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Minister for a day

This article was first published in Whitehall & Westminster World, 24 Feb 2009

Clifford Singer of the Other TaxPayers’ Alliance becomes business secretary for a day

8am: The day starts well: a breakfast meeting with social entrepreneurs at Oxfam’s headquarters in Cowley, Oxford. But as I leave the office I am confronted with an uglier side of business: agency workers gathered outside the gates of BMW’s plant across the road. They’ve been sacked with an hour’s notice and no redundancy pay. These weren’t "temps" - some of them has worked at the plant for years - but they had no contracts and few rights.

Promising to take up the issue with my cabinet colleagues, I rush for a bus. I’ve made a Livingstonesque vow to travel by public transport. Big mistake. The return ticket I’d bought earlier isn’t valid as this bus belongs to a different company - despite covering the same route. It is a reminder that financial deregulation isn’t the only failed legacy of the Thatcher years.

The driver tells me to pay up. "But I’m the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform," I reply. “I don’t carry cash.” He escorts me to the pavement.

11am: Arrive at Victoria Street - embarrassingly late. Such a messy desk! Would it have been too much to have asked my predecessor to clear it? No, not Mandelson, but Matthew Elliot, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, who also got the job for a day (Whitehall & Westminster World, 10 Feb). (Since the recession started, they’ve been letting anyone join these ministerial back-to-work schemes.) Still, I’m surprised at Matthew: he looks like such a tidy man.

12pm: "If capitalism is to be saved, don’t expect salvation to come from the capitalists," wrote the Observer’s shrewd management editor, Simon Caulkin, recently. That, at least, is the only explanation I can come up with for why I’ve been appointed business secretary for the day.

12.30pm: Lunch with business leaders. We discuss “management for the 21st century”. The dinosaurs from the Institute of Directors bristle when I complain that too many large companies are trapped in an old-fashioned command-and-control mindset, which stifles productivity. I urge them to look at ideas around self-management and co-production as developed by think-tanks including the Work Foundation and Compass. There may even, I venture, be times when corporations can learn from the public sector. Someone chokes on a bread roll.

2pm: I’m determined to leave my mark so I order some new stationery with my name on it. And I ditch that dreary BERR logo. Ed Balls is always eager to help - he won’t mind if I steal his rainbow from Children, Schools and Families.

2.15pm: Meet with ministers to discuss our new “Fair Tax, Fair Pay” campaign. Items on the agenda include a High Pay Commission to examine excessive salaries and bonuses, and a ‘living wage’ in place of the minimum wage, as promoted by the charity London Citizens and adopted by the Greater London Authority. It’s not just about equality: shifting wealth from rich to poor gives businesses a boost as a higher proportion of income is spent rather than saved.

Next we turn to non-executive directors. Two things trouble us: a recent survey showing one third of non-execs feel unable to control their chairmen and chief executives; and that non-execs got an average 6.3% pay rise last year, despite widespread profit warnings and plunging share prices. Business leaders need to learn that with rights come responsibilities.

Finally we turn to tax havens and corporate social responsibility (CSR). As John Christensen, director of the campaign group Tax Justice Network, told the Guardian recently: "Tax is where CSR begins." Too many companies boast of their ethical activities while energetically avoiding taxes. From now on, corporation tax will take centre stage in CSR reporting.

3.30pm: I can no longer ignore the pile of papers on my desk marked “Google Government”. This is the scheme instituted by my predecessor Elliot, to allow taxpayers to “go online, see how every penny of their money is spent, and decide for themselves whether they are getting value for money”. It’s a great idea but unfortunately is turning into another government IT fiasco. The corporate giants providing the technology want more time and more money, and the whole thing is bouncing between lawyers. Why do so many companies think they can invert that golden rule of good business - under-promise and over-deliver - when dealing with the public sector?

It’s not all bad news though. In my day job as director of a small graphic design agency (unlike the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Other TaxPayers’ Alliance receives no funding and has no staff), I’ve often used BERR’s own BusinessLink website. It’s useful, clearly structured and well written.

4pm: A grim-faced civil servant corners me. I’m in trouble: the stationery order I’d placed earlier was with my own company. I protest that I’d come in with the lowest tender - “even the TPA would approve of those prices” - but it falls on deaf ears. For the second time in a day, I’m shown the exit. That’s the problem with having a revolving door between business and government: everything gets corrupted.

Posted by Other TPA at 04:13pm on 24 February 2009
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