I would like, if I may, to advance the argument made by George Kerevan about the downgrading of productivity. Productivity was the central economic challenge of this Parliament—so said the Chancellor last year. A failure to address the productivity gap between ourselves and our main economic rivals would undermine our competitiveness and reduce living standards, so to address that, the Government published their productivity plan in July 2015.
In our inquiry into the plan—our first in this Parliament—my Select Committee found it to be somewhat worthy but vague, and without the firm delivery and implementation measures needed truly to address the productivity challenge. Of course, it is difficult for any Government to turn around something as substantial and structural as the productivity gap, especially only nine months after the publication of their report, but the downgrade to productivity in last week’s Budget reinforces the Committee’s view that although many measures in the plan were welcome, collectively they did not constitute a radical departure or step change that would really help to boost productivity. Crucially, as the OBR stated in its report last week:
“Lower productivity growth means lower forecasts for labour income and company profits, and thus also for consumer spending and business investment. In aggregate, this reduces tax receipts significantly.”
Productivity improvements require a long-term and sustained approach to business investment, yet the Red Book shows how much business investment—that engine that will power better competitiveness, increase wealth creation and employment generation and, ultimately, bring about higher wages and rising living standards—has stalled. Real business investment fell in the final quarter of last year. The manufacturing sector in our country is in recession. The OBR forecasts that business investment will be 2.6% in 2016, a massive 4.9 percentage points weaker than only four months ago at the time of the autumn statement.
The Government are not helping through their policies. The Chancellor should be encouraging firms to invest in the latest technology, plant and machinery to ensure that they can compete with the most modern kit anywhere in the world, as well as investing in research and innovation to ensure that British-based firms are coming forward with the goods, services and products that the world wants to buy.