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House of Commons Hansard
29 November 2016
Volume 617

  • With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement about the Government’s corporate governance Green Paper, which we are publishing today.

    Successful businesses are the backbone of our society and our economy. They are the reason why ours is the fifth largest economy in the world. They create employment opportunities, and they contribute significantly to the funding of our country’s public services. There are many reasons why Britain is a reliable place in which to do business: for instance, our legal system and framework of company law have long been admired around the world. The Government are proud of our thriving industries, and we want to build on those strengths and enhance our competitiveness even further.

    One of our biggest strengths is our record on corporate governance. It is already highly regarded around the world, especially for its combination of flexibility and high standards. Despite that record, however, our strong reputation can only be maintained if Government and business regularly review and upgrade those standards. We want to guarantee not only that Britain is an excellent place in which to do business, but that it is where business is done best.

    I am privileged, in my position as Secretary of State, to meet regularly not just those who run successful businesses, but their employees and customers. I have discussed with company heads the way in which their corporate governance is an integral part of their success. It inspires confidence among investors, loyalty among employees, and trust among customers. Ordinary working people who work hard for their living deserve to feel confident that businesses act responsibly and fairly. When an individual business or businesses lose the confidence of the public, faith in business generally diminishes, to the detriment of us all.

    There is no conflict between good corporate governance and profitability; indeed, poor corporate governance is a prelude to financial disaster. This Government are unequivocally and unashamedly pro-business, but we also hold business to a high standard. It is right to ask business to play its part in building an economy that works for everyone. Over the last few years, there have been a number of proposals, from both the Government and those representing business, to update our corporate governance framework. In some cases these have been made in response to concerns about the actions of a very small number of businesses which have undermined the reputation of British business generally, whose standards are among the highest in the world. Today, we are launching a discussion paper on how corporate governance could be reformed. I will, as is usual, be placing a copy of the Green Paper in the Libraries of the House.

    The paper considers three aspects. First, it asks for opinions on shareholder influence on executive pay. Members of the House will be aware that executive pay has grown much faster over the last two decades than pay generally and at times is not in line with corporate performance. The document seeks views on this issue, and in particular on strengthening shareholder voting rights with a view to making them binding, encouraging shareholder engagement with executive pay, and promoting greater transparency over pay.

    Secondly, the document asks whether there are measures that could increase the connection between boards of directors of companies and their employees and customers. It asks whether the establishment of advisory panels and the appointment of designated non-executive directors to take formal responsibility for articulating employee, customer and other perspectives is the right way to proceed. We are not prescribing how this should be done; it would be whatever is most appropriate for the business.

    Thirdly, our discussion paper asks for views on whether some of the features of corporate governance that have served us well in our listed companies should be extended to the largest privately held companies.

    These are issues about competitiveness, and creating the right conditions for investment, as much as they are, importantly, also about fairness. This Green Paper is designed to frame that discussion, so that we can move quickly to consider which changes are appropriate at this time. We want to hear from as many people as possible about how best we can increase confidence in big business and achieve better outcomes for our economy. This does not mean the imposition of regulation when other avenues are open. One of the strengths of our system of corporate governance has been the use of non-legislative standards adopted by business itself.

    We are determined to make Britain one of the best places in the world to work and carry out business. This review will help us achieve that aim and the views of businesses, investors, employees, consumers and others with an interest in successful business are warmly welcomed. I commend the statement to the House.

  • It is a shame that the Secretary of State did not share the statement with us in advance; presumably we are now expected to get first sight of Government policy through a long lens on Whitehall. But after weeks of press briefings, at least they have finally decided to come to this Chamber, because we have heard a lot about the Prime Minister’s policy on corporate governance, but the more they said, the less we have actually known.

    When the Prime Minister launched her leadership she said she wanted a change in the way big business is governed. She said:

    “later this year we will publish our plans to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well. Because we are the party of workers.”

    But it seems there has been a change of mind because just weeks ago we heard it was not about putting workers on boards but about finding a model that works for everyone. Perhaps it is the same model as for Brexit: to have their cake and eat it.

