Live blog: British Chambers of Commerce Annual Conference

The BCC conference
The BCC conference

The British Chambers of Commerce helps British businesses thrive and when the BCC speaks, Whitehall and Westminster listen. That was the opening message from Prime Minister David Cameron at the BCC Annual Conference.

One of the biggest decisions of our lifetimes is approaching as the EU referendum looms. If we leave there would be risk, insecurity and economic danger, followed by years of wrangling over trade deals. Cameron argues that by remaining in the EU the UK can be a confident, open and dynamic country, reaching out to the world to secure investment and growth for the future.

Cameron concluded his brief video messaging by stating that he believes the UK can be the best country in the world to start a business, and to grow a business.

Business Secretary Sajid Javid

Business Secretary Sajid Javid was next to take the stage, arguing that the BCC is of national importance as there is no better way to take the pulse of British industry than by talking to its members.

Commenting on a seminar to be held later in the day – A new dawn or back to the future – Javid joked that we should pop into a Delorean, get up to 88mph and go back to 1988 when he himself was a young boy in Haringey.

Javid reminisces about the Delorean motor company, which was given money by the government and set up in Northern Ireland. It was plagued with delays and the cars themselves gained a reputation for being poorly made, overpriced and unreliable. Fewer than 10,000 were ever made. The company went bankrupt, jobs and taxpayer money were lost in the process. Deloreans provided the world with two things – Doc and Marty’s time machine, and an all too real case study of what government involvement in business should not look like.

The business secretary prides himself on having a different approach to industry to many of his predecessors. Javid said he hopes to create the conditions in which businesses can thrive.

Speaking of the upcoming EU referendum, Javid said that for business, for jobs, and for growth, remaining in the EU is the best answer. However, later in the Q&A session where he was asked whether his decision to support the In campaign was prompted by threats to his personal career prospects if he came out against Europe, he called himself a Euroscpetic and said that in many ways he is still a ‘Brussels-basher’. Javid said that his heart tells him to get out now, the UK may never have the chance again, but his head reminds him that businesses need a degree of certainty to prosper.

Javid acknowledges the importance of the European single market but reminded the delegates that the UK cannot afford to only trade with the close and the familiar. Businesses need to get outside their comfort zones and trade further abroad.

One in Three out

Turning his attention to new policies, Javid announced the government’s intention to significantly cut red tape for businesses. The ‘One in Two out’ policy introduced under the coalition (which ensures that for every new piece of regulation introduced that costs money, twice that cost must be cut elsewhere) is being updated to a ‘One in Three out’ policy. This will of course be difficult, but Javid is assured it will focus the mind of policy makers.

“Government should stand behind business rather than in your way.”

In addition, Javid is launching a review of the way local authorities regulate business. For smaller businesses in particular, the local council is the arm of government that they have the most contact with. SMEs are often faced with a huge deal of red tape and it builds up over the years without being reviewed or updated. This review will be shared across government to help introduce reforms to reduce unnecessary costs and burdens on business.

“I know how hard it is to make a business work and that task gets infinitely harder when you have to deal with infinite pointless bureaucracy.”

It takes courage, and broadband, to make a business grow

BT managing director UK & Ireland Col O’Neill was the next to re-iterate the view that the BCC represents the voice of British business, and in particular small and medium businesses.

Growing up O’Neill was part of the small business world, and claimed that you very quickly learn that cash is king. Quite often it is paying for your dinner – and the customer is always right because they are the ones that decide whether you get a bicycle for Christmas. You also learn that you need courage to make a small business work, and to make it grow. Especially in recent years, it takes courage to fight for your business in a sea of economic downturns and technological disruption – but we should see technology as an opportunity.

The disruptive force of tech can be used to strengthen the UK’s position as a global digital player, and the government and BT’s broadband rollout aims to contribute to this. O’Neill acknowledges that there is more to do, but claims that the UK is already in a strong position. To help further these broadband ambitions, a report has been commissioned into business broadband, which O’Neill says is welcomed by BT to help outline practical improvements for the rollout.

BT offers an Ethernet service to businesses in the UK, but if its current products do not work for small businesses O’Neill recommends that they band together with other local businesses and approach a provider. It is possible that a deal can be established to bring faster broadband to the area.