The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate a number of the Government’s key economic priorities. I will begin, however, by singing the praise of my Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Scotland. Not only is he outstanding as a Secretary of State, but today he made a very important announcement about what in many ways should be his private life, although it is not because it is in the public domain. It took great courage, and I am hugely proud to sit in the Cabinet with him. I can see nods all around the Chamber in support of our Secretary of State at what might be a difficult time for many, but I am sure for him is a very happy day. Finally, he can be the man he has always been, and can sing out and be proud of being that man. I pay tribute to him and I am pleased we all agree on that.
It is absolutely right and appropriate for the Secretary of State for Scotland’s Cabinet colleague to announce her support in the Chamber, and Scottish National party Members welcome what has been said. In terms of the debate, however, and notwithstanding that we hope he is happy, may we say that we fundamentally disagree with his politics?
I took that as read! I put it on the record that the First Minister for Scotland has tweeted her support. Frankly, I am not surprised. In this day and age, I think most people will just shrug their shoulders and say, “Yeah, whatever. Am I bothered?” Of course we are not. We celebrate what is, and should be, a happy day for my right hon. Friend.
Let us get on with the debate. The motion before us refers to the United Kingdom economy and economic growth. I wish to take a very quick trip down memory lane to put this debate into context, because that is important. The hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) talked about the Government’s record. I want to talk about the past six or seven months, but I also want to talk about the previous five years, notably to remind everybody of the situation we faced back in May 2010. It is important to remind everybody that at that time we were in the worst recession that our nation, the United Kingdom, had faced for 100 years: the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history and over half a million more people on the dole. That was the situation that we on the Government Benches had to pick up: an economy brought to its knees and on the brink of bankruptcy from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and from London to Inverness and Bodmin. All across our nation, we saw a country on its knees.
To save us from that economic mire we had to take some very difficult decisions to control spending, reduce the deficit and rescue our economy. Those decisions, every single one of them, were opposed by the parties sitting on the Opposition Benches, notably Labour and the SNP. Each and every decision was opposed. How wrong they were. It is thanks to the hard work of the British people that our economic plan has worked and continues to work. The deficit is down by more than half, there are over 2.2 million more people in work, and there are over 900,000 more businesses. The United Kingdom has been the fastest-growing economy in the advanced world. That is a record of which Government Members are proud.
Scotland has been part of that success story. It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Dundee East has just made us a long speech full of doom and gloom, trotting out this, that and the other and talking down the Scottish economy, because it is part of the United Kingdom economy. That is wrong and sad, because there is a success story.
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con)
Although the SNP spokesman spoke for over half an hour about trade, export, innovation and productivity, he did not once mention free markets, entrepreneurship or the power of deregulation. Is it not this Government’s priority to focus on those issues to ensure we can achieve the goals we are setting?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; I could not agree more. There was lots of moaning and complaining, but no solutions, no ideas and no fresh ways of thinking—not one. It was all doom and gloom, and talking down our economy.
George Kerevan (East Lothian) (SNP)
In the Minister’s history lesson on the long-term economic plan, to which plan is she referring? Is she referring to the plan from the first two years, when the Chancellor desperately tried to reduce public spending, or the one that followed the first two years when he listened to those on the Opposition Benches and loosened up on public spending, with the result that the economy then started to grow?
I am sorry the hon. Gentleman did not hear me, so I will repeat what I said. I am referring to the long-term economic plan that delivered a deficit down by more than half, 2.2 million more people in work and 900,000 more businesses, and the long-term economic plan that made this country the fastest-growing economy in the advanced world. That is what I am referring to, and I do so with pride.
Scotland has been a part of that success story. Since 2010, we have 178,000 more people in work and over 60,000 more businesses in Scotland—economic growth that has all occurred north of the border. This has been a recovery based on private sector growth, employment and living within our means. Both the SNP and the Labour party are wedded to abandoning fiscal responsibility and putting our economic security at risk. Government Members know the job is not done. We know we must oppose Opposition Members who would return to the bad old ways and days of spending beyond our means.
We know that to lock in our future economic security and prosperity, we need our businesses to increase their exports, boost productivity and continue to innovate to stay ahead. We believe in cutting red tape, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) told us. We believe in all the good strong parts of a free economy, an economy that does not believe in over-regulating people but allows businesses to get on and do business—the thing that they know best. That does not mean to say I am an ideologue who is absolutely wedded to a free market without any constraint. Of course not. I am absolutely a caring, compassionate Conservative. I do not believe in monopolies. I do believe in responsibility among all who do business, which is why I am so proud that the Government are bringing forward the living wage. That is a true benefit to workers across our country, especially the lowest paid. I am very proud of all we have achieved on that.
David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con)
Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
I will give way to my hon. Friend and then to the hon. Lady.
Does the Minister agree that Government Members are equally committed to encouraging first-time entrepreneurs, first-time employers and first-time exporters to be able to do things that perhaps their parents have never done before, and that in that way we are also encouraging social mobility?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. New small businesses and start-ups that scale up are absolutely at the heart of everything we seek to achieve, because we understand their value. It takes great courage for somebody to start their own business. We do what we can to assist them, for example through start-up loans. By devolving right down to a local level, through local enterprise partnerships, business growth hubs and the other measures we have put in place, we are ensuring that help, assistance and advice are available to them as they start up and begin to grow their business. In particular, we are doing the right thing by small businesses by reducing the regulatory burden. We achieved a lot in the past five years in government. We have more to achieve. It will be tough, but we are absolutely determined to do that.
My hon. Friend makes another important point. Starting up one’s own business is a great way for somebody to shake off their past—and the things in their background perhaps in danger of holding them back—and advance in the way that we want people to do. That is what brought people like me into politics: a desire to make the lives of everybody, especially those from less-advantaged families and backgrounds, better. I believe that our economic policy will continue to achieve exactly that.
I said I would give way to the hon. Lady.
I thank the Minister for giving way; I am glad she has not quite forgotten about me. Does she agree that there is actually no comfort in the new minimum wage for workers under the age of 25, as they will not qualify for it? They will still languish on about £3.87 an hour, which is not good enough.
What is very interesting is the number of companies introducing the new living wage, irrespective of the age of their employees. I absolutely welcome that. For every good thing we do, however, there is always somebody who knocks us and wants something more. There is nothing wrong with wanting more, but people should give credit where credit is due. This is a huge achievement, and I am proud the Conservative party has done it.
I have to say that I really struggle to take lessons on the economy from the Scottish National party. It is a party that built its whole idea of independence, which mercifully the good people of Scotland rejected, on the idea that oil was going to be the lubricant—the foundation—of their independent economy. Goodness me! Oil is now $35 a barrel, and it is accepted that if the SNP had been successful, the cost would have been somewhere in the region of £5,000 for every single household. Scotland would have been in the most atrocious economic place if it had voted for independence—thank goodness the good people of Scotland took the wise decision that we were undoubtedly better together. It is therefore really difficult for me to take lessons from this rag, tag and bobtail SNP, which encompasses everything from tartan Tories to tartan Trots. It is going to be very interesting, as the Smith report—
I will give way in a moment; I’m on a roll.
As the Smith report is implemented and the Scotland Bill comes into force, the SNP will finally have the powers it seeks—it will be the most devolved Government in the world—and it will be interesting to see—
In a moment.
Then the SNP will have responsibility, and we will see whether it will be able to deliver. I would bet good money that it will not be able to.
The Minister is making an interesting speech, but I must challenge her on this flailing economy. The Government were meant to have eradicated the debt by 2015 and they have only halved it. They are borrowing £73.5 billion this year, so the Minister is obviously putting a positive spin on this economic plan. Let us see how long it lasts—the Government have been giving warning signs that it might not. To pick up on what the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) said, the IMF has said that if we invest more in the 20% on the lowest incomes, we will boost economic growth—something that the Government have singularly failed to do. Why have they not done that?
The IMF has been wholesome in its praise of our economic plan and the successes we have had. Much as I may like the hon. Lady on a personal level, I really struggle to take lessons from her. The last Labour Government doubled debt, whereas we have “only” halved the deficit. I am rather proud of “only” halving the deficit, while we see from her words that the poor old Labour party cannot learn from the mistakes of the past. Goodness knows the route it is now embarking on under its current leadership, but it looks set to be in opposition for a long time.
Will the Minister just answer one question: has debt gone up under this Government?
Our debt has gone up; I am not—[Interruption.] All right; it is not about scoring cheap political points, as the hon. Gentleman knows—obviously I would never engage in such a thing—but he cannot deny that 2 million more people are in work. That is part of our proud record. He should be praising that. The Labour party would do well to do that when we do the right thing. Over 2 million more people in work—why can the hon. Gentleman not give credit where credit is due?
It only took the Minister 12 minutes to revert to type. “Rag, tag and bobtail” if she likes, but that is as nothing compared with how the Scottish people describe her party. However, let me clear up just one little fact about the oil price, which I thought she might raise. Yes, we said it would be $110 a barrel. That is absolutely correct, but can we be absolutely clear that the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change had the barrel price at between $114 and $127, and at the very least admit that the UK Government got it wrong?
But the point is that the hon. Gentleman and his party were basing the whole of Scotland’s economic future on oil. How mad was that?
Several hon. Members rose—
I will give way in a moment; I just want to say something about trade and exports, because it is important. Otherwise, I will be speaking for far too long and Madam Deputy Speaker will admonish me, and rightly so.
In considering trade and exports, we should recall the importance of the United Kingdom’s large domestic market and the benefits it brings to all parts of the UK. The rest of the UK is by far and away Scotland’s biggest economic partner. Sixty-three per cent of all Scottish exports go to the rest of the UK. The biggest threat to Scottish exports is the SNP, which would put up barriers between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Trade and exports are a key element of continuing to grow the UK’s economy, which is why this Government are committed to making it easier for companies to export. We provide support to companies wanting to export, through UK Trade & Investment, and work with other Governments to reduce barriers to trade. Our trade deficit narrowed by £0.3 billion in the three months to November, and the number of companies exporting both in the UK and Scotland is up since 2010, but we know we have a lot further to go.
Delivering on all the EU’s trade negotiations could add £20 billion to the UK economy annually. We know that trade agreements work. In the four years since the EU-Korea free trade agreement came into force, the value of UK exports has more than doubled. We have seen a 1,000% increase in the value of jet engine sales. The UK sold just 2,315 cars to Korea in the final year before the FTA was agreed. Last year, that number reached 13,337, and it is not just the big companies that benefit. One Scottish business was able to sell 100,000 jars of jam in Korea last year, after the FTA slashed import duties. That is why this Government are committed to delivering freer global trade, concluding major trade deals with the United States, Japan and many other trading partners.
