Brexit, as MPs like me have discovered, is all consuming. It sucks all the political oxygen from other topics and stops discussion or development of ideas. But there is a life away from Brexit, and it is vital that we recognise that. Indeed most people are heartily sick of the subject. I didn’t get into politics to obsess over Europe and the UK’s place in it. I want my country to succeed, for future generations to thrive and for us to be good stewards of the natural world. These objectives come together through the vision of the kind of economy and society we should aspire to develop.
So, in the spirit of looking for success in the teeth of adversity, I took a break from the doom and gloom of a still likely no-deal Brexit to meet a group of social entrepreneurs. As things turned out, we had an uplifting discussion about how policy makers should be supporting businesses in the UK. Businesses set up in the harshest economic climates often thrive once they have overcome the initial hurdles. And each of the businesses which were represented had a story of triumphing despite considerable setbacks, and demonstrated a spirit of resilience and determination, more important than ever in today’s uncertain business environment.
During our discussion, there was much common ground between the entrepreneurs and Labour’s policy ideas.
Listening to the stories told by the business owners, I was reminded that we try to run an economy on the talents of only a fraction of our population. They told me about the challenges facing women, black and minority ethnic people, people with disabilities and anyone from a deprived community in establishing a business. The difficulty of not ‘looking’ like a business person. About how hard it is for anyone trying to find funding for businesses outside London and the South East of England. My constituency of Sefton Central in the Liverpool City Region has many, many people bursting with ideas and potential. Too often, they lack the opportunities to realise their potential. We must unlock the dormant talent of the neglected regions of the UK. That means making sure finance is available outside London and the South East of England too.
There was great interest in the idea of a one-stop shop for business support, where businesses can go to find the advice, mentoring and training that they need. We need more government procurement directly with smaller firms and for large firms to make it much easier for a range of smaller firms to contract with them.
The benefits of responsible and sustainable procurement include greater innovation and higher quality goods and services and flow from making the most of the talents across the whole economy. Awarding more contracts to smaller firms around the country is an obvious way of enabling businesses to create jobs and prosperity in those regions that have lost out under austerity.
Small firms often struggle with complex and time-consuming Pre-qualification Questionnaires and the need for sky-high insurance cover. The limitations of such short-sighted contracting arrangements continue to be exposed by scandals like Carillion and the continuing struggles of Interserve. Contracting directly with smaller firms, not least with those with social purpose at their heart offers a viable and sustainable alternative and is more in evidence in other countries like the US, who have targets for procurement including with businesses run by women, black and minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities and veterans.
Like other MPs, I shall go back to trying to find a workable compromise for Brexit and to identify how we sort out the mess we are in. I am in no doubt about the harm that will be done by a hard Brexit and the hardship it will cause to many, many people. The discussion about business support was a reminder that if Brexit is as damaging as seems likely, it is even more important that we take steps to make the most of the innovation and spirit of our businesses. We have to do all we can to deliver a vibrant future however unlikely that might seem right now.
Bill Esterson is Labour’s Shadow Minister for Business and International Trade