Category Archives: Policy

This week’s media picks: infrastructure, Bangladesh safety, fracking, climate change, bioscience

FT (23/4/14): Leading article: Time to invest in Britain’s future

As the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Chancellor, George Osborne, welcomed £36 billion investment in infrastructure projects, the Financial Times, remained to be impressed. In a leader, it said that one of the biggest and most persistent questions facing the UK economy is the worryingly low level of investment in infrastructure. Despite fine words, the government’s record is decidedly mixed, and the new set of initiatives may not match the scale needed to raise infrastructure spending to the level required. The FT outlines three areas of weakness in policy: 1) Spending is not high enough, and is persistently less than many of our competitors; 2) Given low interest rates, the government should borrow more to finance big projects; and 3) the government needs to establish a more stable and clearer framework for private sector investment.

Fibre2Fashion (24/4/14) Bangladesh Safety Accord on course, says UNI official

A year after the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh, a demonstration of corporate social responsibility in action, rather than just words, is making progress towards improving the safety, prospects and lives of the country’s garment workers. Despite the many barriers to progress imposed by the political, social and commercial cultures of Bangladesh, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh can be proud of its progress when it marks its own one year anniversary next month.

An official from, UNI Global, one of the two global union bodies that negotiated the Bangladesh Accord, Alke Boessiger, said: “The inspection program is in full operation. There is a strong team of more than more than 100 technical experts and engineers in Bangladesh who are conducting 45 inspections per week, with the aim to inspect 1500 factories by October.  More than 280 factories have been inspected for fire and electrical issues and 240 for structural safety.  Every inspection has revealed critical issues which must be repaired as a condition of doing business with signatory brands in the future. These issues include, for example, the absence of fire doors to separate the work area from the fire exit.  Brands are responsible to ensure that sufficient financial resources are available for the renovations and improvements.”

FT (24/4/14): Shale gas a multi-billion-pound opportunity for UK business

A report by EY, commissioned by the UKOOG, the shale-gas trade body, said that fracking shale gas could potentially generate 64,000 jobs in the oil and gas supply chain. It said that over the next 15 years, the UK would need to invest £17 billion on specialised fracking equipment and skills. This won’t mollify fracking’s opponents, but does at least show that the industry is seeking to make a positive, factually-based case for its development.

The Guardian (25/4/14): Kingfisher CEO warns on underestimating impact of climate change on business

In an opinion piece, Kingfisher plc CEO, Ian Cheshire urged business to sign a communiqué aimed at policymakers gathering in Paris next year for the UN Climate Change Conference. He warned that resource scarcity, energy price increases and extreme weather are real and growing threats to the long-term viability of business. That’s why hesigned the Trillion Tonne Communique, drawn up by the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group, and is encouraging other business leaders to do so too. Adverse climate events are increasing costs for business, Kingfisher’s alone, were tens of millions of pounds, and as business doesn’t have a seat at the table, it needs more of them to sign the Trillion Tonne Communique to ensure that its voice is heard. 103 businesses world wide have signed so far, but it will require quite a few more to overcome the political resistance that clearly exists in some quarters.

FT (25/4/14): UK medical science drive shaken by US takeover fears

News that AstraZeneca was approached by Pfizer about a £60 billion takeover, has called into question the UK’s ambition to remain a leading global player in life sciences. AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline are the only large companies with research and development operations in the UK. Oxford University’s Professor John Bell said: “If we were to lose one of them it would be a real blow to our capabilities. It’s a sector that is crucial to our future economic success. The news prompted Andrew Miller MP, Chairman of the House of Commons science committee to call for tougher standards to protect strategic UK assets, such as considering the national interest when looking at takeovers. Steve Bates, chief executive of the UK Bioindustry Association, pointed to successful smaller biotech companies, but said: “It is important to have whales in the ecosystems around which minnows can flourish.”

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This week’s media picks worth a read

We found these articles worth reading, you might too depending on your interests.

FT: Criticism of energy groups overshadows good news in [wind] sector

The changing view of the “big six” energy companies is symbolized by a recent Mirror front page headline that showed Centrica CEO, Sam Laidlaw as the “blackout blackmailer”. Commons energy select committee chairman, Tim Yeo, cannot remember energy being such a high-profile issue in his 30 years as MP. The CMA referral and the Tories proposed block on onshore wind farms have exacerbated fear in the sector. But Siemens’ Yorkshire wind turbine factory and the investment push by Dong, Statoil, Statkraft and Vattenfall show that “the big six are not the only game in town.”

FT:Labour vows to spread wealth away from London

In a little-noticed speech Ed Miliband confirmed Labour’s move away from the old regional development agencies as a means of generating growth in the English regions. Instead, the new local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) would be retained and the focus would be on cities, city-regions and partnerships of councils.