That, as hon. Members might imagine, brings me to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Last year I responded to the debate in the House about TTIP. I am not going to repeat all the things I said, but it really is disingenuous of those on the SNP Benches—and, indeed, on the Labour Benches—to oppose TTIP on the utterly false premise that it would threaten our public services, in particular the NHS. It is not true. There are so many letters, including—I think a number of hon. Members were in that debate, so they will remember—the letter from the EU, which was written in December 2014, to the Chair of the Select Committee on Health, who had asked specific questions about whether TTIP posed any threat to our national health service. Every time the answer was an overwhelming no. Everybody who could have said, “There is no threat from TTIP to any of our public services, especially the NHS”, has said it, over and over again. It is grossly unfortunate that Opposition Members and Opposition parties peddle these untruths about TTIP. It is simply not right or fair to mislead people as they are.
There does seem to be some ambiguity, because despite the letter to the Select Committee, we have evidence saying completely the opposite. In view of that ambiguity, why does the Minister not say that the NHS will be exempt from TTIP and rule it out completely?
I do not know how many times I have said it, but I am going to send all the information to the hon. Lady. It will say all these things and make it absolutely clear that TTIP is not a threat to our public services and our NHS. In fact, on the contrary, it will deliver billions of pounds of wealth to our economy, because it will free up trade between us and the USA. I think Opposition Members have got to be honest about it. I think the real problem is their prejudice against the USA. They should fess up and be honest about it, because they are creating bogeys that do not exist.
Callum McCaig (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
If I may return to the oil price and the sheer joy that Members in the Chamber expressed at the collapse in the oil price—I look at the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), who is sitting directly behind the Minister, and the joy and almost delight that were on his face. In the real world, in the constituency I represent, that means jobs are being lost. The Minister has expressed her delight at Scotland staying in the Union, so can she explain to me what the Union is doing to help Scotland at its moment of need?
It is not for me to speak on behalf of others, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there was no joy on the Government Benches at the fall in the oil price. The joy, I would like to think, was at the point I made, and made rather well. The hon. Gentleman is in a party that put all its faith in the oil price as the salvation of Scotland’s economy and it was absolutely wrong. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not knowing the constituency he represents, but I suspect it is in the north-east of Scotland. He makes a good point, and this is the only good point, about the concerns we all have about the future of the oil and gas industry.
I am well aware of the importance of the oil industry to north-east Scotland. I am also well aware of the redundancies announced yesterday by BP, and I agree that there is much that we—the hon. Gentleman should note the “we” bit—can do. It would be so good for the UK Government to work with the Scottish Government to make sure that we do all we can. We have a fantastic oil industry, based largely in Aberdeen, that is one of the finest in the world. There is much that we can do, working together, to make sure that we do not see further job losses, especially on the scale we have seen.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I want to make some progress.
I thank the Minister for what she has just said, which was helpful. However, she has twice made the incorrect and false assertion that we based any forecast only on oil, which was never true. The Minister has accused others of misleading the public over the approach to TTIP; I hope she does not want to mislead the public over her assertion that the economy is based solely on one industry.
I am afraid I do not agree.
David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con)
It is a fair challenge to remind the Government how important the oil industry is to our country. That is why on Monday we will debate the Energy Bill, which enacts the findings of the Wood review. The review was much required and greatly sought by the industry, and I very much hope, as I am sure does the Minister, that Labour Members will support it.
I cannot add to my hon. Friend’s extremely good and well-made point.
Let me now move on to deal with the important issue of productivity. Delivering a return to productivity growth is one of the key economic challenges for this Parliament and the route to raising living standards for everyone in the UK. We have lagged behind other major economies—let us be honest about it—for decades, and productivity in Scotland is still 2.5% below the UK average. That is why we are determined to fix it, although I shall not pretend that there are any short-term measures. This is going to take some time and a lot of hard work.
In last year’s summer Budget, the Chancellor set out the Government’s ambitious plan, “Fixing the foundations: creating a more prosperous nation”. That ensures that we do everything possible to deliver higher productivity in the UK. Skills and education are, of course, key to improving productivity, and we have invested in skills, delivering 2 million apprenticeships in the last Parliament, with 3 million to be delivered in this Parliament.
Our education reforms are already raising standards. Unfortunately, under the SNP, standards of numeracy and literacy in Scotland have been falling, and fewer of Scotland’s most deprived children attend a university compared with any other part of the UK—just 10.3% of the poorest 20% of Scots attend university, compared with 18.1% in England, 16.3% in Wales and 16.3% in Northern Ireland. We have also protected science spending, with £4.7 billion per year in resource and £6.9 billion in infrastructure to 2021. We continue to invest in our catapult centres.
We are delivering one of the largest and most ambitious infrastructure programmes in recent memory, with projects such as HS2, which I have no doubt everybody should back because it will bring huge benefit to our country, especially to my constituency, as we hope to have the east midlands hub in Toton. In addition there is Crossrail, a huge project across the capital, and the largest investment in our roads since the 1970s. We are beginning to see signs of improvement. Output per hour grew by 0.5% in the third quarter of 2015 compared with the previous quarter, and was 1.3% higher than for the same period in 2014. UK productivity has exceeded its previous peak by 0.7%.
Alongside trade, innovation is another pillar on which our economy is built. Innovation is an important lever for increasing productivity. The excellent work of my colleague, the Minister for Universities and Science, has ensured that science spending is protected in real terms, with record investment across the UK—£4.7 billion per year in resource funding, rising with inflation, and record investment in our country’s scientific infrastructure, at £6.9 billion to 2021. The Government will protect all that in cash terms, with total spending on business-led innovation coming through Innovate UK.
We recognise that access to finance remains an important challenge for innovative enterprises, which is why we are committed to introducing new types of finance products to support companies to innovate. New products such as loans will replace some existing Innovate UK grants, and will reach £165 million by 2019-20. In 2014 alone, more than £2 billion was raised in venture capital in the UK—up 50% on the previous year. I see no reason why the UK cannot be Europe’s number one destination for innovation finance.
I understand why the Government might want to change the way in which some research and development is financed, but does the Minister accept that, given the long lead-in time for many R and D projects, loans are not appropriate and will lead to innovation and research either going outside the UK or stopping altogether?
We are taking time to bring them in. It is, of course, a mix. In some instances, providing loans is absolutely the right thing to do, whereas in others we might well provide a grant. Flexibility is the right approach, and this allows us to put in the necessary money, even in these difficult times. I think we are doing the right thing about that.
The Federation of Small Businesses report on productivity identifies late payments to small businesses as one of the key issues. Will the Minister commit to addressing cash retention in the construction industry—a key issue that is due to come before us again in the Enterprise Bill?
I realise that there is a good argument in favour, but we are conducting a consultation. As the hon. Lady knows, my door is open. I would be more than happy to discuss it with her because I know about the powerful arguments in favour, but there are also strong arguments against it. The consultation might allow us to make some progress.
Roger Mullin (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
I must make some more progress on my speech, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman first.
I thank the Minister. Is she aware that yesterday the Medical Research Council issued a briefing paper about the move from grants to loans? It said that
“the Biomedical Catalyst may not continue”.
I have not seen that paper and I am not going to pretend that I have. I always view it as important not to comment on things that have not been read or on issues that might have been taken out of context. Perhaps I will drop the hon. Gentleman a letter, when I have had the opportunity to read the paper.
The Minister makes a good point about innovation. One change that the Treasury has made is to enable ISAs to be used to provide peer-to-peer lending. Will she therefore have some conversations with her colleagues in the Treasury about making it possible within ISAs to make equity investments to small private companies?
That is a very good point, and the straight answer is simply yes. If my hon. Friend would like to continue the conversation after this debate, I would be more than happy to do so.
This Government continue to encourage business investment in research and development through tax incentives. Take-up of this scheme continues to grow, with 18,200 companies claiming £1.75 billion of relief from £14.3 billion of innovative investment. In Scotland, there were 1,045 claims, giving a total relief of £55 million. That means more investment in R and D, more high-value jobs and greater productivity.
The Government continue to invest in our catapult network, and the first seven catapults are now operating from their established facilities with total public and private investment exceeding £1.6 billion over their first five years of operation. These include Offshore Renewable Energy in Glasgow and the Advanced Forming research centre in Strathclyde, which is part of the high-value manufacturing catapult. As we have taken the difficult decisions to fix Britain’s finances, we can afford to continue to invest in science and innovation, investing in Scotland’s future and helping to ensure Scotland punches above its weight.
That is the point. If we have a good, solid and sound economy that is growing, we will be able to do all this type of work. We will be able to spend taxpayers’ money to support our great British businesses and particularly the ones that are so innovative in their approach and in the work they do.
To conclude, Madam Deputy Speaker—
Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
Oh, go on, then.
Before the Minister concludes, may I ask her to address the issues that are currently affecting the steel industry? During the steel summit back in October, UK Steel presented a strong case for the urgent action it needed the Government to take. Some recognised the Government good will in relation to energy prices and energy costs, but I must impress on the Minister that this is a very difficult time for steel, particularly in the south Wales area I represent. Yes, the Government have acted on energy costs, but what are they doing about the other issues that were raised at the summit?
We are absolutely delivering, and not just on energy costs. I am hugely proud of the way in which we have changed the procurement rules. The hon. Lady knows that we are determined to continue to do everything we can to keep what the Prime Minister has called a vital industry in production. We do not want to see the blast furnaces close at Port Talbot any more than we want to see them close at Scunthorpe. I note that the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), as ever, is present. No doubt she will want to intervene at this point, but I must move quickly on; perhaps she will join in the debate later. Let me say to her that if we could have done anything to secure SSI, we would have, because we recognise the importance of the steel industry to the British economy. She can have that assurance. Indeed, the same is true at Dalzell and at Clydebridge. I pay tribute to the Scottish Government: I have been pleased to work with the Deputy First Minister in trying to ensure that we do all we can to keep those two plants open in Scotland.
Trade, exports, innovation and productivity are vital components of the Government’s strategy. That is why we have developed a clear plan of action, and why Scotland, and indeed all parts of the United Kingdom, benefit from our continued commitment to those key priorities. Scotland has been a part of the economic and jobs success story of the last six years as our economic plan for the whole United Kingdom continues to deliver economic security and prosperity for all our people. The biggest threat to businesses, growth and jobs would be a Scotland isolated and cut off from the United Kingdom, led by a party that wants to return to the failed policies of more spending and more borrowing that led us to economic oblivion last time.
