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Volume 639: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2018

Productivity, as I have already said, is at the very forefront of the Government’s agenda. That is why we established the national productivity investment fund, a £31 billion package of investment in infrastructure and research and development, and committed to introducing a national retraining scheme, which we are developing in partnership with the CBI and the TUC to ensure that British workers have the skills they need to benefit from technology change. The focus now has to be on moving forward with firm-level initiatives, such as Be the Business led by Charlie Mayfield and Made Smarter led by Juergen Maier, that start to look at the challenges we face at the level of the firm in this country to make sure that we are doing what we need to do not only in infrastructure and skills but in investment in management at the level of the firm.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all the steps he is taking, with the Government, to improve productivity, which is very badly needed indeed in our economy? Does he agree that it is becoming increasingly difficult, with a very modern, interconnected, internet-driven economy, to successfully garner the information needed to truly assess how well we are doing on productivity and across the whole scale of Government statistics on the economy? Does he agree that this is first-order business and that we need to get this matter resolved so we may have a better picture overall?

My right hon. Friend is right that there is some evidence of a measurement challenge around the productivity figures. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) asked a few moments ago about the relationship between rising wage costs and continued economic and employment growth. The question is why the tightening labour market is not driving a higher productivity performance and whether an element of that is in fact a management challenge. A great deal of time and energy is being spent on this issue. Indeed, the figures on productivity for the last two quarters do, on the face of it, show some improvement. Now, one swallow does not make a spring and we should be very cautious about interpreting—even a summer, Mr Speaker. I am even less ambitious! We should be very cautious about interpreting those figures, but, as we see record high levels of employment in the economy, we should expect them to help to drive the UK economy’s productivity performance.

I listened to my right hon. Friend set out the Government’s plans for investment in transport and infrastructure a few moments ago. What direct impact on productivity does he expect those investments to have in the regions where they occur?

We are undertaking the largest rail investment programme since Victorian times and the largest road investment programme since the 1970s. Overall, the Government are now investing public capital at the highest rate for 40 years. This is one of the components that drives productivity in one of the areas where we have a long-standing gap with our principal competitors: too little public infrastructure. We are closing that gap and that will have a positive impact on productivity growth, but we still have to tackle skills, capability at the level of the firm, and access to capital. It is an important strand, but it is only one strand of the productivity conundrum.

As the Chancellor just said, skills are a crucial plank of improving the nation’s productivity. Since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, apprenticeships have collapsed. The Government have also slashed resources for further education institutions, such as the excellent Bishop Auckland College in my constituency, so what is the Chancellor going to do about the middle-level skills base?

The Government are highly committed to the apprenticeship programme. I recognise that starts are down—we always expected that—but something else is happening, because analysis shows that now that employers are contributing with their own levy to apprenticeship programmes, they are opting for higher-level apprenticeships. There are fewer starts than we expected, but we are seeing a much higher level of apprenticeship. There are more degree-level apprenticeships and more apprenticeships at the higher levels. The Department for Education and the Treasury are looking carefully at how this is working—[Interruption.] This is a serious issue, but the important question is about making sure that the skills that the economy needs are generated.

The only productivity figures worse than the UK’s are the Chancellor’s—that is not an insult, but a statement of the blindingly obvious. Is he aware that a recent TUC assessment indicated that, in effect, the UK economy is on a negative trajectory? GDP growth is weak—on an annual basis, it is the weakest it has been for five years—and hours worked have declined. Public investment lags significantly behind that of our comparators. Wages remain stagnant and inflation is stubbornly high. What is his answer to this—perhaps a tweet, and maybe with a smiley emoji this time?

Not for the first time, I do not recognise the picture of our economy that is painted by Opposition Front Benchers. Figures today tell us that we have new record high numbers of people in employment, and new record low unemployment figures. That should be something that we are celebrating. Real wages are forecast to turn positive from this quarter and to go on growing thereafter. Employment is expected to grow by another 500,000 by 2022. We are working hard to ensure that productivity performance increases across the economy because that is the only sustainable way to achieve higher wages and higher living standards.

Order. I am afraid that progress has been terribly slow today. I would like to get through some more questions from Back Benchers, but we will need to have single-sentence questions and pithy replies. We do not have time for long pre-prepared speeches.