    When we debated in the Chamber last month the fate of Sir Philip Green I said that the most shocking thing about the whole affair is that everything he did was legal. A key question today is whether anything that has been proposed would change that: do these proposals pass the BHS test?

    Bringing private companies into the PLC rule book is a move so targeted at a particular series of events that I expect it will come to be known as the BHS law, but had the proposals outlined today by the Secretary of State been in place six months ago I am not wholly convinced we would have avoided the corporate governance scandals that have plagued the last summer. To force private companies to abide by the corporate governance code will do little unless the code is tightened. BHS may have been a private company, but Sports Direct is not, and we all know what has gone on there.

    Similarly, to strengthen the power of boards to give oversight on how companies are run or their remuneration structures will change little unless the make-up of those boards is also shaken up, yet we all know what has happened to the Government’s commitment to put a diversity of voices on boards. It is a weakness of too many discussions of corporate governance, and a weakness reflected in this Green Paper, that they are dominated by high-profile scandals.

    For too long our economy has suffered from an inherent short-termism—a short-termism that sees the long-term health of a company being sacrificed for a quick buck, and that all too often obscures the link between rewards and long-term performance. In 1970, £10 in every £100 went on dividends; now, it is between £60 and £70. It is employees and investment that have lost out from this shift. We see that in our pitiful investment and productivity rates. Britain now languishes 33rd out of the 35 OECD countries on investment rates. Seen in this light, it is no surprise that it takes British workers five days to produce what German workers produce in four—and we see this in the yawning gap between top pay and average pay: in the 10% increase in executive pay when workers are suffering 10 years of stagnant wages.

    Our damaging short-termism is also seen in corporate takeovers that occur against the public interest and the company’s interest—takeovers that have instead served as a means to asset-strip, as when Kraft took over Cadbury with hedge funds buying up 31% of the shares and selling Cadbury short.

    When the unacceptable face of capitalism surfaces, as it has in the last few months with the scandals in BHS and Sports Direct, what we are witnessing is the extreme manifestation of these broader problems, and that is what makes today so particularly disappointing. Corporate governance reform is not just about improving the image of our corporate sector or placating our innate sense of injustice at the lack of proportionality between the salaries of directors and their employees; nor is it just about fulfilling the wishes of the six out of 10 members of the public who, as TUC figures show, want to see workers on boards. These things matter, of course, but corporate governance reform is also about changing the way our companies, and therefore our economy, work.

    The recasting of how our economy works is key to Britain’s success. Without more long-termism in our corporate practices, we will not be able to address the problems—

  • Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his five minutes. I do not know whether he was then proposing to put questions, but I gently say to Members that in these matters there is a form to be followed—a procedure to be adhered to—and although I have listened to the hon. Gentleman with great care and attention, he has contributed in the manner of a debate rather than a response to a statement. Ordinarily, I would be very happy to hear his questions, but Members cannot make a long preamble and exceed their time, and then almost as an afterthought get around to some questioning. So I think we will for now have to conclude that the hon. Gentleman has concluded his contribution. But I am sure the Secretary of State will find in the commentary some implied questions, using the great intellectual dexterity for which he is renowned in all parts of the House.

  • I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, and I apologise to the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) for not getting the statement to him earlier; we started a bit sooner than we were expecting, but—

  • Order. As I have mildly castigated the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), I should say that it must be admitted that that would have been helpful.

  • You are absolutely right, Mr Speaker, and I apologise.

    I hope the hon. Gentleman will contribute to the consultation. It is clear that he shares an interest in improving the standards of corporate governance, which we have done from time to time in this country over many decades. We have a good reputation for corporate governance, and it is important to record that the rest of the world looks, and has looked, with admiration at the British economy, the rule of law and the non-legislative aspects involved. I hope he will agree that the examples of poor corporate governance he mentioned are blemishes on a very strong overall record of responsible corporate behaviour in this country. We should put on record our recognition of the importance of business and our support for the job creators, the risk takers, the innovators and the investors—the people who, through their profits, generate the taxes that sustain our public services.

