Exporting out of recession - Business and Enterprise Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


23 FEBRUARY 2009

  Q60  Mr Oaten: Is this the Business Council?

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: No.

  Q61  Mr Oaten: Because you are on that as well, are you not?

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: No.

  Q62  Mr Oaten: You are not on the Business Council?

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: No. All right, let us go back one. You had the Business Council which was created when the Prime Minister became Prime Minister.

  Q63  Chairman: You were on it then. When it was created, you were on it.

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: I was on it then, yes. My successor is on it. That is the Business Advisory Council. It meets in Number 10—well, I do not know whether it does these days, but it did meet in Number 10 about every quarter, and it was a group of CEOs and chairmen from the private sector, with quite a few Cabinet ministers from different strands of government. And that may be going on, I do not know. You then had a National Economic Council created on the reshuffle in October. Lord Mandelson was obviously going to play a major part in it, and I think that was to advise the Government on the current economic problems. Thirdly, you had a group of I think 17, it might be 18, UK Business Ambassadors, not one a part of government, all of them from the private sector, mainly CEOs of major companies. The job there is, as many times a year as they can give—and I think you will find probably a couple of times a year each—when they are in an overseas visit, because they are all global traders, to give some time and some inspiration and energy to the UKTI initiative that is happening in that country. So it is not a group which meets in London or anything else; it is a group that does its disparate things around the world to promote this nation and its trade.

  Q64  Mr Oaten: So are you freelancing a little bit there, or is there some sense of co-ordination?

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: There is a guy called Jack Chartris who is a full-time employee in UKTI who was in charge of co-ordinating it and it reports in to Sir Andrew Cahn and through him to Lord Davies. That is the idea. But it does not meet as a group. It does its work out in the field of the world. When that all got put into a press release on the day that it all happened, on October 4, it came out that I was a UK Business Ambassador—which I became—on the National Economic Council—which I certainly am not, never was, do not intend to be and was not asked. I still get introduced sometimes in speeches and on radio and stuff as a "UK Business Ambassador on the National Economic Council" and I think, "I'm not, I'm not, I'm not". So if I have this chance to put that right, I am sure that everybody, from Number 10 to me, will be very pleased. On the work of the two, the Business Council and the National Economic Council, you will have to ask others than me. I do not know. The UK Business Ambassadors are doing quite a good job around the world.

  Mr Oaten: Given your role that you are doing as an ambassador, I am surprised that you do not know a little bit more about what the Business Council is doing and whether in fact it has met or not. It seems to have quite a lot profile.

  Q65  Chairman: There is the Business Council and the National Economic Council and it is quite confusing.

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: Sure. The Business Council has been in place since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. It met about every quarter and it had about four or five Cabinet ministers on it and then loads from the business community.

  Q66  Mr Oaten: The Richard Bransons of this world, and Sir Stuart Rose.

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: Tony Hayward from BP, Jean-Paul Garnier from GSK, that sort of person.

  Q67  Mr Oaten: Are you aware of it doing anything in the last 12 months or so?

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: I would not know since I left in October, because I do not know what has happened. It was meeting every quarter before then because I went to them. But that was very much business attuned. What does business need? It was chaired by Lord Davies, then Mervyn Davies. It was about what does business need from this government? What it is doing now, I truly do not know. The National Economic Council was a creation of Lord Mandelson's arrival in government and I have had no part with that whatsoever. But they are meeting committees, they are things that meet. Business Ambassadors never meet. Their job is to go and do it overseas. They are doing their job, frankly, if they are in an overseas market and they give 24 hours of their time over there for free—totally for free—and banging the drum for Britain in, presumably, a particular sector—because if you have an oil guy, he can talk about oil and that sort of stuff.

  Q68  Chairman: The National Economic Council is a straightforward Cabinet Committee. It was spun as being something rather bigger than that when it was launched.

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: I do not know.

  Q69  Chairman: But it has no relation to the ambassadors at all.

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: No relation to the ambassadors at all. I am not saying it is only government, I do not know who is on it, but it is certainly not the ambassadors.