Let us stick to the plan that has rescued our economy from the brink and turned it into the fastest-growing economy in the advanced world, and is now tackling the long-term structural issues head-on to ensure that there is a more secure future not just for our children but, notably, for our grandchildren. I will not support the motion, and I urge other Members not to support it either.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab)
Let me begin by conveying apologies from the shadow Business Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who is in Brussels today meeting members of the European Commission and the European Parliament to discuss, in fact, many of the issues that we are discussing here today.
In her speech, the Minister indulged in something of a history lesson about what happened in 2010. I fought that election as a candidate for the first time, and I well remember making the case that in 2010 we faced half the levels of unemployment, repossessions and business failures that we had faced during the comparable Tory recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. The Labour Government had a record of protecting jobs, businesses and people’s homes. The economy was recovering in May 2010, when the coalition took office, but that recovery was choked off by the Chancellor’s emergency Budget in June. I am afraid that ever since then, as other Members have pointed out and as we know from the figures that were discussed earlier, the recovery has been the slowest on record. That is the true record of this Government when it comes to the economy. The Conservatives blew the growth that was steadily happening when they came to power as part of a coalition.
Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne) (Con)
The hon. Gentleman is making some quite bold statements, but how do those statements tally with the fact that Britain is now the fastest-growing country in the OECD?
Of course, after the slowest recovery on record, growth is going to be the fastest in the world at some point, is it not? That comes as no surprise.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am not going to give way too many times, because mine is the second Opposition party in this debate.
As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), the Government have failed in their own terms to eradicate the deficit. The Chancellor promised that it would be gone by last year, but the Government have borrowed more in five and a bit years, and had borrowed more before the election, than Labour did in its 13 years in office. So, in their own terms, they have failed.
If the Minister wants Opposition Members—from whichever party—and members of the public to be reassured that she is not just producing warm words on TTIP, she can exempt it from public services and we will then be sorted.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is very generous. Will he acknowledge that the United Kingdom has signed 110 other bilateral investment treaties with other countries around the world, none of which excludes public services, and all of which include the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism? I do not believe that it is the policy of either the Labour party or the SNP for Britain to withdraw from any of those important bilateral investment treaties.
And, as I have said, the Minister and the Government could relieve the concerns of many people in the country, not just in the Chamber, by undertaking to exempt TTIP from public services.
When it comes to boosting productivity and growing our economy, the interests of workers and the ambitions of businesses are not at odds with one other. Workers do well when there are successful businesses to give them secure employment; businesses do well when they can draw on a skilled workforce, and when they are selling products and services in a high-wage economy. We have many fine businesses which are making some of the best products in the world, delivering some of the best services, and developing many of the best new ideas. Those successful businesses have highly committed and skilled workers who are competing with the very best, but too many of our 5.2 million businesses face headwinds that make business more difficult than it should be, and too often lead to closures and job losses that are entirely avoidable.
We can learn from the success that exists in this country, in science, in digital, in engineering and in our universities, and we can learn from other countries as well. Success leaves clues. As for the countries that are outperforming us, one striking reason for that is the relationship between Government, business and workforce. What often works in successful countries, and in successful companies, is a three-way partnership for growth and productivity. That means secure, skilled, well-paid workers, businesses working with the infrastructure and the workforce that they need in order to expand, and a Government who build the stable foundations on which the partnership between business and workers can grow.
The Business Secretary is unwilling even to utter the words “industrial strategy”, but that is what is needed. An industrial strategy is nothing more than a Government’s willingness to enter into a partnership with business and workers, matching their ambitions by looking beyond election cycles and investing in the infrastructure and training that they need in order to flourish. Businesses are clear about what they need from the Government. They want the Government to take a long-term approach to capitalising on new technology, and to nurture sectors that will boost exports, create jobs, and generate sustainable growth.
From green and renewable energy to high-end manufacturing and digital technology, the United Kingdom is not short of opportunities. It is not short of innovative entrepreneurs who want to put it at the global forefront of those emerging sectors. Under this Government, however, the UK spends less on research as a share of GDP than France, Germany, the United States and China. It has embarked on real-terms cuts to Innovate UK; it has axed the Business Growth Service, including the Manufacturing Advisory Service and the growth accelerator programme; and it is stifling game-changing innovation by converting grants for bold start-up companies to loans.
Those are not the actions of a Government who are committed to playing their part in the creation of opportunities for the next generation of entrepreneurs. The growth accelerator programme alone assisted more than 18,000 businesses. A great deal of the £100 million in finance that the programme helped SMEs to raise went into the development of innovative new products and services: products and services that create jobs and boost productivity. If the Government had wanted a partnership with business, they would not have completely shut down the long-term dividends to the economy that those schemes were already beginning to deliver, for the sake of scraping together short-term cuts for the Chancellor. The decision to axe these schemes is not just a knee-jerk reaction to departmental cuts; it speaks volumes about the Government’s real lack of long-term vision and commitment to businesses. Productivity cannot improve and sustainable growth cannot be secured as long as this Government’s message to entrepreneurs and innovators is “You’re on your own.”
Businesses want a trained workforce and a steady supply of skills to expand their operations. In a recent survey by the EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, half of manufacturers pointed to a skilled workforce as the single most important factor in boosting growth and productivity. ManpowerGroup UK says that more than 30% of the largest construction companies have had to turn down work due to a shortage of skilled labour. For all the Chancellor’s talk of skills, more than two thirds of businesses say they are badly in need of more high-skilled staff. The engines of growth in the UK—construction, manufacturing, science, engineering and technology—all face chronic and growing skills shortages. Once again, there is a gulf between the Government’s rhetoric and action; their £360 million in cuts from the adult skills budget would dampen the ambitions of people hoping to learn the skills they need to enter the workforce and take skilled jobs.
While we on the Opposition Benches agree with the principle of an apprenticeship levy to increase funding to tackle the skills shortage, we will be carefully examining the details. It is vital that the policy is used to drive up the quality, as well the quantity, of apprenticeships. It is important that it meets the ambitions of learners, as well as the needs of employers. It is also important that it does not become, as Seamus Nevin of the Institute of Directors, puts it, a “payroll tax” that hits medium-sized businesses. The payroll threshold laid out by the Government could mean that the cost spills over from larger companies, so the details need to be watched carefully as they emerge, to ensure smaller companies are exempted.
Businesses want decent infrastructure, strategic road networks, improved broadband and cheaper energy supplies. These businesses will create jobs, boost productivity and generate growth, but Government’s role in that partnership is to build the physical infrastructure they need to operate in. A recent CBI survey of businesses showed that nearly two thirds are worried about the slow progress of infrastructure projects, and they are right to be concerned. The gulf between the Government’s rhetoric and the projects they have actually delivered is widening. The quality of our infrastructure is now the second worst in the G7. Capital spending has more than halved as a proportion of GDP since 2010.
The Government seem to be missing two simple facts. We have world-beating innovators and businesses that want to expand and create jobs. They cannot do that without roads, broadband and good rail and air links. That is the Government’s responsibility, and they are failing to deliver. If the Chancellor still claims to be leading a “march of the makers,” I am afraid the evidence over the last five and a half years shows he is leading in the wrong direction entirely.
Goods exported last July reached their lowest levels since September 2010. In the three months to November 2015 the trade deficit stood at £7.7 billion. The truth is the trade deficit is a problem that this Government and the previous coalition Government have said a number of times they would address.
Anna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op)
Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that in the north-east the balance of trade is positive, and a large contributory factor in that was the steel industry on Teesside? Does he share my disappointment—in fact, my anger and frustration—that the Government failed to do anything to step in to save steelmaking on Teesside? Looking forward, will he also help to put pressure on the Government to ensure that China does not get market economy status, which could put the final nail in the coffin of the national steel industry in this country?
This is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate my hon. Friend and her colleagues from the steelmaking areas on the fine work they have done in representing, and attempting to save, the steel industry. I will talk about the steel industry in more detail later, but I completely agree with the point that she makes.
The Chancellor said he wants to double exports to £1 trillion by 2020. Office for National Statistics forecasts show that he is set to miss this by more than £350 billion—in other words, he will be 70% short of his target. In 2011 the Prime Minister said that he intended to increase the number of UK exporters by 100,000 by 2020, and in its annual business survey the ONS found that the number of UK exporters actually fell by 8,600 last year.
The risk to long-term growth and productivity of failing to increase exports is stark. Failure to boost exports means slower long-term growth, depressed wage growth and an even more depressed rise in living standards. As David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, said last year,
“unless radical measures are taken to strengthen our export performance, our trade deficit will continue to be a threat to the country’s long-term economic performance”.
But just as serious is the threat posed by a Government divided over whether or not to pull the plug on UK businesses’ main trading partner. Trade with the EU was worth £227 billion to the UK economy last year. It is a lifeline for many businesses, and for many workers. The risk we face is from a Government that fail to unite in wanting to honour a partnership with those businesses and workers who rely on EU trade for their livelihood. Instead they are divided over whether to kick the legs out from under UK business, not least in respect of relationships that account for almost half of UK trade and which are especially important for many SMEs.
The problem of UK exports is compounded by our lagging productivity. ONS statistics show that, as of 2014, productivity as output per hour worked in the UK was 21% lower than the average for the rest of the G7 countries. According to the ONS last year,
“the absence of productivity growth in the seven years since 2007 is unprecedented in the post-war period.”
Productivity has been revised down next year, the year after and the year after that, and the gap between UK productivity and that of the rest of the G7 is now the widest since 1991.
A long-term strategy to boost productivity, trade and innovation is a partnership. That partnership cannot ignore the workforce; on the contrary, they can be one of our most powerful assets. A partnership between workers, businesses and Government to boost productivity is a long-term vision that requires a commitment to long-term investment from Government—one that stretches over many Parliaments and one that requires a large degree of political, as well as industrial, consensus.
If we truly want to boost the UK’s productivity, manufacturing is a good place to focus our attention for a number of reasons, not least because the productivity benefits of industry reach far beyond itself, to benefit growth, skills and productivity in the UK as a whole. Manufacturers improve efficiency at a pace and intensity that outstrip almost any other sector. In fact, they currently inject three times the amount of their output share of the economy into improving machinery. An EEF survey conducted in 2015 showed that 80% of its members intend to invest in machinery with the aim of increasing productivity. That technology, again, filters out. The investment and innovation of one manufacturer becomes a tool to boost productivity across a host of sectors and in the wider economy as a whole. Investment in processes and systems improves efficiency and accelerates the diffusion of technology.