    It is reasonable to have a constructive discussion on this matter through the consultation, and that is what we intend to do. The hon. Gentleman said that executive pay had been escalating. Perhaps he would like to reflect on the fact that the biggest rise in chief executive pay was actually in the period from 1998 to 2010, when the average rose from £1 million to £4.3 million a year and the ratio of chief executive pay to full-time employees’ pay rose from 47:1 to 132:1. He is a reasonable and generous man and I know that he will concede that, under the years of Conservative leadership, the average pay for chief executives has fallen from £4.3 million to £4.25 million a year and that that ratio has fallen from 132:1 to 128:1. So we are moving in the right direction and these further reforms will take us further.

    The hon. Gentleman mentioned the proposals to have workers and consumers on boards. The Prime Minister has been very clear on this, and it is testament to her leadership that she set out her intentions right at the beginning of her term of office and that we are now coming forward with these proposals. She made it clear that we would have not just consumers but employees represented on company boards, and these proposals will allow that to happen and encourage the practice to be taken up.

    The hon. Gentleman mentioned the relevance of our reforms to the more high profile sources of controversy. Of course, one option is to extend the good provisions for public companies to our very largest private companies. He will know that the Financial Reporting Council’s governance code requires extensive monitoring of risk levels for PLCs over and above the requirements placed on limited companies. He mentioned cases involving listed companies, and I hope he will agree that having a greater connection between employees and directors is a step in the right direction. Conservative Members are unashamedly and unequivocally pro-well-run business, and I hope that he shares our view. Consistent with that, it is important to work with business, employees and other groups from time to time, to look at what we can do to stay ahead of the pack. That is what this consultation does.

  • Will any of these proposals result in a diminution of the pile of cash on which corporate Britain is sitting, and of the practice of companies buying up their own shares?

  • We are encouraging a greater role for shareholders in driving behaviour in the boardroom, because this is a matter of concern. It is connected to the point that—to be fair to him—the hon. Member for Norwich South made about long-termism. We want to see a more patient form of capital sustaining businesses that have the capacity to grow, and I hope that this will come out as part of the consultation.

  • May I start by giving a cautious welcome to the Secretary of State’s announcement? It represents some progress, but there are aspects missing and more clarity is required in some areas. There is general consensus that the pay gap between executives and employees is too large, and we firmly believe that addressing that by properly valuing and investing in employees is a key part of addressing the productivity problem. Companies need to be transparent about pay. If their pay for executives is justifiable, they must justify it to their staff and to their shareholders. In particular, the move to give shareholders greater control and a binding vote on executives’ pay is welcome. Indeed, it is incredible that such a situation does not already exist. What is the timescale for the entire process, and when will the changes be implemented?

    More needs to be done about boardroom diversity. I was given very short notice of the statement, and it remains unclear what is to be done about diversity in the boardroom. Will the Secretary of State expand on that aspect of the proposals? I think we would all like to see boardrooms reflecting society more completely. That would be good for business and it would send a clear message to everyone across the country that business is a place for them.

    Let me turn finally to the question of workers on boards. In the Prime Minister’s party conference speech, she said:

    “Too often the people who are supposed to hold big business accountable are drawn from the same, narrow social and professional circles as the executive team.”

    From my reading of the proposals and from what the Secretary of State has said, it appears that that will remain the case, but with one person from those same narrow social and professional circles designated to speak to the employees or consumers. That does not go far enough; it is a missed opportunity. When the Prime Minister said, “We are the party of workers”, was that post-truth or was it never true at all?

  • I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Gentleman started his remarks, at least. He struck the right tone in welcoming the proposals as a sensible way to proceed, as I believe all business organisations, consumer groups and others have done. I hope that he will contribute to the consultation. He made a point about the value of transparency, and that is very much what we are proposing. We do not want to specify the appropriate pay for a chief executive—I do not think he does either—but it is right that companies should justify their decisions to shareholders and to employees. They should make their case for the level of pay and the package that they are choosing to offer.

