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'It's for each other country to decide how much it wants Britain to be a member'


John Cridland, CBI helped Northern Ireland in its bid to slash its corporation tax

John Cridland, CBI helped Northern Ireland in its bid to slash its corporation tax

John Cridland, CBI helped Northern Ireland in its bid to slash its corporation tax

John Cridland has an intensity and focus that is somewhat infectious. He has an animated delivery and when engaged one-on-one, gives you a look as if to say, 'how could you have any other point of view but mine'.

It's a personality trait well suited to the man tasked with overseeing the UK's biggest business organisation. As head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Mr Cridland must walk the often difficult path of representing the disparate views of the CBI's 190,000 private sector members, and driving the agenda of the CBI at the highest levels of government.

Mr Cridland took over the job in 2010, at the height of the crisis. Five years later, and his members are, for the most part, in much better shape.

The UK economy has been recovering strongly. In January, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde handed British Prime Minister David Cameron a pre-election gift when she said the British economy was "exactly the kind of result" she wanted to see.

Britain's economic performance, she said, was providing "eloquent and convincing" leadership for the rest of the European Union.

But the recovery isn't a sure thing, and there remains plenty of reasons to be fearful about the global economy

In the UK, there's a self-imposed threat that is already sparking investor jitters - the general election in May, and, depending on its outcome, a possible referendum that could see Britain withdraw from the EU.

David Cameron, should British voters allow him to remain in Number 10, is hoping that the leadership applauded by Ms Lagarde will be enough to secure vital reforms from the powers that be in Europe.

Mr Cridland doesn't think "the world would end", however, if the British public decided they could no longer handle taking orders from Brussels.

But he isn't convinced that will happen. With the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) siphoning off Conservative voters and some of its politicians, Mr Cameron's party has been hardening its stance on Europe and tacking to the right to try to shore up support. It has promised an in-out referendum on the EU for 2017 unless Brussels gives Britain a "meaty" reform deal.

Mr Cridland thinks it's in Europe's interest to keep Britain in the Union. "We want to see areas of more Europe, some areas of less Europe and some areas of different Europe," he tells the Irish Independent.

More Europe in terms of the digital single market and enhanced trade links; less Europe in terms of rules and regulation.

"Entrepreneurs in Britain are sick and fed up of technical regulation. It gets far too much into detail," he says. "They want Europe to concentrate on the big ticket issues. And I think the area that plays badly in the British psyche is what I call regulation of lifestyle."

One area he pinpoints as a bug bearer is the European Working Time Directive, which, among other things, requires that EU countries guarantee a maximum 48-hour week. Britons who want to work more than 48 hours can choose to opt out.

Mr Cridland thinks Brussels has no place regulating working hours. "If the Irish parliament wants to regulate working hours, or the British parliament, that's their business. Why do we need a European solution? Why is that a European matter? Trade clearly is. Digital single market clearly is. Working hours? Can't see it. It's a local matter. So more Europe where it works, less Europe where it hinders," he says.

Where Britain's call for reform may fall down is in its push for changes to the principle of freedom of movement. Mr Cridland, however, doesn't share that call.

"There may be issues of benefit abuse, but the principle of free movement, I don't want to see that change. British businesses don't want to see that change. I think I'm setting the bar where many other countries and businesses, including your own, would say, if that's want Britain wants, that's not unreasonable."

I suggest Britain wants the good aspects of being in the EU, without the bad, and that's not compatible with being part of a union. "That's why we're asking whether we should be a member of the union at all," he retorts. "I think it's for each other country to decide how much it wants Britain to be a member. We are clear that we are not interested in an ever-closer union. Our destiny is not the same as the destiny of the Eurozone countries. I think it's perfectly possible to make an accommodation."

Mr Cridland has long been involved with the CBI. Their relationship has endured for three decades. Educated at Boston Grammar School, he went on to secure an MA in History from Christ's College Cambridge, which is not necessarily the rigorous type of business training one would expect from the head of a business body. He joined the CBI as a policy adviser in 1982, and was Deputy Director-General from 2000 to 2010.

He spent 10 years on the Low Pay Commission and was vice chair of the National Learning and Skills Council between 2007 and 2010. He has been outspoken on issues related to Britain's secondary level education system, querying the effectiveness of GCSEs, the UK's equivalent to the Junior Certificate. GCSEs, he says, belong to a different generation, where most people left school at 16 and few went on to A level.

He favours a radical overhaul of the UK education system, so at 13, children who demonstrate clear academic ability could pursue four years of a rigorous traditional education, and those who don't, could go down the vocational route and secure a "high quality apprenticeship".

"I think the old vision of secondary school being 11 to 16 is out of date. I think that the most important formative period for a young person is 14 to 18. At 13, they start making decisions, and ask are they more academic, or are they more vocational. If they go down the academic route, it takes them to university, and if they go down the vocational route, it could take them to a high quality apprenticeship, and probably a technical degree that they might get while learning as they're earning."

Whatever route in life one takes, it's probably safe to say that pay is a big concern. Over a year ago, Mr Cridland, in his new year's message, told businesses to pay more, an usual request from the head of an organisation representing businesses.

"Productivity is not recovering in the UK very strongly. Investment is recovering and even exports are beginning to pick up, but our productivity has been struggling," he says, as he begins to explain his thinking.

"Unemployment in the UK is now down to 5.7pc. We've had in the UK a jobs-rich recovery, but not a pay-rich.

"We've brought down youth unemployment very strikingly. But a lot of those have gone into entry-level jobs.

"My point is, yes they do need a pay rise, based on improved productivity, which comes from business investment. If businesses are investing, they're buying new technology, the worker is more valuable, they should get a pay rise.

"That's important in the UK, because the growth rate is really strong, but a lot of workers in the UK feel left out from that. If they haven't had a pay rise in four years, they begin to feel that this recovery isn't for them. And then they don't have consumer confidence." But he stops short of offering advice for Ireland, saying there are differences between our economies, as I point out that Ibec, the CBI's sister organisation here, hasn't favoured wage rises.

That's not the only area where the CBI has differed slightly from Ibec. The latter has talked up the prospect of Northern Ireland being able to lower its corporation tax rate to 12.5pc, to bring it in line with the Republic, as a boost for the all-island economy. The CBI was conflicted.

"There were different views in different parts of the CBI," Cridland says. "The CBI in Northern Ireland pushed for the changes and I helped them with that."

But there were concerns from CBI members in Britain that a cut in the rate for the North may lead to similar calls from Scotland and Wales, and the tax market could become fragmented. Does he share those concerns? Diplomatically, he says he recognises both viewpoints.

"Our membership in Northern Ireland was of the view that it was slipping behind in relation to the Republic.

"Members in Britain were a bit more sceptical. We agreed to differ."

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