Lord Digby Jones has a plan to beat our broken society, but does SID Director Liz Bennett agree with it? Tim Gibson finds out…

I agree with his view that successive governments have interfered too much with the activities of private enterprises. We live in a culture of massive regulation

Liz Bennett, SID

When Lord Digby Jones speaks, UK business leaders tend to listen. That means publication of his first ever book – a wide-ranging manifesto in which he outlines his vision for the future of Great Britain – is no small affair.

Fixing Britain is Jones’s first attempt to translate his rumbustious style into the written word. It is full of characteristically bold statements about the need for reform in politics, public services, and business.

Digby Jones has never pulled punches, and in Fixing Britain he excels himself. Despite being brought into Government as a Trade Minister by Gordon Brown – part of the so-called GOAT, or Government of All Talents – Jones is by no means uncritical of our former PM. He recognises Brown’s strengths (for example, his handling of the banking crisis receives approbation), but blames him for squeezing business and sending too much money into the public sector.

So far, so predictable from the CBI’s former top man. Jones is, at root, a non-interventionist. That means he agrees with the prevailing political orthodoxy concerning the need to reduce public spending. He thinks attention should be given to relieving civil service bloat, cleaning up politics and encouraging growth.

The test of Jones’s arguments will be the response they receive on the ground, from people who are working hard to carve out a living in today’s difficult economic climate. As a founding director of Safety in Design, Liz Bennett has an overview of the UK construction industry, which she sees as one of the most important sectors in what Jones calls Great Britain PLC.

“Much of what Lord Jones has to say resonates with the construction industry,” Bennett remarks. “I agree with his view that successive governments have interfered too much with the activities of private enterprises. We live in a culture of massive regulation – much of which leaves business hamstrung, and incapable of acting on the basis of common sense.”

Bennett sees health and safety regulation as an obvious case in point. Although she has extensive experience as a health and safety advisor, she believes current regulation is too detailed and restrictive. “The state is in danger of nannying us,” she remarks. “Lord Jones is right that we need to give business people the freedomto make their own decisions, and use their common sense.”

Bennett made this point to Professor Ragnar Lofstedt during his review of health and safety, where she was a part of the British Chambers of Commerce policy team. Broadly speaking, she thinks that construction professionals should be trusted to use their judgment in ensuring the safety of their projects, thereby obviating the need for detailed regulations.

So Bennett agrees with Lord Jones. He refers more than once to the way “health and safety police” torpedo creativity, and sees this is an example of government intervention hampering the flourishing of UK enterprise.

Even so, health and safety is one of the few areas not to receive sustained attention in the pages of Fixing Britain. Bennett believes this is regrettable, because it is such a significant part of the landscape for British businesses.

“I should have liked to see Jones provide a more detailed engagement with the health and safety context,” she states. “It affects every business, regardless of its size or specialism. So health and safety is an area of universal concern for British commerce.”

Bennett believes Jones is at his strongest when he emphasises the need to train employees, and offer opportunities for advancement. “Fixing Britain contains a lot of good ideas about up-skilling the workforce, including the provision of government incentives. Skills development is something the construction industry should be committed to, and Safety in Design can help. We provide a suite of training opportunities – all of which make workers better equipped for the reality of 21st century business.”

The subject of how best to support small businesses is close to Bennett’s heart. She believes there is too much employment law, which means that many business owners are reluctant to take on new staff. “Jones does not make the same observation explicitly,” she observes. “But his comments about legislation such as the Working Time Directive point to a similarly critical view of centralist micro-management of business activity.”

“I’m really excited by the publication of Fixing Britain,” Bennett concludes. “It raises serious questions about the future of our country, and about the government’s role in supporting business. Above all, it makes a clear and consistent case for growth, the need for common sense in policy-making, and top-down reform of our political system. I look forward to seeing how my colleagues in the construction industry respond.”