CBI President, Lord Karan Bilimoria, CBE, DL keynote speech at 2020 CBI Anual Conference
Full transcript below.
Good morning, and welcome to day two of the CBI’s 2020 annual conference.
I’d like to thank our strategic partners, Hays and Accenture, very much for their support. And what a day – with the US elections, today and sadly, overnight, the tragic news from Vienna. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected, and to everyone in Austria.
Now, as you may know, this is my first annual conference as CBI President. For years, I have been a passionate supporter of British Industry.
You’re the most innovative, most productive and most creative companies ever known.
But little did I know that I would begin my term as CBI President in the midst of the biggest health challenge in a century and the deepest UK recession in living memory. And this crisis has taken its toll: high streets deserted, production lines silent, millions of people’s livelihoods at risk.
And I know how hard all of you have worked over the past seven months to make your businesses COVID-secure. And we all wanted so desperately, to avoid the second lockdown. There’s no denying that for so many businesses it heralds a really tough, bleak winter ahead.
And yet, despite all of this, I remain really optimistic about the future. For a simple reason:
that at the height of this crisis, business stepped up. Firms and key workers in every sector, every part of the UK worked – day and night – to keep the country going.
We used to marvel at China building hospitals from scratch in days. We now know that in the middle of a public health crisis we too can build a hospital – with 4,000 critical care beds – in just nine days. And we’ve experienced an innovation earthquake. In the midst of the pandemic, Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft said that two years’ worth of digital transformation happened in just two months.
At every stage of this crisis, too, the CBI working with its members, government, and unions fought to protect jobs and livelihoods. And the government responded with one of the most ambitious rescue packages in the world: almost 9 million people supported on furlough. And a further 2.3 million self-employed people supported. 1.3 million, 100% government-guaranteed, Bounce Back Loans, which have saved thousands of businesses, thousands of jobs, and in particular – SMEs the engine of our economy.
The Government has had to move fast – not every detail’s been right the first time. But the teams at BEIS, Treasury, and the Chancellor deserve huge credit. As do the CBI team: over 200 talented, energetic, enthusiastic professionals in the UK, in Brussels, in Washington, in Delhi, in Beijing. It is their amazing depth and breadth of expertise that set the CBI apart and make us the premier business organisation in this country. Adding value to you, our members. And to the country.
And I want to thank my predecessor, John Allan for his mentorship and guidance while I was shadowing him before I took over the Presidency in June.
And above all, I want to thank you – our CBI members. Together, over 190,000 businesses employing 7 million people – one-third of the private sector workforce from every size and sector, and every corner of the UK. Speaking out and sharing your insights – to guide us. Thank you.
And because of the steps you’ve taken to protect your staff and customers, the business support measures we now have in place. And the knowledge and experience we’ve gained as a country, on the action needed to get us through, and out to the other side of the pandemic, all show that despite the challenges ahead, we have the agility, we have the ingenuity, and we have the collaborative spirit to come through this.
As the great Irish author, James Joyce said, “I am tomorrow what I establish today.” With this in mind, I want to say a few words about the power of UK enterprise and innovation – nationally and globally – to help us to navigate the next stage of this historic crisis and to rebuild.
Starting, first, with those immediate fires burning around us and the action we need now, to bring the virus under control, saving as many jobs as possible. It won’t be easy. But it can be done.
At the CBI, we believe that our path out of this crisis must be built on three rock-solid pillars.
We must rediscover our nation’s sense of common purpose.
Recently, we’ve seen the public unity that defined the start of this crisis begin to fracture. Solidarity has turned to political partisanship, clarity to confusion, and hope to doubt. If we’re to repair that break and restore trust we need to rediscover the spirit of common humanity that has brought us this far.
So, what does that mean in practice? It means focused efforts to explain government policies and the health evidence behind them,
with transparency about the criteria for tightening or lifting restrictions.
It means collaboration. It means building trust between central and local government. It means Whitehall and the town hall. Policymakers working with business and trade unions. And it means involving more people – local to the areas impacted – in the decision-making process.
That’s point one.
Pillar 2 is, working with business, government must build a robust bridge to the other side of this pandemic. We have to protect lives and livelihoods. We have to protect the future for our young people, who have suffered so much.
And, as we are trying to flatten the curve of the disease we need to flatten the curve of looming unemployment by maintaining business support, to keep us going until we emerge from the second lockdown, and until we find a vaccine or can safely re-open for good.
