My Lords, I am very pleased to speak in this debate. Last week’s gracious Speech was rightfully centred above all else on the economy. It was a reminder to us all that although we have made some progress, there is still much to be done and our Government are committed to staying the course and maintaining our disciplined approach of austerity. Even more than that, it was about managing our economy in a way that is fairer for people and rewards those who work hard.
As a businessman myself, I was particularly heartened to see that central theme running through the very heart of our plans for the next 12 months. I am sure that everyone will agree that the way to strengthen our economic competitiveness is by growing our economy back to the health that it once enjoyed. That will be achieved only through more companies doing more business and offering more job opportunities.
I believe that the twin engines behind achieving that will be those of increasing our level of international trade and attracting higher inward investment from overseas. Last week, the Prime Minister spoke passionately to financial leaders at the global investment conference, when he rightly said that we face a sink or swim moment in the global economic race. Indeed, two of several key points that the Prime Minister outlined were focusing on trade deals and ensuring that the UK remains as internationally connected as possible.
Encouraging figures were also released last week which showed that our successful management of the 2012 Olympic Games brought the UK an extra £2.5 billion of direct foreign investment, increasing our productivity and, ultimately, our competitiveness. It created 58,000 new jobs, and 105,000 jobs were safeguarded as a result, firmly retaining our position as the leading destination for foreign investment in Europe. UK Trade and Investment was involved in helping to deliver the majority of those projects and should be applauded for its efforts.
Our focus must now turn to maintaining the momentum. We need to prove to the rest of the world why the UK remains an ideal place to do business. Specifically in terms of trade, I believe that we must begin to look much more seriously at developing our trade relationships in Africa. We have historic ties with some African countries and we can build on those connections further. Strong growth over the past decade has already helped to reduce poverty, and the International Monetary Fund recently forecast that sub-Saharan Africa will grow by 6% over the next four years. In fact, Ghana, Mozambique, the Congo, Liberia and six other African economies are expected to grow by 7% or more this year. To put that into perspective, the only other emerging economies in that 7% growth club are China, India and Vietnam.
It is therefore a very good time for British companies to get more involved with and invest in Africa. We must capitalise on that rapidly expanding economy simultaneously to grow British business and to help to drive further development and job creation across the African continent.
Here at home, as specifically mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, we must also continue to grow our private sector. Well over 1 million new jobs have been created since 2010, which has played a key role in the reduction of our deficit by one-third. I am very confident in our Government’s commitment to increase that further by a number of encouraging policies.
The £2,000 allowance on national insurance contributions has been welcomed with open arms by businesses across the board. It will particularly help those smaller firms which currently find that a substantial financial burden and means that one-third of all employers will not have to make any further national insurance payments. Research has shown that employers favour that measure, and it will be a business-boosting initiative. The Federation of Small Businesses has even stated that it went beyond what it was asking for.
The continued cutting of corporation tax is also helping private businesses to keep more of their cash to invest in expansions and employ more people, while promoting the UK as an attractive place for overseas companies to set up businesses here. Our Government have also promised to reduce the burden of excessive regulation on business. Again, that will make a considerable difference to small and medium-sized businesses, which find themselves bogged down with health and safety laws and restrictive red tape.
If there was ever a time to do away with the over-bureaucratic legislation that holds some businesses back, it is now. In particular, I look forward to seeing progress on the scaling back of consultations, audits and judicial reviews, as well as the elimination of equality impact assessments.
The latest figures show that we now have 4.8 million companies; 75% of them are sole traders; and 96% of all firms in the United Kingdom employ fewer than 10 people. It is therefore safe to say that small businesses will continue to drive us out of the economic downturn. The SMEs should, however, utilise digital technology as much as possible. That will be essential for their survival and growth.
I have always supported SMEs in my business life. In that regard, I declare the interest that I am chairman and chief executive of an insurance organisation which helps smaller organisations to place the insurance covers. I add that I was previously the chairman and chief executive of an organisation which had connections with more than 1,000 smaller insurance organisations.
In addition to cutting and reforming where necessary, it is also the job of government to invest in infrastructure to help to nurture growth and provide extra jobs. I was glad to see that explicitly referenced in the gracious Speech, with a specific focus on the development of the High Speed 2 railway line. I appreciate some of the controversy that inevitably comes with such a large-scale project, particularly on the acquisition of land, but the long-term benefits that it will provide to businesses across the country cannot be underestimated. It also takes a significant step in addressing two economic policies that I feel most strongly about-that of rebalancing our economy towards a manufacturing sector, which made our country so great; and promoting the redistribution of growth to many of our cities and regions nationwide.
Through such turbulent times, I believe that it is crucial that the Government are seen to be acting not just in the interests of economic health per se but in a way that also promotes economic fairness. That was another key pillar of the Queen’s Speech and one that goes hand-in-hand with our disciplinary approach to finances. It is heartening for me to see a government pledge on,
“building an economy where people who work hard are properly rewarded”.
I have always believed strongly in the notion of individual responsibility and reaping rewards from one’s own commitment and perseverance, and have spoken to that effect in your Lordships’ House in my support for reform of the benefit system.
Let us make no mistake: this Government’s welfare reforms are about making sure that the right people are helped back in to work while allowing for increased levels of support to those genuinely in need. Simplifying and rebalancing the ways in which benefits are considered and awarded can be seen only as progressive, particularly in the current climate.
I also welcome the inclusion of a Bill to help businesses protect their intellectual property. I have already declared my interest in the insurance business. I add that I have arranged insurance schemes for the protection of patents and copyrights. I therefore fully appreciate the value of a Bill to protect the intellectual property rights of businesses across the country. This is essential if we are to be seen as a centre for innovative ideas and products.
Before concluding, I wanted to mention my appreciation for the inclusion in the Queen’s Speech of the Government’s focus on preventing sexual violence in conflict worldwide. I have spoken on this subject both in your Lordships’ House and at several meetings elsewhere, and I am very grateful to the Government for placing a focus on it. The victims of these heinous crimes deserve justice, and it is up to countries like ours to provide the support that they need and to take effective action to deal with this dreadful problem. I have made clear my appreciation of the Government’s £1 million funding to the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on this matter, and I look forward to further progress in this regard.