Generating sustainable growth, raising skill levels, and dispersing opportunity to every corner of the country: prioritising manufacturing should be the cornerstone of a strategy for increasing productivity. But this Government’s track record shows that they either do not understand this or else they are simply not willing to do what is necessary to support the industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) said, the tragic situation that unfolded in the steel industry is a case in point. The UK steel industry ran a trade surplus in all but three of the last 17 years. Steel exports were worth £6 billion to the UK in 2014, not to mention the 20,000 families the industry supported. Serious challenges coalesced: a glut of global supply, energy costs, a strong pound. These were difficult challenges, but surmountable for a Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the fundamental problem was that the price of steel has almost halved and no Government can change that?
Of course the Minister is right that the price has halved, but other countries in the EU chose to intervene while we said we would not. I am afraid the Government’s record on this has been woeful.
Will the hon. Gentleman send me details of other EU Governments who have intervened to save their steel industries? If so, I will pass them on, because they must be in breach of the state aid rules.
We have debated this so many times. The Minister knows that some countries choose to operate the state aid rules far more beneficially than we do. It is about time the Government chose to do the same.
The industry needed the Government to play their role in what should have been a partnership. The situation demanded that the Government see the long-term strategic value of steel production and do what other EU Governments did: move swiftly to protect their industries. Instead, they have lacked a strategy and shown themselves unwilling to make strategic interventions to support the industry with practical steps well within their capabilities, such as tackling business rates through the supply chain, dealing with electricity costs and ensuring better procurement practice to favour British steel. They failed to step up to the plate as a partner of industry, and in doing so turned a temporary, toxic mix of challenges into a permanent gap in our industrial make-up.
We have to take that lesson seriously. UK productivity will continue to lag as long as Governments sit on the sidelines and wash their hands of responsibility for safeguarding key industries. The aspiration is one that everyone in the House will agree with: an economy with high-skilled, well-paid jobs in which businesses can grow, export and invest to boost productivity. Agreeing on the aim is one thing, but how we go about it is another. It requires a long-term partnership championing the workforce and business; investment, not cuts; an industrial strategy, not laissez-faire dogma; and an economy that creates wealth, instead of relying on consumer borrowing. We need a strategy in which workers, business and the Government work together for Britain. The Government’s role is not that of an observer but to make sure our exporters get the help they need; to take action to boost productivity; to tackle the skills emergency; to safeguard key industries; and to build the infrastructure that growing businesses need.
The Minister and the Government have failed on each point. They cannot deliver and they will not be an active part of that partnership because they do not believe in intervening. Their empty rhetoric will get our economy nowhere. Only a long-term industrial strategy will deliver the high-value economy we all want. We need a strategy of partnership that is both pro-business and pro-worker.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)
I am delighted to be called so early in this important debate. I was particularly keen to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, because we have so few debates on exports, but I believe that if we are to grow our economy sustainably, we must increase our exports.
Given the importance of this debate, it is a great pity that our politics produces such negativity from all the Opposition parties. That is in total contrast to the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who is positive and outward looking and produces good policies that the Government have been pursuing, both in the last Parliament and this one. I am passionate about exports. With my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), I have the honour to chair the all-party trade and investment group dealing with exports. I want to see this country exporting more.
I just want to champion some of the Government’s achievements, which, unlike the Opposition parties, help exporters considerably. They have committed to cutting £10 billion of red tape in order to back British business and put resources into more productive use—and that is on top of the £10 billion we cut in the last Parliament. We have cut corporation tax to 20%—one of the lowest rates in the G7—and have an aspiration to cut it further. We are boosting skills and productivity by improving the quality of apprenticeships in England and increasing their number by 3 million in this Parliament, on top of the 3 million in the last Parliament. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, we are investing, up to 2021, £6.9 billion in UK research infrastructure and, in particular, protecting the science budget of £4.9 billion per annum. All that will help innovative companies in this country, as will building stronger links with emerging markets, especially China and India. I was therefore delighted to see the leaders of those countries—the most populous nations in the world—visit this country in the last year. And what successful visits they were.
My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, launching the Government’s productivity plan, “Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation”, said:
“Britain is home to some of the world’s most innovative and dynamic businesses, staffed by incredibly talented, hardworking individuals…And higher productivity means higher incomes. When productivity rises, standards of living rise too. So today I’m proud to publish ‘Fixing the foundations’. It’s our plan for productivity, and our blueprint for creating a more prosperous nation.”
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have commented on productivity, and it is true that we lag behind some of our major competitors. Many economists have puzzled over this, but I think the reason is simple. In the list of achievements I gave just now, I omitted the fact, which must be hugely welcome to all Members, that a record number of people are in work thanks to our flexible labour laws. In this country, 32 million people are in work—more than ever before—and that number is rising. I believe that, because more people are employed, some companies might not have invested as much as they might have done in labour-saving capital equipment, as has happened on the continent, where their labour laws are much more difficult and therefore they have higher unemployment. Greece, for example, has 50% youth unemployment. It is no wonder those countries have such problems, yet here, I am grateful to say, youth unemployment is dropping. It is a terrific achievement for this country.
Let us look at where trade is going around the world. In 2014, the UK’s exports of goods and services totalled £513 billion and its imports totalled £548 billion. The EU accounted for 45% of exports and 53% of imports, meaning the balance of trade with the EU is against us. In other words, we are importing more than we are exporting. There is no reason, therefore, not to look elsewhere in the world to see where we can export more. I commend that approach to the Minister. It is against a background of UKTI’s policy of increasing trade by 2020 to £1 trillion and the number of companies exporting by 100,000. There is no reason why we could not do much more.
UKTI has been transformed in the last few years. I was delighted to take one of my successful medium-sized companies to see the trade Minister, the right hon. Lord Maude, the other day to examine how we might get UKTI to do even more to encourage medium-sized businesses. The one in my constituency employs 45 people, exports to 40 countries around the world, makes it products in China and exports them directly to Australia, without their ever touching this country, and yet it remits its profits to this country and pays UK corporation tax. That is precisely the sort of medium-sized company we ought to encourage to export more.
That company told me there was too much emphasis on people in UKTI and not enough on the tradeshow access programme. Trade shows are a particularly important part of manufacturing businesses’ exporting programme. We need to encourage, via greater incentives from UKTI, such companies to go to these tradeshows, particularly where they have a record of success. At the end of my speech, I will make five or six suggestions to the Minister on how to encourage exporting, but one of them is to extend TAP from three to four years. As this company pointed out, the first year is about exploration and the second is about getting to know the customers, and only in the third year, if it is lucky, does a company begin to make a profit. It therefore needs an extension from three to four years. It is in its third year and about to be cut off just as it is becoming profitable, so it would be useful if we could give it a bit of extra help.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend saw my constituency predecessor, Lord Maude, recently. We have a number of manufacturing firms in Horsham. Does my hon. Friend agree that such firms are now getting a better service from the Foreign Office and from our ambassadors abroad to help British exports? That should be put on record and welcomed.
I am sorry to say that I only partially agree with my hon. Friend. I am not going to name the embassy in question, but a representative of the company I have been describing went to one of the nearer embassies to this country and was distinctly unimpressed by the trade representatives there. He described them as spotty youths who were just out of university. He felt that we needed people in our embassies and in UKTI who have a good track record in the private sector, and that we should incentivise such people. If they have had a good record in the private sector, it is likely that they would be successful in UKTI in helping companies to export.
There are approximately 1 million small and medium-sized companies in this country. UKTI helped 48,000 companies to export last year, but I suggest to the Minister that there is still much to be done. Far too many companies still do not understand what it means to export and do not understand the advantages of exporting. The figures are well known. Once a company has exported for the first time, its productivity goes up by 7%. So not only will its profits go up—one hopes that it will do profitable export business—but its productivity will go up as well because that activity sharpens the whole operation through dealing with an extra dimension. We could do much more, in collaboration with UKTI, with UK Export Finance and with the local enterprise partnerships. We should make them all come together much more closely.
Another suggestion I have for the Minister is that Innovation UK and UKTI could get much closer together so that some of our best seed-generated companies, including high-tech companies, could be encouraged to export right at the beginning of their existence rather than waiting until they are established. They should be encouraged to think about exporting as one of the first things they do.
I concur with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of UKTI. Unfortunately, in the autumn statement, the Chancellor slashed UKTI’s budget. So outraged was the organisation that its chief executive resigned. Clearly, this Government are not helping UKTI to help exports.
I think we all have to encourage UKTI to operate within the financial climate that exists. I have to say that I would put the money into UKTI in order to expand exports, but I would make sure that it was operating as well as it possibly could. Another suggestion that I have for the Minister is that UKTI should be benchmarked against the best export agencies in the world to see how it is doing. We should never be complacent in this life, and benchmarking is one way of getting that information.
Despite what the company in my constituency said when we went to see Lord Maude, I think that what my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) has just said is right. Our ambassadors are some of the best trained in the world, and we have one of the most comprehensive networks of embassies. After all, it was the Conservatives, in this Parliament and the last one, who started opening embassies where the previous Government had closed them. We have the network, but in some places we need to sharpen up the expertise. However, we have a good foundation on which to build.
We have the British brand and the British language and we exercise our soft power through the BBC World Service and the British Council. We are very well established in many of the major markets in Brazil, Russia, India and China—the BRIC markets—and in other smaller markets where we need to concentrate our efforts. We need to concentrate on the high-growth markets, as opposed to on Europe, which has lower growth. I am delighted that our exports to China are growing in such big quantities, albeit from a very low base. UKTI is putting significant resources into China, and it is paying dividends. The visit by China’s Premier, Xi Jinping, last year will only help to cement those efforts.
I do not want to make too long a speech, but I want to outline some things that we could do to help companies to export. I have some specific ideas for fiscal incentives to give to small and medium-sized businesses. We could give them fiscal help with export-related activity. That could be a better way of alerting many companies to the possibilities. Companies are very astute about ways of saving tax, and we need to find the best ways of encouraging all small and medium-sized businesses to export. It would also be helpful to inform them that finding out more about their potential export markets need not involve huge costs.
A further suggestion, which I have already mentioned, is that we should extend the TAP programme from three to four years where success has already been demonstrated. If a company cannot achieve success within three years, it is unlikely to do so, but if it has already demonstrated success, as that company in my constituency has done—[Interruption.] I wish that my right hon. Friend the Minister on the Front Bench would listen. Please! If the Government extended the TAP programme from three to four years where success had been demonstrated, it would be helpful.