Reinstating furlough was a vital step, providing instant relief and protecting jobs. The Chancellor must now commit to keeping the Job Retention Scheme in place for at least as long as the lockdown lasts and chart a smooth path to the Job Support Scheme as the economy gradually begins to re-open again.
The reformed Job Support Scheme, extending grant support to all those businesses closed through the new lockdown was another positive move.
But this too must go further. More grants should be extended to help businesses in supply chains, not just those who are closed so that the whole economy can survive and then thrive.
And we need to take action now to support the business investment that will help create the jobs of the future. Possible ideas here include vouchers for SMEs to invest in digital technologies, as well as further assistance to support business innovation and growth finance.
And, across all of this, with lockdown measures reintroduced, it’s now more important than ever that business and government work together.
That sense of collaboration will empower businesses to do what they do best. Taking a lead in getting us through this crisis. As, our Director-General, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn said yesterday, bring business into the planning formally upfront – not tail-end Charlie. Not as an afterthought, having to come with a begging bowl asking for support.
Because it’s business that creates jobs, business that supports livelihoods, business that pays the taxes and funds the public services that we all benefit from.
And then, Pillar 3, we need to leap-frog progress on rapid, mass testing.
A proper rapid, mass testing regime could transform the way we live and work in the coming months or sooner. I have seen first-hand, as a proud Chancellor of the University of Birmingham the benefits of testing when our professors were involved in supervising the testing that enabled the English Premier League’s season to be completed. Regular, twice a week testing meant those found positive, were immediately isolated, and the rest were able to carry on. And those games continue, to this day. No game was cancelled.
So, the government’s ‘moon-shot’ ambitions are exactly right. We need reliable, rapid, mass testing as soon as humanly possible. But crucially – in the meantime – we mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So, it is a breakthrough to hear government support for rapid, mass testing. And we urge the government to continue to consider a wider range of testing options, to be as ambitious as possible.
Looking to international best practice. We need quick, affordable, mass anti-gen testing now. This is an incredibly fast-developing market. New tests are being developed as we speak. And let me say – the pilot in Liverpool announced today is the first true chink of light, that rapid mass testing can move from warm words to action on the ground.
The findings from the pilot should allow restrictions to be much more focused and self-isolation to be much better targeted so that we can genuinely get on top of the virus.
So, in the UK, we need to move quickly to validate and pilot a range of tests, that will work in different situations. Tests that are accurate, easy to use, and work well in practice. Even if they are marginally less accurate than the gold standard, this can be mitigated by more frequent testing. It’s the key to reopening our economy safely and being able to fire on all cylinders. From schools, universities, and airports, to manufacturing plants, logistic depots, warehouses, construction sites. All this with the right government guidance in place.
So, that’s the CBI’s blueprint to help frame the UK’s COVID response. And in the words of Alan Turing: “Though we can only see a short distance ahead, we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”
And as we’ve said, we need to use these next four weeks of lockdown to rollout this mass testing at speed.
In March, at the beginning of the crisis, Professor Quelch – formerly at Harvard Business School, and Dean of the London Business School for a while, sent me his seven Cs for leadership that would be needed during the Coronavirus crisis:
calm, confidence, communication, collaboration, community, compassion, and cash. How true, these have been over the past eight months.
Delivering on the UK’s promise
But, as a country, we also need to be looking longer-term. Driving demand, creating jobs, and strengthening the UK’s competitiveness to bounce back as quickly as possible.
For me, that means three big priorities to deliver on the UK’s promise as one of the world’s best, most global, open economies and also a place to create and grow a business, where every person can realise their ambitions.
Building on our reputation as one of the world’s top three destinations for inward investment. And one of the world’s leading countries for entrepreneurship.
Diversity and fair opportunity
Starting with one of the biggest priorities of all: Diversity. I moved to the UK from India as a student when I was 19, and this country has given me all of the wonderful opportunities I’ve had to build my business. Which I’m proud to say is now a household name. Now I want to make certain that more talented people, particularly, from BAME backgrounds, get that same chance, and can get to the top. Too many still face barriers.
And a 2020 update to the Government’s Parker Review – published in 2016 – into Ethnic Diversity in UK boards found that 37% of FTSE 100 companies surveyed. And 69% of the FTSE 250, don’t have a single ethnic minority director on their Board.
So, I’ve been working with CBI colleagues and senior UK leaders on a new campaign called ‘Change the Race Ratio’ to increase racial and ethnic participation in business.
The initial ambition is to get as many FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 businesses as possible to commit to appointing at least one racially or ethnically diverse board member. Alongside measures to create a truly inclusive workplace culture where all diversities can thrive – at every level of the business.
