26 July 2011

"Growth Through Innovation" - Digby Jones at PERA

Although Gordon Brown's trade minister, Baron Jones of Birmingham, was top of the bill at PERA's "Growth through Innovation" conference yesterday, the real star for me was PERA itself.

PERA's head office is in the ancient Leicestershire market town of Melton Mowbray. And what comes to mind when the words Melton and Mowbray are pronounced. Why pork pies and Stilton cheese of course. I had planned to arrive at Melton Mowbray half an hour earlier to visit one of the retail outlets of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association but I missed my exit while overtaking a stream of ponderous Eastern European lorries with the result that I arrived at the registration desk with just 20 minutes to spare. I asked a member of PERA's staff where one could buy a pork pie and portion of Stilton after the talk was due to end. She had a word with someone in the PERA staff canteen who offered me a massive pie and an enormous chunk of cheese for £6.80. Now how about that for customer service!

But fine dining is not all that PERA do. Before introducing the guest speaker, Dr. Mark Wareing, commercial director of PERA who chaired the meeting, told us that PERA had been founded immediately after the Second World War, that it does a wide range of consultancy work, that it employs 280 scientists and engineers, that it has connections with some of the biggest names in British industry, that it was the first business to comply with the new British standard in collaborative working, that it never seeks to retain intellectual property to the intellectual assets that it creates for its customers and that it has considerable experience in writing proposals for grant funding and accessing investment.

Among the people it helps are private inventors and one of them, a Mr. Alfred Hamer of Lincoln, sat next to me in the conference. He told me that he had obtained considerable assistance from PERA. Mr. Hamer has great concerns about enforcing intellectual property rights which he expressed in a question to Lord Digby Jones which, with his permission, I shall discuss at length in a future post.

Anyway, as I have mentioned, the top of the bill was Lord Digby Jones and here are my recollections of what he said. After expressing contentment at finding himself in the East Midlands and reeling off a list of the directorships of public companies and other posts of responsibility that he held in the region he made clear that he was not wedded to any political party. He referred to one well known politician as a "furry little creature elected on the block vote of the RSPCA" - which raised a few guffaws - and to another as having just finished his gap year - coming as it did an hour after the Chancellor had described the growth (or rather flat lining) figures as "good news" that reference raised a nervous titter from the audience. He told us how he had been offered a job in Gordon Brown's government and that he had accepted the offer for the good of business and the good of the country. He did so on two conditions. The first was that he would never have to join the Labour Party - though he accepted the Labour whip in the Lords - and the second was that he would be able to resign his office within 18 months. It was imperative in his view for government to work with the grain of business and not against it.

The main message that he had for us was that the 21st century was Asia's century in the sense that the 19th century had been ours and the 20th century the USA's. No doubt dreaming with BRICs he included Brazil in Asia. Demonstrating his mastery of the one-liner, he declaimed:. "You know they have just discovered Saudi Arabia off Rio" referring of course to the Tupu oil discovery.

Returning to China Digby Jones spoke of the tacit agreement between the Chinese government and its populace whereby the people would make no trouble provided the government improved steadily their standard of living. That deal was fuelling the rapid growth of China's economy. Such growth was a threat but also an opportunity for British industry but to resist that threat and take advantage of that opportunity we had to invest much more in R & D and even more in education. He excoriated the illiteracy and innumeracy statistics of our school leavers. Folk in Asia like a taxi driver from Chennai whom he met in the Gulf and the Chinese peasant. Unless we innovate, invest in R & D and proper training they would get it.

For all of this to happen, the mood music in the UK had to change. Folk who had acquired their wealth through business were objects of envy whereas those who had acquired it by pure chance such as a lottery win were feted. That attitude was wrong.

In the Q & A that followed Mr. Hamer complained about the difficulty of enforcing IP rights. His Lordship agreed that it was a problem. Being first in the market was the solution he proposed. Someone else asked about the prospect of default in Washington. "Too awful to contemplate" was Lord Digby Jones's reaaction, "but it shouldn't happen because the politicians are very close to a deal.

After I chatted with Mr Hamer and another inventor over a cup of tea Brian Binley MP rose to speak. Unlike most of his fellows on the green benches Binley had had a life in business before politics though it meant that at age 63 he was one of the House's oldest entrants. He made a number of interesting points:
(1) civil servants are good at getting facts and figures but not so good at management;
(2) we gold plate EU regulations when we implement them into our law;
(3) legislation should have sunset clauses and there should be impact assessments on the effect of new legislation on small business;
(4) SME should be exempted from some legislation such as maternity and paternity rights;
(5) banks should be made to play fair with SME; and
(6) practical skills should carry the same prestige as degrees.

Most interesting of all in view of the growth figures that morning was his call to stimulate demand. That could only come with a recovery in the property market he said. He called for the return of MIRAS at least for first time buyers to stimulate the housing market.

In Q & A I suggested that closing down the RDAs and local Business Links without putting anything in their place had turned out badly. He had several answers to that one of the most startling of which was that the local enterprise partnerships had access to funding. He later modified his answer by saying that RDAs had been a good thing in the North but perhaps less successful south of the Wash and that Business Link had been good for engineering.

The discussion lasted until 18:00 after which I trundled off up to Sheffield for a conference with a client on the way home. Though I didn't agree with everything that Digby Jones and Binley had to say it was a good day out for which PERA are to be congratulated.

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