My third suggestion is that we should buddy a successful exporting SME with one that is exporting for the first time. That would be really helpful, because there is a real fear of the unknown for a small company with only a few employees. It has to deal with the VAT, the national insurance, the marketing and the manufacturing, and that can be quite frightening for a small company. It can be quite off-putting. Buddying such a company with one that is in the same market—although not one that is directly competing—would be helpful.
Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op)
In regard to the plea that the hon. Gentleman made a few moments ago, if he cannot get his own Minister to listen to him, what hope do we have of doing so?
I think I will ignore that intervention. I could have come up with something a little better myself.
My fourth suggestion is to give local enterprise partnerships a stronger exporting role. I believe that we in Gloucestershire run one of the better LEPs, but it is still not sufficiently focused on exporting. It has nine divisions, and every one of them should be utterly focused on exporting. I would also propose a much stronger connection between UKTI and Innovate UK, as I have mentioned. Innovate UK is developing the technology forward strategy and helping companies to expand their ideas. It often helps them to incubate ideas from the best universities. This is an area in which the greatest companies can grow from little acorns, and we should encourage export activity there.
I would also reinvigorate UKTI by encouraging it to employ more people from the private sector, particularly those with a record of exporting in their own company. Those people should be properly paid and incentivised; otherwise, the private sector will always continue to employ the very best people. We have made good progress in the last Parliament and in this one, but there is much more to be done. Our all-party parliamentary group on trade and investment will help the Government whenever possible by putting people in touch with UKTI and with their LEPs. As we go round the world, every Member of Parliament should be alert to the possibilities of export markets and to which companies in their constituency might be able to export to those markets. We should then put the companies in touch with those possibilities. In that way, we could all become trade and export ambassadors, which would help the exporting effort of this country considerably.
Callum McCaig (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, and to follow the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), who has made some sensible suggestions. His proposal for buddying businesses is one that all the agencies involved should take on board. I was not expecting to speak quite so early in the debate. This topic is clearly of interest to some Members, but the memo about it does not seem to have been passed to the official Opposition. Some Labour Members are here, providing an honourable exception, but it is surprising to see so few here, given the importance of these fundamental tenets of the economy not only to the economy itself but to the services that they provide the money to pay for. If we do not get the economy right, we do not have the services.
I am really pleased to take part in this debate, and I am going to focus on one area where the UK, and in particular Scotland, has strong natural and competitive advantages: energy. I thank the Minister for a positive response to my question about oil and gas. It would be more helpful if we focused on what could be done to help the situation, rather than getting into some of the politics around it. I accept fully that we are in a political environment here, but we need to reflect on what message this place is sending to the folk in Aberdeen who are being laid off when we are having knockabout about the oil price—it is not helpful. Having said that, I respect, accept and am thankful for the positive comments made.
It would seem that the Government have turned over a new leaf in 2016 in their approach to oil and gas. Today, I have had positive conversations with the Energy Minister, who also gave a positive response to the questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) about incentives for oil and gas at Energy and Climate Change questions last week. We are in an incredibly difficult position with the oil price, and jobs are being lost, but there is still a bright future. The industry is doing what it can to reduce costs—unfortunately, in many cases that will require job losses—but it is also innovating, and I will come on to discuss that. Help from the Government is, however, required in order to bridge over what we hope will be a temporary downturn. Most people expect the oil price to rise at some stage, but it is not clear when or by how much.
Aberdeen is a city of innovators—there is no doubt about that. Some of my SNP colleagues may be surprised to learn that the city in Scotland that filed most patents in 2014 was Aberdeen. It filed more than Edinburgh, whose population is twice the size of Aberdeen’s, and more than Glasgow, whose population is almost three times as large. These patents were primarily in oil and gas, but they were also in life sciences, biosciences and food and drink, and so the city is thriving. It is, however, unquestionably an oil and gas and energy hub, and the job losses announced by BP yesterday, coming on the back of 150 announced by Petrofac the day before, are genuinely heartbreaking for those involved. As I have said, the industry is taking the steps it can to innovate. Innovation is one of the hallmarks of the oil and gas industry, and it was heartening to see the level of innovation and of renewed collaboration that is taking place in the industry, as it works to deal with the lower oil price.
Some of the issues the oil and gas industry faces pre-existed the oil price fall but they have been exacerbated by it. There are three sides to the coin in terms of the costs and changes in income that oil and gas companies face. The first is the oil price, and none of us can do anything about that. The second is the costs that the industry is exposed to, and it is doing what it can there. The third is taxation, and I am pleased that it would seem Ministers have an open mind on that. I plead with them to look at oil and gas taxation in the round to see what can be done to help.
The important issue of the apprenticeship levy has been raised. We wholeheartedly support the levy, provided it has the investment coming to Scotland. There have been questions asked, again by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston, about the potential double imposition of an apprenticeship levy-type scheme on oil and gas companies, which already pay significantly into training schemes through a number of industry levies.
As part of maintaining and progressing Aberdeen’s position as an innovative hub, our local authorities—Aberdeen City Council and the Aberdeenshire councils—are exploring a city deal. They are looking at significant investment in infrastructure, which is obviously an important part of this debate and a key way of securing economic growth, and very much at how they can continue to make the best of the expertise in innovation that the city of Aberdeen is proud to host. There are proposals within the city deal to create an innovation hub around the two universities, bringing together industry and universities in a way that has already been discussed today. Measures are required to protect the north-east of Scotland and provide the bridging for the oil industry that I mentioned, and the Aberdeen city region deal is a very important part of that toolkit. I commend it again to the Government, hoping that they will look upon it favourably and act quickly.
Even in these times of difficulty, there are many ways in which innovation in the oil industry can provide a massive support to the UK economy. Enhanced oil recovery is one such way, as is looking at being one of the first movers on decommissioning. We would not want to see that happening prematurely, but if it is inevitably going to happen, we have the ability, as we have one of the more mature oil and gas basins in the world, to take our expertise and export it globally. We cannot afford to miss that opportunity.
Let me move on to exports, the north-east of Scotland and the oil and gas supply chain, which is about much more than Aberdeen, as it goes the length and breadth of the UK. That situation is good and it is getting better; Aberdeen relies much less on the North sea, in terms of supply companies based there, for its income. I wish, however, to draw the House’s attention to something announced at the tail-end of last year. In principle, I support this, and I am not criticising it, but it needs to be taken in the round, with a more supportive approach being taken to oil and gas. I refer to the announcement that there would be an export credit agreement of $500 million for a couple of UK-based companies for exports to Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned oil major. That is good in and of itself. It helps support exports from the UK—from Aberdeen—but when we are looking at these things, we need to be careful. If we are providing exports to something like the oil and gas industry elsewhere without providing the same at home, we may inadvertently end up requiring greater imports of oil and gas in the future. We do need to get the incentives for exploration right. Again, I do not mean to criticise, but we have to have both sides there; we have to have support not only for exports, but for the domestic industry.
Aberdeen, and Scotland more widely, have huge natural advantages on green energy, and the Paris deal cements the opportunity we have in that regard. There is a sad irony here, in that the deal comes at the same time as the UK Government have taken the hatchet to a number of green energy policies, undermining the opportunity to truly embrace what will be one of the biggest global growing markets of this century. In her much-heralded “reset” speech, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said:
“At the same time, we are building new interconnectors to make it easier to import cheaper electricity from Europe.”
I support the building of interconnectors, as does my party, because an integrated European market for electricity will be a good thing, but the ambition shown there and the logic for making this move is the wrong way round. We should not be doing this to import electricity; we should be doing it to export the green electricity that can be produced from the wind and the waves—the sea and the tides—in Scotland. That is what we should be doing. That is the opportunity interconnectors provide; the opportunity is not about importing cheap electricity, but about building an industry that we can be proud of, in order to develop the skills that we need.
The renewables sector is an important part of rebalancing the economy, in geographical terms as much as anything else. The criticism often made of renewables, particularly of onshore wind, is that they do not provide that many jobs. The reality is that onshore wind does provide a lot of jobs, doing so in places where without the wind industry it is likely that there would be no jobs at all. We cannot overstate the importance of a small number of highly paid jobs in an area where they did not exist.
Does the hon. Gentleman also accept that many of the studies in Scotland have shown that the onshore wind industry and the way that it despoils the landscape have taken away many tourist jobs?
I have heard that asserted year in, year out, but, as far as I understand it, the tourist sector in Scotland is doing very well. It continues to do well and it is a major sector of growth in the Scottish economy, so I do not quite understand those assertions. I have read that there is anecdotal evidence—it is no more than that—of somebody saying, “I came to Scotland. I drove up the A9 and didn’t like the wind turbines, so I am never coming back.” Well, somebody else is there to take their place, and there always will be, as Scotland offers world-class tourism that is not in any way “despoiled”—in the words of the hon. Gentleman—by wind turbines.
It is not overly negative to say that genuine critiques can be made. On green energy policy, for example, various things have been done, but the most damaging to the United Kingdom’s reputation and to the financial and investor confidence that is required to secure investment in the UK was the decision at the 11th hour—actually it was even later than that—to pull the plug on carbon capture and storage. Two projects—Peterhead and White Rose in Yorkshire—took part in a CCS competition. Big companies invested significant time and resources on the basis of the supposed good word of the United Kingdom Government. Before they had even had the opportunity to submit their bids, the plug was pulled and the damage was done. We cannot underestimate the impact that that and all the other incremental attacks on green energy policy have had. We are missing a major trick here. As I have said, this is a huge opportunity to grow our economy and our skill base and to do it in differing parts of the United Kingdom. To send out such damaging messages really brings into question the commitment of the UK Government not just to green energy, all the talk at Paris and the global climate change deal, but to the economy and investment more widely.
Finally, let me touch on the Green Investment Bank, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie). It was supported by this party and also by the entire Chamber when it was debated—clearly, that was before I was elected to this place. The bank is a shining example of how we should address market failure. It is how we can ensure that investment is directed to the right areas, and that support is given to nascent industries to help them get off the ground. We have repeatedly criticised what is proposed. Again I say that we will oppose the privatisation of the Green Investment Bank if we do not get cast-iron assurances that its green remit will be protected.
After Paris, the rules of the game have changed, and the UK and Scotland have a chance to seize the benefits. Scotland is ready, but I fear that, as part of Tory Britain, we are being left behind.
Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase) (Con)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this afternoon’s debate.
I agree with the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise and my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown): Opposition Members have painted a pretty gloomy picture this afternoon.
The UK economy has improved significantly since Labour’s great recession, and is now, thanks to rising employment, growing faster than that of any other G7 nation. I hope that all Members welcome that rise in employment. Economic growth is not, however, the result of improved productivity. As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, we are looking at addressing productivity not only because it has been a long-term problem affecting our economy and one that successive Governments have failed to tackle, but because our productivity has consistently lagged behind that of other major economies.
