Civil Service Live: Sir Alan Sugar

I’m liveblogging from the Alan Sugar session. Doors have been opened and the masses are piling in.

Alan Sugar at #cslive09

14:46 Getting started 5 mins late as the doors opened late.

14:50 Alan Sugar being introduced.  Purpose of today being stated: why small businesses are important to economy, society and to civil servants.  We are not here to ask Sir Alan about The Apprentice. [titters] We will finish promptly at 3:45pm

14:51 There are 4.5million businesses of which 99.9% are defined as SMEs.  These businesses employ more than half of the people employed in private sector.  the sort of thing govts can do well is to produce systems and frameworks for regulation and to ensure that businesses perform better and are compliant.  The other thing govts can do is fund enterprising culture.  Sir Alan joining as an advisor to govt is part of that mission.  Bob Jones introduced to describe Business link

14:52 Jones says great that Business Link packs a house.  [laughter] Good to be sharing a stage with Sugar because he generates interest among young people in enterprise.  Jones’ Kent-based service is to assist individuals in placement and workng in SMEs.  As a kid Jones’ father worked a corner shop.  Jones says businesslink website is profoundly useful service.  Offline workshops for entrepreneurs and assistance programmes for initiating growth is his business.

14:56 Sugar says that he visited businesslink last week and found it quite impressive but wants to reserve his judgement until he sees the rest of the enterprises.  He agrees the website is informative, but probably complex.  he’s going to have a better look at it later.

15:00 Sugar is asked about his new role in govt.  He responds that his task is to review what the government is doing for SMEs and to develop a new strategy.  Sugar says it’s very easy to blame the banks for the current problems in SMEs.  However there is evidence of increased investment in small businesses.

[JJ's note: so far Sugar has been responding much like a civil servant.  He hasn't expressed much of an opinion about anything.]

15:04 Sugar is asked about how you support entrepreneurship.  Sugar responds that you can’t go to Boots and buy entrepreneurship tablets.  He says it’s born into you. You should not call yourself an entrepreneur; this is something that others observe.  However there is a need to inspire young people in enterprise work.  Sugar goes on to promote the next series of the Apprentice for young people.

15:07 Sugar says not everyone is going to be a Branson or even an Alan Sugar.  We need more of the small business leaders out there.

15:08 Moderator returns to the topic: how can policy learn from small business?

15:09 Sugar says you have to think small. He started his business on his own.

[JJ's note: Yes. And?]

15:10 Sugar says regulation is just another hurdle to overcome.  It’s not something you should use to moan about productivity. He goes on to tell a story about his production line and the various paperwork and customer demands for standards.  He says if you want to stay in business you need to be compliant.  It is a pain in the arse but not for small business people to argue about.  The customer will have to pay the price but it’s not in anyone’s interest not to be compliant.

15:13 Services like businesslink might be able to provide the information you need to be compliant, but at the moment the information is tough to understand and access.

[JJ's notes: Probably need to address the interface then.]

Question time: taking 3 questions at a time.

[JJ's notes: YUK! I hate this. So disrespectful to people asking question.]

Sugar responds to question about tendering for govt.  He says it’s tough but it’s good because it’s fair.  he adds, however, that once you get qualified to be a supplier it pretty much is a cash cow for life! [laughter] Trouble is that as a small business, you need more assistance to develop an application for tender.  It’s boring and it needs patience and support.  Product needs to be good, as does delivery and service.  Jones says the 2012 process has opened up to the south of England predominantly the opportunity to be a new supplier/provider.

Sugar says huge advantage for small business to take on apprenticeships.  There are something like 189 apprenticeship schemes.  It’s not cheap labour but it is a chance to grow and nurture a loyal staff.  Two types of person – drivers/innovators and workers within an organisation.  Apprenticeships tend to support workers.  They may not facilitate innovators.

At this stage some civil servant rabbits on for some time about tax collection and there not being sufficient employees to collect tax in the area.  She never gets to here point and exemplifies everything the media and private sector hate about the civil service.

Question from the floor about discrimination against small business for supplier contracts. Sugar responds saying that for complex delivery systems it can be too hard for govt to rely on small business where there is risk involved.  Easier to sue bigger businesses.  But for goods that don’t change – stationery and the like – no reason why small business can’t be suppliers.

Question from the floor about posibility of too much regulation for small business sector.

Questions from the floor about how we can be sure that the support given matches their needs. Sugar says Jones should respond because it’s about the people providing the support.  Jones says you have to have empathy.  Need to mould businesslink support agents to the needs of the business. Sugar agrees.  He feels the people he met at businesslink community were sufficiently experienced to advise effectively.

Question from Ministry of Defence.  Always been difficult for small business to access MOD.  What can businesslink do for MOD? Jones says businesslink can support because there are shedloads of small businesses who are already providing through the supply chain.  So businesslink could directly link small business in innovation to MOD.

Question from floor on lessons from South East Asia. Sugar says if Britain had the work ethic of SE Asia in Britain, then we wouldn’t be in the position we are in now.  Sugar saw Taiwan move from a dictatorship to a robust manufacturing economy over 30 yeasr – and saw Britain failed over that time.  Taiwan now rules the world in technical production.  All major brands use their products.  They never turn away an order.  They regard orders as challenge.  Everything – every part of the supply chain and every resource for goods – is produced locally.  Sugar says that Britain has an intellectual property advantage but now has lost its manufacturing base because it didn’t own the supply chain.

Question from floor on NHS.  Great work done inside of NHS but we give it away or order it in from elsewhere. Lots of innovation going on in process but never kept.  Sugar says you can’t patent a process.

Question from floor about job centres and posting of jobs tripled over last few months.  Need a link with businesslink so that jobs can businesses can be established.  Sugar asks whether there are people who are prepared to accept lower than their normal salary level.  Jobsite guy says there are a lot of people who are prepared to be lenient.  Particularly in industries where reskilling is necessary, this practice is acceptable, even in executive roles.

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