Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:57 pm on 4th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat 3:57 pm, 4th June 2015

My Lords, before I begin, I should draw attention to the Members’ register of interests and the fact that I am a member of the executive team of GKN plc and that I hold shares in Smiths Group plc, a former employer. They are both global engineering companies with a strong manufacturing footprint in the United Kingdom.

I feel very fortunate to participate in today’s debate, it having been graced by two such excellent maiden speakers. The noble Lords, Lord O’Neill and Lord King, should be congratulated, as indeed they have been, on those speeches. I feel less fortunate in coming in as speaker number 35 in this debate, not least because I am following some absolutely excellent speeches from other Members. However, I will try my best not to repeat what has been said and to add a few other points.

A large proportion of the debate has focused on productivity, as, I am afraid, I was intending to do. The diagnosis is agreed and it was set out by the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, very clearly at the beginning: the UK is very much falling behind the G7 in productivity. So we agree on the diagnosis, although the noble Lord, Lord Desai, begged to differ a little and tried to split up the sector. There are statistics that to some extent support what he said. The manufacturing statistics and data put out by the Engineering Employers’ Federation, for example, show that manufacturing and advanced manufacturing are delivering productivity at a rate different from that of some of the other sectors, particularly the services sector. Therefore, perhaps it is not a one-pace economy and we have to think about these things in a number of different ways.

Then, the economic big guns were rolled out. In a way that is perhaps heartening, almost all of them have had a different suggestion as to the solution to the productivity problem. This kind of confirmed what I found when I started to really look at this. I went to the Bank of England’s writing on it and was even more heartened when I found that it confessed to being puzzled by the situation. It does worry me a little when the Bank of England is puzzled. It cited the position in the cycle, where we are in fact growing capacity ahead of the need for that capacity. It cited the redeployment of people from productive tasks to business development. It talked about lower investment—I will come back to lower investment in more detail in a minute—and the inefficient allocation of capital. For a scientist, not an economist, all these things seem feasible. However, at the end of it all, the Bank of England did say that it was puzzled. This illustrates, as this debate has illustrated, that more work is necessary if we are going to explain the issues around the productivity gap. I ask the Minister to confirm that her team, and perhaps the Treasury and DBIS together, are working on a better understanding of some of the key issues.

For us to work together on this, we have to have confidence in the statistics. A number of doubts have been expressed about those statistics. Sometimes, if the message is not what we want to hear, we throw doubt on statistics. It could not possibly be true, for example, that France is more productive than us—or is it? We need to start to have some focus on the key levers that we ought to be pulling in this area.

As an aside, I want to talk a little about investment. The availability of capital, particularly for SMEs, is a key issue. Finance for working capital, for expansion and for start-up is vital. It does seem that, during the recession, this had dried up. The tendency has been to blame banks and banks alone for this drying up. I suggest that banks are not necessarily the right sort of lender for many of these kinds of activities. Their risk profile, particularly of late, often does not match the sort of financial package that people are looking for. As noted today by several other speakers, we need to be in a position where we are fostering a more diverse source of capital and a broader pool of finance.

The Competition and Markets Authority is, to some extent, looking at SME banking. Its interim report is, I think, due some time in the autumn. I ask those in the ministerial team whether they would be able to bring back some of those interim findings. Perhaps using the expertise of the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, in this area the team can lend some light to how we can put in place quite quickly some broader mechanisms to deliver finance to SMEs.

My second and much briefer point is around the industrial strategy, because I have not heard anything about it. There was nothing in the Queen’s Speech and nothing today. I am a little disappointed because it is very much an important centrepiece of what Government can do in conjunction with business. Noble Lords will be aware that, during the last Parliament, industrial strategies were established between Government and 11 key business sectors. I declare an interest that my own company was involved in two of those. There was a tremendous level of co-operation, discussion and exchange of shared ideals between the various segments involved. It should be acknowledged that that is really important work. The aim of industrial strategies is to establish the structures and relationships to give business the confidence to invest in the future, invest in the necessary R&D and capital, and to foster the development of the skills that we will need, not just in 10 years’ time but now.

I would like to take this opportunity to ask the Minister to assure us that these long-term initiatives—along with the work around Catapult and innovation centres, which is another important part of innovation fostering—and the focus on STEM skills will continue to be an important part of the work that goes ahead. We need continuity and a sense of certainty to encourage business to participate in investing in the long term in this country. I hope that the Minister can give business that sense of continuity.