Living standards was the theme of a lively Great Business Debate session at CBI Annual Conference 2014, with panellists discussing a range of issues from business engagement with schools, to how companies can better support their employees, and the affordability of the living wage.
‘I hope I won’t confirm your prejudices about the clergy,’ began Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York as he kicked off the session, ‘that we’re invisible on six days and on the seventh are incomprehensible’. The message of Dr Sentamu’s opening address was clear, that disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in Britain is growing and those businesses able to pay the living wage should do so.
Chairing the session was Katja Hall, CBI deputy director-general, who set the scene for the Archbishop’s speech and the ensuing panel discussion. Arguing that only a thriving private sector can lead to higher living standards she set out three challenges for the UK – skills, progression and inclusion – which are detailed in a new CBI report published today, A better off Britain, along with policy solutions from business.
Drawing on his experience as head of the Living Wage Commission Dr Sentamu said that he met people who couldn’t make ends meet and that work must pay, but not ‘poverty wages’, because ‘when inequality grows we are all diminished.’ The Commission, he said, recognised that not all could pay the wage so compulsion wasn’t appropriate but that businesses which can afford it should ‘get on with it’.
Panellists picked up on the topic of the living wage when the discussion got going, with each business leader sharing their individual business experience. Andy Wood, Chief Executive of Adnams plc, talked about bringing the company’s values to life in their plan for how they could pay a higher wage rate. Chief Executive of Mitie, Ruby McGregor-Smith argued that first and foremost the most important thing a business can do is to provide people with jobs. She shared her company’s experience of being a government supplier and explained that for her business – and many others – paying the living wage is a challenge.
Asked whether business cares about social mobility, the panel emphasised the importance of engaging with the education system. Damon Buffini, Founding Partner, Permira and Chairman of the Social Business Trust, said social mobility was ‘absolutely’ a business issue and that any action had to start with businesses getting into the classroom.
Picking up on this theme Ruby McGregor-Smith talked about how Mitie encourages their employees to inspire the next generation and tell school kids, ‘you are actually capable of doing great things.’
Andy Wood agreed, saying that only ‘business has a set of skills that can help in this area’ before describing Adnams’ engagement with a school in a deprived area of East Anglia, and the journey that one of their cleaners, Karen Hester, has taken from joining the company twenty years ago to the boardroom.
Drawing the discussion to a close, Katja Hall urged the audience of business leaders that as ‘gatekeepers of opportunity’ they must ‘now go out and do your bit to raise living standards in the UK.’