The Guardian:Government contractors begin to realise public trust is an end in itself
Jim Bligh, head of public services at the CBI, writes that the private sector is starting to recognise that building public trust is a worthy end in itself. The risks of not being transparent – of hiding behind bureaucracy or commercial confidentiality – far outweigh the risks of the alternative. Transparency ultimately shines a light on good performance and bad performance alike, which means that it can greatly improve the competitive dynamic. The losers will be companies and public bodies which simply aren’t performing well enough.

The New Yorker: Heartbleed: an example of ungovernability

You may not yet have heard of Heartbleed, the latest cyber-threat, but you are probably already a victim of it. The New Yorker reports on why one respected cryptography expert describes the threat of Heartbleed as 11 on a scale of one to ten. Was it on the Government’s cyber-crime radar? And even if it was, what can one Government do to tackle what is a global threat?

The Independent: Over here for the beer

A bevy of brewers is increasingly flocking to London from overseas. Discover why the English beer regulations make the capital the place to be for German and US brewers thirsty for innovation

The Independent: Erdogan: from model strongman to tinpot dictator

The Turkish premier’s decline into authoritarianism has dangerous geopolitical consequences.

A house divided can stand

Abraham Lincoln quoted scripture when he said of the young United States, as it faced threats of seccession by southern slave-owning states, that a divided house cannot stand. He went on to defeat these threats in the bloodiest war the United States has ever endured.

The British government doesn’t face quite the same existential threat, thankfully. But the steady occurrence of divisive political issues keeps raising the spectre of the Coalition’s collapse.

Yesterday in Parliament we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, statement opposing much of the Leveson report on the press, being starkly contradicted by his Deputy, Nick Clegg, who supports it. Also in Parliament yesterday, we saw the Lib Dem energy secretary, Ed Davey, present his battle-scarred Energy Bill, with his wind-sceptic Tory junior, John Hayes, sitting behind him, glowering supportively.

We’ve also had, recently, the unceremonious ditching by the Conservatives of Lords reform advocated by the Lib Dems. As an eye for an eye, the Lib Dems have said that they will oppose the re-drawing of Parliamentary boundary changes that would have benefited their coalition partners.

Opposition MPs’ criticism that Lib Dem ministers who can’t abide by collective responsibility should resign is an obvious debating point. This ignores the fact that it is in the nature of governments to set precedents. And with the first peacetime coalition formed purely as a result of Parliament being hung, the nature of the government itself is unprecedented.

The rules of collective responsibility have been re-written. There will no doubt be more intra-Coalition spats in the months to come, but none of them will bring down the Coalition until one, or both, parties decides that it’s time to pull down the temple.

The Coalition may eventually reach the point where it falls apart, but my hunch is that this won’t happen until well into 2014 at the earliest. The reason is that both parties are wedded to austerity and need to be able to demonstrate that it has worked. The economy will need to have returned clearly to growth, or be showing credible signs that it will do so. Only then can they face the electorate and be able to tell them that the pain has been worth it.

We will then face the delicious irony that as soon as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats can demonstrate that the Coalition has been successful, they might then decide to terminate it. Quite what the electorate will make of that, we will have to wait and see.

‘Elf ‘n’ safety. ‘Oo needs it?

In recent years, health and safety has taken its place alongside the European Union as an easy target for populist political baiting and slaying of myths. We’ve all heard of the EU’s straight bananas, although I’ve yet to see one. Now we have ‘elf ‘n’ safety threatening our way of life. Schools have banned children from playing conkers and toothpicks are too lethal for restaurants to provide at the end of a meal, etc, etc…

Within weeks of the general election, former Tory business secretary, Lord Young, was appointed to carry out an initial review of what he called, our “music hall joke” health and safety legislation. Subsequently, a more sober approach was taken by Professor Ragnar Lofstedt of King’s College, London, who was appointed in March 2011 to carry out an independent review of health and safety regulations and to “identify opportunities to simplify the rules”.

Lofstedt reported in November and all of his recommendations were accepted by employment minister, Chris Grayling. These included exempting some self-employed people from compliance with safety law, a review of core safety law to see if some common requirements can be consolidated and simplification of the Health and Safety Executive’s 53 approved codes of practice.

He has now been commissioned to produce a follow-up “mini report” assessing progress made on implementing his original recommendations and looking at specific issues such as the Work At Height regulations, and consolidating regulations limited to specific sectors, such as construction.

Yet, despite the fact that we have a university professor supported by Department for Work Pensions officials and an advisory panel including a Conservative MP, the Chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority and a representative of the British Chambers of Commerce, the Prime Minister still felt the need earlier this year to refer to the “health and safety monster” that is hampering business growth.

