My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Leigh on securing this debate and on leading us off today with such trenchant commentary. I echo much of his analysis when it comes to highlighting the Government's track record on supporting private sector job creation. While this month’s ONS statistics are cause for celebration—indeed, for optimism in this uncertain time—the narrative is a longer one and dates back to the formation of the coalition Government, as others have already mentioned. That act kicked off an extended period of private sector job growth, which we are still talking about today. At the time, the long-term economic plan spearheaded by George Osborne was criticised and many said that it would not work, but it did. For every public sector job cut, there were 11 private sector jobs created. What is more, the Government took steps, through the tax system and the national living wage, to make work pay. So jobs have not only been created but are paying more, allowing people to keep more of the money they earn.
But challenges remain, and it is to those that I now turn. I particularly want to focus on technology, its possible impact on the labour market and the opportunities it presents to give a much-needed boost to our productivity, which, as my noble friend Lord Leigh has pointed out, still languishes. I will highlight the important role that artificial intelligence might play in this, following the report of last year’s House of Lords Select Committee, of which I was fortunate to be a part. We heard evidence from a variety of sources that artificial intelligence could boost productivity but that we have work to do when it comes to adoption. Evidence from Sage said that,
“companies currently spend an average of 120 working-days per year on administrative tasks. This accounts for around 5% of the total manpower for the average Small & Medium Sized Business”.
The tools exist to change this, but they are not being deployed. Sage further suggested that if UK business was to become 5% more productive, GDP could increase by £33.9 billion a year. The committee proposed an enhanced role for government to support the uptake of AI solutions by businesses large and small.
The committee also found that one of the central challenges to realising this opportunity was access to skills. Balderton Capital, a venture capital firm, told us:
“The skills required to build competitive … start-ups today are relatively rare, and as a result the costs for starting a company in”,
the artificial intelligence space,
“are higher than other areas of technology”.
The committee worked through some possible solutions, focusing on the number and nature of degree, postgrad and PhD places available in the field of AI, and what the Alan Turing Institute could do to support this.
But one area we also looked at was more obvious yet more profound still—the lack of women working in technology. The ONS statistics we are debating today show female employment is at 72%, the joint highest on record. This is a milestone to be celebrated, but few of these women are working in technology. If we want to build a pipeline of talent to support industries such as AI, we cannot do so by working with only half the labour force.
PwC research has found that 27% of female students only said they would consider a career in technology, compared to 61% of males, and only 3% of females said it would be their first choice. This needs to change. The PwC research underpins an important initiative called “Tech She Can”, a charter for companies to sign up to, which sets out commitments they will take to increase the number of women working in technology. Importantly, this involves a strand on creating role models. Too many girls in school think technology is not for them, because of the lack of visible successful women working there. This too must change.
Similarly, organisations such as the Return Hub enable women to relaunch a career after an extended break. We need to do more to promote women returners, capitalise on the talent that already exists in our labour market and better connect it to the industries of the future. If we can achieve this, sectors such as AI may access the talent they need to realise the potential of the technology and, importantly, deliver productivity gains for the whole of the UK. More women in work is a good thing. More women working in our productive cutting-edge technology-driven industries is better still.