In an exclusive article for the Institute of Directors – Lord Bilimoria puts forward his views on how the business experience of members of the House of Lords can promote economic development.
From perhaps our best-known business peer, Lord Sugar, to Baroness Lane-Fox and Lord Harris, the upper chamber boasts some of Britain’s most well-known entrepreneurs alongside captains of industry and experts from a broad range of fields. That is not to mention Lord Young, enterprise adviser to two of the last three Conservative prime ministers, who is still in post at Number 10 even after celebrating his 80th birthday.
What entrepreneurs offer is an innate creativity and a thirst for innovation, that adds significantly to debates within the House of Lords. Take a recent debate in which Martha Lane Fox and I spoke on the plans for the celebration of the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary; my suggestion was that we organise a competition among schoolchildren to produce a Magna Carta for today.
She proposed that we link the impending octocentenary of England’s landmark legal document with the 25th birthday of the world wide web and create a “digital Magna Carta for the 21st century” to bring the document to life for a new generation of young people – a typical example of the contribution entrepreneurs can make to national debates.
Consider the range of experience that a successful entrepreneur can bring to the legislative process. Founding and growing a company equips you with the whole spectrum of commercial skills: budgeting, marketing, sales, strategic planning, recruitment, networking and delivery. Entrepreneurs are life’s all-rounders, the tribe committed to the simple goal of making things happen, regardless of the field.
That is a huge asset in a chamber packed with some of the nation’s most outstanding specialists, all of whom bring a depth of knowledge across countless fields, ranging from academia and charity, to the armed forces and sport.
The Lords does not lack in expertise, but sometimes it takes an entrepreneur to spot the opportunity for turning well-honed ideas into practical action. In a chamber whose permanent association is with tradition, entrepreneurs can bring the hard edge of innovation.
What’s more, the political contribution of entrepreneurs should extend well beyond the upper house. Whilst the cabinet and the House of Commons is replete with lawyers, financial professionals and career politicians, the influence of entrepreneurs is mostly limited to the role of adviser and consultant.
Of course, it is true that government makes good use of entrepreneurs’ advice in devising schemes – such as the Start-Up Loans programme – that help people start or grow their businesses.
Yet there could be a much greater role for entrepreneurs in tackling problems whose scope is well beyond business, be it youth unemployment, social mobility, or reform of the education system.
Where, for instance, is the enterprise input on a major national infrastructure project such as HS2, not short on the input of management consultants and bankers, and frequently running into controversy and bitter argument on value? Government claims an economic case, but where are the business ambassadors to sell its case to the country at large, or the entrepreneurs who can focus a roundabout policy debate on project delivery that pays its way?
Like any large and unwieldy organisation, the perennial struggle of government is turning good ideas into tangible action. It is small wonder therefore, that the government has just announced plans to give ministers the power to appoint new officials from outside the civil service, in what is widely being seen as an extension of the special adviser culture.
Perhaps among the bright young things and policy experts, our political leaders will find room for a few of the growing tribe who have earned the unmatchable experience and durability that comes from the rough and tumble of founding and growing a business.