But the work doesn’t stop there. At the CBI, we’ve also established a ‘BAME in Tech’ network to help eliminate bias and discrimination in the UK tech industry. Not just in workplaces – but in the software we make, the products we sell, and the algorithms we design.
Innovation and universities
Which brings me to my second priority: Science and innovation. And supporting this country’s incredible entrepreneurs, start-ups, and SMEs.
This year, we’ve seen the ingenuity of British business more powerfully than ever before. Particularly in the search for the COVID vaccine.
With academics – at world-class UK universities, including Oxford, and Imperial College, for example – leading the way, partnering with companies like AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, and Pfizer, for example.
Again, this collaboration is key. Not just here in the UK but globally. And we know that India’s Serum Institute, the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world stands ready to produce one billion vaccines straight away for COVID. One billion.
Together, these innovations even in this most uncertain of times are a cause for hope.
But there is so much more we can do to support our innovators, to celebrate them, and create the perfect conditions for them to thrive. Whether that’s doing more to help firms sell and scale their ideas. Improving the support for firms adopting new technology. Ensuring the benefits of public investment are more widely felt. Or connecting more businesses with universities – nationally and globally.
Together, we stand to gain so much. Cures – not just for COVID – but cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. Innovations that could tackle poverty and deprivation in almost every corner of the globe. And clean, low carbon technology to confront the climate crisis.
UK global leadership
And that brings me to my third big priority. Showing that the UK can lead the world in things like climate action. And championing free trade.
In 2021 the UK will host the UN’s global climate summit: COP26. We will preside over the G7 – with the CBI chairing the equivalent business summit – the B7. And we will have the world’s attention.
It’s a unique opportunity to show our strengths and to take a lead. Setting a global example for the world’s energy transition winning the race to net-zero carbon emissions.
In fact, at the CBI, we’ve just released our Heat Commission report with the University of Birmingham – where I am proud to be Chancellor – to help decarbonise UK homes and businesses.
We know heat makes up over one-third of carbon emissions. And unless we address this, we are not going to meet our 2050 net-zero target.
Again, we need to collaborate, working with global partners, like the Confederation of Indian Industry, to drive business action. And India is a leader in solar power.
And as our country charts an independent course on trade for the first time in forty years, the UK has the chance to set the global agenda for free trade and reassert itself as a trading superpower. Instilling a new national psyche, leading globally, to level up locally. Helping more UK companies grow through exports and investment. And boosting productivity and skills. And all built on a close partnership between business and government.
And this is why it’s crucial – as our Director-General, Carolyn Fairbairn said yesterday that the CBI takes a lead – with our recommendation – to establish a new National Commission for Economic Recovery.
EU-UK trade deal
Central to our success – and now more urgent than ever – of course, is the UK securing a deal with the EU as our largest trading partner by far. After four years of negotiations and so many hurdles crossed now is the time to get a deal over the line, not to give up. It’s the only outcome that protects covid-hit livelihoods at a time when every job counts. With both sides still talking – a deal is within reach, and it is achievable.
Business needs the UK and EU to come together.
Delivering the clarity firms need to ramp up preparations. And crucially, easing the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Almost 80% of our CBI members are urging for a deal.
And if we get all this right – I am certain that, in time our economy will bounce back. Why am I so optimistic? Because the best way to predict the future is to look at, and to study the past. And we don’t need to look back too far. Just think back to this summer. Those months when our economy was slowly reopening. And the boost we saw to our GDP. That’s how quickly our economy can recover – with mass testing in place, and hopefully a vaccine soon. Just imagine what we could do.
So, I have every confidence that when this pandemic is over we will bounce back.
The treatments are getting better. The vaccine is round the corner. And mass testing is getting underway.
So those are my big priorities: Inclusivity, innovation, and global leadership.
I mentioned James Joyce earlier. It was another great Irish writer, Seamus Heaney, who said, “The days are getting shorter and colder, but I ask you to remember – even as the winter comes in, there is hope and there is light." To every business tuning in today, let me say: you are that light.
I said so earlier this year, at the ‘Global India’ conference, where I was asked one question, over and over again: how has business responded to this crisis? My answer is this: by putting people first.
People are what make us, as a country. And this crisis has made us appreciate every doctor, every nurse, every care-home worker, every key worker, and every business who have stepped up and contributed.
This wonderful country. This Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This United Kingdom. A country with the greatest combination of hard and soft power in the world. That’s the inspiration.
And that’s why I can see that sunlight, shining at the end of the tunnel.