The uncertainty over Britain's EU membership is damaging growth

Conservative MP Robert Buckland says it is time for the UK to engage with the EU constructively.

For some politicos, the debate about the European Union (EU) seems to be a matter of abstract theories and dusty deliberation. For me, as a MP representing an area whose daily business often is within the EU, the reality is somewhat different. I hear from my constituents and local businesses about the problems and opportunities they are facing with their jobs, their household finances, their business prospects and our local economy. Swindon is an outward looking town with a diverse industrial base. For Swindon, read Britain.

We are an attractive country to invest in because we act as an outward-looking springboard into the rest of Europe. In discussions I have held with local businesses, both big and small, it is clear that even if certain regulations here and there from Brussels are inconvenient, the benefits of our access to the single market cannot be overestimated. Sadly, the uncertainty being caused by those flirting with withdrawal from the EU is having a measurable and negative impact. Nature abhors a vacuum: businesses are hedging their bets and not investing in case of an abrupt withdrawal from the EU and corresponding loss of access to the vast European market.

I understand the desire for a more trade-focused European Union. That is why I support the European Commission’s drive to sign new EU Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), such as the EU-South Korea FTA enacted in 2011. This is estimated to be worth £0.5bn to the UK economy, a remarkable figure. Notably, American efforts to sign a similar FTA with the South Koreans have faltered. Efforts by the EU are also underway to sign FTAs with Singapore, Japan and the USA. As the world has globalised, it has become clear that we cannot stand alone. We live in an age of regional power blocs and if we left the EU we would struggle to get a good deal-or even a deal at all-from vibrant countries like South Korea. This is without even mentioning the failure of the World Trade Organisation Doha trade talks, which means that other avenues must be considered.

There are some who have suggested that withdrawal would be the panacea to our current problems. There is no denying that the Eurozone crisis has had a negative impact on our national economy. However, we cannot avoid the impact of the Eurozone crisis by leaving the EU. We are embroiled in the fortunes of the continent and we are best placed inside the tent rather than waiting outside. I would also venture that the Eurozone crisis will also eventually end; it seems really quite reckless to disrupt our relationship with Europe when they are our largest trading partner, receiving 40 per cent of our exports, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The reality is that we take the long view and remain engaged.

It is a shame that we have seemingly forgotten the pivotal role we have historically played in Europe. Britain has been involved in the affairs of our continental friends for many centuries, from the Congress of Vienna to the Maastricht Treaty. The values of the European Union are inherently British: freedom, democracy, the rule of law, equality and the respect for human rights. The single market, one aspect of the EU that even most Euro sceptics support, would not have been created without our influence. I am reminded of the words by John Donne’s words: “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less”. The EU is better as a result of our presence, and we are better as a result of the EU. To put it bluntly, the EU constitutes the world’s largest market and our natural allies in an increasingly globalised, complex world.

Finally, I should note that I recognise a number of problems with our current membership of the EU. There are too many unnecessary regulations, excessive interference from Brussels and ‘gold-plating’ of regulations by Whitehall. I would like to see measurable steps to effect a change in these matters; however, this change will not be achieved by flirting with withdrawal. It is time for us to engage with the EU constructively, help them through this crisis and thereby shape its future in our own interests.

David Cameron gives a press conference after an EU summit last October. Photograph: Getty Images.

Robert Buckland is MP for South Swindon and chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.