    The hon. Gentleman asked about the timing of the consultation. It will close in three months’ time, in February, and we will respond as soon as possible after that, depending on the number of responses. He also asked about diversity on boards and remuneration committees, and he will see that both questions are addressed in the Green Paper. It is important that remuneration committees are advised by and have a greater connection with the workforce, and that they should be less insular in their approach. There has been some criticism that the overlap of remuneration committees in public companies has excluded outside voices. The consultation refers to particular reviews of gender and ethnic diversity on boards, and it is important that we continue to make progress in that regard. We have further to go. Finally, the Prime Minister was very clear that we should have consumers and workers represented on company boards and that is what the proposals will do. This is a big advance and it has been warmly welcomed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support it too, when he makes his response to the consultation.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. I would like to accommodate the substantial interest in the statement, but if I am to do so, given that there are two notable pieces of business to follow, pithiness will be required from those on the Back and Front Benches alike. That pithiness is first to be exemplified by Mr Michael Gove.

  • I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement today. We all know that the dynamic growth on which our future depends will be secured only if there is public support for the free market system that generates such growth. To that end, what more can he say about ensuring that we have working-class representatives at the heart of decision making in our great companies, and about effective curbs on executive pay when pay follows failure?

  • As ever, my right hon. Friend makes his points powerfully. It is important that all the talents are represented in our boardrooms, for that is how we will achieve corporate and industrial success in this country. It forms part of the case we make in the Green Paper. Pay is appropriate when it is to attract the best talent and to reward success, but what is not in the interests of the company or confidence in industry is when pay does not reflect performance.

  • The pay of top executives, bosses in particular, has been scandalous, and some of these people are not keen to pay their taxes and use tax havens. The most effective way for working people to defend themselves in their place of work is to belong to a trade union and for that union to be recognised. Time and again, when the worst exploitation is exposed the cause is often a lack of trade union representation.

  • I hope that the hon. Gentleman will congratulate the Government on their reforms over the past five years that have increased the scrutiny and moderation of executive pay. I hope that the trade unions will contribute to the consultation. I met Frances O’Grady last week, and trade unions have an important role to play in our economy.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • I observe in passing that there is an undiluted sea of men seeking to catch the eye of the Chair. If a female Member were to stand, she would be called, but at the moment she is not, so she will not.

  • If that was a serious bid, I call Victoria Atkins.

  • Hon. Members

    Hear, hear!

  • I welcome this statement. Will my right hon. Friend assist the House by saying how the plans tie in with the need to ensure that business owners comply with not only the letter of the law, but the spirit? I am thinking in particular of the Companies Act 2006 and corporate governance failures that have led to prosecutions—something that may be relevant when the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) talks about BHS.

  • She is not a barrister for nothing.

  • My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There are two complementary elements of corporate governance. One is the law and statutory requirements—it is important that they are enforced with vigour—but it is also true that the culture and practices of companies should reflect the high standards that we enjoy in this country and that contribute to business’s high reputation. I hope that we can further increase that through the measures that we are proposing.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and we welcome many of its suggestions. Does he accept that fairness in salaries must also sit alongside fairness in opportunity? Would he therefore consider going further and requiring companies to report on the training and opportunities available to employees for career progression? Would he also accept that alongside the bad practice, on which we must clamp down, there is much good practice in governance to learn from? I commend to the Secretary of State the innovative forms of employee participation in so many small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly in new start-up companies and particularly, of course, in Cumbria.

  • The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Outside of family and education, work offers some of the principal opportunities for progress and making use of people’s talents. The best businesses recognise that spotting and promoting talent is a sure way to corporate success. That is not part of the consultation, but he makes a reasonable point and will have the opportunity to respond to the section that asks whether other areas should be considered.