Last week I attended the annual Health and Safety Expo at the National Exhibition Centre. I didn’t see any signs of a monster. What I did see were hundreds of businesses and professionals who view health and safety policy as a means of improving business efficiency by reducing workplace accidents, injuries and illnesses. They included everyone from suppliers of gloves, hard hats, goggles and lighting, to safety harnesses, scaffolding and hydraulic lifts.

None of them is seeking to be a burden on business. Rather, they are providing equipment and services whose ultimate aim is to reduce the real burden on business, arising from workplace deaths and injuries. In the past two years, 323 people have died in the workplace and in 2010/11 there were 24,726 major injuries to employees – more than 40 percent caused by slipping or tripping. Workplace injury accounted for 4.4 million working days lost.

It’s not about more regulation or legislation. As one industry representative put it in a seminar at the Health and Safety Expo, “Communication and training are just as important as regulations”.

According to the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, by spending time and energy on getting health and safety management right, business could save nearly £8 billion annually, individuals more than £5 billion, and the economy as a whole £22 billion.

Health and safety; it’s a serious business, not a music hall joke.

A cautionary tale from the United States

The Financial Services Bill, which will abolish the Financial Services Authority and enact a new regulatory regime for financial services, is currently being considered at public bill committee stage in the House of Commons. But, as is the way with Bills in committee stage, it has all but disappeared from view.

However, sometimes public bill committee debates can shed some light on the finer points of legislation that escape debate in the more general second reading debates. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union of North America has done us all a service by highlighting a loophole in the legislation that gives lighter touch regulation of some new banks (such as those run by supermarkets) compared to the established high street banking operators.

Under the legislation, the remit of the new regulators will automatically extend to bank holding companies but not to non-financial holding companies, eg retailers, that own banking subsidiaries. The Bill does give the Chancellor the power to extend by Order the regulation to new entrants like Tesco. But this begs the question put by shadow Treasury minister, Cathy Jamieson MP, “if a company is or wants to become a bank holding company, why should it not be regulated as such”?

This is a question that exercised US regulators and legislators in 2005 when ASDA owners, Wal-Mart, applied for a banking licence. The UFCW joined a coalition of bankers, the Federal Reserve and regulators in opposition. Even the then Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, called for the closing of the loophole in US law that allowed some commercial firms to open banks, on the grounds that the Federal Reserve would not have the power to oversee the parent company and banking subsidiary on a so-called “consolidated basis”. In the absence of such a power, he argued, commercial firms should not be allowed to enter banking. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation – a US supervisory body – imposed an unprecedented moratorium on applications for the type of licence that Wal-Mart sought, and bills were introduced in Congress to outlaw commercial firms from owning banks. Wal-Mart subsequently withdrew its application.

As Jamieson put it to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Mark Hoban MP: “Does this not represent a cautionary tale for us here in the UK?”

It begged a number of other questions that she put to Hoban:

  • Why has this exemption to regulation been made?
  • Is light touch regulation being offered in order to attract new entrants?
  • If it is necessary to regulate financial holding companies, why is it not necessary for non-financial ones? Are the risks different?
  • Under what circumstances and what criteria would an Order be made to extend regulation to non-financial groups?
  • If the regulation is not extended until after a problem has arisen, won’t that be too late?
  • What guarantees are there that new entrants with customers’ non-banking data won’t misuse that data or infringe people’s privacy?

In proposing amendments that would have automatically extend the new regulators’ remits to new entrants, Jamieson made it clear that no one is talking about telling supermarkets how to stock their shelves or airlines how to plan their routes. The regulators would only exercise their powers if they considered that a parent company’s actions or omissions could have a material or adverse effect on the regulated subsidiary. Regulators could require the parent to take or refrain from specific actions or compel it to provide information. This didn’t prevent Mark Hoban from joking that we wanted to avoid regulators intervening on the price of bread in Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Beyond that rather obvious joke, the minister didn’t have much by way of response or than to say that the proposed regulation represents a “proportionate power of intervention”.

The amendments were not pressed to a vote as Jamieson was probing Hoban to see if he accepted that there was a problem. His response to the debate (Hansard Financial Services Bill committee 8/3/12 columns 463-467) suggested that he didn’t and she promised to return to it in the future. This is a relatively small part of the Bill, but in terms of clarity, consumer confidence and protecting the taxpayer, every little helps. Now where have we heard that before?

Boris throws a FIT

David Cameron must getting used to being sniped at by erstwhile allies. His Liberal Democrat coalition partners have made regular show of objecting to their own government’s plans on the NHS, tuition fees, repatriation of powers from the EU.

