The chorus from business is now deafening: "give us certainty on energy policy and low carbon investment"

Businesses need to know what will happen in the future, writes RenewablesUK's Maf Smith. A government in turmoil can't provide that.

Government traditionally likes to avoid picking winners. Individual businesses are rightly in competition with each other. This creative tension is what drives our economic success. Such disagreements are why government traditionally goes to great lengths to avoid second guessing the market. 

However, there are some areas of the economy, like our energy infrastructure, where government has to stay at the table. Today, most politicians will agree that there are market failures in our energy system, and government needs to play a role to solve our so called “energy trilemma”: making sure that the lights stay on, ensuring we have secure sources of energy available, while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions. 

But even though government accepts it has a role, it cannot seem to agree on what needs to be done. It’s said that if you ask four different economists about the economy you will get at least five opinions. Right now the same seems to apply when asking UK Government Ministers their view on energy policy. The "Quad" of ministers is still debating the issue in the final run-up to the much anticipated Energy Bill. Meanwhile, the industry is reeling from a public disagreement between the Energy Minister John Hayes and Energy Secretary Edward Davey on the future of onshore wind in the UK. This was followed by the revelation that the Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris supported an anti-wind campaigner in the Corby by-election when he was supposed to be running the campaign for the official Tory candidate instead. To those of us getting used to the vagaries of political point-scoring in the Coalition, these spats may look like just part and parcel of day to day coalition Government. However, to the investment community (and especially the increasing number of foreign companies looking to invest for the long term in the UK’s supply chain) they can be unsettling.  

That is because, outside of Whitehall, in business, something interesting is happening. As government goes through the final negotiations before publishing the Bill, business opinion is settling on a shared viewpoint. 

Last week, the British Chambers of Commerce published a survey of 3,500 member companies. 90 per cent of them want the Government to ensure that the UK has a diverse energy mix, capable of avoiding future supply problems, and that the UK “must not find itself in a situation where it becomes more dependent on fossil fuels from overseas or on one technology at home”. 

In the same week as the BCC’s intervention, business leaders from prestigious organisations including Unilever, Kingfisher, EDF Energy, Doosan Power Systems, Heathrow Airport, Philips, Anglian Water and Johnson Matthey jointly wrote to the Prime Minister, expressing their concern that "the on-going divergence of views at the heart of government on the future of this sector…is paralysing investment and undermining the UK’s growth prospects". There have been similar letters and statements from companies as diverse as PepsiCo, Aviva, BT and Marks & Spencer. And recently seven of the world’s top energy companies – who employ 17,500 people in the UK alone – wrote to the Chancellor warning of political risk in current energy policy. 

Added to all this is RenewableUK’s own recent membership survey, in which almost two thirds of companies from the wind and marine renewables sector stated that policy was less favourable to the sector than 18 months ago. Despite this, 90 per cent of those organisations still expect to see growth over the next 18 months, showing the immense opportunity that clearer direction from government could unlock, as well as the furthering of the commitment that over 130 wind energy companies made to Britain via the Wind Energy Charter in May this year. 

For example, investment in offshore wind alone rose by 60 per cent last year. By 2020, the wind, wave and tidal energy industries alone are set to employ more than 88,000 people, from apprentices to highly-skilled engineers. That’s the scale of the prize on offer – as long as the all-important policy framework is right. 

The case being put forward by businesses, who are ready to make once in a generation investments into our economy, is based upon evidence and global trends. But we run the risk that these investments could be delayed. 

They hinge on the agreement of the UK Government’s Ministerial "Quad" – Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander – who are apparently set to meet to discuss energy policy. Over the autumn, business opinion has got firmly behind the view that our electricity sector needs to decarbonise. Such a shift will protect us against future price rises, open up investment in new technology and manufacturing, and support a new cornerstone of our economy – the green economy – which alone has delivered a third of the UK’s total growth in the last year. Sometimes business opinion settles on a realisation that future prosperity lies in a particular direction. Sometimes it is important that Government can agree that too, that’s why this Energy Bill is crucial for the sector.

Workers build an onshore wind turbine. Photograph: RenewableUK

Maf Smith is the Deputy Chief Executive of RenewableUK, the professional body for the UK’s wind and marine sectors, with 675 member businesses.

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.