  • I welcome today’s statement. At a time of uncertainty, it is vital that we have greater confidence not only in free enterprise as a principle, but in the listed businesses and privately held companies that operate in our free market. What support has my right hon. Friend received from the business community in favour of the Green Paper, in particular the concept of greater shareholder scrutiny of a company’s activities?

  • Business wants to enhance its reputation and it is much in its interest collectively to do so. This morning, the Institute of Directors, the CBI and the Investment Association, which represents those who invest the funds that the pension funds of ordinary working people put into British business, all welcomed not only the content, but the approach that is being taken. I am pleased and grateful for that support.

  • Last week, the Chancellor adopted Labour policy on fiscal investment to stimulate the economy. This week, the Secretary of State is adopting Labour policy on worker representation on boards—[Interruption.]

  • No, you’re coming over here I’m afraid.

    We need consistency from the Government. I have been advocating for years that football supporters should be represented on the boards of professional football clubs, but the Government have consistently said that that is not appropriate, so what has changed the Secretary of State’s mind?

  • There are two Labour Back Benchers here. If one compares that with the number of my hon. Friends who are in the Chamber, there is scant evidence of Labour’s enthusiasm for these reforms. The hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) tried to imply that Labour is the party of working people, but the difference in interest in this statement between the parties shows the opposite. I hope that the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) welcomes the measures that the Prime Minister and I are proposing to give not only employees, but customers a voice in the boardroom. The hon. Gentleman is a big football fan and a fan of greater involvement of enthusiasts in football, and I hope that he will contribute positively to the consultation and back our proposals.

  • Good pay structures encourage wealth creation, but the financial crisis showed that poorly constructed remuneration schemes contribute to catastrophic failures in corporate governance. In response, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards recommended, among other things, longer deferral for bonuses and clawback for serious misconduct in some cases. Has the Minister examined whether those recommendations have any relevance to his Green Paper and whether they may, with particular regard to large firms, have a bearing on ways to militate against serious harm to customers, employees and the wider public?

  • My right hon. Friend is right that good corporate governance can stop corporate failure and the effects of contamination that his commission was set up to investigate. The commission made some valuable recommendations, many of which have been enacted. When he comes to look at the Green Paper, he will see further proposals for how incentive schemes for executives can be better aligned with the long-term interests of the company and made more transparent.

  • The statement represents a welcome step forward, but if the UK Government are serious about tackling income inequality in companies, they should go a step further and introduce fair pay structures whereby the remuneration of those at the top and bottom are linked. That would be a way of ensuring that the economy works for all.

  • I do not agree with that approach. It is right to have transparency and right that companies engage with their employees and make the case both to shareholders and to the workforce for the choices that they make. However, given our diverse range of companies and industries, it would be a mistake that would be bound to hamper their success if we, in the Government or in this House, were to specify precisely what people should be paid.

  • The second question that the welcome document asks relates to improving links between workers and boards. One possible route would be to encourage more employee share ownership. The evidence shows that that encourages productivity and, at a time of pension and housing crises, it would give people a stake in the future and a saving. Above all, it would make them feel that they are part of the business for which they are working.

  • I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The times when we had very high levels of shareholder participation were ones when there was an enhanced understanding of the importance and role of business. I will take his recommendation seriously and take it forward.

  • I urge the Minister to consider that corporate governance leans too much in support of shareholders and dividend, and the protection thereof. The focus of any good corporate governance initiative should be: supporting workers’ rights; driving towards a fairer pay distribution, an issue much covered by colleagues here, and away from inflated corporate management remuneration; and the reinvesting of any funding in research and development, and good protective governance for employees and management, as well as job creation and job security.

  • When the hon. Gentleman reads the Green Paper, I think he will welcome our proposals, which address some of the points he is making to ensure that the pay of the top management is aligned with the long-term success of the company, and to require a greater connection between the workforce and the management, as well as customers and other groups. That is a step in the right direction and, as my colleagues have pointed out, business has warmly welcomed it. This is a timely and useful upgrade in the standard of corporate governance in this country.

