Mark made the following interventions in a debate on the Charter for Budget Responsibility:
Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
I am certainly not in the mode of wanting to chide my right hon. Friend for anything in particular, but it is worth putting the productivity issues into context. It is also the case, as it has been during his time in office, not just as Chancellor but since 2010, that our unemployment rate has been rather lower, and that may have been a factor in the poor productivity that the UK economy has had relative to many of our European partners. This Government—or perhaps more importantly, British businesses—have made keeping employment rates a higher priority than the urgent need for improvements to productivity to which he refers.
My right hon. Friend, who represents one of the most productive sub-regions in the entire European Union, is of course right. There is a perfectly respectable economic argument that, as participation in the labour force increases, bringing more marginally productive workers into the labour force, that may have a depressing effect on labour productivity overall. However, the employment participation rates in Germany and in the UK are not all that different. I do not think we can explain a 30% productivity performance gap by differences in levels of participation in the economy. Indeed, there is much debate among economists about the cause of this productivity gap, and the cause of the generally poor productivity performance of developed economies over the past few years
The right hon. Gentleman is right that we have borrowed a hell of a lot of money, probably too much, since 2010—£700 billion—but does that not give the lie to the idea that there has been grinding austerity? We have borrowed a huge amount of money and struck a balance in trying to maintain welfare. One of the most insidious forms of investment under the last Labour Administration was the public-private partnership and the private finance initiative, much of which we will be paying off for decades to come—a colossal amount of so-called investment that actually is just adding more to our ongoing debt.
The right hon. Gentleman will recall my opposition to PFI and its failures, but let me be clear: to borrow for investment, to ensure that people have the skills and resources necessary to tackle the productivity crisis and thereby grow the economy and create the high skills and wages which mean that people can pay their taxes and fund our public services, is creditable; however, what we have seen over the last seven years is borrowing because of the failure of the Government’s economic policy.
I see that the right hon. Gentleman is ready to jump in again.
The shadow Chancellor will recognise that he should be doing the same as me by defending London’s honour to a certain extent. Surely he recognises that if the significant amounts coming into our capital city were not invested here, they would go to another global capital, so it is not a case of money coming to London rather than another part of the UK. It is also the case that many of the cranes in my constituency—and, indeed, those in his constituency near Heathrow—are engaged in infrastructure projects involving large-scale investment. Such projects are producing huge numbers of construction jobs and are contracting well beyond the capital city. A lot of investment goes on here in London, but it has a benefit well beyond the capital city—
Madam Deputy Speaker (Natascha Engel)
Order. I call John McDonnell.
Don’t worry, Madam Deputy Speaker; I was enjoying that.
The reality is that this is Government investment, and those figures are just not acceptable. Investment of £5,000 per head in London compared with £400 in the north-east is an unacceptable level of inequality that has to be challenged. The right hon. Gentleman is usually fair, so I am sure that he would accept that, no matter how much we are both champions for our capital city.
But surely the hon. Gentleman must recognise that the proof of the pudding will be in whether there is a sense of confidence drifting away from banks and corporates in relation to that shock. They recognise that Brexit is a major event, and we all recognise that its impact still lies some way ahead, but that impact means that it is quite legitimate not to be bound by rules that pertained 15 months ago in a rather different world from the one that we are going to have to experience in the months and years to come.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for illustrating clearly the point that I am trying to make. Conservative Members are saying that rules are a hostage to fortune. They are saying that the rules will change when the circumstances change and when they need to change them to get the result they want. What, therefore, is the point of having rules at all? The right hon. Gentleman confirms the point that the shadow Chancellor and I are putting forward, which is that rules are flexible politically, and that they are therefore not rules.