Q How is it going so far and how have you found the transition into your government role?

A In terms of philosophy, belief, mission, vision, there has been no change whatsoever because I spent six-and-a-half years at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), and then a year working as a consultant to about eight multinational businesses. This wonderful environment in which the UK is such a globally engaged country is something that I passionately believe in. It is also something in which I am intimately involved.

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When I was at the CBI, I visited 70 countries. I opened an office in Washington, DC, and in Beijing, laid the foundations for an office in Germany, and got around the UK every month or so, understanding about inward investors. So, when the prime minister asked me to do this job, the vision/mission was seamless.

One of the pleasant surprises has been UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), which is the government agency for developing trade all over the world and promoting Britain as a location for inward investment. The people are fabulous. They are not mainstream Civil Service. They are specialists in their fields. They are provided and paid for by the foreign office, or by the Department of Business and Enterprise. Their tails are up, their heads are up, and they are charging around the world doing business. I am very proud of them.

Q What are your top priorities and plans for the coming year?

A UKTI is one of the top three government trade and investment bodies in the world. I want it to be the best.

Q Which would you place as the top two?

A I think Canada and Singapore do it pretty well. President Nicolas Sarkozy is turning France on its head. When the French put their mind to things, they usually do it quite well. I want to learn from what they do. I want to learn from things that the Germans and the Spanish do. You might be better than other countries overall, but they might do one or two things better than you. I want to learn from them, and I want the UK to be the best in the world.

The UK had its best ever year on inward investment last year. We are now second in the world to the US, and we are top in Europe. So I suppose this year we will be saying we will do even better. That is a tall order but we will go for it.

If I had another objective, it would be to turn certain global issues to the UK’s advantage. If Bill Gates [founder of Microsoft Corporation] was the guy who made his name, money and position out of the digital age, the IT revolution, one day someone is going to make their money, status and name out of the technology for creating a sustainable environment, out of dealing with climate change by technological advance. I want that person to be from the UK. If that person is not from the UK, I want that person to be doing it in the UK. I want that then to be something that we can be proud of around the world.

It might be that we partner with the US on it. It might be that we partner with other EU members on it. It might mean that we take it to India and China. But we are so globally engaged, we have a role to play in what is a global, not a national, issue.

Q Are there elements of the UK tax regime that you believe are hurtful to your efforts to attract companies?

 

A One of my jobs is to be a conduit for business to government: to listen, take the messages and do something about it. When you are outside government, you tend to do that publicly. You do not get such access and therefore you use the newspapers and the media as one of your tools for getting the message across. When you are inside the government, you have one other fabulous route of access, which is privacy.

Am I taking messages back [to prime minister Gordon Brown] about the tax regime that different aspects of business tell us? Yes, you bet I am. Every day. Some of them are not about the rate. Some are about needing simplification. Some are about different tax support schemes. Research and development tax credit is a good example. Some are from businesses that say: “I have got a problem with this aspect of taxation.”

One thing I do know – and I get around the world a lot in this job – is that in the UK we will still let you keep more of your money from a business activity than in any other country in Europe, any of the major economies, and also most countries in the world. That it is an internationally competitive tax regime does not mean that you cannot find a little bit where we are not as competitive as somewhere else.

Q What are some of the other complaints or concerns that you find you have to address from companies?

A Without a doubt, the experience of Heathrow at the moment is not clever. It is no good ministers sitting in interviews saying ‘oh, it is fabulous’. Everybody knows that it is not. All you have got to do is travel through it. I am thrilled to bits that Terminal Five is coming on line next year. It is going to make such a fundamental difference. That is a good thing.

I am also thrilled that Crossrail is now happening. We have a target date, it is funded, we are on our way. That is going to make a fundamental difference, too.

I spend a lot of time on trains, so I am also pleased to see that the trains are – contrary to what people think overseas – much better than they have ever been. That is important not just because I want to get goods to market and people to work, but also because we have got to make sure that the workforce of south-east England can afford houses. Employees want a happy home life. We have to ensure that people can get around the country well and can commute well and quickly. So getting a transport infrastructure working has a knock-on effect of making people’s home lives better.

Q We have talked about some of the challenges. What do you see as the UK’s key competitive advantages?

A Global engagement: the UK has this reputation for being the most open market on earth – open to people, open for goods and services, no tariff protection, no subsidies, intensely competitive and free. In a globalised economy, that puts you on the side of the angels. There are lots of things that we do not do so well in the UK, but on this we are right at the top of the mountain; we do this better than anybody else. That is probably our most important advantage. It means that when I encounter trade ministers across the globe, if it is a developing nation, they like us because we do not stand in their way. If it is a developed nation, I can say: “Why do you not let us do this in your country when we let you do it in ours?”

Second, and this is a corollary of the first, we speak the global language. That does help us around the world.

Third, we have a flexible labour market. Most businesses will say that the labour market is over-regulated. But it is still more flexible than the regulated labour market in the US, for instance. Not in every way, but in certain ways. It is certainly more flexible than in France and Germany. We do have an amazingly flexible labour market, and we have one of the lowest rates of unemployment. That is not a coincidence. If you encourage people in a flexible labour regime, they will employ people. Then they find, surprise, surprise, that they need them.

We, probably subconsciously, reconstructed our economy more efficiently than a number of other countries. We have stopped sending workers down the pits, putting them into the fields, into shipyards and into textile mills. We have moved up the value-added, innovative chain.

CURRICULUM VITAE

 

DIGBY JONES

2007 UK Government, Minister of state for trade and investment

2000 Confederation of British Industry, Director-general

1998 KPMG, Vice-chairman, corporate finance

1995 Edge and Ellison law firm, Senior partner