Last week, the Chancellor unveiled a Budget that lacked any sense of theatre. There was no big reveal and no rabbit from the hat, but what a relief—we have had enough shocking plots and twists in the last year, and producing a rabbit from the hat usually means sleight of hand is involved. However, there was drama when MPs realised the Chancellor had freelanced a tax on freelancers. He took a lot of stick for this, but he is right: the current tax gap between the self-employed and PAYE taxpayers is unfair. The Budget was not dramatic because the economy is, apparently, gradually recovering. There is good news of course, but it is coming largely from consumer spending and increased debt, in turn driven by low interest rates, currency devaluation and high property prices.
I think we are all know what is wrong with that picture, but why is it we have failed to address the long-term issues which prevent more sustainable growth? They are well known—low productivity, poor skills, low innovation, weak business investment—and I am pleased the Prime Minister is addressing these issues with an industrial strategy. I was relieved that both the Autumn Statement and Budget reaffirmed that commitment, so it was not a flash in the pan.
I have called for an industrial strategy for many years, sometimes in this House, but there has always been a perception that this meant picking winners. That is a gamble, not a strategy. Instead, we should create a framework to support growth, give new technologies time to prove their market value and help people acquire the skills new technologies need. This is the basis of Greg Clark’s new approach as Minister for Industrial Strategy. We see the first results in the budget decisions from the national productivity investment fund. Fast mobile and fibre data connections, along with new roads and energy networks, will increase returns for investors in Britain.
Just as welcome is the new support from the industrial strategy challenge fund for battery research. Climate change is a defining global issue, while, locally, increased air pollution—especially here in London but in all the big cities of the world—puts a burden on the NHS. Batteries are essential to a breakthrough in low-carbon transport, and backing them is a sign Ministers are listening to the research agenda of both industry and academia. We need to ensure business is involved as these research pathways develop, which is why I support the Budget announcement on mid-career research fellowships. This is a tool Innovate UK can use to build strategic partnerships with the next generation of business leaders. Will the Minister confirm that the distribution of fellowships will be Innovate UK’s choice?
As a graduate apprentice myself, who became a professor of engineering, I know technology transfer is difficult if short-termism dominates corporate culture. It is next to impossible if you have a skills shortage too. In this country, that has been a perennial problem, but we can do it—in the last 10 years, the automotive sector, having got the skills base and invested in research, has done it. It is continuing to do it and is now an example all over the world, including Germany, of how Britain has changed in this sector. The Budget announcements on the industrial strategy address this. T-levels offer a guarantee of quality and business relevance in vocational and technical education. I am particularly glad that this support will be offered to adult learners, as vocational education must be lifelong to be effective. I have been calling for simpler and higher-status technical qualifications since I arrived in this House. We have had skills systems so complex and incentives so distorted that I sometimes wondered whether industry was involved with this policy at all. The courses seemed to have nothing to do with the world of work.
To put power in the hands of students, I recall suggesting student maintenance loans for technical courses back in 2010. I am beginning to feel that someone has been listening. I was delighted by the introduction of the apprenticeship levy last year. The Budget is the second stage of this skills strategy for industry. Of course, it will take time to deliver real change, but with academies, the apprenticeship levy, the thousand doctorates in applied research and mid-career research fellowships we now have the outlines of a technical education system that offers student support and quality courses from UTC to PhD.
There is, of course, much more to do. I urge the Minister to open up maintenance loans to technical students doing high-level courses at any good education provider, not just the institutes of technology and national colleges. In the last Budget, the Chancellor announced an apprenticeship centre that would create 1,000 apprentices by 2020. We have already got 500, in partnership with many companies throughout the country. If we stick to our guns and do not change, I think we have a chance of fixing the problem.