CBI: Starmer unveils ‘council of skills advisers’ after “shambolic” PM address

Sienna Rodgers

Keir Starmer unveiled a new ‘council of skills advisers’ and set out plans for “a future radical Labour government that will not provoke division” in his keynote speech to the Confederation of British Industry today.

The opposition leader announced a campaign to ensure young people “leave education ready for work and ready for life”, with a council of skills advisers comprising David Blunkett, Praful Nargund and Rachel Sandby-Thomas.

The council will be tasked with recommending “the change we need to ensure everyone leaves education job ready and life ready” and exploring “how to ensure that young people are literate in the technology of the day”, Starmer said.

“We would add digital skills to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. And I also want my council to advise me on how we can lift the sights of all pupils. We must encourage their ambition and be more ambitious for them,” he added.

The move came after Boris Johnson delivered his own speech to the CBI, which Labour called “shambolic”. It saw the Prime Minister lose track of his notes, saying “forgive me, forgive me, forgive me”, and talk about visiting Peppa Pig World.

Starmer today pledged in government to “remake” Britain’s economy “so it’s fit for purpose and fit for the future”. He said Labour would “never spend money just for the sake of it” and declared that “a cap on investment” is “a false economy”.

He described a cap on investment as “a cap on ambition and a cap on productivity”, but he also sought to reassure business leaders on Labour’s fiscal responsibility, saying: “We really don’t think the solution to every problem is to throw cash at it.”

Starmer promised that Labour in power would create 100,000 businesses over the next five years by boosting the start up loan scheme, scrap and replace business rates and implement its plan to ‘buy, make and sell more in Britain’.

“This is our side of the contract. To run a stable government and a tight ship. To equip the next generation for work. To invest in British business, and to create a wave of high-skilled jobs,” the Labour leader said.

“On your side of the contract, there are responsibilities, too. To invest in the long term. To contribute as we strive towards net zero. To contribute to your local communities. To support your workforce with fair pay and flexible working.”

Referring to how Boris Johnson reportedly said “fuck business” in response to concerns over a hard Brexit, Starmer said the only “F-words” he would use are “foreign investment, fair trade, fiscal policy and fiduciary duty”.

On Brexit, he reiterated that “we’re not going to rejoin”, but said “all the holes in the Prime Minister’s deal” need to be identified. He promised to seek the following:

  • a new veterinary agreement for trade in agriproducts;
  • to find an agreement on mutual recognition of conformity assessments across all sectors;
  • regulatory equivalence for financial services and mutual recognition of professional qualifications;
  • to maintain Britain’s data adequacy status;
  • a better, long-term deal for UK hauliers.

“Your organisation and mine both have a synonym for work in our titles. Industry and Labour. That is why we must work together to remake Britain for the future,” Starmer told the CBI today.

Below is the full text of Keir Starmer’s speech to the conference today.

Thank you, Lord Bilimoria. And good afternoon everyone. It is fantastic to be here, and to see so many of you in the flesh. After 18 months of a virtual world, I’m getting to like the idea of giving speeches to live audiences.

My message for today is clear. As I said in my speech at Labour party conference: Labour is back in business. The dual meaning is entirely deliberate.

We are and we always were, the party of work. Founded in the workplace, we are the party of working people. And that means Labour is also the party of business.

The first annual report of the CBI, back in 1965, made a point that still stands today… “The whole future of Britain”, it reported, “rests upon the success of industry”… “industry must be dynamic, competitive and profitable to compete in an ever increasingly competitive world.”

Those words, half a century old, could have been written yesterday. Britain is not as dynamic, competitive and profitable as we need to be. Today I want to discuss how we can create a contract together to put that right.

In a way we have always been bound together, the Labour party and the CBI. The CBI was founded, at least in part, as a response to a Labour government.

Your commemorative book, The CBI: 50 Years of Business Innovation, notes that the radical policies of the Wilson government “resulted in sharply divided tactics among members”.

Today, I hope to give you a flavour of a future radical Labour government that will not provoke division. Because if you get above the political fray and survey the British economy over a longer timeframe, we have a familiar and a persistent problem. We still haven’t cracked productivity.

I heard what the Prime Minister said this morning. But I’m afraid even before the pandemic, Britain went through the worst decade for productivity growth since the Industrial Revolution. That’s staggering.

Of course, the government has its own answer to the productivity problem. He is called Geoffrey Cox. But we might need a little more than that. It’s not as if we don’t know the answer.

We need increased business investment. A better capital stock and improved infrastructure. We need to embrace new technology. We need to lift our export performance. We need cities outside the south-east to become economic powerhouses.

