The Government’S Productivity Plan

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:38 pm on 28th February 2017.

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Photo of Roger Mullin Roger Mullin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 2:38 pm, 28th February 2017

I congratulate Mr Wright and his Committee on their sterling work in this area. I was particularly intrigued by his opening remarks about the nature of these estimates debates and their weakness. I was reminded of my experience when I was faced with the House for the first time after being elected back in May 2015. I walked around and found all these peculiar signs, such as for the Vote Office, where the one thing we cannot do is vote. The one thing we are unable to do in estimates debates is scrutinise the estimates properly. That certainly needs to be addressed in the longer run.

I was also taken by what Chris White said about the importance of innovation for productivity. It reminded me of an old teacher of mine, Professor Tom Burns, who, in 1960, wrote a book along with Graham Stalker called “The Management of Innovation”. How many years ago is that? It is a long, long time ago—57 years. The lessons of back then, when Professor Burns was talking about the growth of Marconi in Scotland, are just as relevant today in respect of what is involved in innovation. He argued that two main types of skills or knowledge needed to be deployed, and therefore developed in society. The first was the ability to have what he called “analytical skills”, which we might relate to STEM subjects and other quantitative skills. We need the ability to analyse problems and weaknesses, be it in technology, social fields or whatever, but that is not enough—we all know that we can analyse problems. Everyone in this House might agree what the level of unemployment is, but we would have different recipes to deal with it. So as well as having analytical skills, he said society had to be good at developing creative skills. That might be through “simple creative thinking”, as we could call it today, but I believe he was thinking more widely about how we bring decision-making and judgment skills to enhance the capacity to meet new types of challenges.

The other thing that Professor Burns mentioned drew on what happened in Scotland in the 18th century, at the time of the Enlightenment, and the ideas produced there. His argument was that not only did we have some uniquely brilliant individuals but, for the first time, we had the effective networking of people and of ideas. We were not building false barriers between people, be it by subject or geography. We should reflect on that today as people too often get stuck in professional silos, with ideas not being shared and networked enough. The possibilities therefore do not come to fruition in the way that they might.

The final thing that Professor Burns said in this book of 57 years ago was that we needed circumstances in which people valued and encouraged the “application of novelty”—in other words, experimentation. We all know that if that is done well, it will inevitably lead to a failure rate, so risk taking, as we would call it today, has to be part of the recipe. One thing that Governments of all hues are very bad at doing is putting in place policies that recognise that although we are going to generate some things that might fail, that is worth it, because we will generate other things that are a great success.