The Government’S Productivity Plan

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:04 pm on 28th February 2017.

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Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Chair, Education, Skills and the Economy Sub-Committee, Chair, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee 2:04 pm, 28th February 2017

I welcome the opportunity for the House to debate the supplementary estimates affecting the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It is a real honour and pleasure to chair the Select Committee and I am particularly fortunate to lead a Committee with excellent hon. Members—I see some of them in the Chamber: the hon. Members for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson), for Bedford (Richard Fuller) and for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White). We try to work hard together to put in place policies that ensure workers in this country have higher skills and wages and greater protection, in firms that are productive, competitive, profitable and have barriers to scale up removed.

The title of today’s debate references the Government’s productivity plan, and I shall come on to that in a moment. However, given that this debate is about the estimates, I want to mention a couple of points regarding them. On a broader point, in my time in the House, it has always struck me as odd, even concerning, that billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are voted through on the nod without any real debate, scrutiny or challenge. This debate will be about the Government’s productivity plan, and most of the contributions, including my own, will be on that document, which already seems to be becoming rapidly obsolete. At the end of it we will be asked to approve billions of pounds. The manner in which estimates are presented is opaque and often downright unhelpful. It is difficult to follow the money.

Of course, Departments produce annual reports, which are more helpful. They are scrutinised by Select Committees such as our own, and the National Audit Office conducts its own work, but the basic point of this place is to scrutinise and to challenge the Executive and then legitimately to permit the Government’s wish to tax the general public. I am far from convinced that the current system allows that to happen in an effective manner. Therefore, I look forward to the Procedure Committee coming up with some more radical improvements in this area.

The supplementary estimates reflect the machinery of government changes, with two Departments, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, coming together and losing responsibilities for further and higher education and for exports. BIS and DECC had resource savings targets of 16% and 17% respectively by 2020. The BIS Department had the “BIS 2020” publication, which contained a number of proposals to make budget cuts in this period, including, for a Department tasked with regional growth and pushing the northern powerhouse, the closure of the Sheffield office. A large part of the savings for the BIS Department was to be achieved through changing the way further education and higher education were to be funded. However, given the machinery of government changes, that option is no longer available to BEIS. Therefore—this relates to the point I made on the opaqueness of the estimates—it is impossible to tell, based on the information in front of us, what the planned savings of the new Department are and whether the “BIS 2020” programme is continuing.

When the Secretary of State came before the Select Committee before Christmas, I asked him whether similar savings of 16% to 17% would be required. He confirmed that. He said that the “BIS 2020” programme was no longer available, because it was a new Department, but he did not offer any alternative. When I asked what things the Department would stop doing in order to make the necessary cuts to the resource budget, the Secretary of State said:

“We are going to set out the proposals to the Department and I am sure the Committee will want to see that. I am very happy to send them to the Committee to look at. We want to take the opportunity of the two Departments coming together to, as it were, re-engineer the way that the Department is run to make sure that we take advantage of a big opportunity to tie things up here internally.”

That is very clear. However, no such proposals have been brought forward. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline what specific savings the new Department has to make and precisely how he intends to make those savings, including what activities will be stopped. That is in the context of the supplementary estimates before us, which state that the administration costs of the Department are rising from £425.6 million this year to £528.5 million next year. There is no explanation for that in the memorandum. Could the Minister provide one?

On the Government’s productivity plan, the factors regarding the UK’s productivity performance are well rehearsed but worth reiterating. At a national level, productivity has stalled. GDP per hour stands at 17% below its 35-year long-term trend and has only just exceeded the peak it had reached prior to the global financial crash. We as a nation are falling further behind our major competitors. Output per hour in the G7 excluding the UK was 18% above that of the UK, the widest gap in productivity since records began in 1991. That statistic shows the marked differences in performance between ourselves and our competitors. When it comes to productivity, we are above Japan by about 16 percentage points. Italy, however, is 10 % more productive than we are. The US and France are 30% more productive than we are, and Germany is 36% more productive than the UK. Of course, productivity in all developed countries was badly jolted as a result of the 2008 global crash, but the gap between our long-term productivity trend and that of our competitors in the G7 is about twice as big. Productivity and pay are intimately linked. Productivity gains are the way in which real wage growth—and, hence, living standards—can rise.