The coalition is still failing business

The government's enterprise bill provides no evidence of a clear strategic direction.

Today the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill receives its second reading in the House of Commons.  It was trailed in the days before the Queen’s Speech as the centrepiece of a legislative programme by the government built on “growth, justice and constitutional reform”.  In reality, it is anything but.

The bill is a good illustration of the weaknesses and divisions at the heart of the government. The most pressing issue facing Britain is the fact that the economy has gone into reverse. The Prime Minister and Chancellor may wish to hide behind the fact that there is a eurozone crisis, or that we had too many days off because of the Queen’s diamond jubilee, or that the weather is slightly too cold or too hot, or – at the moment – too much rain. But everyone else seems to realise, with the exception of the occupants of 10 and 11 Downing Street, that their insistence on cutting spending and raising taxes too far and too fast, and thereby choking off demand in the domestic economy, has plunged this country back into a recession made in Downing Street. What we need is a proper plan for jobs and growth to get the economy going again – like Labour’s five-point plan.

Only in the last few days, President Obama has implicitly criticised the government’s stance, noting that it is a lot harder to rein in deficits and debt if your economy is not growing.  Tellingly, he singled out Angela Merkel and François Hollande for “working to put in place a growth agenda alongside responsible fiscal plans”. No such praise for David Cameron or George Osborne.

There is no magic piece of legislation that would conjure up growth. But the case for a British Investment Bank needs to be examined, as Labour is doing.  Reforms to allow firms to better plan for the long-term, invest in new plant and skills and ensuring that there are more, better paid jobs so the economy works for more people, more of the time would also improve Britain’s competitiveness and allow us to get back into growth much more quickly.

In the longer-term, the bill provides no evidence of a clear strategic direction.  Business is crying out for a stable policy environment to allow them to invest and plan for the long-term; a proper industrial strategy, based on the long-term to encourage sustainable growth, but this bill has failed to provide this.

We have in the bill the establishment of the Green Investment Bank, a welcome initiative that Labour announced back in 2010, but it won’t have powers to lever in private money to boost green investment until 2016. 

There are reforms designed to make executive pay more accountable and transparent, but ministers are refusing to implement all of the sensible recommendations from the High Pay Commission such as putting an employee representative on remuneration committees – and now it appears that Vince Cable is seeking to water down provisions for annual shareholder votes on executive pay.

The bill includes reforms to employment legislation. There are some changes on tribunals which are worth exploring but, in a nod and a wink to the Tory right, the government is hinting that it could bring forward amendments during the bill’s passage to put Beecroft’s fire at will manifesto on the statute book, alongside other proposals within the bill to water down the rights we enjoy at work.

Cable lamented in his leaked letter to the Prime Minister that the government has lacked a compelling vision on where it wants to take the country’s economy by 2020.  With this bill had an opportunity to rectify this and provide the strategic vision which British business is crying out for, leaving a lasting legacy that would boost economic recovery and secure Britain’s competitiveness in the next decade. Faced with the roadblocks to reform in Downing Street, it is a great shame this opportunity has been missed.

The Chancellor continues to "hide behind the fact that there is a eurozone crisis". Photograph: Getty Images.

Iain Wright is the shadow minister for competitiveness and enterprise.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.