituency lose out on vital education that they would have were the school allowed to change the wage scales.
My hon. Friend Mr Burley made a good point about private sector crowding-out. Paying people over the odds of their market wages in places where we could get better value for money is not the best use of public money. The money is not free; it comes from hard-working people who pay their taxes.