The Government’S Productivity Plan

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:47 pm on 28th February 2017.

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Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, Bedford 3:47 pm, 28th February 2017

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Robert Jenrick. I agreed with almost everything he said.

Just to remind everyone why we are here, let me say that this debate is about the supplementary estimate for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This is the point at which the Government own up at the end of the year to where they are spending too much or too little against what they said they were going to spend, and set out whether they are going to invest more or less than they said they would. The variance can sometimes involve outstanding amounts of money. For this year, the Department is requesting further resources to be expended not exceeding £10.7 billion; that resources for capital purposes be reduced by £10.5 billion; and that the sum authorised for issue out of the Consolidated Fund be reduced by £13.8 billion. Those are large changes, but to spare the Minister’s blushes, let me say that he knows well that that is because of major structural changes in the Department over the year that have moved it from being an expenditure-heavy sector to one that will be ultimately much more focused on capital.

I challenge anyone to wade through document HC 946 and understand where the money is going—if they can do so, they are a better person than me. Given that the Minister is so sensible, may I ask him to challenge the Government to put a couple of things into these documents that reflect the current times? First, on variance at the end of year—when Departments are looking for more or less money—can they explicitly say, “Here is where we have saved money”? As several hon. Members have pointed out, people accept that we have to live within our means, so why can we not use this end-of-year variance accounting to say explicitly, “These are the areas where we have wished to save money,” because it would be a good opportunity to get the message out? Secondly, on capital budgets, it would be nice in an end-of-year summary to get a sense of the return on capital to remind us how the Government judge the returns on the projects they are asking about through the variance—either when they are cutting money, as in this case, or if they are asking for more money. That is my overall point about estimates. I am just asking for a few things to improve the process for those of us who cannot easily understand what is going on from looking at six columns of numbers.

This debate also comes in the context of the productivity plan and its younger sibling, the document on the industrial strategy. Those two documents sit together. I very much welcome the initiative of my right hon. Friend Mr Osborne and the current Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—he was then the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills—to pull together these various projects into a productivity plan. Yes, that plan was a bit of a mixed bag of initiatives that could easily have suffered from the criticism that my right hon. Friends were just pulling things together into a single document but, my goodness, at least we had a single document against which we could evaluate projects and with which we could hold the Government to account on this crucial issue of productivity.

Productivity is one of those shrouds that politicians like to grab hold of so that they can worry. We like worrying more than we like being happy, and when it comes to the national economy, it has to be either our balance of payments deficit or our poor productivity level that politicians wish to grab. They like to do that because they like to intervene in the economy and try to improve it. I have to admit that, in many instances, the Government play a positive and active role in the economy, but when they look to do too much, they have to know when to stop, so I make my third recommendation to my hon. Friend the Minister, which is that he learns this most important word to use in his deliberations—the word “no”. That means, “No, we’re not going to spend money on that”, “No, we’re not going to invest in that project”, “No, you haven’t done your analysis correctly”, or, “No, that rate of return is not correct.”

I make that recommendation because the Minister will be inundated with a variety of people who will attach their requests to the broad principles in the productivity plan, or the even broader principles in the Government’s industrial strategy, so that their ideas might gain favour. He will have to analyse those deeply and make some people very disappointed and unhappy by saying that their projects and initiatives are not worthy of taxpayer investment. That is extremely important because, as my hon. Friend Robert Jenrick said, we have a responsibility to future generations. We cannot carry on living beyond our means. Before we spend what is essentially their money, we must have an acute sense that, if we are investing for the future, the rate of return will benefit them.

The productivity plan had another tremendous advantage, because it focused our attention not on how much we were spending, but on how quickly we were implementing the projects to which the Government were committed. One of the projects in the plan—it was subsequently raised by the National Infrastructure Commission—that was highly thought of was the Oxford to Cambridge corridor, to connect through Milton Keynes and Bedford, and onward to Cambridge. I am pleased that the Department for Transport has heard the message and is now coming forward with new ideas to make that happen sooner than was envisaged even at the time of the productivity plan.

I ask the Minister to pay particular attention to how procedures involving the interaction of Departments can be enhanced. I am talking about the time a proposal spends sitting in the inbox of one part of this complex system of organisations, Departments and agencies that have to approve something before it moves to the outbox and on to the next Department. This applies particularly to aspects of the road highway between Oxford and Cambridge, where there is an opportunity to move the timeframe forward. I would be very grateful for the opportunity to talk to the Minister or his counterparts in the Department for Transport about this.