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Economy and Jobs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:26 pm on 20th January 2020.

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Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, North East Bedfordshire 9:26 pm, 20th January 2020

In marked contrast to Lloyd Russell-Moyle, I will start perhaps a little quieter and say a few words about my predecessor as Member of Parliament for North East Bedfordshire. Alistair Burt served the constituencies of Bury North and North East Bedfordshire from 1983 until he stood down at the last election, with a very short break between 1997 and 2001. I got to know Alistair in 1984, and on almost every political issue he and I found ourselves in accordance, with the great exception of our views on membership of the European Union. And on football—Alistair loves it; me not so much. In addition to being well respected across the House, Alistair had great knowledge and understanding of the middle east—an issue he continues to pursue—and a unique ability to be trusted by all sides.

The Register of Members’ Financial Interests has not yet been published, so, given some of the things I might say, let me I point out to hon. Members that I am a director of software companies.

A new dawn beckons, and a new Government have been formed to set the initial course for our country—a course to shape the success, or failure, of our refound independence. The most likely error that this Government will make will be to underestimate the scale of the opportunity for change, or to prefer the comforts of the known to the uncertainties of the unknown. It is that the voices of well-connected incumbents will drown out those of precocious challengers. This is not a time for a Government to take timid steps; it is a time for giant strides. Every ounce of radicalism that is lost today will be repaid in pounds of future regret for opportunities lost. Our country needs this Government to argue with the “fierce urgency of now” that President Obama summoned America to embrace a decade ago.

I wish to outline three areas from the Queen’s Speech where I believe that such radicalism can take place.

For decades, competitive capitalism has driven enormous gains in human progress, but the case for capitalism now appears tarnished by the consequences of globalisation, by regulatory capture and by repeated examples of corporate excess. This place of Smith, Locke and Ricardo is best placed remake the global case for capitalism for a new century as we define our new role in the world. At the heart of that case we must place the entrepreneurs, the small businesses, the start-ups and the innovators.

The Government should also review the primacy of shareholder value as the sole mission for our companies. We should simplify the governance code, yes, but also give oversight more clout so that excesses are more effectively curtailed and companies are more accountable for the externalities of their actions. We need measures to weaken the grip of crony capitalism: dysfunctional privatisations, public contracts repeatedly handed to the same-as-before conglomerates as the only game in town, disallowing the socialisation of losses from private risk-taking, and, yes, reviewing our corporate tax breaks.

As we leave the EU, we should not inadvertently leave out the welcome mat, encouraging lobbyists to decamp from Brussels to Westminster—or, for that matter, York. We need measures to provide people with swifter redress and greater protection from business and regulatory failure. For example, in my own area the simplest thing of a local plan not being accepted means creepy private developers trying to put in developments in that short space of time between plans, and constituents of mine in Willington, Harrold, Ravensden and Potton having to deal with a lifetime change just from one small bureaucratic failure.

The UK should make free markets and free trade hallmarks of our foreign policy. I see the Prime Minister is back from his UK-Africa Investment Summit, which was precisely the place he should have been today. I urge him to place a trade deal with Africa at the core of our new relationship, one that casts off the protectionism of the EU and reasserts the value of free trade over development aid.

An urgent imperative for Government action is the reform of markets based on the utilisation of data and, more specifically, the actions of digital platforms. The evidence of externalities in these markets is compelling: the undermining of local accountability through the impact on local newspapers; the unquantified but evident impact on mental health and wellbeing; and the unequalled political leverage dispensed by the machine-learning models, remote from inspection or democratic insight. These only hint at the scale of the potential distortion of competitive capitalism—a distortion in which we are willing and gullible participants. The extraction of our data from our actions and our preferences to enable predictive analysis to be sold for profit make British citizens in this century the equivalent of those exploited by colonial powers in earlier centuries. The new colonists, these casual exploiters of our future tense, require intelligent and more demanding regulation.

We need accountability in our infrastructure. Recent announcements by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor indicate that he understands the need for radicalism: his proposed infrastructure fund, his commitment to changing investment algorithms to give the regions a fighting chance and his declaration that no industry should expect the state to relegate the national interest to their private interests in our trade negotiations with the EU.

May I encourage my right hon. Friend further with three thoughts? First, he should maintain fiscal discipline and not use the current experience of low interest rates as a windfall, but rather as a way for reshaping public pensions. Secondly, he should create compelling tax incentives that support local community investment in local free trade zones. Finally, he needs an early cross-departmental example of an infrastructure bid that makes sense. And I have an oven-ready deal.

North East Bedfordshire is already shouldering a substantial amount of the nation’s need for housing. Across the constituency, we see shortages of public services, such as GPs. We await announcements shortly on east-west rail. We have a long-standing need for the realignment of the A1, which will be a benefit not only for my constituents but for those in the midlands, as we heard earlier. This is the deal—this is the example that I am sure Ministers will want to point to as precisely what we need as the Government embark on the next stage in our country’s great future.