Anthony Hilton: Trading up - Michael Heseltine’s brainchild matures

Heseltine set up the forum in the 1990s to help trade associations to raise their game

It is easy to make jokes about the Trade Association Forum being the trade association for trade associations, but the fact that a conference it organised on Wednesday could boast not one but two government ministers in the speaker line-up suggests it is no ordinary organisation.

Wednesday was of course Budget day, so Steve Webb, who spoke on pensions, and Jo Swinson, the Equalities minister, could easily have used this as an excuses to cry off at the last minute – as politicians have been known to do. The fact that both showed up and delivered full value in their respective slots – alongside the head of primary markets for the Stock Exchange, the head of the National Apprenticeship Service and several other leaders in their fields – speaks volumes for the regard with which these organisations are held in Whitehall.

The fact is that without trade associations, both business and government would find it much harder to function. There are hundreds of them, from the Horticultural Trades Association through the Alliance of Wedding Planners to the Association for Professional Alliance Testing, quietly organising memberships, raising standards, applying codes of conduct and lobbying government. They are the main channel of communication between Whitehall and the business community and without them it is hard to see how the system would function.

The forum itself was set up in the 1990s on the initiative of the then trade minister, Michael Heseltine, to help trade associations raise their game, become more professional and learn from each other. From the outset it has operated under the wing of the CBI. But its current chair, the National Federation of Builders' chief executive, Julia Evans, thinks the time may be coming for it to fly the nest and develop independently, so it's an organisation we could soon be hearing much more of.