The House will be indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, for initiating this debate and for what he has said. He will recall that when he was Chancellor under the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, I was one of her blue-eyed boys. The young fellow from Hackney, who had done well, was a fine example of entrepreneurial spirit. She hauled me all over the place, displaying me as a prime example of what can be achieved. I was in and out of Downing Street more often than the window cleaners and possibly the noble Lord, Lord Lawson.
The thing is, people like me are a dying breed. When as a young man I went to a bank with my hand out, they thought I was part of a Morecambe and Wise team. "Do you have any collateral, a balance sheet, some history of profits?", they asked. "No", I replied. "Well then, clear off", was their response. Like many others, I realised at an early stage that if you want something, you have to get it yourself. My idea of government support was: you supply me hospitals, schools, a police force, roads to drive on and a good environment for me to do business in, and that will do me fine; but do not poke your nose into my business.
To reflect on the past 15 years or so, it has been customary for a person dressed in a nice pair of designer jeans and a nice blue blazer with a white open-collared shirt, a bottle of Evian in one hand and a wonderful Microsoft spreadsheet in the other, to walk into a bank, mention the word dotcom and walk out with £5 million. Those days, I am afraid, are over. We all know what went wrong there; and we also know what a mess the banks got into recently; but the penny has not dropped with some people. We still have in some cases an expectancy culture, where people still think that there should be money freely available to finance lost causes, poorly run companies or a whim of an idea.
When I was employed as an adviser to Her Majesty's Government last year, I had occasion to visit many small to medium-sized enterprises across the country and spoke to several thousand people. The most frequently asked question of me was, "What can this Government do to help my business?". My reply was not perceived as helpful. I told them, "Do not rely on any Government to assist you in running your business. You are people who have chosen to go into business, which is very enterprising, and I am pleased about that, but do not expect to get any advice from the Government about what products you should make, what ideas you should pursue, what services your business should provide or how you should market your products and generate income, because that is what you are supposed to do".
More recently, I have asked people, "Who is there in government able to dish out such advice? Just step back and look at them". Take, with the greatest respect, the current Business Secretary. He has never been in business or run a business. He has been an adviser or a politician all his life. He has never touched the coalface. Frankly, what does he know? It is this realism that brings me to my next point. In my opinion, the current Government are very good at window-dressing the demise of the economy by blaming it all on the banks. It is very convenient continually to repeat the same old broken record: "It's not our fault. It's the banks' fault; it's the previous Government's fault".
Let us take a look at that for a moment. True, the banks were irresponsible, and they have been told in no uncertain terms to get their act together. However, having told the banks to get their house in order, the current Government are constantly bleating that the banks are not being helpful in lending money to small businesses, whereas the message to the small business community should be one of realism in understanding that no one is going to lend money to a lost cause. The banks are now looking at the traditional criteria of showing some assets or having some historic record of profits before parting with their money. They are definitely open for business. That, I remind your Lordships, is how they make some of their money. In my recent seminars, I have received comments from some people along the lines of, "The bank has been outrageous. It has actually asked me to put up some collateral-my house, for example". Well, I am very sorry, but why not? Why should it take a risk on you if you are not prepared to take a risk on yourself?
In my capacity as a business adviser to the previous Government, I visited many Business Link centres, which I understand are funded in some way by government although I am not at all clear how. The cost of running these organisations was something in the region of £250 million per year. To be perfectly frank, apart from meeting a nice bunch of people, there was no real business advice dished out other than simple stuff you could pick up and learn for yourself by going on the internet. I urge the Government to redeploy money spent on these types of initiatives in other directions. As a simple example, there are so many empty premises around the country, large factories and warehouses, that can be converted and made into incubator factories. They could contain a core factory and a silo of workshops on the periphery. The core factory would be accessible to the individual businesses like satellites around a nucleus.
The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, said that sometimes you need to be unpopular. I think that the Government should come clean in their message to help small-to-medium-sized enterprises. You cannot on the one hand tell the banks, "You've been naughty by being irresponsible", and on the other hand say, "Go and be irresponsible again. Go and help lost causes". Give SMEs the facts of life. By all means be bold and be adventurous, but be realistic. Do not expect anybody in Whitehall to give you any hints and tips on how to do it because, basically, that is a case of the blind leading the blind. You are the business people, you are the ones with the ideas, and you are the ones who are going to drive your businesses forward, but regrettably, as with everything else in life, there are no free lunches.
All government can do is to provide a good business environment and assistance from HMRC-for example, export credit guarantees if you are successful enough to find an export customer, tax breaks for entrepreneurs who sell their businesses and tax deductions for investment in R&D. Here is the final point. To take advantage of the lollipops, as the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, called them, the wonderful tax incentives announced in yesterday's Budget, perhaps I may just bring everybody down to earth again by saying that to benefit from them, you have to make a profit first. How to do that is something on which this Government, and perhaps some others, have not been capable of advising.