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Has business lost the right to self regulate?

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Moderated by Peter Bazalgette (the man who brought Big Brother to our screens), the audience was in awe of the fiery four debaters addressing the future of entrepreneurial Britain.

Will Sharp set the scene: “I’m about to tell you that the government knows how to run businesses better than you do,” he told the group of 200 entrepreneurs. “Let’s face it: I’m not going to be popular! But the current modes of self regulation have failed. We need to come up with a better system.

“Retail banks should be regulated so they can’t dabble in the kinds of dubious activities that RBS was involved in. Bonuses should be monitored. And bad businessmen should be banned from running new enterprises.

“When businesses go bust, it’s not just a case of closing up shop and putting a few boards over the windows. The whole economy is affected. And that’s where the state should step in. After all, it’s there to protect us.”

Alex Campbell, a Canadian and English national debate finalist, opposed the motion. “The markets will fix themselves,” he said. “Recessions are caused by ignorance, not a failure of regulation. People are greedy, they do stupid things. That’s part of human nature. We must learn from our own mistakes.

“The government shouldn’t be able to tell you what’s in a banker’s individual trading book. I’m scared to live in a world where that could happen.”

Lewis Iwu, president of the Oxford Student Union and world champion student debate, then piped up: “I heard about this event so, as a student trying to emulate national politics, I bought a new suit and new shoes and then expensed them.

“The victims of this recession are you, me and poor, old grannies who have lost their pensions,” he said. “Why is it prudent for the government to act only when there’s a crisis? It should be pre-emptive. If it could regulate businesses’ cash reserves, for example, I’m sure there would be more stability in the economy.”

Jess Prince, British parliamentary national debate champion, was dead set against Iwu’s views. “You haven’t come up with any actual examples of government-imposed regulations that could have prevented this recession,” she said. “It’s easy to pass the buck and say the government should have done more, but what could it have done? That’s the crucial question.

"If you set up an independent, regulatory body to monitor business, that body would have political interests that go beyond the public’s best interests. It would do nothing but further its own interests and it would be biased towards the largest companies in the market.”

Mark Needham, founder of Widget, spoke up from the audience: “Businesses can never actually be entirely self-regulated," he said. "They could only operate freely in a country where there’s no government, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And I don’t think anyone would want to emulate that!”

Another audience member made her point: “This whole debate supposes the government is fit to regulate. The expenses debacle has proven the government’s banality and incompetence.”

Betfair’s Ed Wray was shocked that anyone would even consider asking the government to step in: “It terrifies me that people think this is the solution. It’s hard enough setting up a business in this country because of all the red tape. Burning us with ten times more regulation will do nothing more than stifle our innovation and kill entrepreneurs.”

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The 2009 Real Business Entrepreneurs’ Summit was held in association with Investec Private Bank.

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