The coalition still lacks a compelling vision for growth

Vince Cable's Enterprise Bill is incoherent and insufficient.

Britain and its businesses are crying out for a government that values enterprise and can spur jobs and growth.  We are in the longest double dip recession since the Second World War. Even if the one-off boost from the Olympics finally brings us out recession, and growth was one per cent in the third quarter, as some are predicting, our economy will simply be the same size as a year ago. We desperately need a government firing on all cylinders to help businesses drive the recovery.

In this context, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which returns to the House of Commons this week, could have been a great opportunity to put in place the measures necessary for business to plan ahead with long-term certainty. 

While there are elements in the Bill with which we agree - we support the creation of a Green Investment Bank, which was set in motion under Labour in government, and want to see improvements to the competition regime - like many business groups, we don’t believe it meets the challenges facing our economy.

It will not provide the crucial boost to demand to get us out of recession and into recovery, but it is also a rag tag of a Bill: incoherent, insufficient and sadly reflective of Vince Cable’s own concerns, articulated in his letter to the Prime Minister earlier this year, that the government lacks a compelling vision for the economy.  If you want to find a compelling vision from the government, the Business Secretary's Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill is not the place to look.

Take copyright as an example. Britain leads the world in creative and cultural industries.  One of the reasons for this is the strong, robust and clearly-understood legal framework that this country has in place.  But the Bill threatened to undermine this with an unnecessary and unnerving measure which had not been worked through with the sector and which risked undermining growth and investment opportunities, giving the Secretary of State wide-ranging and far-reaching powers to amend, remove or introduce exceptions to copyright without appropriate or adequate Parliamentary scrutiny.  Thankfully, last week, finally, the government saw sense and heeded the concerns we and the creative industries sector had raised, and has performed a welcome U-turn on these proposals.

However, it should use this opportunity to follow this up with U-turns on a whole host of other unwelcome measures within the Bill. Employment rights are a particular concern: ministers seem to believe that protections for people at work are the reason we are in recession, while in reality we already have the third most liberalised labour market in the developed world. According to a recent survey by BIS itself, only five per cent of small firms cited regulation as the main barrier to success, while 37% identified the economy as their primary obstacle.

The government has brought forward no evidence that making it easier to sack people produces economic growth. Indeed, when Adrian Beecroft, author of the No 10-commissioned report on employment law reform, came before MPs to give evidence, he admitted that his views “were based on conversations with a sample of people, which is not statistically valid”. Ever had a conversation with a bloke down the pub? Well that’s how government policy on employees’ rights is being devised.

Ministers’ stance on equality legislation is equally concerning. Quite what measures to water down the Equality and Human Rights Commission have to do with an Enterprise Bill needs questioning. This would seem to be further confirmation, if this were needed, of the return of the nasty party, aided and abetted by the Lib Dems.

It is disingenuous of Cable to suggest that these changes are merely “legislative tidying up”. The Liberal Democrat founder of the BAME Councillors Association, Cllr Lester Holloway, wrote in the Guardian in August that he was “deeply ashamed” at what Vince Cable was doing to the Commission, while Issan Ghazni, Chair of Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, has warned Lib Dem ministers that the changes in the Bill “amount to effectively abolishing the EHRC by stealth, which could potentially reverse progress made on equalities over the past decades.”   

The measures in the Bill, together with new amendments tabled last week by the government which weaken protections against third party harassment of employees, in direct contradiction to what Cable said to my Labour colleague Kate Green at the Second Reading of the Bill, will make life even harder for thousands of staff who run the risk of prejudice, abuse and harassment whilst doing their work.

We all want to see the economy grow and businesses thrive. As Chuka Umunna said in a letter to Cable last month, we would be keen to work with the government on a cross party basis to address the issues that matter to firms, to boost recovery and pull this country out of recession. But the rag bag of measures in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill fails to meet this challenge and, rather than helping business, makes the job of recovering from the recession made in Downing Street that bit more difficult.

The coalition has failed to answer Business Secretary Vince Cable's call for a "compelling vision" for the economy. Photograph: Getty Images.

Iain Wright is the shadow minister for competitiveness and enterprise.

Getty
Show Hide image

Not for the first time, James Brokenshire is making things worse in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's questions on Jeremy Corbyn and the IRA are valid. But he shouldn't be asking them for the sake of the Tory campaign. 

Consensus is an elusive thing in Northern Irish politics. But ask anyone how well James Brokenshire is handling his brief, and the answer from many is almost inevitably a variation on “not very”.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Some are fairer than others. But an overriding concern among nationalist and cross-community parties is that the Northern Ireland secretary cannot and has not acted as a neutral or honest broker in his time in office. They believe him to be both too close to the DUP and all too ready to take nakedly partisan lines on the issues that continue to disrupt the business of devolved government.

The legacy of Troubles violence is one such issue. By far the rawest of the disagreements looming over Stormont, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have brooked much compromise. That Brokenshire hasn’t been able to solve these issues in his 11 months in office isn’t all that remarkable.

One might even sympathise: few cabinet wickets are stickier than Northern Ireland, more so now than at any point in the last decade. Some – though not all – nationalists are instinctively hostile to his presence and think talks ought to be handled with kid gloves, preferably worn by a grizzled American senator.  

What is remarkable, however, is how prepared Brokenshire has been to make that situation worse – this time apparently for the sake of influencing an election his party is almost certain to win. On Monday, the secretary of state – who appears to have spent most of the general election campaign in his Bexley constituency – issued a statement via the Conservative party that challenged Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (whose party, unlike the Tories, do not stand in Northern Ireland) to clarify their record on the IRA.

Whether these questions are valid – and they are – is irrelevant. What matters is whether they ought to be being asked by a serving secretary of state for Northern Ireland at this stage in an election. It is, to put it lightly, pretty difficult to conclude that they are. Here, not for the first time, we see Brokenshire moving in lockstep with the right-wing press away from the consensus – or at the very least sensitive, though not uncritical, engagement with both sides – so desperately necessary for the restoration of devolved government.

As I wrote when Theresa May called the election last month, the impasse at Stormont means this election cannot be siloed from the mainland campaign. I predicted that electioneering pitched at middle England will feed into the culture wars that still dominate Northern Ireland's politics. The province's troubled past remains a live issue and continues to disrupt the business of devolved government. It was clear that attacking Corbyn with the Lynton Crosby playbook will do nothing to defuse it.

And so it hasn’t. The IRA dead cat was of course to be expected, but for Brokenshire to be the one throwing it on the table is almost ridiculous. Some might argue, as they have before, that he has derelicted his duty as secretary of state for the sake of the shortest-term political expediency. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams says the flurry of Tory-provoked interest in Corbyn’s record on the IRA is a “distraction”. Well, he of all people would. But the underlying truth is this. If we can learn anything from the fitful past few years at Stormont, it’s that arguments over legacy issues are nearly impossible to mediate.

Not for the first time, Brokenshire has made his own job – if he intends to stay in it – much more difficult. And if he is destined for pastures new in May's victory reshuffle, then his successor will not thank him for the febrile and distrustful atmosphere he has helped create. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496