I am pleased to see the continued progress that the Government have been able to make in reducing the deficit from the enormous 9.9% of GDP that the coalition Government inherited in 2010, down to a forecast 0.7% of GDP in 2020-21. It has taken longer than we thought, and we have faced stronger headwinds than we thought, but it is absolutely the right thing to be doing. As the Chancellor rightly reminded us, it is not right for this generation to load more and more debt on to the shoulders of our children and grandchildren, who will have restricted public spending in their time if we do not get on top of this and start to live within our means as a country.
I am pleased, too, that the Chancellor has continued his focus on increasing productivity—an area on which we have not focused enough in the past. The Chancellor was absolutely right to point out that the UK’s productivity is significantly worse than that of the average of our international competitors and much worse—some 35% worse—than Germany, which is one of our major competitors.
The way to improve productivity is to focus on skills and infrastructure in particular. It is excellent news that whereas we were 33rd in the world in the quality of our infrastructure—behind countries such as Namibia and Slovenia—we are now seventh in the world, and we must carry on trying to improve and move further up the league table. We should note and celebrate the success we have had in this area.
Productivity is also an issue of social justice. At the moment, British workers on lower rates of pay are having to work for longer periods of time to produce the same amount as a German worker. If we can increase productivity, we can pay people more and they can work for less time and produce the same amount of wealth. That is why this issue matters so much.
The Government are absolutely right to focus their attention on artificial intelligence, robotics and battery technology, which is particularly important for the electric vehicles of the future that we will need to deal with the serious air quality issues that we face. The Government are right, too, to focus their attention on better broadband connectivity and on the roll-out of national 5G, and indeed on ensuring that those people who live in rural areas have the ability to use their mobile phones—something that is still not possible in large areas of my constituency, although I am pleased to note that the Minister with responsibility for digital affairs has said that we should see a significant improvement by the end of this calendar year.
I was pleased, too, about the Chancellor’s emphasis on everyone paying their fair share of tax and about the fact that we have raised an extra £140 billion-worth of tax revenues through clamping down on evasion, which is very welcome. I was, however, visited by someone about to set up a major business in my constituency in an area of service provision that can be found in every high street in the country. He told me only yesterday morning how the practice in that industry is to pay people cash in hand, and that when he has tried to recruit people as an above-the board legitimate business owner, they have complained about not being paid cash. Clearly, avoidance of tax, including VAT, is happening. I believe that we need to sustain a continued focus on this issue, so that a level playing field can be established for decent businesses that do the right thing. We need to make sure that we collect in all the tax revenue that we should have.
The focus on technical education levels is excellent. Although we have climbed the international league table on infrastructure, we are near the bottom of the international league table for technical education—notwithstanding the efforts of previous Governments in this area. This is absolutely the right thing to do, as is our focus on ensuring quality apprenticeships for the future.
I am very pleased about the extra investment in social care, and about the capital funds that will be provided to ensure that the NHS sustainability and transformation plans are successful. I am particularly pleased that the sterling work done by Luton and Dunstable hospital in its urgent care centre is to be replicated, so that similar GP urgent care will be available at accident and emergency departments in hospitals across England. I welcome the extra £216 million in capital funding for schools. I also welcome the transitional relief for business rates, although in my area the average business rate is set to fall by a very welcome 7.4%.