Iain Dale: Let’s hear it for the private sector and hear less about a bigger state

4 Dec

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

“Let’s hear it for the private sector”. Seven words you hear very rarely nowadays. The current narrative is that the state can and should provide us with everything – even to the extent of providing breakfast and lunch for Scottish schoolchildren.

It’s not just the state taking over the role of parenting. It is increasingly involving itself in aspects of our lives which only a few years ago we would have been horrified by.

I totally back many of the measures taken to halt the spread of Coronavirus, but in order for the rest of the population to buy into them, they have to seem reasonable.

Dare I say the Welsh government’s decision to ban alcohol from being served in pubs and restaurants at all times of the day is a measure that is completely unreasonable? Quite how having a glass of wine with your lunch in a restaurant makes you more likely to spread Coronavirous or contract it yourself only Mark Drakeford knows. I know Wales has a proud tradition of Calvinism, but even so…

Without the private sector, many of our most recent medical advances would have been made. John McDonnell wanted to have a state-run pharmaceutical industry. We will never know how it would have been able to do what private sector drug companies are doing in terms of inventing Covid vaccines.

It’s certainly true that the private sector is often the worst advert for itself, given some of its more vocal adherents are not exactly an example to the rest of society, but I guess that’s human nature for you. The greed exhibited by too many of our highly paid executives does little to restore people’s faith.

Yet this week there has been a move by Tesco which rather restores one’s faith in big conglomerates. It is to return more than half a billion pounds they received in business rates relief to the Treasury.

I just hope that this is redistributed to very hard-pressed local councils. Morrisons quickly followed suit, and I suspect the rest of the big supermarkets will, in the end, grudgingly do so too.

Saisnbury’s say they won’t (at the time of writing), but it’s difficult to justify huge payouts in dividends if a similar amount is being received in business support from the Government in one form or another.

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Talking of people who give the private sector a bad name, let’s have a word about Sir Philip Green. I was the Jeremy Vine TV show on Wednesday talking about the demise of his Arcadia group and Debenhams, along with another guest, Becca Hutson, who seriously suggested that it was up to the Government to bail them out, and it was all the Government’s fault anyway because of Covid.

Seriously. She clearly hasn’t been reading the business pages of the newspapers over the last three years. Had she done so, she’d have been aware that the demise of these businesses had been predicted for a long time. While Covid has no doubt hastened their fall, there’s little doubt they were doomed anyway. Neither business had embraced online shopping in the way that their competitors have, and have suffered the consequences.

If I’m honest, I have a teency bit of sympathy for them in, that ten years ago, would I have imagined that I too would be buying clothes, suits and shoes on the internet? No. But I do.

To think the Government should become the employer of last resort is the economics of the mad house. Yes, I feel incredibly sorry for anyone who loses their job, but if the state comes to the rescue of Top Shop or Debenhams, then why didn’t it for BHS or Woolworths? Or countless other businesses.

Ah, they say, but the banks were bailed out, so what’s different about shops? Well, everything. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the consequences for the economy if the banks had all been allowed to collapse like dominos. That is not true of the retail sector. Business is all about strategy and risk. Get the strategy wrong and take the wrong risk, and you become another corporate casualty.

That’s what Sir Philip Green has done, and it is sadly his staff and customers who are suffering the consequences. And, all the while, he sits on his £100 million Monaco-based yacht and gets through the remaining £900 million of his personal fortune.

While there is no legal way he can be forced to compensate any of his employees, surely anyone with even a small heart would make some sort of effort to alleviate the misery of those who are about to lose their employment? I’m not holding my breath, though. He’s not that sort of man, as was clear from the evidence he gave to a select committee not that long ago. A more repulsive human being I have rarely seen.

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Back in 1997, I did something mad and opened a specialist political bookshop in Westminster called Politico’s. It soon established itself as a meeting place and event venue, too.

Seven years later I closed it, and took it online, due to a combination of the advent of Amazon, a huge rent increase by our landlords, the Crown Prosecution Service and the congestion charge. But I sold the online business a couple of years later.

