This was a dull Budget, although I do not necessarily say that as a criticism, because it was meant to be dull. The Chancellor did most of his heavy lifting in the autumn statement, in which he amassed a war chest by borrowing more than £120 billion. The criticism of the Budget is that rather than using that war chest now to raise productivity and improve education, he has put it aside because he does not know what will happen after the Brexit deal is done.
The Secretary of State for Education made a reasonable fist of trying to explain the new T-levels. If her explanation had lasted for two or three minutes, I would have believed her, but after half an hour, I began to think that she was arguing a little bit too hard, as if she did not really believe it herself. The T-levels were one of the more innovative parts of the Budget—I do not demur from that—but if we want a technical education of the standard that exists in Germany or the Netherlands, we must have the schools, and the workshops, computers and machinery in those schools, to do the teaching. In fact, the equipment in the schools has to be better than what people will find in the factory after they have graduated. The way to raise productivity is by training in schools at the highest and most advanced technological level.
If the money that the Budget gave to increasing selective education had been put into technical schools in line with the investment that takes place in Germany and the Netherlands, I might just have believed what the Government said. However, the T-levels are yet another blind by a Government who want to pursue selective academic education for a very narrow stream of people, which will not solve the problem of productivity.
The one significant change in the Budget that had the biggest impact was the rise in national insurance for the self-employed, so let us try to connect that to the whole question of educational productivity. Rather than Members listening to me, let us take the evidence of two companies: a construction and investment company called Chiswell; and a building company called Castlemead. Does anyone know who these companies are? They are both owned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. To give him his due, he put those companies into a blind trust in 2010. He is an honourable man, so there is no question of him influencing these companies at the moment, unlike certain Presidents of the United States who we might mention.
It is interesting to see what these companies are thinking about the economy, productivity and skills. The 2016 accounts of Castlemead say that the building industry is
“suffering from supply bottlenecks, particularly of skilled tradespeople, driving up costs.”
What does the building company Chiswell say? It states:
“The scarcity of good quality and committed subcontractors is still an issue”.
The company is considering going back into house building. Of course, this skills and supply bottleneck is largely seen among the self-employed. To sum up, the Federation of Master Builders says that 60% of SME construction firms are struggling to hire bricklayers and carpenters.
The Secretary of State claims that the increase in technical training will help to supply some of this much-needed skill demanded by Chiswell and Castlemead. At the same time, however, the Chancellor is removing the incentive to work and to take up training because he is raising the taxes of the very workers whom his companies say they need. In other words, the Chancellor is so short-sighted that he is hurting not only his own businesses but, sadly, everybody else’s.
This is not just a dull Budget because, at its heart, there is a ticking timebomb. The OBR forecast about what happens next is interesting, as it relates to whether the money will be there to provide the training about which the Secretary of State has spoken. The Chancellor was concerned to tell us that, under his chancellorship, growth has been very strong in the past 12 months. Growth in this country has been powered by consumer borrowing. If we drill into this, we find that the OBR says that in 2016 the savings ratio in the UK hit a historical low—it has gone to zero and below. People are dissaving. If people are not saving, ultimately the funds are not there to finance the investment that will raise productivity. Moreover, because saving has collapsed, the OBR does not think that there is a potential for consumer borrowing and consumer expenditure to continue to carry the economy. The OBR predicts a downturn in the availability of consumer funds over the next 12 months, so the dissaving cannot continue.
Most of the boost to consumer spending last year was a hangover from 2015, when inflation was fairly low. As real incomes were rising—a rare occurrence in the previous 10 years—people felt that they were a bit better off. However, now that inflation is rising, because the pound has tanked, we can expect consumer borrowing to disappear, so how will the economy meet its growth targets? The OBR says that the borrowing will be replaced by a rise in business investment. When I asked the OBR officials who appeared before the Treasury Committee yesterday why they thought that—where was the evidence that business investment would rise?—they had a wonderful answer, which quite took my breath away: “Business investment has been so low for so long that it is bound to go up some time.” [Laughter.] That was what they said; Members can go and read the transcript.