My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lords, Lord Colgrain and Lord Mountevans, on their excellent maiden speeches. I welcome the chance to lend my support to the Queen’s Speech and the measures therein to support business and the economy at this critical time for our nation.
Our businesses are not separate from our people, our communities or our sense of country, so it is a welcome change of tone in this Queen’s Speech that businesses are being brought back into the debate about what kind of country we want to be in these uncertain times. After all, at their best, businesses are not faceless and robotic; they are groups of people united in a common purpose.
If our economy is to flourish, we need business to flourish. If we want more jobs and new career paths, we need businesses to provide them. It is a relief, then, that we may yet see a new approach to consulting the business community, and that the Government will “test and validate” their approach to Brexit negotiations to give employers a chance to contribute and consult on how Brexit will affect them. I welcome the formation of a new business council but it must have a genuine role and input.
However, bringing business back into our national debate must be about more than Brexit. It is about our future place in the world and the level of prosperity that we can deliver for all people. So we must see government policy as something that can enable businesses to grow, create more jobs and make a bigger contribution to society. This Queen’s Speech should be judged on its ability to do this, and the Government should focus on matching skill supply with the demands of business. That is as critical now as it has ever been at this time of global competition and rapid technological change. I therefore welcome the reforms to technical education. Those reforms should be judged on their ability to increase the supply of engineering apprentices, programmers and coders and to give school leavers a legitimate choice in how they educate themselves, ready for their future careers.
Even as we invest in improving the skills of our school leavers and graduates, though, we must not allow Brexit to shut off the supply of the best that Europe, and indeed the world, has to offer. This means ensuring that business has a say on our approach to free movement of labour and its relationship to single market access. As the Chancellor said last year, we must keep in mind our first duty to spread prosperity and, as noble Lords have said, people did not vote to be poorer. It is the job of everyone in this place to explain the positive contribution that such skilled workers can bring, with the benefits felt by all.
Similarly, investing in technology, research and infrastructure gives businesses a platform to do more. Industrial policy, where it concentrates on improving our research base, our output in intellectual property and building a world-class ICT infrastructure, has a place in building a modern economy. I have spoken in this place before about positive changes to the way we allocate research funding, and I am pleased to see further investment pledged to commercial satellites and electric vehicles. Whatever our settlement with our EU partners, one thing we can be sure of is that investment in technology will stand us in good stead.
Lastly, I add my voice to those of other noble Lords who have reminded the Government of the greatest enabler that they can offer the business community: certainty. Certainty enables more investment. Businesses need to know what arrangements they will face in 2019: what tariffs they will have to pay, what customs arrangements they will have to navigate, and who they will be able to employ. Without more clarity, there is a risk that businesses will stop investing, and we need investment to foster productivity growth, which is the key to unlocking greater prosperity for all in the UK economy. In a Brexit context, it can be delivered with clear announcements on access to talent, access to capital and, most important of all, early clarity on a transition deal that avoids a cliff edge and allows businesses to plan for the future. Whatever the nuts and bolts of the final deal, avoidance of a cliff edge, with time built in for implementation, will be paramount.
We heard a lot from businesses during the EU referendum campaign—some say perhaps too much—but now I fear the pendulum has swung too far the other way and businesses have been largely excluded from the debate and have become mere recipients of government policy rather than legitimate actors in shaping it. We must hope, then, that a sense of equilibrium is restored, and businesses’ critical role as employers, community pillars and taxpayers is recognised once again.