  • Untrammelled corporate greed is no more one of our party’s values than untrammelled trade union power is, so this is an authentically Conservative statement, which I welcome. May I press my right hon. Friend specifically on how he will ensure adequate scrutiny of institutional investors who are discharging their role in respect of corporate governance?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right; Conservative Members believe in competition and that it provides the best possible environment which has benefits to consumers, employees and taxpayers. That is very much our watchword. The Green Paper contains proposals on how we can encourage institutional investors, who, as I said, invest the money from pension funds to which many people in this country contribute, to be more active in exercising their stewardship of the companies in which they invest.

  • The Secretary of State is right to point out that British corporate governance is already admired around the world, but will he be looking in this consultation at best practice from around the world, particularly in those countries where women have better representation on boards?

  • I will indeed. It is important that we maintain and extend our reputation for being the place in the world where business is done best. We have been able to make that proud boast over the years. The representation of women on boards is of great importance, and we are looking at how we can best encourage companies to move in that direction.

  • I welcome this report on corporate governance, but is not one way of improving corporate governance on boards to encourage more women to get on to those boards?

  • Yes, it is, and I hope my hon. Friend will welcome the proposals we are making.

  • The Minister must give credit to some of the Opposition parties today, as one eighth of the Liberal Democrats are here, one third of Plaid Cymru are here and one 50th of the Scottish National party are seeking to take part, so people are taking this seriously. Does he agree that the whole House should be available to take part, and it is unfortunate that now only one Labour parliamentarian who took part in this statement is in the Chamber?

  • I share my hon. Friend’s surprise and dismay that there is so little interest in the Labour party in extending the rights for working people to have a say in the way companies are run. My disappointment with the Opposition is only matched by my pleasure at seeing so many of my Conservative colleagues, including my hon. Friend.

  • Alongside other hon. Members, I investigated BHS, a company where corporate governance went seriously awry, so I warmly welcome the extension of stronger corporate governance to large private companies. However, I also hope that as part of the consultation there will be no risk of any ambivalence on or questioning as to what private company directors are expected to do in those roles and where their obligations lie. There are a range of stakeholders to whom they owe those obligations.

  • There are indeed, and the range of stakeholders has long been recognised in company law, as my hon. Friend knows. The question is: in a world in which there are now more very large privately held businesses that do not have a full stock market listing than was the case in the past, is this the appropriate time to extend this measure to those businesses?

  • Will the Secretary of State join me in acknowledging the good point made by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) about trade unions? A decade ago, as a union representative, I led industrial action against our then fat cat boss, who was making poor business decisions, cutting jobs and having a pay freeze while still getting his multimillion-pound bonuses. Of course I am now a Conservative MP, and he is now a Labour peer.

  • That is a useful parable, which just goes to illustrate further the point I was making about the commitment we have on the Conservative side of the House. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is also a veteran of industrial action, showing that my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) is not alone in this shared history.

  • The self-serving practices of many executives have done much to undermine popular capitalism in this country, but does my right hon. Friend agree that although it is important to review company law in this fashion, that is no substitute for basic morality, which has been sadly lacking in many recent cases?

  • My hon. Friend is right in what he says, and I think Conservative Members would not regard legislation as being the way to cure all ills. I would take issue with him to this extent only: in general, the standards of both governance and behaviour are very high in this country, and most employees have good jobs in successful businesses. We should be proud of the standards that we have, while taking action against those who depart from them.

  • Does the Secretary of State agree that giving shareholders more power has a good chance of curbing corporate excess, including excessive pay, and that in Sweden the use of a shareholder committee to control both the appointment and removal of directors, and to approve executive pay, has had extremely positive effects in both those areas?

  • I am delighted to see my hon. Friend in this place. When he reads the Green Paper, he will see that the proposal he made in a very well-written paper for a think tank to suggest a shareholder committee in this way is one option we are consulting on. I congratulate him on his influence on this debate and look forward to the responses to it.

  • Family-run businesses, and small and medium-sized enterprises, are well-known for their good governance and values, so will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging more of them to come forward in the review and the consultation so that we can get the complete picture of corporate opinion?

