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Business minister is ‘here to help’

When the coalition government was first formed in May 2010, you could have been forgiven for thinking that North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb might have been one of the first Liberal Democrat MPs to be handed a ministerial post.

Instead, there was a wait of more than 48 hours before it finally emerged that he was to be chief political advisor to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

It was not the job many Westminster watchers had expected, but some wondered if a fallout with Andrew Lansley, when the two both shadowed the health brief in opposition might have meant a ministerial job was a step too far for many Conservatives to accept.

Now as Mr Lansley battles to keep afloat the government’s NHS reforms, and you suspect his own job as health secretary, Mr Lamb has got his chance with a job as business minister, working under Vince Cable, and alongside Conservative counterpart Mark Prisk.

It’s a job the former employment lawyer believes he is well suited for and he is keen to stress that he is here to support businesses.

“I’m here to help and to understand what they think the government needs to do to make their life easier,” he said.

Among his tasks will be turning Nick Clegg’s vision for more John Lewis-style businesses, where staff have a greater stake in the running of a company, into reality. The portfolio also includes overseeing the sell-off of Royal Mail – and as some of his fellow Norfolk MPs have already noted, if a post office is closing, Mr Lamb will be the one they will be gunning for.

“I intend to explore how we might be able to create a mutually-owned post office,” Mr Lamb said. “Could we make it mutually-owned with all the sub-postmasters actually collectively owning it? That’s an interesting concept and I also want to see if we can get more government business done through the post office network.”

Competition policy, consumer law, and trade policy are also in the in-tray, and todayMon sees him in Brussels representing the government on EU talks about opening up public procurement rules across Europe, to make it easier for firms to bid for work across the continent – a subject he will be revisiting locally at a conference in north Norfolk on Friday.

He also has his sights on oil, gas, mining and forestry companies working in developed countries and is working with NGOs (non government organisations) to tackle any loopholes allowing big business to siphon off money which should be being paid to developing countries in the form of extraction rights.

But it’s the ‘John Lewis’ agenda, which he sees as one of the key tasks, particularly as the coalition fends off a charge from Labour leader Ed Miliband for a change in corporate culture and ‘more responsible capitalism’.

“A big priority for me is employee ownership,” Mr Lamb said. “I’m tasked with coming up with proposals to encourage that. If we give people a stake in their business, just as I argued for with Royal Mail, it could make a big difference.”

Political opponents of Liberal Democrats often accuse them of trying to be all things to all people, and you wonder if Mr Lamb’s new job sees him walking a similar tightrope given that he has the tricky task of dealing with the government’s employment law ‘hire and fire’ reforms which need to balance the rights of workers in the workplace while also making sure that red tape doesn’t put off firms from taking on staff.

“We’ve got to have a flexible labour market, but we have got to get the balance right, making sure we have a system which offers protection to people where they are being unfairly treated by employers, but also making sure that the system doesn’t disincentivise companies from taking people on,” he said.

He will also be looking at the issue of how to increase the presence of women in the boardroom, though he has yet to talk about quotas, and also getting companies to see their wider corporate responsibilities in the community.

“We have got this tiny percentage of women on Footsie boards and it gets even worse with smaller-sized companies,” he said. “How do we get companies to recognise it’s in their interests to have more (women in the boardroom)?”.

Another key task is improving exporting levels among smaller firms, particularly to countries such as China, India, and Brazil.

“Between 20-23pc of SMEs in this country export, while the European average is 25pc and in Germany it is 30pc, if we could get that figure up to the European level that could make a massive difference.”

shaun.lowthorpe@archant.co.uk

Because Treasury minister Chloe Smith is the woman tasked with overseeing chancellor George Osborne’s tax measures on cigarettes, alcohol and gambling on Budget Day on March 21.

But her wide-ranging brief, which she took up last year following Liam Fox’s resignation as defence secretary and a reshuffle that saw Justine Greening move from the Treasury to transport secretary, also includes working out how far-reaching measures on welfare reform and climate change can be made to pay for the Treasury.

Life in the Treasury is fast moving – 15-hour days, she says, are not untypical and she likes to make an early start, sitting at her desk by 8am. She even brings her own packed lunch.

“The Treasury is a pretty hard- working, cost-conscious place,” she said. “I’ve been known to take a packed lunch with me and that’s particularly the case on constituency days when I’m touring around Norwich in my car.”

But despite getting a toehold on the first rung of the ministerial ladder, Miss Smith is keen to stress how much she will continue to focus on her work as a constituency MP.

