Interviews

Matthew Hancock: The facts should be checked before Labour starts to make wishes

10 min read

08 April 2015

Former deputy editor

In an interview with Real Business ahead of the general election, business and enterprise minister Matthew Hancock has revealed his highlights of the Conservatives' time in power, shot down comments from Labour, and discussed what businesses should expect if the political party stays in command.

Just four weeks remain until the the 2015 general election takes place on 7 May and Real Business is tracking all of the political announcements that are likely to have an impact on the country’s entrepreneurs and business owners.

During the period, we’ll be hearing from Labour’s shadow minister for business Chuka Umunna, and shadow minister for SMEs Toby Perkins, as well as Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.

And as politicians currently travel the nation and trade verbal blows with each other in an attempt to win public and corporate favour, business and enterprise minister Matthew Hancock has been on a mission to visit 100 businesses in 100 days in the lead up to voting day. He explained to Real Business that “it’s crucial to listen and understand what the barriers to growth are”, adding “that may seem obvious, but it’s something that we have to constantly remember.”

He revealed a desire to connect with companies in order to determine what the Conservatives must do to help them achieve growth and create jobs. The campaign has seen him speak to market traders and cafes, right up to large firms including SSE and Rolls Royce, in the likes of Pontefract, Perth and Brighton.

“Ultimately, businesses create sustainability and we have a long-term goal of Britain being the most prosperous nation in the world, but we need to listen,” he said.

As expected, business demands are varied based on the sector, but Hancock revealed retailers want to see business rates relief made permanent – the Budget 2015 reported that corporation tax had been cut from 28 per cent to 20 per cent and highlighted that business rates support of £2.7bn over five years from April 2014 would help 1.8m sites in England.

Additionally, retailers also want the introduction of ten minutes of free parking, which would likely be a boon for independent stores situated on the high street. Non-retailers, meanwhile, want a simplified way to scale and recruit new team members.

Hancock has championed the Small Business Bill, which is designed to make life easier for growing companies through updated legislation, alongside business secretary Vince Cable, and saw it become a British law through Royal Assent on 26 March.

One key area that the Bill looks to change is late payments, something Hancock claims to be particularly “passionate” about. “Late payment is a huge issue for many small businesses and it was a big issue in the business I grew up in, where it nearly brought the business down,” he said. “I’m personally attached and now it’s law that large businesses will have to report on payment practices, so prompt payment within 30 days is normal and 60 days is reasonable. The law has changed but there is still a culture to change.”

“The response has been very positive, including some from businesses now able to take advantage of the changes,” Hancock said. “For example, within the sharing economy, it’s easier to do business and remove outdated regulations to keep the law up to pace with modern technology for those who want to use new technologies to allow people to make money from their own assets, in a way that wasn’t feasible a couple of decades ago.”

Of course, the “insurgent” sharing economy has secured a big push from the Conservatives. George Osborne made a rather surprising commitment to the industry during the Budget, revealing that government staff would begin using the sharing economy for business travel, while hubs are set to launch in Manchester and Leeds.

Additionally, JobCentre Plus staff will be trained to understand what the sector represents in order to bring sharing economy positions to the attention of the UK’s job seekers. This will be achieved with trade body Sharing Economy UK (SEUK), which launched on the 6 March with the backing of Hancock and businesses including Love Home Swap, Hassle.com and Airbnb.

On the subject of jobs, Labour’s Chuka Umunna spoke to Real Business on 1 April and said the Conservatives are responsible for the “rise of a low-wage, low-skilled economy and insecure work” and “Labour’s better plan will boost high-skilled, better paid jobs.”

However, Hancock responded to the claims by saying history has revealed a different outcome. “No Labour government has left office with unemployment lower than it started. Secondly, when it comes to high skills, the reforms to education and apprenticeships have started to make progress in solving that. There’s an awful long way to go, but we don’t want to put reforms at risk. Messages like that [Umunna’s] need to be checked against facts. It’s all well and good to wish against those, but we’re putting measures in place.”

Elsewhere, Umunna called zero-hours contracts the “exploitative norm” for many under the Conservatives. As such, Labour expects employers recruiting people on zero-hours contracts to replace them with permanent contracts after three months.

On whether “exploitative” is a fair assessment, Hancock said: “I think that should be asked to the 63 Labour MPs employing people on zero-hours. In the Small Business Act, we’ve made changes to ban exploitative zero-hours contracts. Look at the total, there are 670,0000 people working with those contracts and two-thirds don’t want any more hours – then compare that to the 2m more jobs that have been created [with this government].

“A headline-grabbing announcement like that was undermined when the Labour contracts were revealed. Our focus has been on making it [employment] easier and it has helped Britain create millions of jobs, tackle exploitation, while allowing flexible employment and I think that’s the right approach. I would say practice what you preach,” he added.

Hancock supported his case by saying exclusivity of zero-hours contracts have been banned, so employers can no longer prevent staff from working elsewhere, and noted that bodies like the TUC are also backing zero-hours as beneficial.

Discussing other highlights, the business minister said he’s particularly proud of changes to make regulatory burdens more reasonable for companies, which has seen the annual net burden fall by £2.2bn since 2011, according to Budget figures. Meanwhile, the expansion of apprenticeships was also a stand-out moment, described as “a moral mission as well as an economic one” that has “supported millions of people”.

Detailing why entrepreneurs should vote Conservative, Hancock said: “Businesspeople should expect the Conservatives to continue the long-term plan make it easier for businesses across the piece. We know that business done right can be a force for good – businesses create prosperity.”

The Conservatives’ long-term economic plan includes reducing the deficit to manage debts while protecting the economy, while it looks to create more jobs, which it claims will be achieved by supporting small businesses with lower jobs taxes and improved infrastructure.

Indeed, the Budget revealed a £740m fund to boost the infrastructure and generate “cities of the future” with investments in broadband and the Internet of Things, providing enhanced connectivity for businesses. Elsewhere, the plan also seeks to cap welfare and control immigration so that hard workers are better off, while there is also a focus on skills for youngsters.

Hancock concluded: “They should vote for the Conservatives if they want people in government who understand and back enterprise, who have been in business themselves, if they want easier lives, and a nation of success based on the success of others. I can’t think of a single reason why an entrepreneur would want to vote anywhere else.”