Workers (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:46 pm on 8 February 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 1:46, 8 February 2024

My Lords, I was privileged to be part of the committee that delivered this report, serving under the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, who has so effectively presented the conclusions in our report and given an update based on the additional data that has become available. I am probably rather redundant in this debate, but that has never stopped me before and I am afraid it will not do so today.

Economic activity matters to economic growth—the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, rehearsed this issue well—so it was not great news when on Monday the ONS revised its figures for the three months to November 2023, showing economic inactivity at 21.9% rather than 20.8%. I accept, as the noble Lords, Lord Bridges and Lord Willetts, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and others have pointed out, that the ONS is finding it extremely difficult to get sound survey statistics in this changing labour market. On its behalf, I point out that it is not alone; the FT ran an article last week entitled “Guess the US job numbers”. This is really difficult, and we must accept that we will never get pure statistics, but our goal must be to get enough to drive us in the right direction.

It is clear from all the numbers we have that Covid left a different impact in the UK from other developed countries, as the noble Lords, Lord Skidelsky, Lord Turnbull and Lord Bilimoria, pointed out. Other countries found that economic inactivity during the Covid period recovered post Covid, but we have found the reverse. If anything, it has intensified. It is important to say that, when we began our report, we honestly did not expect to find that early retirement among the 50 to 64 year-old cohort would be such a powerful factor in economic inactivity. If anything, we assumed when we began that a post-Covid rise in sickness and long NHS waiting lists would be the cause. They are important parts of the problem, but our report clearly demonstrates that increased ill health, as others have said, typically came after retirement rather than causing it.

The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, caught this rather well. The scale of the significant lifestyle change that we identified, which caught me unawares, is still in many ways a mystery. We have heard a number of potential answers to that question today. The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, talked about terms and conditions and the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, about people just not finding their work enjoyable. The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, and others also addressed this and the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, gave us an example from veterinary services of why it is so hard to retain people in work, which must be part of their choosing early retirement. We almost have a vicious circle; as people fall out of the workforce, the stress that falls on those who remain is higher than ever. I very much hope the Minister will explore this and that the Government will do significantly more work in this area. I know that the OBR is treating this cohort of 50 to 64 year-olds retiring early as a temporary change; I am less sure, but that is another reason why we need to explore this.

However, I do not think that recognising early retirement negates the urgency of dealing with the NHS backlog. Virtually every speaker made the point that this is a critical area on which we must focus. If people in the 50 to 64 retired cohort become and remain ill, any chance that they will rejoin the workforce is pretty much lost, no matter what support and incentives are on offer. Yesterday’s ONS figures suggesting that some 2 million people in work are underperforming because of sickness underscore the issue. There was a further warning in more recent evidence given to the Economic Affairs Committee, on a different issue, by Richard Hughes, chair of the OBR:

“People used to be getting healthier as they aged, but the data has been more disappointing recently, in the sense that you are getting more years of unhealthy life rather than more years of healthy life”.

We have to find a way to change that, for many reasons, including the workforce. I see no way other than a significant investment in reform to increase services and deal with both prevention and treatment. The noble Lord, Lord Layard, underscored the importance of ensuring that mental health is not neglected in that focus on reforming health and investing in improved health.

In undertaking this report, we were beginning to focus on a much more fundamental problem which may not have been as fully discussed in this debate: the changing ratio between our working-age population in the UK and our dependant population. Richard Hughes said:

“The underlying demographics remain pretty stark, in the sense that, in the 1970s, we had about two people in work for every one person in retirement. At the moment, we have about one and a half people in work for every one person in retirement. By the time we get out to 2070, we have only one person in work for every one person in retirement”.

This is despite expected future increases in the state pension age. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, has a point: for some jobs it is easy to think of asking people to work longer, but for many it would not be appropriate.

There was a time, perhaps until 2018 or 2019—and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, made this point—that bringing women into the workforce and raising the state pension age and free movement sustained our working-age population. The first two have largely run their course, and, as we know, free movement has ended. This is not a debate on immigration or Brexit, but I am quite taken with the fact that, according to the OBR, historic data showed EU migrants as having higher employment rates and making fewer demands on public services than the general population, while migrants under the current system are now forecast to mirror the population. This highlights that we need a proper immigration debate in which workforce issues are properly included, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, underscored that point.

This is also not a debate on productivity, but obviously increases in productivity can substitute for workforce. The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, talked about technical and educational qualifications, and indeed childcare, as playing an important part in releasing people into the workforce. Better training, better use of the apprenticeship levy and return to work schemes are all important, but we should not fool ourselves that these will provide us with a sufficient number of people to make up the workforce shortfall in the demographics we are looking at.

Like a lot of people, I very much hope that Al will give us a productivity revolution and, essentially, resolve our demographic shortfall. One hears this spoken of widely. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol made the point that AI comes with many issues, complications and moral questions. I would add another word of caution around the simple assumption that AI will drive forward this kind of change in productivity. The House will remember that, many years ago, we discussed the notion that first came the agricultural revolution, which drove up productivity, and then the Industrial Revolution drove it up, and then in the 1990s we expected that the digital revolution would follow the same pattern. But in the UK at least—quite a number of noble Lords have talked about our weak productivity performance—the digital revolution changed the way we work but led to no rise in our productivity.

I am desperately concerned that, in looking at this issue—the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, gave us the statistics on how productivity has been scraping along, barely above zero—we recognise that, if we are going to use AI as the offset, we need a proper strategy in place to be able to do so. It has got to be comprehensive and challenging, and not the bitty and scattered arrangements or pieces of policy that we have today.

I close by picking up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Davies. Frankly, the Government’s reply to the report is pretty complacent and largely misses the point. It does not recognise the scale of the issue that we are dealing with. Yes, we need better data, but we also need the Government to understand that there are real and fundamental issues around the size of the workforce and our demographic profile. These issues have to be thought through and encompassed in every plan that we have for the economy, or else we will not see the economic growth that we want to see to sustain our population and our quality of life.