The Government’S Productivity Plan

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 28th February 2017.

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Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick Conservative, Newark 3:31 pm, 28th February 2017

The problem with higher levels of debt lies not just in passing it on to future generations, but in the consequences of that for them. It will mean higher taxes, a less competitive economy and poorer productivity for generations to come. Just because many of our competitors around the world, including the United States under President Trump, have chosen to go down that path, that does not mean that we should follow them. I for one want a Government who in the years to come tackle the debt and deficit as aggressively as they have done in the past.

I am cautious of trying to tackle the productivity gap by spending money on high-expenditure infrastructure projects that have over-optimistic claims—a result, I am afraid, of politicians being both their promoter and their scrutineer. I suspect that HS2 falls into that category.

I welcome the National Infrastructure Commission. I hope that it has teeth and that it will provide balance and ensure that we start investing in those infrastructure projects that actually improve productivity and take long-term decisions for the future of the country. Given the current scale of the national debt, borrowing for rushed, so-called shovel-ready projects will have a limited multiplier effect and will only add to the debt burden, thereby necessitating future tax increases and a less competitive economy in the years to come.

I am in favour of us investing in those infrastructure projects that promote long-term growth which do not necessarily cost the earth and have the highest productivity potential. I am also interested in supply-side reforms that cost either little or nothing at all, such as deregulation and tax simplification, or that are likely easily to pay for themselves, including the creation of a lower-tax economy that will benefit us for years to come. Let me take each of those points in turn.

In relation to creating a longer-term, higher-growth investment plan that will tackle low levels of productivity, I have some sympathy with some of the areas that have already been discussed. The congestion on our roads is a major issue. As hon. Members have mentioned, our roads are among the most congested of any country in the G7. This does not necessarily require the most expensive road investment strategies, but it does require investment in bypasses, junctions and mending potholes. My own town of Newark is one of the most congested towns in the midlands, and freeing it up would give a major boost to the economic prospects of the whole of the east midlands.

We should take some long-term decisions even though they are expensive, such as investing in Heathrow. No Government that actually believe in tackling the productivity gap or in putting us in the right position to be a global trading nation can afford to let such a decision be pushed further into the future. Less sexy decisions to do with long-term infrastructure are also important. We heard my hon. Friend Dr Poulter talk about trying to sort out the problems of freight on our road and rail. I am sure that my friend Sir John Peace, the head of the Government’s midlands engine, will make that a priority in his forthcoming report.

Lastly, it is very important to take seriously the need to reduce energy costs for manufacturing and other parts of our economy. It is of course important to produce a sustainable energy economy and ecosystem, but we are pricing out many of our most important manufacturing businesses with expensive energy projects. I am particularly concerned about some of the Government’s decisions in recent years that have produced extremely expensive projects, for which we will have to pay for years to come. It was imprudent of us to have closed some of our power stations, such as Cottam in my constituency, which were operating perfectly well and helping to keep energy costs down for consumers and businesses.

On supply-side reforms, I think tax simplification is extremely important. Frankly, no Government since the chancellorship of Nigel Lawson have taken tax simplification seriously in this country. The former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend Mr Osborne, took an interest in this matter—he created the Office of Tax Simplification—but, in fact, relatively little happened, and the tax code only increased in length. Tax simplification need not cost the taxpayer anything at all, but it would make a huge difference by making it easier, not harder, to employ people, to grow the economy and to get investment into this country.

On our tax competitiveness, it is extremely important that we continue the pattern created by the previous Chancellor of reducing our corporation tax to levels that are among the most competitive in the world. Clearly, there may be new challenges ahead with the United States, if indeed they materialise, but it is extremely important for us to persist. I thought the former Chancellor was right, despite some rather opportunistic criticism from the Labour party, to reduce capital gains tax. Even with the changes, capital gains tax will remain higher under the Conservative Government than it was at the end of the Gordon Brown era, so that intervention by Labour was really baffling. We need an economy that is the most tax competitive we can possibly make it.

We have already spoken about research and development. Incentives for research and development, such as the reliefs created by the coalition Government, have been extremely effective, as I know from speaking to large and small companies in my constituency, and I would like them to continue.

As we approach Brexit, it is extremely important that the Department starts to look, industry by industry, at what low-cost deregulation could be achieved that does not sacrifice workers’ rights or infringe sensible environmental protections, but may be a game changer in those industries. In the two or three industries I have worked in—the legal sector, and running an auction house —there are European regulations the repeal of which would not be offensive to most people in this country, and that would give us a small but none the less significant competitive advantage over our major competitors in other countries. I will not bore the House with the details of such regulations, but the Government, in preparation for our departure from the European Union, should now work on a sectoral or industry-by-industry basis to work out which they are.

The penultimate point I want to make is that we should give greater thought to the long-term sustainability of the British economy. I am concerned not only about the deficit, but about welfare, and the Government should look at our state retirement age. It is inevitable that with an ageing population all of us will need to work longer. This produces a number of major challenges, particularly for those who work in sectors, such as on the shop floor or in heavy industry, where the work is extremely tiring. There is no doubt that people will need to retire or change career at a later stage. It is inevitable that the Government will have to look at this and act quickly if we want to signal to the markets our continued careful stewardship of the economy.

It is extremely important now, particularly as we are leaving the European Union and setting our sights on the world beyond, that we invest more of our time and effort in creating the kind of entrepreneurial culture found in the United States that this country has never quite managed to replicate. This will mean more allowances for entrepreneurs. I would like to see entrepreneurs’ allowances preserved, if not increased. I would be interested in them being focused on longer-term investments. At the moment, most reliefs are available after, I think, only a year of holding assets. They could be focused on investments further in the future.