Which is why it is so devastating to see the government rip up its promises in relation to HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. These are not just train lines. They are lifelines for businesses and commuters.

And it’s not just a betrayal of the North. It’s a betrayal of the economic potential of those regions, denying them the growth that your Director General, Tony Danker, has championed so effectively, including in his speech this morning.

And if we are really serious about improving productivity, then, most of all, we need investment in our people to ensure they have the skills that are right for the modern economy.

After the pandemic and after Brexit, we need a national reset. The business community and the political world need to work together. We both have a job to do. That job is to remake Britain. And that means remaking Britain’s economy so it is fit for the future.

Relations between politics and business have not always been warm. The Prime Minister himself has not exactly been complimentary. I can promise you that the only F words I will be using are foreign investment, fair trade, fiscal policy and fiduciary duty.

I know we have bridges to build, and I want to start a dialogue with you here today. I want to start that conversation by thanking you all for the part you’ve played, especially in the last 18 months, where your incredible resilience and hard work has helped protect livelihoods and communities.

Your leadership has made a difference. And the reputation of our businesses has been enhanced. So let me describe how I see my side of the contract.

Getting our economy to grow, getting to grips with the problem of productivity. And giving business a generation of young people ready for work. Any contract needs to be based on stability.

In tax policy, regulation and the terms of trade, you want as much certainty as you can get. You want independent institutions. Treaties that are respected, contracts that are enforced.

After Covid and Brexit, our public finances are in a fragile state. In her recent conference speech Rachel Reeves, my brilliant shadow chancellor, made her commitment to fiscal discipline abundantly clear.

Our five fiscal rules make it plain that we will never spend money just for the sake of it. We really don’t think that the solution to every problem is to throw cash at it.

And just as every one of you scrutinises the cost side of your business, constantly asking yourself if investments are paying off, we will do the same on behalf of the tax paying public.

The problem we face today is that we have no industrial strategy, no business plan. The Budget was an opportunity to address that, and remake Britain. But it was an opportunity missed.

In Tony Danker’s own words: “it isn’t bold enough to deliver the high investment, high productivity economy the government seeks”. I think putting a cap on investment, as the government has, is a false economy. It’s a cap on ambition and a cap on productivity.

There is nothing that suggests a government getting to grips with the scale of the challenge. You can see all around us what happens when a government has no plan. And it’s happening now. Prices going up. Energy getting more expensive. Taxes rising £3,000 more per household by 2026. And with the effects of Brexit and Covid working through, a shortage of labour.

And the really irritating thing about this is, that it was so predictable. Lord Bilimoria himself warned in June that a perfect storm of economic problems was brewing. He pointed to HGV drivers specifically, as well as butchers, brewers, and welders.

It’s the same in professional services and the same in manufacturing. This is, in part, about Brexit because the government thinks all it has to do is say the words “Get Brexit Done.” It has absolutely no plan to Make Brexit Work.

Just to be clear, Labour is not planning a re-match. Brexit has happened and we are not going to re-join. But it is obvious that a poorly thought-through Brexit is holding Britain back. It is astonishing to see a government that negotiated a treaty, complaining that the deal they signed doesn’t work.

Wait till the PM finds out who negotiated the Northern Ireland protocol. I wish he would stop picking fights for the sake of it, and just get on with it.

Labour will work with business on this. We should carry out a transparent and honest analysis together of all the holes in the Prime Minister’s deal. We need to work out how we can fill them fast, without the risk of trade wars, without erecting further barriers to co-operation with our allies and without the need for even more years of painful negotiations.

Of course, decisions that have been made must be respected, and negotiations will be tough. And this is a message to those on both sides of the channel. We all have a duty to make Brexit work, so bear with me as I give you some concrete examples of what we would do.

We would negotiate a new veterinary agreement for trade in agri-products. This would have two benefits. First. It would help to get through the impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol. Second, it would cut red tape and barriers for exporters across the UK.

Labour would also look to find an agreement on mutual recognition of conformity assessments across all sectors. That would mean our producers would no longer have to complete two sets of tests. There would be no need for two certification processes to sell goods in both the UK and the EU.

We would seek regulatory equivalence for financial services and mutual recognition of professional qualifications because we absolutely recognise the importance of looking after our world-class financial and professional service businesses.

We would also seek to maintain Britain’s data adequacy status. That would mean that our data protection rules would continue to be deemed equivalent to those in the EU. Which would, in turn, make UK digital services companies more competitive.

And, finally, we would seek a better long-term deal for UK hauliers to ease the supply chain problems we are seeing. This is a plan that follows closely what many of you have told me is needed to move us towards the closer trade arrangement that we need with the EU.

