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Economy: Productivity

Volume 769: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the United Kingdom’s productivity in relation to that of other European Union and G20 states.

My Lords, UK productivity levels hover around the middle of the park in relation to the G20 and the EU28. We face a significant, ongoing and long-standing productivity gap with the most productive nations of the world, such as the United States. The Government have of course recognised that and, within the overall fiscal framework, are working to remedy the problems and fulfil the challenge they set themselves in last summer’s productivity plan, Fixing the Foundations.

My Lords, given that UK productivity is, by 29%, worse than French or German productivity and that in the vital area of financial services, according to the Office for National Statistics, we have deteriorated badly over the past six years, is there any prospect that this Government might redouble some of their own productivity? For instance, in the area of infrastructural services—rail, road and air— decisions might be made more quickly and effectively to provide the basis for improved productivity. Finally, in order to help smaller firms, which need help, will the Minister turn his attention to the HMRC decision to break off the valuation check service this March?

My Lords, the noble Lord asked a number of questions and I shall plump for the middle one. I assume that many Members of the House have not had a chance to digest the details of today’s Budget, but I am very pleased to say that we are accelerating our infrastructure plans, on which there is already quite impressive independent evidence. I could highlight a number of things that have been announced today. One that is very dear to my heart is that we are accelerating—compared with before, and taking on board the full recommendations of the independent National Infrastructure Commission—so-called HS3. In particular, the target is for the train journey time from Leeds to Manchester to drop to 30 minutes.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we could set an example in this House of increasing productivity if we asked rather shorter questions?

My Lords, as a novice and relative newcomer, I sometimes quite like long questions as it gives me less time to answer them. However, as a general intention, it would be welcomed.

My Lords, the Minister is a specialist on productivity and therefore obviously agrees with the American economist who said that productivity, in the long run, is the only thing that matters. Of course, it certainly was the basis of the success of the British economy during the Industrial Revolution. How is it, therefore, that the UK is still sixth out of the G7 countries and this Government are making no progress, apart from vague announcements about infrastructure which rarely come to fruition? We are making no progress on improvements in productivity per worker at all. Until we do so, we will not be able to clear our debts and have a position in the world that others respect.

My Lords, there are many complex aspects to the ongoing productivity puzzle around the world, and I do not have time to speak to many of the issues that the noble Lord implied in his question. I remind the House that next week we will have a debate on the Budget, when I will have the chance to go into some of the issues in more detail. However, in a recent discussion with independent directors at the Treasury, I was particularly pleased to hear them commend the Government’s efforts to boost productivity through their policies and to address some of the long-term, powerful weaknesses of the UK.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a strong link between innovation and productivity and that Britain continues to lag well behind our competitors in business R&D? Can he tell the House precisely how the Government are proposing to encourage businesses to increase their contribution to R&D?

My Lords, among the many complexities that I hinted at is the separate evidence about the UK’s standing in the world on a number of matters. Particularly in our universities, the UK’s performance in R&D is rising in the relevant tables, which contrasts with some of the measurements of productivity. That is among the many puzzling aspects of ongoing developments here and elsewhere.

My Lords, further to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, is not productivity measured in terms of output per head? Therefore, if people are fleeing unemployment in Europe to come to this country in uncontrolled numbers, is it not a fact that, by definition, our productivity will fall?

My Lords, I suspect that there is a broader theme in that very interesting question from my noble friend. We have to be careful that in the justified and appropriate desire to boost productivity, we do not do anything untoward to reverse the remarkable success in raising employment levels. I say that on a day when we have hit yet another new high. Although people from my background and many others are aware of the importance of productivity, most individuals in our country want to have jobs, and that is what is increasingly taking place.

My Lords, do the Government accept that a falling 9% of our economy trades in deficit with the single market, that a growing 11% goes in surplus to the rest of the world, that 80% stays right here in our domestic economy, but that 100% is strangled by EU overregulation? What does this situation do for our national productivity, and how much would it improve if we left the EU and traded freely with the single market and the rest of the world?

My Lords, again, that was quite a long question with many different aspects to it. We are heavily focused on doing things to boost our productivity in many areas, including our export performance. However, I highlight—again, I would like the chance to come back to this issue—that the best exporting sectors are not necessarily always the most productive. Some of the regional data available from around the UK show that the services sectors appear to be doing better than that question implies.