Many thanks for inviting me to speak to you today
Disclosure and transparency are the watch words of the week — so I published my latest tax return on Monday. But today I feel I need to go one step further on the transparency front.
If you read the Business Centre Association’s 2014 report, you will see that the UK business centre market comprises around 80,000 businesses, you employ over 400,000 people and generate approximately £2 billion of income for our country every year. That alone is reason enough to be here — but I would be lying if I said that was the whole reason why I’m here.
In the interests of openness, I should declare that I am a business centre tenant myself lest someone report me to the Parliamentary Standards’ Commissioner for failing to disclose this. So I have a very personal interest in this sector thriving, being a lively and competitive one.
I moved my constituency office to one of the local business centres in Streatham last year and, you know what…I should have done so a long time ago. Before that we were in an office with no central heating, no proper facilities to network our computers and damp on the walls. So, long live the business centre is what I say!
The importance of the EU referendum
The title of my speech today is “Making the British Lion Roar in the Global Market Place” because, as a country, we face competition from Paris, Berlin, Milan and other centres of commerce.
The challenge is to retain and support a strong base of new, fast growing businesses and to retain and attract the larger multinational firms who choose to situate their European operations here. Many of these firms rely on the business centre sector to provide them with a home.
On 23rd June we face the biggest decision in a generation: whether to stay in or leave the European Union. This referendum has profound implications for this sector because many of your tenants export to the EU but and the rest of the world. The UK being in the EU is one of our big selling points to prospective tenants of your businesses.
Why do I say this?
I say this because Britain’s home market is the EU’s ‘single market’. Businesses of all different sizes benefit from the single market as it offers tariff-free trade, full access to the EU goods and service markets, and the UK Government has influence over the rules which apply in that market so it can promote and defend British interests.
These are benefits that would otherwise be lost if we left the single market and so they are central to the economic issues at the heart of the EU referendum debate.
Now, I don’t argue that we would not be able to do business in the global market place if we left the EU. Outside, we could trade with the EU, but we would not be in the EU’s single market. And if we’re not in the single market we wouldn’t be able to trade as freely and we’d have no say over the rules of doing business. We know this because the other 27 countries in the EU have made it clear they won’t give us a better deal than the one they have themselves.
So the choice is this: trading with the EU with more barriers and no influence; or trading in the single market, with free trade and a say over the rules. And business does not want the former; it wants the latter.
Business support for EU membership
The various leave campaigns have sought to muddy the waters on business support for EU membership, in a desperate attempt to suggest British business is majorly split on EU membership. But, in so doing, they are guilty of selling dodgy goods to the British public.
Survey after survey of the major business organisations in this country, representing firms of all sizes across different sectors shows EU membership is clearly the preference of British business by some margin.
60% of the senior businesspeople polled in the British Chambers of Commerce most recent survey were for in against 30% for out.
70% of the tech industry surveyed by Tech UK want the UK to stay in.
80% of CBI members think being in EU is best for their business.
These are lobbying organisations but every week more and more individual businesses are coming out for the “in” campaign too.
New figures released today by Britain Stronger In Europe show businesses employing well over 1.7million people have come out formally for our continued membership of the EU. There will be many more to come.
So there is no evidence to back up claims that anything other than a significant majority of British businesses favour us staying in the EU.
Debunking the myths
That is not to say that the referendum is a done deal with the British public in general. There are different aspects to the EU referendum debate which have still to be played out. I will touch on just three of them as time does not allow for more.
Some claim we have no influence within Europe and lack sovereignty. The facts are this: in the last Parliament just four Acts of Parliament out of a total of 121 were passed to exclusively implement EU law.
With regard to working with our partners at an EU level and whether this compromises sovereignty, let me quote Mrs Thatcher: “to enter into commercial obligations and treaties is an exercise of sovereignty, not derogation from it.” These words were said by Mrs T in 1962. I am no fan of hers but those who bring up the sovereignty issue generally are her disciples and, on this, she was right then and she is right now.
In the end, national power and influence to shape global forces impacting on people’s lives are directly proportionate to the strength of our international partnerships. Does signing the UN Convention against Torture, joining the UN or adhering to NATO’s Article 5 undermine our ability to control our own destiny? No, and If you took the Leave campaigns’ argument on this to its logical conclusion, the most sovereign nation in the world is North Korea.
So leaving Europe offers only the illusion of power. We would be weaker to help shape a changing and interdependent world.
There is also the claim that leaving the EU is risk-free and that we would get a similar free trade deal with the EU, but it is pure fantasy to suggest that in the event of Brexit we could have all of the benefits of the EU and none of the costs.
The fact is, of everything we sell, 44% goes to the EU, whereas 8% of EU exports come to us. Given this balance, is it really in other EU nations’ interests to give Britain a better deal than they have themselves, once we have left? Of course not.
Vote Leave claims the UK can end free movement, end budget contributions and end regulations, while still having access to Europe’s market for free. This is unprecedented and unrealistic, naïve at best, insincere at worst.
When Germany and France want to protect their domestic industries and also stave off their own extreme Eurosceptic movements, can you see them handing us the keys to the single market for free? I think not.
Finally, I want to say something about Red Tape which I know is a particular concern of small businesses.
The existence of the EU means firms benefit from a simple set of rules like those in the Single Market, which give easy access to a market of 500 million people. The benefits of harmonisation and not having multiple production lines due to differing product standards disproportionately benefit those with the smallest balance sheets and least able to absorb increased production costs.
If we were to leave and, say, adopt a similar arrangement with the EU as Norway, we would continue to be bound by EU financial services regulation, social and employment laws, energy and climate change policies, and yet have no influence to shape or change such regulations.
And let’s be honest, domestic governments of all persuasions have found it convenient to dump blame on the EU for all manner of rules and Red Tape when the truth is that the British civil service is often guilty of gold plating EU regulations in a way that our EU partners do not.
In conclusion, I want to say something about your role in this referendum. As businesses and those who provide homes for them, I would urge you to get involved and let us know what you think so as to help both your employees, customers and the general public come to a view. This does not mean instructing them on how to vote but it does mean providing them with your take on what it means for their job and their work place.
I have provided one view in this debate — it is only right that what I say and those on the other side say is properly tested. You can help the electorate at large do this by providing them with the facts and information to come to an informed decision.