I challenge the motion before us today, as I believe that the Government have rightly recognised the productivity gap, publishing the productivity plan last summer. There is recognition that addressing that gap will be key to ensuring a sustainable recovery and a long-term successful economy, delivering our long-term economic plan for Britain. We must recognise though that that will not happen overnight.
The productivity plan outlines 15 key areas that need to be addressed and are based on two pillars—encouraging long-term investment and promoting a dynamic economy. It includes measures to promote and encourage trade and exports, on which I wish to focus my remarks this afternoon.
The “Exporting is GREAT” campaign will, I hope, inspire and support thousands of new businesses to export. Firms that export are more productive, more innovative and less likely to go out of business. It is for that reason that I shall jointly host an export event in Cannock next week with UK Trade & Investment and Chase chamber of commerce. This will be an opportunity for local small and medium-sized businesses to understand what global opportunities exist; the benefits of exporting; and what practical help is available.
The export experiences of ATP Group are an excellent example of the power and opportunities available in the export market. I invite my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to visit ATP with me. Based in Cannock Wood, it is Europe’s largest independent re-manufacturer of automatic transmissions and vehicle electronics. Essentially, it rebuilds car parts—for instance, gearboxes—to the specifications of the original product, using re-claimed, re-engineered and new parts. Its clients include Ford, Land Rover, and Volvo, to name but a few. Exports make up two thirds of its business, and it is exporting to around 35 countries. During the past year alone its international trade has increased by more than 57%.
ATP has shown that one of the best ways to address productivity and increase exports is by investing in skills development, new technology, and research and development to support specific customer requirements.
I would be absolutely delighted to visit ATP. It sounds like an excellent success story, with many lessons to teach other companies, so, yes, I gladly accept the invitation.
I am thrilled that my right hon. Friend will join me in visiting ATP. I know that the company will be incredibly pleased. I shall send it a message this afternoon.
The Government have set out an ambition plan to narrow the trade deficit, and are taking the issue of exports very seriously, with an ambitious £1 trillion export target to be met by 2020, and the aim of seeing 100,000 more companies exporting their goods and services.
I take what the hon. Lady says about ATP in her constituency, but the UK is clearly a net importer of automotive products. Our largest engineering industry is a net importer from Europe. The plan has not worked.
The point I was trying to make is that we want to increase exports. I will highlight a few points relating to that.
The productivity plan outlines several measures that will help to meet that target, including building stronger links with emerging markets, especially China, India and Brazil. The plan also sets out a range of funds and initiatives designed to promote and encourage exporting. Let me echo the point that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds made about extending the tradeshow access programme.
Based on ATP’s experience of exporting, I want to raise a number of other issues and challenges faced by exporters that I would like the Minister to consider. They fall into three key categories—uncertainty, red tape and competitiveness—each of which presents real obstacles and barriers to exporting.
Uncertainty comes about partly because of currency markets, but the particular issue I want to focus on is that of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs impounding shipments for random checks. That can make it really difficult, both from an importing and exporting perspective, when a “just in time” ordering mentality is commonplace. Are there ways in which we can balance the understandable need to monitor shipments and at the same time provide more certainty to firms that are importing and exporting?
Businesses, both in the UK and abroad, regularly refer to the issue of red tape. I welcome the Government’s commitment to cut £10 billion of red tape, to back British business and put resources to more productive use. Customs warehousing is a facility for importers to delay duty and import VAT payments until the goods leave the customs warehousing facility or enter another customs procedure. According to ATP, it is an excellent service for importing parts, but the red tape associated with it is cumbersome. As such, ATP no longer uses the facility, as the amount of paperwork outweighs the benefits. That means that an excellent facility is underutilised. Will the Minister therefore review the facility and consider ways in which the paperwork could be reduced and simplified so that it can be used by SMEs, which have less capacity to deal with red tape than larger organisations?
The Minister for Universities and Science (Joseph Johnson)
My hon. Friend makes an important point about bureaucracy at our borders and the role of border control. I reassure her that the Government are reviewing that with their one government at the border programme. At present, 92% of consignments at customs are cleared within five seconds, but her constituents are clearly encountering difficulties. I will talk on her behalf to the Minister for Trade and Investment and look into the specific problems she faces.
I am grateful for the Minister’s update on the review and look forward to receiving more information over time. I will also feed back his comments to ATP, which is not using the facility at the moment but might want to start using it again.
On competitiveness, the costs and risks of exporting can be off-putting. If we are really serious about encouraging exports, surely we should be considering ways to incentivise businesses to do so, potentially through tax breaks. One tax that can be a burden to exporters is air passenger duty, which, in reality, is a tax on exports. ATP, for instance, spends thousands of pounds a year on air taxes alone. Every time it signs deals, it has to travel abroad and the costs over a year are significant.
We have to realise that ATP, like many businesses, is competing in a global market. Therefore, onerous air passenger duty makes it less competitive on contract delivery compared with other companies bidding for the same contract. With some companies actively trying to avoid the tax by booking tickets abroad, the Treasury is already missing out.
Given that APD is going to be a devolved matter and the Scottish Government have announced that they will cut it by 50%, with a view to abolishing it altogether, the need for us to consider our position is probably more urgent than ever. Will the Minister consider ways in which we could provide tax breaks on air passenger duty for those who are exporting? I appreciate that, at face value, that will cut tax revenues, but I believe that that will be overcome by the economic gains of more of our businesses exporting their goods and services.
In conclusion, given the need to address the productivity gap, and given the role that exporters play in closing it, it is important that we do everything we can to encourage businesses to consider exporting. That is why I would like the Government to consider ways in which we can address the three overriding obstacles of uncertainty, red tape and competitiveness.
I do not support the motion, because it does not reflect the current picture and the Government’s commitment to productivity and exporting.
Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab)
It is an honour and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), who is a valued fellow member of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and provides real insight and personal wisdom to our inquiries.
Unlike the hon. Lady, though, I do support the motion, because, to be frank, I agree with every single word of it. It gets to the heart of the worrying structural imbalances in our economy, including our reliance on consumer spending based on debt, at the expense of investment; our reliance on domestic consumption, at the expense of potential and growing international markets; the priority given to short-term value extraction, at the expense of long-term value creation; and our reliance on the service economy, at the expense of manufacturing, which can inject real innovation and productivity gains across the country, thereby raising living standards for all of us and all of our constituents.
In addition to the points raised by the Opposition motion, I would also like to mention the geographical imbalance in our economy. As a north-eastern MP, I am here in London for half the week and back in God’s own country for the remainder of it. The economies of London and the south-east are overheating, which is in turn putting pressure on infrastructure and housing supply in the capital, at the expense of sustainable economic growth elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I welcome the motion’s focus on productivity. The BIS Committee’s first inquiry of this Parliament was on the Government’s productivity plan and we shall produce our report, I hope, shortly. I also welcome the motion’s reference to the change of research funding from grants to loans. As has been said, that is of deep concern because it could undermine our country’s competitiveness. Capital is global, and firms will see where they will get the best return. They could leverage in public sector investment as a result of their own private sector investment. This country could lose out on foreign direct investment. It is incredibly important that when we attract foreign direct investment into this country—to be frank, this and previous Governments have been very successful at that—we make sure that we remain at the cutting edge of doing so. The measure puts that at considerable risk.
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that that is all part of a package, as is 20% corporation tax, which will be reduced further. I am sure he welcomes that.
A good, competitive tax rate is vital. Global firms consider a dashboard of different metrics—including tax rates, regulation, flexibility in labour laws and capital allowances—in a holistic manner in order to decide where they are going to put their capital investment, the returns on which they might not get back for 10, 20 or 30 years. It is important not only that we have stability, but that we make sure that, if a particular firm is putting in investment, we address what the Government are doing. Other countries recognise that and ensure that there is a partnership, but I am worried that we do not have that.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con)
I will give way to a fellow Select Committee Chairman.
It is an honour to participate in this debate. The hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee and mine are doing a joint inquiry on productivity and it will focus on skills. Does he agree that, given the fact that more than 50% of foreign direct investment comes via the European Union, there is a really strong case to remain in the EU to encourage even more FDI in the future?
That is incredibly important. Firms make investment decisions not just because of the UK domestic market, but because they see the UK as a springboard into the largest consumer marketplace—500 million consumers—on earth. Japanese firms such as Nissan and Hitachi are not just here for the domestic market; they are here because we are a springboard into the whole European market. We risk that at our peril.
Trade performance is a good barometer of economic health at both the macro and micro levels. At a macro level, a buoyant trade performance contributes to economic growth and helps to provide a surplus on the country’s current account. As the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) mentioned, the motion cites a
“trade deficit in goods of £123 billion in 2014”.
However, in that year, the current account deficit widened to 5.1% of national income, which was its largest in post-war history. For much of the past 30 or 40 years, the trade deficit has been offset by investment income from overseas. However, and most ominously, net primary income derived from assets abroad has fallen from 3.3% of GDP to 0.1% in 2014. The Minister should outline the Government’s view about that because they have been quiet about this crucial economic issue.
At a micro level, exporting is positive, especially for firms, and it is good for the wider economy and society, too. Evidence suggests that an exporting business tends to be successful, sustainable and socially aware. Such a company tends to employ more workers and to offer better wages than an equivalent non-exporting company. Companies that export have been shown to be more productive and to invest more in research and development. There is a strong link between exporting and innovation. More often than not, a business with a desire to export overseas has the discipline, ambition and entrepreneurial flourish to develop new products and services that will better serve new export markets. Such companies will be sensitive and responsive to customer wishes, which is always the hallmark of a successful business. There can be a virtuous circle for exporting businesses whereby they become exposed to new demands, fresh ideas and increased competition, which in turn makes them more productive and outward looking, and better disposed towards thinking about new products and improved profitability.
On average, according to the British Chambers of Commerce, businesses that export grow 20% more than those that do not. We need to encourage such activity much more because far too few excellent British firms providing great goods and services that could be offered throughout the world export. Only one in five British firms do so, whereas the average figure for the EU is one in four.
The motion refers to the UK’s “poor export performance”, but with the greatest respect to the Scottish National party, I would go further. I think that our trade performance over the past 30 years or so has been dire and woeful. It has declined markedly over that period with no genuine prospect of improvement. The UK accounted for one in 10 of the world’s exports in 1950, but now the figure is less than 3%. Of course, with the development of emerging economies, it was inevitable that there would be a relative decline in the market share of UK goods and services, but not at the rate that we have unfortunately experienced. Given the forecast that world trade will expand by $250 trillion by 2050, there should be a co-ordinated effort—in the House, across the country and in government—to ensure that we capture as much as possible of the growth in the world economy for British firms.