This week, I have resurrected the name and the online shop at http://www.politicos.co.uk. The intention is for it to become a one stop shop for all sorts of political items and ephemera, not just books. I hope that ConHome readers will be regular customers.

Ben Everitt: Why the plan for a new technical university in Milton Keynes offers a fresh model for higher education

16 Sep

Ben Everitt is the MP for Milton Keynes North.

We have world class universities in this country, which provide some of the highest calibre graduates around. We must maintain and protect our best institutions. But speaking to businesses in my constituency, they tell me that what they want isn’t always graduates. It’s workers with technical skills, an understanding of the industry they want to work in, and who are ready to work in teams and who can communicate.

That’s why this Government is right to be taking a hard look at the system of higher and further education in this country. It isn’t ‘anti university’ to be asking whether the current system provides the best opportunity for those going through it, for the businesses who will employ them, and for the taxpayer. It’s making an argument for a world class higher and further education system for everyone, in a wider variety of forms.

And when we think about what that looks like, we don’t have far to go. We should take inspiration from one of this Conservative Government’s proudest achievements – Free Schools. These schools, often set up in the poorest areas of the country by innovative teachers and heads, were distinctive not just because they were new, but because they offered something different.

Like the best businesses, they spotted a gap in the market and they provided a solution to fill it. And many of them – such as Michaela Community School, run by the outstanding Katharine Birbalsingh – have been successful precisely because they have maintained this focus over time, rather than doing everything.

We have some of that in higher education, but not enough. In my constituency, for example, the Open University does a brilliant job because it focuses on a specific remit – providing flexible distance learning to those who don’t want to, or aren’t able to, undertake traditional three year full time undergraduate degrees. To adapt the Steve Jobs maxim, it does not try to do everything – it does one thing, and does it well. But we need more innovation from the higher education sector, not more of the same.

It’s why I’m such a strong supporter, alongside my fellow Milton Keynes MP Iain Stewart, of the new proposed technical university in my constituency, Milton Keynes University (MK:U). This institution, modelled on the best technical universities in Germany and the United States, has identified a clear gap, which is the shortage of digital and STEM skills in the economy throughout Milton Keynes. I’m privileged in my constituency to sit in the middle of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc – a zone of immense prosperity and economic growth that is home to world class businesses and innovation.

But what Milton Keynes needs is people who can work in these businesses – and who have qualifications that are industry ready. And that’s what MK:U will deliver. By 2021, MK:U plans to be delivering degree apprenticeships in the critical shortage areas of data science, cyber security, digital technology, and management. By 2024, when the university is fully on stream, it will continue to deliver at least half of its provision via degree apprenticeships.

It will also work closely with the new South Central Institute of Technology to deliver high quality technical qualifications at what are called Level 4 and 5 – above the level of school qualifications, but quicker to achieve and more industry-focussed than traditional degrees.

The reason I’m so confident in the success of MK:U is that the team there have been overwhelmed by interest from businesses. Over a hundred major employers, who between them employ over 700,000 people in the UK alone, are backing MK:U, including top-level support from Arriva, Bosch, BT, Capita, Grant Thornton, Network Rail, PwC, Sainsburys, and Santander – who specifically cited MK:U as a key element in its decision to locate its new £150 million Digital Hub in Milton Keynes, and has committed £10 million capital funding and £20 million of in-kind support, to MK:U.

MK:U is backed by Cranfield, the world recognised postgraduate university with a long track record in scientific and business research, and another example of an institution that knows what it does and does it well. Like Cranfield, and like the OU, MK:U will keep to its mission. It won’t offer a wide range of liberal arts and humanities degrees. It won’t chase faddish new disciplines and courses merely to attract students. It will focus on driving prosperity in the Arc, and for the UK more widely.

I know that Ministers in the Education and Communities departments, and in the Treasury are studying the proposal closely as we approach the Spending Review. It has the potential to make a real difference – and to provide a model that other, ‘Free’, universities could follow too.