  • I will indeed. I would like to thank the Federation of Small Businesses, which has helped contribute to the shaping of these proposals, through some work it has been doing on corporate governance. Small businesses are very important. Small Business Saturday is coming up, and I think Members on both sides of the House will be paying tribute to and celebrating the vital contribution that small businesses make to this country.

  • People in Kettering will be pleased that after years of Labour excess the gap between the highest-paid executive and the lowest-paid employee is narrowing under Conservative leadership. May I suggest to the Secretary of State that he go further, because a big problem is taxpayer subsidy for low-paid employees who are working in companies that make big profits and have big executive pay? May I suggest the use of a ratio: the profit after tax, before dividends, per employee, to the proportion of the workforce on working-age benefits? That would wheedle out the fat cats who are exploiting employees.

  • I will look at my hon. Friend’s proposal carefully. It is in all of our interests, including those of our constituents, that people should be able to have jobs in which what they contribute and what they produce is of sufficiently high value that they are able to have a prosperous future. Part of our reforms, which have come through the industrial strategy and what the Chancellor said in his statement last week, were to raise the earning potential of people right across the country.

  • We all know that small and medium-sized enterprises are, in essence, the backbone of British employability and our corporate world. In welcoming the Green Paper, may I invite my right hon. Friend to confirm this afternoon that, throughout the whole of this process, he and his ministerial team will ensure that we do not add to any burdens of either reporting or officialdom for those vital SMEs?

  • I can confirm that. We had it in mind that small businesses will be the beneficiary of these reforms, because, as suppliers to big companies, they are a group whose important voice should be reflected. That point was made in our conversations with small business organisations, which is why small suppliers are specifically referenced in the proposals on which we are consulting.

  • A common theme at British Home Stores and Sports Direct was that someone who was directly or indirectly a dominant shareholder also acted as chief executive officer. In the corporate world, Mike Ashley and Philip Green are outliers-become-outcasts, but the risk remains in those situations. Will my right hon. Friend, in his review, pay careful attention to that combination of dominant shareholding and chief executive powers?

  • I will indeed. The Green Paper considers matters such as that. The responsibility that companies have through the privilege of limited liability status extends to employees, customers, pensioners and others, and that is part of the understanding under which good businesses operate to ensure that they are good for all of those groups.

  • Wider community engagement is often very important in relation to these matters. Does the Secretary of State agree that one contribution that businesses can make is to try to help provide more role models for our young people, as, obviously, we want to see them go into business in greater numbers?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One reason why Government Members are unambiguously pro-business is that the opportunities that that gives to people not only to earn a good living so that they can support themselves, but to achieve their potential and go on to make full use of their talents is an incredibly inspiring way in which people can blossom. That is why we want to see flourishing businesses in this country.

  • The Secretary of State has already referred to the important role of small businesses in which the relationship between owners and their employees is very different from that in larger organisations. Will he say a little more about the level at which the proposals he has announced today will be introduced?

  • In the consultation, we asked what the cut-off should be. Clearly, there is no intention to capture small businesses in the disclosure requirements that are more appropriate to large businesses. That is something that we will consider as part of the consultation, and I hope that my hon. Friend will contribute to it.

  • May I first declare my interest as a non-executive chair of a listed public company before I offer warm support for these proposals? I also echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) that employee share ownership schemes have had a transformative effect both in our workplace and on our business success. I ask the Secretary of State to look even closer at those schemes, with the aim of making them easier for businesses to implement.

  • I will indeed. I am delighted that we have had two suggestions from my hon. Friends for this route. I will take them up, and take them seriously. Hopefully, I will be able to make further statements to the House in the future.

    Bill Presented

    Access to Radiotherapy Bill

    Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

    Tim Farron presented a Bill to make provision to improve access to radiotherapy treatment in England; to define access in terms of the time that patients are required to travel to places providing treatment; to specify 45 minutes as the maximum time patients are to travel; and for connected purposes.

    Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 102).