The hon. Gentleman is making important points in his impassioned speech. He is right that there is a challenge for more business to step up to the plate and move into exporting, but does he agree that the situation shows that we need a real cultural change involving not only the Government, but businesses examining what they have done in previous years and moving further forward?
The hon. Gentleman has a fantastic track record of talking about trade and investment, and how we ensure that we boost our sales of exports throughout the world. I will deal with his important point about what we can do in a moment.
In November 2015, the UK’s trade gap was £3.2 billion, while the trade deficit in goods was £10.6 billion. In 2014, UK goods exports fell by 4.1%, which represented the lowest growth rate since the recession in 2009. We were the only G7 economy to experience a negative growth in exports, although it is not all doom and gloom because the north-east still has the only consistent trade surplus in goods. However, as the hon. Member for Dundee East said, there is precious little evidence of a “march of the makers” with modern manufacturing at the heart of a rebalanced economy and providing export-led growth. That is reinforced by yesterday’s Office for National Statistics publication showing that the UK manufacturing sector is now back in recession. I fear that we are sleepwalking back to the long-standing British model, which has been prevalent over the past 40 years or so, of debt-fuelled customer consumption based on an assumption of ever-rising house prices. That did not work in the past—it never has—and it cannot be a model for sustainable and competitive economic growth.
As we have heard several times during the debate, the Government have set a target of £1 trillion of exports by 2020. I genuinely want them to achieve that because it would be good for firms and the country, and would bring about economic growth and broadening prosperity for everyone. However, it is now more or less a given that the Government will fall spectacularly short of their target. Few expect it to be achieved, including the Secretary of State when he gave evidence to the Select Committee. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s “Economic and fiscal outlook” that was published at the same time as the autumn statement forecast the cash value of exports in 2020 to be £647 billion, which is 23% lower than its March 2012 forecast and 35% lower than the Government’s ambition. It is not acceptable for the House, the Government or the country simply to shrug our shoulders and say, “Do you know what? It was a tough target and it’s unachievable, but at least we had a go.” We must be more ambitious than that, but the evidence suggests that the Government have not even had a go. A strong export performance matters, which was why the BIS Committee launched an inquiry into exports and the role of UK Trade & Investment.
I think that I speak for all members of the Committee, several of whom are in the Chamber, when I say that we all want the £1 trillion target to be achieved, but given the enormous shortfall that is forecast, we need a vigorous focus on changing course and embarking on policies that will bring about an improved performance, yet I have not seen the Government demonstrating that there will be such a step change. Will the Minister outline what is being done differently to ensure that we get as close to the £1 trillion target as possible? What active steps are the Government taking to ensure that 100,000 more companies are exporting by 2020?
To respond to the intervention made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), while the Government do not control this, they can put in place a framework and facilitate the environment. We need to think about what firms are doing. They might have a good domestic market in which they feel comfortable, but how do we ensure that they can put their toe in the water of exports? Businesses will be concerned about whether they know the regulations and laws of a particular country and if they will get paid, so they might think that exporting is too much hassle and that they will stick to the domestic market. However, we need to encourage them to export, and that brings me on to the role of UKTI.
The hon. Gentleman accepts that the target is challenging, but if the Government know, given the OBR forecast, that it might well be missed by 35%, we have early-warning signs four years in advance showing that something needs to be done, so action should be taken.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Given that we will fall spectacularly short of the target, how will the Government revise their policy on trade and exports to ensure that we do not miss it by 35%, but get as close to £1 trillion as possible? Is UKTI sufficiently proactive about working with British firms to identify and navigate foreign markets? It has been affected by turbulence, with cuts in funding and disruption at the top of its management. Do the Government think that it is fit for purpose?
To answer that directly, I think there is much reform that can be achieved. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) was wrong when he said that the former CEO of UKTI had resigned because of the budget cuts, and that Mr Jermey moved to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to take up a new appointment as the international counter-extremism co-ordinator? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the new head of UKTI was appointed before there was any change in the funding? Will he confirm that the amount that UKTI received from BIS in 2014-15 was £264.1 million and for 2015-16 is £338 million?
It is important that the right hon. Lady clarifies the reasons for the personnel changes.
The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), who is no longer in the Chamber, spoke about benchmarking UKTI against other comparable trade organisations around the world to see whether we are getting value for money for the taxpayer and whether sufficient money is being provided. The Select Committee’s inquiry can look at that.
This is not an academic exercise. In the past a trade deficit was so significant that it could bring down a Government. I am far too young to remember the 1970 election. I was not born then, but I have read about it in history. Some of those present may have been in the Chamber talking about it. That is an example of how important trade performance used to be. In the modern age, and in news reporting for the 21st century, it seems to have lost that impact. We should return to highlighting the importance of trade deficits for the general prosperity of this country. Poor performance in overseas markets acts as a drag on competitiveness, productivity and rising living standards for all. The Government should focus more attention on that and demonstrate how they will change track to achieve their targets. The whole House would be behind the Government if the Minister could demonstrate that tonight.
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con)
It is always a great pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee on which I am proud to serve, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who gave an interesting speech with a fair balance of criticism and positive views. It was in contrast to the speech from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), which in both content and delivery reminded me of the Brezhnev era with its catalogue of unremitting misery. I shall spare the blushes of the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and just say that unremitting misery is clearly what one gets with socialism, which is why this country has decisively and continuously rejected it.
I shall add to the positive views we have heard by making some comments of my own. I do this with some humility. We are debating some extremely important matters. The Chair of the Select Committee must be embarrassed that he has only two Labour colleagues in the Chamber, including the Whip, who is supposed to get people into the Chamber to take part in debates. Let us hope that as the debate progresses, we see a little more commitment from the Labour party to the entrepreneurs, the small businesses and the wealth creators in our country.
As the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) rightly pointed out when opening the debate, we have to understand Government policy and the matters we are debating today in the context of long-standing issues. We should recognise that in the global economy we are going through a period of substantial overcapacity in production and the transition of some major economies from a production to a consumption sector. That will have an impact on the ability of companies everywhere in the world to export. We have reached a point where—we may disagree on this—the British Government and the British economy have to start living within our means, which has been summed up by the Chancellor as seeking stability and security.
On trade, innovation and productivity, entrepreneurs and business people think about that every day. Low down their list of possible solutions to the issues facing them will be the words, “I had better go and ask my Member of Parliament.” The innovations that we make and the trade and exports that we do will be done by those individuals. I am a strong believer in free market capitalism and in entrepreneurship, and I want a Government and a Business Secretary who believe in that. One of the benefits of the election was a change in the leadership of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to someone who understands the motivations of the person who does not talk in billions and perhaps does not talk in millions, but is taking the first step and the first risk by investing their own money to start their business. Whether they are in Scotland, Bedford or other parts of the world, that is extremely important.
A number of hon. Members have talked about the persistent current account imbalance in the UK. We should bear in mind two things about that. First, if the issue has been there for so long and we have not all fallen apart, something about it must be hidden or going okay. Secondly—lies, damned lies and statistics—we must remember that trade statistics do not include value added. One of the important changes in global trade over the past 30 years has been a shift in the value added in various sectors. The statistics on that may paint a different picture.
The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful speech, as ever, and much of what he says is interesting and potentially accurate. However, I am sure that even he would agree that it is worrying when the contribution to GDP growth from exports is continually marked down in forecast after forecast. While there may well be good, hidden things, the general trend is working against growth in the economy.
I was just about to agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman was saying because I thought he was talking about forecasting accuracy—a topic on which, of course, the SNP has a very good track record. The issue of marking down does point to the frailty of setting targets. It is a fair criticism of all Governments that they find it very easy to set targets and then very difficult to meet some of them.
Let me talk about what the Government are doing. First, a number of hon. Members have referred to the very broad nature of the Government’s productivity plan. I see that plan as being more about how we implement things than the variety of outcomes they will have in terms of the overall impact on productivity.
Secondly, the Government’s policy on the living wage will provide a substantial increase in productivity, specifically labour productivity. The living wage is, in essence, a 38% pay increase for the lowest-paid workers in our country. I am sure that the Government and the OBR have factored into their statistics the implications for comparability with other pay rates within the economy. A Conservative Government pushing to increase the wages of some of our hardest-working but lowest-paid workers will have, in a market economy, a positive impact on improving labour productivity.
Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)
It is important to clarify that, as has been discussed previously in this House, the increase in the national minimum wage by the UK Government is not the same as the living wage that has been set by a number of independent bodies. Conservative Members must recognise that.
The hon. Lady is of course factually correct, but unfortunately that is like having a beautiful sunny day where someone consistently wants to put a cloud on the chart. This is a major and very significant change in the British economy. We should all be looking to the businesses that now have to pay the increase in wages to ensure that they are able to do so without it leading to unemployment. If we could co-ordinate our efforts around that, then, as she rightly says, we can think about the other level that we should move to. Let us join together, support what the Government have done, make sure that our businesses can deal with it, and then look to the next stage. I think there is common agreement across this House that the disparities have gone too far and now we are doing something about it.
The squeeze in the public sector is identifying new ways to improve productivity. We do not talk enough about that positive impact on the economy. Personally, I would be happy if the Secretary of State had accepted a larger reduction in the Department’s budget in doing his bit to get the deficit down, but I do understand that perhaps he is holding something back for later. Another positive on productivity is that the Government are focusing on the sharing economy, which our Committee is also considering.
On innovation, I am very pleased that the Minister said she would talk to the Treasury about looking at new ways in which tax policy can support equity investment in private companies, particularly involving individual savings accounts, as proposed in the excellent “High Growth Small Business” report launched by the hon. Member for Hartlepool.
May I tell the Department that I took to the previous Secretary of State the idea of a Bedford business fund? The idea is that people who care about a community—in this case, my constituency of Bedford—could put money into a fund to support the growth of businesses there. We do not have the advantages of Milton Keynes, Cambridge or Northampton, which have large businesses or science parks; we have to grow our own small businesses to create prosperity in our community. The idea of having a business fund in which people can invest tax-efficiently to grow businesses in their community could not just be followed in Bedford, but replicated across the country. I ask the Business Secretary to look at that again.
Building on the success of the Bedford business fund and having, happily, been re-elected in May, I am taking forward the idea of a Bedford community business school. In conjunction with Bedford College, there will be a series of courses over four weeks. Anyone in the community who is interested in starting a business can learn about public relations and marketing, and about accountancy and getting finance from business. Again, community business schools are a good idea that could be replicated across the country.