I believe all of this is achievable by robustly defending our interests and patiently negotiating. There is one further element – leadership. Trust matters in international negotiations but with this PM that ingredient is missing.

Instead, what we get is a series of pantomime disputes, which is no good for British business or for the British public. And no help at all as we tackle the task of remaking Britain.

Now, let me come to where the government most needs to keep its side of the contract. To ensure that our people get the skills they need. The battle for talent will be one of the defining issues of the 21st Century

As I travel the country and I talk to businesses, I am constantly struck by how often I am told about skills shortages. A recent survey showed that 80% of businesses were worried about skills. The world has changed. The demand of skills has changed.

Business leaders tell me that the skills we need today to be more productive are critical thinking, creativity, communication and the ability to work in a team. And, in my view, we don’t value technical and vocational skills nearly enough.

So it is no wonder that this country does much worse in computer skills than our economic rivals. No wonder that fewer than half of employers believe young people have the digital skills required. Think of all the students we effectively abandon at the age of 18. 40% leave education without essential qualifications

A lot of these students could really flourish if they received a high-quality technical training. Yet funding per student in further education and sixth form colleges has fallen by 11 per cent in real terms since 2010. And, that’s why today, I am announcing my new council of skills advisors. David Blunkett, working along with the tech entrepreneur Praful Nargund and the skills expert Rachel Sandby Thomas to recommend the change we need to ensure everyone leaves education, job ready and life ready.

My council will explore how to ensure that young people are literate in the technology of the day. That’s why we would add digital skills to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. And I also want my council to advise me on how we can lift the sights of all pupils. We must encourage their ambition and be more ambitious for them.

In my own constituency there is a wonderful primary school, Rhyl Primary school, which runs a great programme called Raising Aspirations. Employers like Mercedes, Derwent, Google, the Ritz and The Crick Institute inspire the children to think about the jobs they might do, jobs they might never have considered before or even heard of.

Just recently the kids met Lewis Hamilton to learn about engineering, where we have a significant skills shortage I can’t tell you what a difference this kind of thing makes. Better skills are vital if we are to improve productivity and economic growth. That’s why getting the next generation ready for work will be my mission as leader of the Labour party.

So skills policy is the first line in the first chapter of Labour’s plan for good business. It’s a plan that I want you all to be part of. It’s a plan that will include a policy for start-ups. We would create 100,000 new businesses over the next five years by boosting the Start Up Loans Scheme.

And let me turn next to business rates. Because we know we can’t achieve the investment we need if the tax burden is not fair. The Conservatives promised fundamental reform four times, and each time all we’ve got is tinkering around the edges. Labour will not just walk around this problem. We will scrap and replace business rates with a much fairer alternative to incentivise investment.

And we want public bodies to give more contracts to British firms. Those contracts will raise social and environmental standards. Our buy, make and sell more in Britain policy will weigh not just the cost and quality of a contract but also the value it brings to our communities. Make it here – that is how we will remake Britain.

Now, we are meeting a week after the limited progress made at COP26 in Glasgow. It’s obvious we need to do more if we are to protect our planet – that is our solemn duty. But, when I think of the climate crisis I don’t just think of duty. I think of the huge opportunity. Like Joe Biden, when I think climate crisis, I think jobs.

If we invest in manufacturing electric vehicles, if we increase investment in our ports, and finally turn our world-leading status in offshore wind into jobs, then the future can be green, fair and prosperous. That is why Labour is committed to the investment needed.

Our climate investment pledge amounts to £28bn a year until 2030. We would commit £6bn over a decade to upgrade every home that needs it. That creates about half a million jobs. In the workplace, we would help fund the investment in the giga-factories we need for electric car manufacturing. What we need now is a sector-by-sector plan. For the car industry. For the steel industry. For all industry.

Our competitors are already doing it. We can’t afford not to. This is our side of the contract. To run a stable government and a tight ship. To equip the next generation for work. To invest in British business, and to create a wave of high-skilled jobs.

Of course, on your side of the contract, there are responsibilities too. To invest in the long term. To contribute as we strive towards net zero. To contribute to your local communities. To support your workforce with fair pay and flexible working.

When I was reflecting on this opportunity to speak to you today, I thought of my dad. He was a skilled industrial worker. A tool maker in a factory. And the thing that I really remember from my dad was how hard he worked. His industry. Your organisation and mine both have a synonym for work in our titles. Industry and Labour. That is why we must work together to remake Britain for the future.

Our mutual interest, our shared passion. To use the full potential of our nation. To maximise the contribution we can all make. The next government will inherit a big job. To get Britain fit for the future. I look forward to working with you. To remake Britain.

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