Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:33 pm on 8th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 8:33 pm, 8th December 2008

My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I join this economics debate, but since Chancellors of the Exchequer now pronounce on climate science, I think it is okay for anyone to join in. I join other noble Lords in welcoming the gracious Speech. I particularly endorse the Government's commitment to economic development, improving the environment and ensuring security in the short and long terms by working to combat climate change. It is because of the link between those policies that I am speaking in this debate. I declare an interest as chairman of Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants, a small company in Cambridge, and as vice-president of Environmental Protection UK.

I am an itinerant academic. This has enabled me to see that the UK is a good place to do business, particularly by comparison with other European countries. Last week, a German professor from Berlin commented that the Germans are now copying the British approach and enabling people to form small companies without the penalising initial down payment that used to be required, although that is still not quite the case in France.

The Lisbon declaration was a really important development for Europe, but this needs to be made a reality, particularly by ensuring that the other EU countries have the kind of flexible arrangements that we have in the UK. This is in our interests, because, as I know from my own experience, working with companion companies in Europe means that we all need to work at the same level.

The Labour Government have assisted small high-tech companies considerably by not taxing company profits where they are reinvested in research and development, which used to happen. They have also helped women in small companies with maternity leave, and women's careers have been greatly helped.

I welcome the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, last week on how Governments can help business with smarter policies. I emphasise the crucial need for more open and decisive policies on all kinds of data and information. This is the new age in which new business is being formed, and we certainly need new approaches.

There is no point in expanding research and development unless its products are available and can support UK business. I welcome the way in which the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform under its present leadership—and, if I may say so, under its former leadership, now sitting on the Cross Benches—is now taking this issue more seriously. Competitiveness is an essential element in running UK business in this globalised world. If you are not free and open with information, other countries will clearly begin to dominate.

In some respects, the UK, with its centralised health, social and security data, not only enables government to operate more effectively—just compare our low health costs with those in the United States—but enables many IT companies to provide highly beneficial services based on these data, which could greatly expand in the future. I am disappointed by the unconstructive tone taken by some parties and the judiciary about data storage. We need to know more about our society, not less, although we need to use this knowledge in the most beneficial way. Clearly there are teething problems but, as with the Tory reforms of governmental processes, bold action by the UK will doubtless give business to the UK and enable other countries to follow us.

However, in some important fields of science, technology and the environment, the UK and other European countries are lagging significantly behind the United States in providing scientific and other data readily and at an economic price. The insurance industry in London has frequently commented, as have many other small companies, that it uses global environmental data directly from the United States, although it would like to obtain them from UK government agencies, which have to charge much more.

European Governments and their agencies are now recognising that more data need to be supplied more readily and cheaply if environmental businesses are to provide the services that the public need to safeguard and improve environmental quality and security, such as flood warnings and protection, as well as to contribute to national and international environmental goals. Some statistics indicate that the environmental industry is now as large as the pharmaceutical and aerospace industries, and needs to be taken very seriously. The Government should be able to take a more strategic role in policies about the data for this industry through their ownership of agencies such as Ordnance Survey, the Met Office and many others, and through their use of purchasing powers when they buy services. The report of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in March showed how a business-oriented policy might well be introduced. However, the Government are still in a muddle about whether their agencies are supporting the private sector or competing with them, as the recent speculation about selling off certain agencies indicates.

It is clear that the United States policy, under which government agencies provide data very freely and it is the government agencies' job to support the private sector, is effective. Thirty-nine per cent of the global environmental business is in the United States, 8 per cent is the UK's and 17 per cent is Japan's. The United States Environmental Protection Agency helps US business internationally. Our Environment Agency, as I learnt from previous managers, is not encouraged to do that, and UK agencies—I used to run the Met Office—are not mandated to spend their time in any way helping UK business. It is not part of their job description.

Furthermore, as foreigners have commented, the websites of UK agencies and government departments are poor advertisements for the services provided to UK government by UK businesses. They would naturally expect to see them on our websites. This could easily be fixed with immediate and substantial benefits at minimal cost. There are also opportunities through environmental action, data process, communication and feedback for the Government—working with the environmental business to stimulate the economy, as the Prime Minister has emphasised—to move in new directions to meet the environmental objectives, such as resilience against extreme adaptation, climate change and mitigation.

In the downturn people will spend money, not for luxuries, but as investment. I believe if people had more information—about how they could spend their money on their house and so on—they would be in a position to invest and this would help our economy. In the United States, as a delegation which I lead found, this approach is very strong. A lot of information is provided through museums and big DIY centres, to encourage people as to how they should invest in their house and property. There, there is a particular problem with hurricanes, but also climate change. I have spoken to my noble friend Lord Hunt—one of many "Lord Hunt"s—about introducing this decision for the UK. There are ways in which the smart approach could well be adopted and I commend the gracious Speech to this House.