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.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”