I want to make some points about the Department. I have already spoken about the potential for further reductions in its budget. I know that the Minister is a little more fond than I am of spending taxpayers’ money, but she is a true Tory and will look for efficiencies wherever she can. One thing we hear constantly from business is: “The Government do a lot of stuff, but where do I start.” Decluttering and providing some focus for what the Department does would be helpful.
May I make one specific suggestion? I understand that with the Treasury, through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, people will be able to log on and see their own tax accounts. Why is it not possible with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for a company, with a company tax identification number, to be able to log on to a website and see in one place all possible ideas that are suitable for the business, tailored to the specific interests of the company? Through the tax identification number, the Department will know whether it is a large or a small company and what sector it works in. With today’s technology, the Department should therefore be able to provide, up front and quickly, the Government measures that are available to support them. On deregulation, the issue for many companies is not how much money is saved, but how much time is saved.
I find it amusing that my hon. Friend is now encouraging me to spend taxpayers’ money on such a service. It sounds like a great idea, but does he agree that the private sector could do it even better, particularly for small businesses? In effect, the website would be a one-stop shop where they could access all the various forms of support available to them. We do not need to use taxpayers’ money to achieve that.
The Minister is somewhat ingenious in suggesting that I want taxpayers’ money to be spent on such a website. The issue is not about the money, but about the access to the Department’s information, which is of course privileged information within the Government. If the Minister is today committing herself to force the Department to deal with private sector companies wishing to create such an access portal and giving them free rein to do so, I am sure private capital will flood in. However, that will require a commitment and it will require access, which is her decision, not mine.
I will think about the idea, because it has many attractions, although there may be data protection considerations. Why do we not agree to meet to have such a discussion and see what we can achieve?
I am looking forward to the Minister coming back to the House with a recommendation, and I will of course be happy to meet her when she has that recommendation. [Interruption.] People may say that is unfair, but the truth is that this is a very positive initiative. The one thing we know about the Minister is that when she sees a problem to be tackled, she goes for it, and heaven help anyone who stands in her way. I am highlighting the fact that this is an opportunity for her. She is the right person to go for it, and I will of course encourage and support her all the way.
The most important thing highlighted by the motion—unfortunately, I do not support it—is that SNP Members are bringing forward ideas on some of the most important issues affecting the wellbeing of our country. Even though Members of Parliament may be low on the list of people entrepreneurs want to call to get answers, SNP Members, as well as others who have spoken, have done a service to the House and I commend them for it.
George Kerevan (East Lothian) (SNP)
The last six years have seen an amazing deterioration in Britain’s external trading position. The purpose of this debate is simply to get on the record how bad it is and to encourage the Government to do something about it.
The Government’s default position is to say, “Well, there’s been a global recession” and, “Our biggest trading partner is in the EU so we were bound to lose some traction in the markets.” The point is that in the six years since the Government came to power, world exports have increased by 30%. The world market for sales has grown extensively. If we have lost market traction in that situation, what will we do if the global economy starts to contract overall?
Normally, when there is a recession in domestic demand, a country’s industry is forced to export. Strangely enough, therefore, the core eurozone countries that suffered the worst from the euro crisis have done well in exporting. They had nowhere else to go, so they had to export. Spain and Italy have doubled their exports since 2010. Ireland, which had a catastrophic fiscal implosion, is selling more in exports than ever before in its history.
The point that we are trying to make to the Government is that their insouciance and their pretence that everything is all right in the international sector belies the fact that in the six-year period when they should have been concentrating on turning around British exports, increasing them and grabbing a bigger market share, they have failed totally. They keep putting it off. They keep thinking, “Well, we’ll have another paper plan and it will get better.”
If we look at the numbers, which have been repeated in a number of speeches, in 2014—the last year for which we have the full figures—the UK current account deficit came to 5.1% of GDP. The hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) asked whether that mattered, but if a country runs a current account deficit, it has to fill it somehow. It has to either borrow foreign currency from other countries or sell its assets into the ownership of other countries. It is no surprise, therefore, that large chunks of British industry and the British property market are owned abroad. The Government’s obsession with trying to cure their own fiscal deficit has only resulted in the deficit being transferred to somebody else.
Everybody knows that when a country’s current account deficit hits something like 5% or more of its GDP, the warning signs flash up in marketplaces all over the world. It is unsustainable. If a country runs that for two, three or four years, a quarter of its GDP will be in hock. We cannot continue to do that. In normal circumstances, the UK has typically run a current account deficit, but at a tiny fraction of its GDP. In 2014, the UK’s current account deficit had the worst performance in peacetime. That is the problem that the Government simply refuse to recognise.
Far from our economy being rebalanced towards manufacturing in order to export more, the numbers on that are just as bad. Let us take the total production data for the UK and strip out the most important components. UK manufacturing output is now less in value than it was in 2000. During the last 16 years, Germany has managed to increase its manufacturing output by that definition by 22%. It would be reasonable to say that we are almost back to a second wave of deindustrialisation. A lot of that has happened since 2010, although it goes back a little further. In fact, UK manufacturing output is barely ahead of where it was in 1990, so we have had a generation of marking time.
Over the last six years there was no national emergency and something could have been done, but the Chancellor did not focus on rebalancing the economy as he said he would. In 2012, he belatedly came up with a target—he is good at making targets—to double exports by the end of the decade. That was a ridiculous promise then, as it is now. If Government Members would just say, “Okay, let’s lay that target aside and concentrate on the practical nuts and bolts of expanding our exports”, we might move forward, but as long as the Chancellor comes up with these fancy proposals and does not deliver, Opposition Members can reasonably say, “You are not serious.”
What nuts and bolts does the hon. Gentleman think are missing from the Government’s package at the moment? He is long on rhetoric about the shape of our export performance—I can understand that—but the Government have done a huge amount to support those exporters, and we have been languishing in the depths of a European-wide recession.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s general point. I do not gainsay a number of the micro-decisions that the Government have taken, but we are not seeing the wood for the trees. Let us understand why we cannot get more investment into the manufacturing industry, and why the whole tenor of the economy is anti-export. It goes to the heart of how the Chancellor has conceived his job. He tells us that we have growth, but where has that growth come from in the past six years? It has come from pumping up domestic consumption, not from investment or selling abroad. Where does that extra consumption come from? Does it come from wages? There has been some wage growth in the past few years, but in the most recent statistics, pay growth has slumped to its lowest rate in two years. The growth is coming not from pay but from borrowing.
Let us consider the latest consumer borrowing figures. We do not have to go back a long way—let’s look at what is happening now. Consumer borrowing on credit cards and overdrafts is expanding at its fastest rate since the financial crisis. Unsecured consumer credit was up by 8.3% in November—consumers borrowed an extra £1.5 billion of unsecured credit in November alone in the run-up to Christmas. While we are facing a potential rise in interest rates, we have merely returned to unsustainable consumer debt in order to carry growth forward into 2016. Yes, there has been growth, but it has come from borrowing. All that the Government have done is to transfer a fiscal deficit from the public sector to private individuals who are even less able to bear it.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but it is too strong to say that Government policy is anti-export. That is not the case. The Government have been trying to navigate their way through a difficult economic situation, as I am sure the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) would agree. Being anti-export is not the intention, and the hon. Gentleman is overstating his case.
I am glad that we have moved on from me being wrong to me merely overstating the case—we are making progress. I repeat: in the depth of a crisis such as this, we will move on from unsustainable debt by moving towards export-led growth. That is what some of the countries that suffered worst in the recession and from the crisis with the euro have done. We have not even begun to do that, and if we do only one thing today and persuade Government Members that that is the case, we might have made progress.
The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting points. Does he recognise that those countries have had far more severe fiscal consolidations that we have had in Britain?
I do—that was my point. However, Italy, Spain and Ireland have still managed to double their exports, which is the one thing that the Chancellor said he wanted to do but has not yet even begun.
Why has the Chancellor not been able to rebalance the economy? What has gone wrong? In truth, although previous Chancellors began this, under this Chancellor Britain has a taxation system that favours investment in physical property, rather than long-term investment in manufacturing. It has continued to have a banking and financial system that prioritises gambling—to use an extreme word—money, and foreign exchange markets, rather than supporting manufacturing and innovation.
Let me give Members an example that goes to the heart of the matter. Britain’s premier engineering company is Rolls-Royce, a company we would need to rely on as our flagship if we were to rebalance the economy towards manufacturing and exports. Let us look at the tragic history of Rolls-Royce in the past two years. Just over a year ago, Rolls-Royce sold off its gas turbine business to Siemens for £1 billion. Gas turbines, by the way, are the third largest export sector in UK manufacturing. What did Rolls-Royce do with the £1 billion? Did it invest it in a new wave of innovation? Did it invest it in new technology? Did it do more research? No. The nature of the fiscal taxation system, reinforced by cuts to corporation tax, meant it was easier for Rolls-Royce management to use that £1 billion to buy back its shares.
I am not in favour of raising corporation tax—I think fiscal incentives are good for industry—but the Chancellor continued to cut corporation tax when he knew that most of the money from many companies would actually go on share buy-backs. Rolls-Royce, by dint of buying back its own shares, pushed its share price to something like £10 in the early part of last year. Where is the share price now? It is half that. Our premier engineering company is now in a disastrous commercial state. In fact, the halving of the share price means that the shareholder value of the £1 billion it received from selling off its key turbine business to Siemens has been wiped out.
Meanwhile, the market has caught up with Rolls-Royce. Its key sales of engines for large, wide-bodied jets have started to dry up. The market has moved on to new jet engines for narrower-bodied jets. The Americans are cleaning up because they had the product ready to go into that market. Rolls-Royce is now in serious trouble. In fact, there is now talk in the City of it being taken over.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree it is very important that in this House we do not talk down one of the most outstanding British success stories? Given that he has already given the House incorrect information about the moving on of the head of UK Trade & Investment, will he please agree that it is very important that the information he continues to put on the record is accurate? It has not been so far. Will he agree to withdraw his comments about Dominic Jermey and his moving on to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
I will continue with what I was saying. I am not talking down anyone. I am trying to get the Government to admit there is something seriously wrong.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will continue.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not important for all Members, when they make a mistake, to correct that mistake so the record can show when they have given an inaccurate account to this House, especially about someone who does not have the ability to speak in this place? If somebody else gives a contrary view based on sound information, is it not beholden on the Member to accept it? We all make mistakes. An hon. Member who has made a mistake should just accept it.