Absolutely. The Conservative party initiated and promoted the reckless deregulation of our financial sector, which contributed significantly to the financial crisis, and then failed to manage the economy in such a way as to ensure sustained, significant growth. Under this Government, we have had half the historical level of growth.
The prognosis for growth is reflected in business investment, which is the lowest in the G7. We are the only major economy in which investment is falling. Our productivity is 15% lower than in other major economies, and it has not grown this slowly since the Napoleonic wars—there is an achievement. The average real wage growth since the second world war is 2.4% a year, but under the Conservatives, pay has fallen by 3% and the UK remains the most regionally unequal country in Europe.
We needed a big Budget to rebalance our economy and to provide the industrial strategy with the backing it needs to address the serious problems, but the Budget is deeply disappointing. We got an arbitrary announcement of more funding for the national productivity investment fund, but that will be in 2023, with no information on where the money will be allocated.
On research and development, we had another repackaging of money that was announced last year dressed up as additional funding when, in fact, of the £1.6 billion cited by the Government only £180 million, barely 10%, is new. Although we are pleased that there has been a marked increase in R&D expenditure, there is still no overarching strategy for its direction or for how the Government intend to meet their target of spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D. We are a world leader in science, but, let us be clear, the Government’s 2.4% target is average when it comes to R&D spend. Labour’s target is 3% to become one of the leading nations in R&D spend.
What little information there was in the Budget again focused on sexy high-tech areas like nuclear fusion and quantum mechanics. As an engineer, I understand the desire of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to be associated with sexy technologies, and it is of course a vital part of our industrial strategy to support the industries of the future, but he has repeatedly failed to recognise that supporting our biggest sectors to improve their productivity through technology and investment is so important.
Retail is one of the biggest employers outside the public sector, and it is facing a unique crisis. Over 100,000 jobs have been lost in the past three years, and over 25,000 shops stand empty. High streets are the centre of communities, and they should and can continue to be vibrant spaces of which communities are proud, but to achieve that we need proactive policies from the Government, as Labour have been demanding for months.
The Secretary of State has been a bit cheeky and stolen a number of Labour’s policies in this area. A register of empty properties, an adjustment to business rates and a high street taskforce were just some of the policy proposals in the conference speech of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State. It would be churlish of me to demand our policies back, but that is where the consensus ends.
The Government’s overall package, “Our Plan for the High Street,” simply does not do enough. Business rates relief would not have saved a single House of Fraser or Debenhams—the vast majority of retail workers are employed in such shops. The British Retail Consortium has said that the Government
“must engage in more extensive business rates reform to help all retailers and their employees through this period of transformation.”
The CBI responded:
“Smaller businesses will be relieved by the support on Business Rates…
But larger retailers and manufactures—and the millions they employ across the UK—will continue to suffer needlessly until there is a full, in-depth review.”
Yet the Budget contained no commitment to a review of business rates.
The future high streets fund is yet another fund allocated out of the national productivity investment fund, and there are no details of where the money will be targeted, who will be responsible for administering it or how quickly funds will be made available. The proposals for planning reform have missed the point. It seems that the Government’s idea to save our high streets is to turn them into non-high streets. Frankly, much more work is needed if we are to protect our high streets and the millions of workers who rely on them.