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It is extremely gracious of you to call me to speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I want to say a few words about a genuine long-term plan—Government Members seem to use the phrase “long-term plan” quite a bit—for work. It is clear that this Budget has ducked the key challenge of how we ensure that as the number of jobs in the economy increases, the quality of those jobs improves at the same time.
There has been much talk in this place over many years—not only by Government Members but by Opposition Members—about where improvements to the British economy will come from. There has been a lot of talk about entrepreneurialism, finance and different sectors of industry, but we tend not to step back to talk about the quality of work, even though work is fundamental to how we generate growth in our economy and how people find dignity during most of their waking hours in the day.
My broadest concern is that as we talk about the effects of this Budget—fiscal measures here, changes to taxation there—we may to a degree miss the point. We know that what makes work satisfying to people is autonomy, mastery and purpose. I fear that those three values are getting lost in the recovery that is under way. I shall suggest a few ways in which we might respond through policy to improve the quality of work for millions of people up and down the country.
It is a tragedy when people find themselves unemployed and when there is long-term unemployment. In Luton, 950 young people are without work and are claiming jobseeker’s allowance, and 1,300 people of all ages have been out of work for more than 12 months. Behind each figure is a human tragedy that affects many families. Older people who find themselves out of work find it incredibly difficult to get a job, and we know that many of them will not find one in the current economy.
At the same time, there is a cost of living crisis. Wages and prices have become decoupled. It is estimated that it will take 15 years for wages to recover and get back to the consumer prices index level of inflation. It is debatable whether they will ever reach the retail prices index level.
We need to tackle the issue at both ends: work and the quality of that work. On the quality of work, we have seen a tripling of the number of zero-hours contracts. More people are working in the economy, but many of them are on zero-hours contracts and have little job security. Those who are still in work have had their rights taken away. For example, there are the challenges with tribunals, which we have discussed in the House before. We cannot win in a race to the bottom. Many people still cannot get a job. There is a lack of dignity in not having a job, but there is also a lack of dignity in having a poor quality job. This is a long-term challenge not just for this Government, but for whichever Government find themselves in power next.
Labour’s jobs guarantee could be a necessary first step in allowing young people in particular to find work and get back into the rhythm and dignity of work. We then need to look at the quality of the work and the remuneration for it. That is why we need an expansion of the living wage. Our policy of a 12-month tax rebate for low-paid workers who are bumped up to the living wage for the first time, which would pay for itself over time, would be extremely helpful, as would the reintroduction of the 10p rate. That would be hugely important in encouraging people to get back into work.
We need action to meet the challenges of our economy. An alarming statistic that other Members have talked about is the productivity gap. Output per hour in this country is 21% lower than the G7 average. That hints at a lack of business investment in machinery and so on.
I return to autonomy, mastery and purpose. Where will the high-skilled jobs come from in this economy? When will we recognise the cost of living? Many people will look at the actions of the Government and conclude that in the Budget they have ducked the challenge. If they were running a business the way they are running the economy, they would be sweating the assets to get growth. I think it is fine to sweat the assets for a period, but we must recognise that the greatest asset we have is the people of this country, and they will not put up with a Government who sweat the asset that is their work.