I suppose that comes with being in coalition. The junior partner will genuinely take a different view in some policy areas. It will also be looking to the next election and will feel the need to do something to preserve its vote. What better way than to set position yourself against particular policies, particularly if they are controversial.

This has also been Boris Johnson’s approach, almost since the moment he was first chosen as the Conservative Party candidate for London Mayor in September 2007. David Cameron, his nominal leader, acknowledged this when he launched his first mayoral election campaign, saying: “I don’t always agree with him, but I respect the fact that he’s absolutely his own man.”

Whether it was suggesting a one-off amnesty for illegal immigrants or proposing a new airport in the Thames estuary to replace Heathrow, Johnson has frequently pursued his own unique policy lines. Some issues, like the future of Heathrow are a legitimate concern of the Mayor. Others, like the UK’s approach to the EU are, to say the least, stretching it a bit.

This week, he has been at it again. In a letter to the Chancellor that somehow found its way into the press, he threw a hissy fit (or is that a hissy FIT?) and attacked the Government’s decision to halve the feed-in tariff (FIT) for solar photovoltaic electricity. He argued that this will “slowly suffocate the growth that this policy has so far encouraged.” In his letter, he writes that “While the government will argue that the costs of solar panels have reduced, the costs of inverters, stands and labour have not.”

Boris Johnson’s intervention comes on the eve of a Labour Party opposition day debate on support for the solar industry in the Commons on Wednesday and a mass rally in Parliament today. Ministers will come under pressure to justify the cuts to FITs. The solar power sector will find some relief that such a senior figure in the Conservative Party is taking its side and not just the Labour opposition.

Of course, Johnson is facing London’s voters in just over five months, and is looking for ways to portray himself as not the Government’s candidate. It will be tempting to take a cynical view Johnson’s support for solar power subsidy, but right now the industry needs all the support it can find.

Johnson may also be looking to elections much further in the future that would give him power over more than just bendy buses and pay-as-you-go bicycles. The trick for the industry is to keep his support over the long-term, that is, if it survives that long.

In praise of special advisers

Special advisers have never exactly been viewed with affection. In the first episode of Yes Minister, Jim Hacker arrives in the Department for Administrative Affairs for the first time accompanied by his special adviser, but before they even reach his office, the adviser is bundled off unceremoniously into a cupboard. Oh, how we laughed.

We also laughed long and hard at the absurdities of Malcolm Tucker et al in The Thick of It. As a former special adviser myself across six different Whitehall departments I thought it was hilarious. On occasions, some of the scenarios were eerily familiar in spirit, if not in fact.

Of course, the truth is much more mundane. Real special advisers are not out of central casting, nor are they all in the mould of Alistair Campbell, Charlie Whelan or Andy Coulson. Clare Short, who had two special advisers of her own, famously described them as the “people who live in the dark”. I took that as a compliment, as special advisers should usually be invisible to the public.

But they also are serious and conscientious providers of political, policy and communications support to ministers. And with the exception of the occasional Sir Humphrey, they are welcomed by civil servants. They are a valuable means for handling the more overtly political aspects of modern government and can help guide, though not instruct, civil servants on a minister’s thinking. As Sir John Elvidge former permanent secretary of the Scottish Executive, quoted in Civil Service Live Network, put it: “special advisers who genuinely know the minds of their ministers – rather than those who ascribe their own thoughts to a minister – are invaluable, because ministerial time is one of the scarcest commodities.”

The origins of the special adviser role are opaque but arguably started to take form during Harold Wilson’s first premiership in the 1960s. He appointed Marcia Williams as his political secretary and complained later how the civil servants tried to marginalise her and keep her in an office far from his. No wonder she was rumoured to have been a source for some of the scenes from Yes Minister. He also sought independent advice on the economy from two Hungarian émigrés, Nicholas Kaldor and Tommy Balogh – referred to unaffectionately by civil servants at the time as Buda and Pest.

Gradually the use of special advisers became more established with codes of conduct and formal appointment as temporary civil servants. Their numbers grew steadily under the Major, Blair and Brown premierships. Although there was some carping at this, they are now a fact of political life.

David Cameron pledged opportunistically to reduce the number of special advisers but now that he is in government he may appreciate that they have their uses after all. He has now had to face this reality and sanction the appointment of an additional seven to serve junior Liberal Democrat ministers. This is another evolution, as previously they only served Cabinet ministers.

Perhaps now we can have a more mature discussion on the role and number of special advisers. If No 10 had had a stronger team of political and policy advisers, it might have avoided some of the damaging retreats and uncertainties on issues like NHS reform, sentencing policy and the stewardship of public forests. We may be a long way from the US where an incoming President brings in a top echelon of 2,000 appointees to run the government, but our system of government and policy making might just benefit from a little more light being shed on its inner workings.