Speaking ahead of all three main national party leaders at this year’s CBI Annual Conference, the CBI Director-General argued business held many of the keys to the future of the UK – and whichever party is in power, business and government must form a determined partnership.
She set out the CBI’s priorities for the future government – contained in its newly published manifesto, Programme for Prosperity.
She warned against dangerous ideology from both sides of the political divide – and urged for a return of evidence and fact at the heart of the economy.
She called for a relentless focus on competitiveness – because the UK was at a real risk of losing out globally. Among the issues that need addressing, she cited industrial strategy, business rates, immigration policy, R&D spend, skills gaps and infrastructure. And she singled out the importance of reskilling the UK’s workforce so that every one, from every background, was in a position to prosper in the new technology age.
And as much as she called for change from government, she added that business had to change too – and work harder to prove that profit goes hand-in-hand with purpose.
Thank you John. And can I add my warmest welcome to everyone here today. In these quite extraordinary times.
Not only the first CBI conference ever to be held during a general election. But one that marks the end of a quite extraordinary decade.
Full of challenges in so many ways. The painful aftermath of the worst financial crash in almost 100 years. Populism rising around the world. Growing trade wars. And, of course, Brexit, dominating far too much of our national life.
Yet at the same time it has been a decade of amazing progress. A UK economy with so many strengths from its brilliant universities to its leading firms in so many sectors.
And one of my favourite success stories — 85% of our young people when asked about their future say they want to start a business. It’s absolutely fantastic to have so many young leaders with us today. You could not be more welcome or your voice more vital.
And now, we stand on the threshold of a new decade. With the chance for all of us to shape what comes next. Making this one of the most important elections in our lifetime. And 2020 one of the most important years.
Shared goals for the next decade
And I’m delighted that we’ll hear from all three national party leaders later today. It says something very important that they are all here.
I’m often asked — who is the party of business. My answer is that we need them all to be the party of business And that’s because we share some incredibly important goals.
I’ve heard them from all three leaders over the early days of this election. And I hear them everywhere as I travel round the country.
As we head into this next decade:
- We want prosperity that’s more evenly shared
- The chance for every young person to succeed
- An environment protected.
Each goal huge in itself and not one of them possible to achieve without business.
Without successful, responsible, passionate business, creating wealth and opportunity across the country and working in close partnership with government.
And I believe all are within our grasp if we do the right things and, as important, don’t waste time on the wrong things.
Evidence over ideology
And this does prompt me to say something about our current politics. I believe we are facing a danger that could get in the way of a bright future. And it takes the form of extreme ideology. We see it on both sides of the political divide.
On the right, we have the threat of — even preference for — No Deal as the end point of our Brexit negotiations.
John has covered our thoughts on Brexit, and you’ll be relieved to hear I won’t repeat them. But what he didn’t mention is that — for some on the right — this preference for No Deal is driven by a zeal for something beyond this and that is the wholesale deregulation of the UK economy.
But I want to be clear that this is not what British firms, large or small, want. They are intent on improving the quality of good jobs and not diminishing them.
They accept Brexit and will do all they can to make it work. But when No Deal becomes an ideology of its own, seemingly intent on ignoring the impact on jobs and livelihoods, then we have a problem.
Meanwhile, ideology from the left is at least as damaging. The Labour party is proposing the biggest programme of renationalisation this country has ever seen at great cost with uncertain returns to the taxpayer and with no clear route to better customer service.
Its most recent proposed nationalisation of part of BT was a bolt from the blue and has sent a chill through boardrooms at home and abroad. With many firms questioning whether their investment is safe. And some thinking — are we next?
These ideologies from both sides are causing great harm to our economy. Not just in the future but right now.
To see this, you only have to look the effect on business investment, which has fallen in five of the last six quarters. Confidence in Britain is faltering. Such a lost opportunity given our strengths.
But there is an answer and it is this. Make 2020 the year we return to a world of evidence-based British policy for which our country has for so long been respected.
And then together, we can relaunch the UK as one of the most competitive economies in the world.
We know what needs to be done.
Yesterday we published the CBI’s Programme for Prosperity — a business manifesto for the next government. Setting out the top priorities. From fixing broken systems like Business Rates and the Apprenticeship Levy. And following through on vital infrastructure like HS2 and Heathrow expansion. To revitalise vocational training. And making sure the UK’s immigration policy is based on contribution, not numbers.
There’s also a lot business must do for itself.
2020 should be the year we relaunch the UK as a pro-enterprise nation.
And the world is most definitely watching… and waiting.
Earlier this year, I was in Tokyo, for a meeting of the B20 — the business voice of the G20. I was asked over again by other countries about how the UK is doing. They hear nothing but Brexit, they felt a bit sorry for us.
So, I told them about our leading position in global fintech, our record employment and tax receipts. That we’ve created more unicorn businesses in the UK than the rest of the EU combined and that we have four universities in the global top ten.
And it made the front page of the Japan Times.
Global investors and the world at large want to hear more from the UK. 2020 can be the year that happens.
Profit with purpose
So this is the programme we would like from government. But we know there is an equally important programme for business that it too has to change.
Business has always been about profit but it’s also been about so much more. It’s about making a difference. Creating jobs, services, products, ideas, opportunities.
This is a time to talk about and even more importantly — demonstrate – that profit comes with purpose.
For example, Richer Sounds earlier this year, turning itself into an employee ownership trust. BT spending £50 million pounds a year on shares for its employees.
Capita appointing two workers to its board. The FTSE 350 on course to meet its target for women on boards early. And over 50 of the UK’s leading firms backing a new Mental Health at Work commitment.
The CBI’s business reputation tracker shows public trust in business rising. So does Edelman’s global survey. But there is much more still to do. Which is why I am so pleased to welcome the Good Business Charter team here today. One of many efforts to support firms to demonstrate their purpose and values in all they do.
Tackling the biggest issues of our times
And let me finish with where I started — with the biggest challenges of our day. And how we build long-term solutions to long-term problems. Based on partnership. On climate change, if government can achieve cross party consensus and a stable policy framework towards net zero, business can deliver the innovations in heat, power and transport.
Just look at the quiet miracle that has taken place in offshore wind, where prices have fallen further and faster than anyone thought possible.
On making the UK fairer, we need to build local industrial strategies that are long term and ambitious in every part of the country.
On building the workforce of the future, John has already talked about what a difference engaged business can make to young people in schools.
But there’s another great challenge on our doorstep.
And that’s how we reskill a whole workforce for the changing world of technology.
As many as 9 in every 10 people currently in work will need to be retrained or reskilled over the next ten years. A truly gargantuan task.
Achieving it will need business and government, employer and employee, state and citizen, unions and academia. And if we get it right – and I firmly believe we can – it could be Britain’s most powerful competitive advantage of all.
So, to conclude before I sit down with Kirsty. We have the opportunity, right now, for the partnership of the century between business and government.
It could achieve so much for everyone in this country. But it must be about getting beyond the divisions and working together. About evidence over ideology. Profit with purpose. Long-term solutions to long-term problems. All underpinned by the right Brexit outcome.
So, to all three leaders joining us today, I ask you to work with us. There has never been a more important time.