Mark Prisk: Ministers need to get their hands dirty
The Business Interview: The Business and Enterprise minister is keen to introduce politicians to the real world
Thursday 14 July 2011
Imagine you're running a small cleaning company, say, or a firm that designs kitchens, or own a small fabrication workshop. Imagine then ordering George Osborne to get the teas in as part of this work placement in the real world. Imagine George, actually taking the orders, too nervous to smirk...
A tantalising vision, and one that the minister for Business and Enterprise seems to want to make reality. Mark Prisk, Tory sidekick to Vince Cable since the Coalition was formed, tells me that he is keen to push senior civil servants and ministers out of what he calls the "Westminster bubble" and to "get their hands dirty" in business on week-long work placements: "I had a good productive discussion with the permanent secretary and he's taken it up to Gus O'Donnell [head of the home civil service] to see how we can do this for 100, possibly 200, senior civil servants and possibly politicians as well, and I'm expecting a report back in the next week or so to see what we can do in the autumn."
Mr Prisk adds it's important that "ministers as well as some of my colleagues who haven't been in business have that chance. It is a live project." Unlike Mr Prisk himself, who has a background in chartered surveying and ran his own consultancy firms – the curiously named Mark Prisk Connection and MP2 – for a decade before entering parliament in 2001.
He did his work placements over last spring and autumn in a car plant in the Midlands and a couple of engineering firms in his constituency "spending working time with each of the units: marketing, sales production and so on, so you understand the practicalities, what regulations drive them mad, and what problems they have with cash flow, how do they raise money from the banks, all the practical nitty gritty. And I made some bad coffee as well."
Some of the ministers-cum-workies, he says, might be given "relevant" placements – in the case of Chris Huhne and the team at Energy, for example, a spell working in a power station. And what role might we find for the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Mr Osborne, he says, "has tremendous experience of a wide range of businesses". Quite.
This is not meant unkindly, but Mr Prisk has some of the vocalisations of the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, and also something of his bounciness, though in a pleasant, sunny, enterprise-boosting rather than a plain irritating way. More of a coincidence really. Anyway, he has to be upbeat in his job, talking up British manufacturing in the days following the loss of thousands of jobs at Bombardier and its suppliers. Yes, he says, it is "disappointing" that the contract to build the new trains went to Siemens of Germany rather than to Bombardier's British works in Derby, although "they made it clear to us while they were looking at redundancies that they had several contracts winding up".
But "we have to look at the breadth of engineering in this country," he says, and points to the recent successful placing of orders for Airbus at the Paris Air Show plus the succession of recent high-profile high-value investments in the British motor industry. "Look at the big investments the big boys are making in auto. The fact that Toyota is actually exporting to Japan, the fact that Nissan is saying the new Qashqai will be built in Britain and nowhere else, and BMW saying it will put £500m into the next phase of Mini, and encouraging signs from Jaguar Land Rover... what they are saying is we feel you understand us as a sector".
Mr Prisk's department will review the way that EU public procurement rules are operated in the UK, but it is too late to help Bombardier's UK workforce.
One ambitious goal he has set is that the manufacturing sector should be larger by the end of the Coalition's term of office (presumed 2015) than it was when Labour left office. "Yes, absolutely, and I think we have had an encouraging first year despite challenging markets, and problems in Japan. We've seen month in, month out, growth in investment and exports, though there will be good months and bad months."
"We still have a challenge" (that word crops up a lot in Prisk-speak) "in turning a bright idea into a profitable venture. Partly that's a matter of finance and management capability" he argues, and implicitly contrasts the weakness in the middle-sized British corporate sector, compared to the strength of the German equivalents, the Mittelstand, often family owned and with a strong record in product development.
"John Cridland and the CBI have argued the case for getting these mid-cap companies to grow better. How do you encourage that innovation in real products?
"Clearly, for some businesses times are difficult. For consumer facing business it is tough, but what we've seen is positive signs in manufacturing industry and some of the new green growth industries are coming through, so we should keep our nerve and invest in that."
Soon we may learn more about a special exhibition to celebrate and showcase products designed and made here, to visitors to the Olympics. "It's looking good. It's designed to focus on challenging perceptions among business and young people about career opportunities and what it is we design and made in this country," he says. It will be in central London, in "one of the major institutions in the field".
On two of the other problems for the Business Department, and indeed the economy – constricted immigration and bank lending – Mr Prisk is as alert to the dangers as his Secretary of State. He says his department will raise the immigration cap again with the Home Office if needs be. "We've got it pretty much where we want it to be. But we'll keep an eye on it: if it does start pinching we'll come back to it in due course." He also dismisses the idea that there are softer, so-called "stretch" targets for bank lending in Project Merlin.
He is less reassuring on the 35 local enterprise partnerships that have taken over from the nine old Regional Development Authorities, a move that has been described by Vince Cable as being "Maoist and chaotic", and which Mr Prisk suggested last year was "in danger of failing to aid economic growth". "I can't absolutely guarantee that the timing of an individual project may not be delayed," he says.
So there we are. A business minister who is genuinely engaged in the great rebalancing project and is even willing to get his hands dirty on the shop floor. I just somehow think his next work placement ought not to be at Bombardier in Derby.
The CV: Mark Prisk
* A chartered surveyor by training, Mark Prisk arrived at Westminster in 2001, when he was elected to represent Hertford and Stortford.
* Quickly rose through the ranks, joining the Tory front bench at year later in 2002.
* By the time the Coalition came to power last year, he had served as shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury, shadow Paymaster General, held the Home Affairs whip and been the party's spokesman for Business and Enterprise.
* Lives in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, with his wife, Lesley.
* When not at BIS, he enjoys watching rugby – he supports the Saracens club – and cricket; he is also a member – and vice chairman – of the Parliament Choir.
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