Mr Redwood’s contribution to the debate on Productivity, 17 June 2015

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): The productivity puzzle can be understood and resolved. It is a combination of bad news and not such bad news. There was a sharp fall in productivity at the time of the crisis, because we lost a lot of very expensive output, a lot of people lost their jobs and the net result was a big fall.

Since the crisis has hit, there has been a continued loss of top-end jobs in areas such as oil, financial services and banking, which score very well in terms of the way people compile productivity figures. An industry such as oil, which produces a lot of extremely valuable output and has a limited number of very well-paid people, gives an enormous boost to productivity, as we have learned today from Norway. We have just lived through a period when, through no fault of any of the three Governments who have been presiding over it, there has been a sharp decline in the output of oil—because it is now a very mature province—and a big fall in the oil price. That recent fall is down to market circumstance and to things happening well away from this country.

There was also a big loss of top-end jobs in banking and financial services. There will be mixed views in the House of Commons on the social value of those jobs, but they scored very well in the run-up to the crash. Some of those jobs have now gone all together and some have gone to lower tax jurisdictions elsewhere. The bad news side of it accounts for the drop in productivity during the crisis and the slow growth since the crisis.

The better reason why our productivity is below that of some of our continental comparators is that we have gone for a model—I think and hope with the agreement of all parties—of having more people in employment and of creating conditions in which this economy can produce many more lower paid jobs in the hope that that will lead on to higher paid jobs and more output and activity, which is a better model than those people being out of work.

Let us look at the way the productivity figures are calculated. If a country sacks 10% of the least productive people in the economy, which is the kind of thing that the euro was doing to some of our competitor countries in euroland, it can be flattering for its productivity figures, because the least productive jobs go, and the productivity of the total country rises, but the country is a lot worse off, because it then has 10% of its workforce out of work who would otherwise have been in less productive jobs. It is the same in a business. The easiest way for a business with below-average productivity to get to average or above-average productivity is to close its worst factory, but that is not always the answer that people in this House would like.

George Kerevan (East Lothian) (SNP): The right hon. Gentleman is making the best he can of a bad job. For instance, if we look at the share of research and development in gross domestic product in the UK, we see that it was down not just over the 1990s, when we had the last Conservative Government, but for the period from 2000 to 2007. R and D is a fundamental component of productivity and it is down. He cannot gainsay that.

John Redwood: One has to first understand a problem before one can address the problem. I think we are all in agreement on this issue. Would we like higher productivity? Yes, we would. Would we like more better paid jobs? Yes, we would, and that goes for Conservatives as much as any other party in this House—probably more than any other party in this House. We not only will the end—more high-paid jobs—but are prepared to take some of the decisions that Opposition parties always deny or query in order to allow those better paid jobs to be created.

Let me go on from the analysis. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on what I have said and understand that I have provided a good explanation of the path that productivity has taken since 2007, which is a matter of common concern but has some understandable things that we cannot address. For example, we cannot suddenly wish a lot more oil into Scotland, and that remains a fact. We will not be able suddenly to create all those high-end banking jobs. Some Opposition parties probably would not like them anyway. We are where we are. What we can do about productivity is to work away on those parts of the economy where the performance has been most disappointing.

Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that cutting some of the red tape that affects our small and medium-sized businesses would help with the productivity puzzle?

John Redwood: I agree, but only if we have ineffective or over-the-top regulation. Removing it can give more people access to the market and provide a greater competitive challenge, but we need some regulation, because we need rules and certain guarantees in the market.

Let us take a sector that I asked the shadow Chancellor (Mr Chris Leslie) about. It was a problem that, in the Labour years, we had a long period of practically no growth in public sector productivity. I am the first to admit that the concept of productivity is more difficult in parts of the public sector. People actually like more teachers relative to the number of pupils, because they hope that that will create better teaching and a better system in classes, but it means that productivity falls. That means that we need other parts of the public sector, where the productivity issue is more straightforward or more like the private sector, to be even better, so that the overall performance of the public sector does not lag behind and cause difficulties.

As we have quite a big public sector in this economy, the performance of the public sector is very important. It also happens to be the area where Ministers have most control and most direct influence, so it is the area that this House should spend more time on, because we are collectively responsible for the performance of the public sector. I think most parties now agree that we want to get more for less in the public sector, so that we can control public spending. There are disagreements about how much control we should exert on public spending, but I hope there is agreement that if it is possible to do more for less while improving—or not damaging—quality, that is a good thing to do.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab) rose—

John Redwood: I am afraid I need to move on because many people wish to speak. Time is limited.

I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr Greg Hands) to the issue that I raised with him in my intervention. One very important industry that is almost completely nationalised—the tracks, signals and stations are completely nationalised and the train operating companies are very strongly regulated and controlled by franchises, so they are almost nationalised—is the railway industry. It is a growing industry, and this Government are committing a lot of money to it. It is an industry which, I believe, all the main parties in the House wish to commit money to and wish to grow and invest in.

However, an independent study in 2011, the McNulty report, showed that our railway does less for more cost than comparable railways on the continent. It should be a matter of great concern, and I hope it will be a matter for review by those dealing with the railways and with public spending, because as we channel those huge sums of money into our railway to try to get expansion and improvement, we need to pull off the trick that the best private sector companies manage—of driving quality up and costs down at the same time.

A myth in some public sector managers’ minds is that a cut in the amount spent is bound to lead to worse quality or impaired service, whereas every day in a good private sector company they go to work saying, “How can I spend less and serve the customer better? How can I apply new technology so that I get more for less? How can I have a better skilled and better motivated workforce?”—I hope it is not done by unpleasant management, because that usually leads to the wrong results—and “How can I motivate the workforce more so that they are empowered to achieve more and do less?”

That is the spirit that we need in the public sector, and if we began with the railways, it would make a very important contribution to improving our overall productivity rate.

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  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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