Business lobby groups on Friday criticised a keynote speech by chancellor Jeremy Hunt about the government’s plan to boost economic growth, complaining it offered no new policies.
Hunt used the speech to highlight the government’s “plan for growth”, and its focus on the “four Es” of enterprise, education, employment and everywhere — a reference to reducing regional inequalities.
He also signalled that the Budget on March 15 would not contain big tax cuts, despite calls from some Conservative MPs, because of the need to focus on curbing high inflation.
The chancellor meanwhile said he was keen for more workers to return to the office following the Covid pandemic, when most operated from home.
There were times when working from home could increase productivity, Hunt told the Telegraph’s politics podcast, Chopper’s Politics. “But do I think it’s a good thing for everyone? No I don’t . . . Do you get the creativity, the buzz, the teamwork, the personal growth that you’d get if you were in an office? . . . You don’t.”
He said he did not know if new rules were needed, but added he would like to encourage people to come to the office.
Tony Danker, CBI director-general, told the BBC most bosses “secretly” wanted all their employees back in the office.
With the UK braced for recession, Hunt acknowledged in his speech that the country had major weaknesses including poor productivity, a skills gap and low business investment.
But he said talk of “declinism about Britain is just wrong”, adding the UK had big opportunities to use regulatory freedoms stemming from Brexit to boost sectors including technology, life sciences, clean energy, creative industries and advanced manufacturing.
Speaking to executives from companies including Meta, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Google, Hunt said: “I want to ask you to help turn the UK into the world’s next Silicon Valley.”
He went on to say the government recognised the need for lower taxes in the medium to long term.
He also indicated he was focused on solutions to UK labour shortages, saying he wanted people who retired early during the Covid pandemic to return to work. “Britain needs you,” he said.
But Kitty Ussher, chief economist at the Institute of Directors, complained Hunt did not have any new policies to announce, saying the speech was “E for empty”.
She said there was a “gap in the chancellor’s rhetoric”, adding: “While of course we should seek to ensure that firms operating at the frontier of new technology can come to Britain and thrive, our future growth path also depends on the many millions of individual decisions taken by leaders of smaller businesses across all sectors.”
Shevaun Haviland, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said that beyond some existing pledges — including using reform of EU-era insurance regulations known as Solvency II to unlock infrastructure investment — “there was very little meat” in Hunt’s speech.
Stephen Phipson, chief executive of Make UK, which represents manufacturers, said there were some “hugely damaging big-picture issues caused by the absence of an industrial strategy, which are impacting on some of our strategic sectors”.
Craig Beaumont, chief of external affairs at the Federation of Small Business, suggested the test for Hunt would be whether the ideas in his speech turned into policies in the March Budget, “when we hope he follows today’s bark with a bite”.
Danker said Hunt had rightly “shifted gear to renew his focus on growth”. “And we hope the Budget in less than two months will show strong actions to move us forward,” added Danker.
After the speech, Hunt met with a group of tech founders and investors to talk about ways to boost innovation in the UK.
Romi Savova, chief executive of PensionBee, a financial tech group, said that while “fintech was acknowledged as a top priority, actions speak louder than words”.
“We have yet to see concrete next steps on the UK’s data protection approach, open banking is falling behind on an international scale and the lack of a pension switch guarantee continues to keep the pensions sector in the dark ages,” she added.
Tim Pitt, partner at Flint Global and a former adviser to Philip Hammond as chancellor, said Hunt’s speech was a “refreshing balance of realism and optimism”, “identifying areas [of] policy [that] can make a difference”.