Now after a busy couple of months, Miss Smith, who was only elected to Westminster after the by-election in Norwich North in 2009, is getting to grips with her ministerial role, which she came to via a spell in the whips’ office, and what she hopes to achieve.

“After a couple of months in the job, I’ve been able to reflect on what my priorities are,” she said. “My first priority remains Norwich and everything I do here as a local MP, and I’m really excited by being a constituency MP.

“My role in the Treasury is particularly wide-ranging; it covers a number of so-called sin taxes, such as alcohol duty, cigarettes, gambling and smuggling. I wanted to pick a small number of priorities to really focus on so that I could deliver on them.

“One of the priorities in the Treasury team is around creating the right balance on all the green policies that will get this country meeting its carbon targets, but we must also be going no faster and no slower than other countries as we have to safeguard our own economy at this time.”

However, given that UK plc generally does not like red tape at the best of times, is there a danger in the current economic climate that the government may water down its policies to tackle climate change?

“Business does legitimately hold concerns about the number of regulations they need to deal with that relate to green targets and I see it as a real priority to try and look out for the interests of business in my role,” she said. “The intention is very much to get there in the end. But by it’s very nature it’s a long game and the priority right now is the economy.

“I don’t think we can justify taking actions which mean our competitors can steal a march on us, if they weren’t committed to do the same. I think people recognise we have got to solve the environmental dilemma. We all hope for a future on this planet and we can’t leave these problems to our children. If you look at the carbon price floor, which this government has introduced, that’s very clear for business in terms of the contribution they must make to reducing carbon emissions. That’s a good example of Treasury collaboration with DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change).

“I’m approaching it with a view of what will really help business and support people in the tough times we find ourselves in?

“There are also some very long-term projects which require working constructively across government such as curbing welfare dependency and how we can best encourage people into work. That’s the securest route out of poverty, and it also means I am working with both welfare ministers to tackle some deep-rooted topics.”

At her first Treasury questions in November, the 29-year-old faced a jibe from Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart about her relative youth, but her lack of years does not seem to have done her any harm at Westminster.

The business community in and around the city also talk highly of her and while the Labour Party is still regrouping following the 
general election, she has not come under a sustained political attack in her home patch, though that may change.

Yet she is still keen to stress her work in the city and the projects she is working on.

“There’s one other thing I specifically want to work on this year back at home and that’s youth unemployment,” she said. “It’s clearly a problem and one of the most important aspects for me of being a local MP .

“People I speak to on the doorstep worry about their children and grandchildren gaining the jobs and skills they need. I am working on a couple of projects to try and help young people find job opportunities and gain the skills they need.

“Anyone in politics has got to be able to respond to events. As a local MP when something appalling happens, like the fire in Markham Tower in Mile Cross, you want to get out and respond to that and help people; that’s just what you have to do.

“On a national level, the govermment has to do the same.”

So does that include a change of course on the government’s austerity measures, which critics believe is helping to cause rather than curtail the spike in youth unemployment?

“Plan A is working and it’s something we are sticking with,” she insisted.

And she insists that while things are tough, it’s not all doom and gloom.

“There are firms around Norwich which are growing and there are very many successful firms, who are doing well at present, and that’s what we have got to focus on,” she said. “You have got to make it as easy as possible, and keep plugging away and grow job by job. Economic recovery means one more job here and one more job there, which somebody can take and earn money from.”

Away from work she likes to relax with a good book – and lights up when asked about her latest reading, which includes Hollywood by the US commentator Gore Vidal, and the latest work by The Line of Beauty author Alan Hollingshurst.

She still finds time to play badminton on Friday nights and she has also recently seen the Bafta award-winning Iron Lady, whose portrayal of Margaret Thatcher has angered some Conservatives.

“I went to see it when it first came out at Cinema City,” she said. “I found the film incredibly sad. I saw somebody who had worked enomously hard and had extremely strong principles.

“I wasn’t politically aware during the Thatcher years and I became politically aware a bit later and I viewed the film as history. Meryl Streep was outstanding and the overall result was incredibly powerful.”

But when it comes to politics don’t bank on any leaks or titbits about the forthcoming budget – that’s not her style.

Even before working as a whip, the new MP was always someone whose mind you could almost see was working out what she wanted to say before actually saying it.

The kind of guarded safe pair of hands you expect they like in the Treasury.

shaun.lowthorpe@archant.co.uk

1 comment

  • "I've been known to take a packed lunch" - how funny.

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    Beady

    Monday, February 27, 2012

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