In response to the Queen’s Speech, Nicola spoke in the Economic debate on the Queen’s Speech making the case for a joined up skills strategy and smarter investment in science and technology:
Congratulations, Madam Deputy Speaker. As is already clear, you will find a warm welcome from all sides of the House because we know you as a champion of us Back Benchers, and we trust you.
It is a pleasure to follow so many outstanding maiden speeches. Constituents across the country will be proud to see their choices vindicated today. Those speeches take me back to my first days as an MP when I was elected in 2010. Hundreds of thousands of people had lost their jobs and for many more the prospect of home ownership was a distant dream. Others struggled to make ends meet. Our first duty in coalition was to restore fiscal responsibility to our public finances, offering this country the economic security that underpins all other policy decisions. There is nothing compassionate about paying more in debt interest than could be afforded on education. It is right to finish the job now. Once we have balanced the books, we can target investment and create the climate for all parts of the UK to realise their full potential.
Already, employment is at a record high and rising. In my constituency, youth unemployment has fallen by over 76%, but it is no good creating all these jobs if we do not offer the education and skills for local people to benefit. It is no good funding millions of apprenticeships and university places if we are not going to address skills shortages we face in engineering, nursing, construction and social care. I hope that the full employment and welfare benefits Bill reporting duties will not just be headline employment and apprenticeships figures, but that they will review progress broken down by sector and set against skills demand. That is the only way in which we will deliver the sophisticated skills strategy we need.
Oxfordshire, for example, is among the top five innovation ecosystems in the world. We have more than 1,500 high-tech firms, from start-ups to global company headquarters. We are world leaders in life sciences, big physics and space, and we employ more than 43,000 people. Not only has Oxford produced more than 50 Nobel laureates, but we are leaders in UK tech transfer. Between 2010 and 2012, Oxford university generated more spin-outs than any other UK university. State-of-the-art facilities such as the Diamond synchrotron and the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, and access to our hyper-skilled labour pool, make us disproportionately attractive to tech industry.
Even in Oxford, however, businesses struggle with the skills shortage, housing costs, and digital and physical infrastructure, and those are the constraints that we must overcome. The Chancellor has rightly zeroed in on weak productivity, but the British scientific community is the most productive in the world. With just over 3% of the world’s research and development spending, we produce more than 6% of the world’s publications and 16% of its most cited papers. Our researchers translate funding into great science more effectively than anyone else. Yet despite recent increases, we still lag behind our international competitors in R and D investment, ranking only 12th in the EU.
Commercialisation is another issue. Despite Innovate UK’s excellent reputation, tech firms outside London speak of a chronic shortage of early-stage investment capital, and a mismatch between longer lead-in times—especially for biotech—and the impatience of capital investors. Incentives for individual investors de-risk investments, and we have a growing angel network in Oxford, but there are no breakthrough, throwing-down-the-gauntlet-to-Silicon-Valley solutions. I hope that the Treasury will explore incentives for pension funds and insurance companies—those with long-term perspectives—to invest directly in tech firms. Globalisation means that a single disruptive technology can create a worldwide paradigm shift in what seems like an instant. Think Uber and taxis, Netflix and DVDs. Our STEM ecosystem needs to be the most agile and responsive in the world.
In five years of representing what I consider to be the vertex of our golden triangle, I have learnt a few things: for instance, that one should always go to a surgery prepared for an impromptu tutorial on wave particle duality and that we need to develop a policy for our STEM ecosystem as a coherent whole. We have come closest to that with our growth deals, which is why we in Oxford are particularly excited about the genuinely transformative possibilities of the cities and local government devolution Bill. We feel that if Cambridge has been granted devolved powers to retain business rates, we should have those powers too.
It would be deeply disappointing if, in his efforts to rebalance the economy, the Chancellor overlooked counties which already power the economy, but still have much more to give. The exam question should be not “Are you doing OK?”, but “How much better could you be doing?” Just as the education Bill will tackle both failing and coasting schools, this Government programme should aim to unlock the full potential of every local economy and community in Great Britain.