  Q70  Chairman: There are 17 ambassadors. Why 17? I know several of the ambassadors are bankers you have been so pejorative about. Is that the right number of ambassadors? Why 17?

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: Why not 18 or 16 for sure, but you need credible mass because they are not all going to do the same number of visits, are they? I have already done one to the Gulf, I am doing one to Eastern Europe in a few weeks, I am doing one to India that I have got planned and one to the United States in the autumn—so I will be doing, what, four a year. If you are the global CEO of one of the biggest manufactures on earth, if you are Sir John Rose, I would not have thought you would be doing four a year when you have a big company to run, but you hopefully could do one. You need quite a few to do it.

  Q71  Mr Oaten: How do you decide where you are going?

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: It is a three-way process. A post will say to UKTI, "We would love a visit from Fred"—whoever Fred may be. Secondly UKTI will say, "We could do with some clout and presence in ..." as a market. Thirdly—and this is the bit that I think will be difficult to pull off but will be good—one of the ambassadors themselves would say, "I'm going in my ordinary course of business to such and such a place, do you want me to do anything while I am there?" Those three things together will maximise the effort. This is unpaid. These guys and girls do not get paid for this. You see, Chairman, there is something which I do believe in, and I would not have given everything up I do to do the job back in 2007 if I did not—the French do this well, the Japanese do this well, the Americans do this well, we have never done it before—and that is to take people from the private sector and get them to come in for a period of time to ... I will not say "to help the country", it sounds so jingoistic, but to do something for your country and then go back out again. That ability to do this we have never done. It is new and it is different. That is why I am thrilled to bits that Mervyn Davies took over from me because he comes from business and not from a political career.

  Q72  Chairman: Are these British Business Ambassadors a very good idea or a moderately good idea?

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: I think they are an excellent idea but the word "excellent" should be judged with the benefit of hindsight.

  Q73  Chairman: Only three of them are manufacturers, as far as I can see, on your list, and you are only a solicitor!

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: Actually I am still a solicitor. I do not think I can practice. I would not be let loose on the public.

  Q74  Chairman: You have talked about the importance of higher education as an opportunity.

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: Yes.

  Q75  Chairman: Three of them are provosts or vice-chancellors of universities, so it is quite a high ratio.

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: Good. That is good.

  Q76  Chairman: You think that is good.

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: Yes. We have to understand that the higher education in this country is second in the world to America and is one of our major overseas currency opportunities.

  Q77  Chairman: Every inquiry this Committee does overseas normally comes to that conclusion as well.

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: It is absolutely amazing.

  Q78  Chairman: Is the balance right: only three manufacturers and three higher education? Is that the right balance?

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: One of the problems ... Is that the right word? One of the issues would be that some of the quality manufacturers in this country are not what my mum would call British companies. I do not think personally that matters a damn, because as far as I am concerned, if they employ people in this country, they pay corporation tax in this country, they add to the public realm in this nation. I could not care, frankly, whether they are Indian or Japanese or American or German, but a lot of people would say that they should be "British" companies. If they have to play to that sentiment, then you will find a lot of CEOs and a lot of companies coming from overseas investors in manufacturing—and perhaps that is a reason that they did not appear in that list.

  Q79  Chairman: What weight should this Committee attach to the role of Business Ambassadors in helping the country export out of recession? How important are they in the great scheme of things? Should we be encouraging them and calling for them to be expanded, made more important and given grater prominence, or should we just be noting them as a useful and modest contribution?

  Lord Jones of Birmingham: With the necessary rider that you are of course talking about volunteers who at a stroke could stop it—and that is a very important point, because they are under no duty or obligation to do it and therefore we have to respect that they are doing this for noble reasons—I think that this is a role where this Committee could make some useful contribution in terms of inquiring as to who is doing what, inquiring as to what did they do and where did they find problems in doing it, and where was it a bit of a success. If it was made clear that you would be asking those questions one year out, say, I think people in the year would apply themselves to the task a little more.

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Prepared 24 June 2009