The Government’S Productivity Plan

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:11 pm on 28th February 2017.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Industrial Strategy) 4:11 pm, 28th February 2017

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow so many excellent and well considered contributions. I must draw particular attention to the opening speech from my hon. Friend Mr Wright, the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, who made almost all the points I intend to make but much more eloquently than I could ever hope to do. This is one occasion on which Newcastle will follow in Hartlepool’s train.

As many Members have said, productivity is a key subject. It is one of the most important challenges facing our economy, as Chris White emphasised. High productivity is correlated with high wages and high skill levels. If we want a high-wage, high-skill economy—as we on the Labour Benches certainly do—improving our productivity must be a key goal. However, under this Government our productivity has fallen consistently. We are now 30% behind Germany, the US and France—the widest gap since 1992. That was decades ago, when there was another Tory Government with a small majority. Since 2010, UK productivity has grown on average by just 0.4% a year. The OECD, the CBI, the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Bank of England have all expressed concern that continued low productivity growth is holding back our economy.

How can we improve our productivity? It is quite simple, in a way. We need to get more out of the same inputs, and that is about either people or technology. The economist Mariana Mazzucato has said that productivity comes from allowing people

“to work more efficiently, with state of the art training, technologically advanced machinery, an innovative division of labour, and harmonious capital-labour relations.”

First, let me discuss people. As Jeremy Quin said—I entirely agree with him on this point—people are the key asset of our economy and businesses. However, this Government consider labour to be a commodity, and commodities are not productive. Imagine a worker sitting at her desk feeling disempowered, unvalued, and disfranchised. Of course her productivity will be lower. But empower her and give her a sense of agency and her productivity will rise. Skills are an essential part of empowering workers and improving their productivity, as emphasised by the hon. Members for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin), for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), and for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig).

However, the productivity plan that we are debating with the estimates committed nothing to skills other than a promise to fund Charlie Mayfield’s initiative to boost management skills to boost business—hardly an extensive investment. The BEIS Committee’s report criticised that lack of commitment and argued for a renewed focus on upskilling the workforce. Unfortunately, the Government do not seem to have taken that criticism on board. It has been 18 months since the productivity plan and six months since the BEIS Committee’s report, and last month’s industrial strategy Green Paper did not recognise the criticisms at all, simply promising £170 million for higher-level technical education when the Government have already cut the further education budget by 14% in real terms in the last financial year alone. That hardly remedies the inequality of esteem between further and higher education highlighted by the Committee, never mind going some way to deliver the high skills that we need to be competitive on the global scene.

In an era of technological change and when people are living and working longer, lifelong learning should be a key part of any Government strategy to upskill workers and improve national productivity. People no longer have one job for their entire career. We need to be able to upskill and respond to changing technological requirements. However, the productivity plan and the Green Paper—220 pages in total—contain only a smattering of references to adult learning and not one specific policy commitment.

The second significant factor in productivity is technology. There is both opportunity and threat in the technological transformation that we are undergoing. Analysis from the Centre for Economic Policy Research demonstrates that industrial robots and information technology can increase both wages and productivity. It also found that the increased use of robots raised countries’ average growth rates by about 0.4 percentage points between 1993 and 2007. It is clear that sustainable, long-term, smart growth requires significant investment in technology. The BEIS Committee report argued that

“if the Government is serious about productivity and competitiveness, it needs to commit to a total level of public and private R&D investment” of 3% of GDP. Labour has committed to that target. Will the Government? In advance of the Budget, will the Minister say today that he is proud to commit to a 3% target?

As has been mentioned, output in Germany is 34% higher than in the UK. Germany’s R and D spend as a percentage of GDP has been at or near the 3% target for many years. In contrast, our spend has languished at barely half the 3% target. However, the productivity question is not just about the development of new technologies; we must ensure that businesses can use them and utilise the productivity benefits that they bring. That is a crucial in sectors such as retail.