Mark Prisk, shadow minister for business, enterprise and regulatory reform, ran his property marketing and communication consultancy, MP2, for ten years before he was elected to his post as MP for Hertford and Stortford in 2001. In this exclusive interview, Mark talks to Startups about his early days as an entrepreneur, the Tories’ strategy for business, and Boris Johnson’s plans to champion small companies.
Tell us about your experience as an entrepreneur
I’m a chartered surveyor by profession, so having graduated and then worked for a number of big commercial firms, I set up my own business in 1991. When I started, you couldn’t have a property surveying practice linked to a planning practice. Then they changed the rules and suddenly you could link different services together. Having worked in that environment, I understood it, so I saw a niche. I ran that business until I got elected in 2001.
A recent survey suggested 60% of business owners now support the Tories. Why do you think that is?
What’s happened is twofold. First of all, slowly but surely businesses have become disenchanted with Labour. The build-up of regulations, the increase in tax, and the apparent ignorance within ministers’ offices of how business works have all become more and more obvious.
The second part of it is that the Conservative Party has been talking to businesses. In the last two years, we’ve been working with business to campaign on things like capital gains tax (CGT). We’re also setting out our ideas to cut small company corporation tax by 10% from 22p to 20p, looking to reduce the regulatory burden and making sure that we create the environment in which people not only want to start up, but can grow their business.
You say you’re campaigning against CGT increases, but under the Tories it was 40%. Isn’t that a bit hypocritical?
Going back a dozen years or more, the environment was very different. And Labour were absolutely right, ten years ago, to change the system. The problem is, that to change the system again – and particularly the way they did it, without talking to businesses – is what caused anger. That’s why we’re talking to the business community to make sure we reform it with their understanding before we announce anything.
What else are the Tories doing to get the business vote?
There’s a number of projects. First of all, we’re looking at helping small shops. We’ve got a back bench group working with all the different players in the small shops arena – the Federation of Small Business, BERR, the various players in terms of the small shops as well – looking at business rates, looking at parking, and looking at all the things that are making it tough for businesses to compete. We’ve been working on this now for six months, and we’re going to publish the final proposals next month.
The Richard Report (recently-released report suggesting ways to make access to business support easier) is also an important issue because it covers things like government contracts. This government’s been about giving out little grants here and there to small businesses, but we want make sure it’s easier for small businesses to get government contracts. It’s much better to give businesses contracts than dole out grants.
We’ve also asked a group led by (media tycoon) Sir David Arculus, which includes specialists, small businesses, and lawyers, to look at what makes Whitehall keep generating regulation as a first option. We want regulation to be the last resort, not the first option, so we’ve asked them to show how we can turn the machine around so it isn’t constantly generating more and more regulation.
In many ways, Ken Livingstone championed the cause of small businesses by offering them a majority of the contracts for the 2012 Olympics. Will this continue under Boris?
Boris is obviously only a few weeks into his job, and I know, having spoken to him and people like the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), that Boris has a real passion for making sure small businesses in particular are heard.
The FSB were unhappy at the way Ken refused to participate with them. I think Boris is open to the idea of making sure small businesses can compete. He’s making sure small businesses are there at the top table – not just the big boys. I think he’s going to be a real breath of fresh air.
Finally, as a former entrepreneur, what advice would give to small business owners who are struggling during the credit crunch?
It’s always down to cashflow. I started in 1991, which was pretty rough, but I’m an optimist. I think if you can weather the storm in the difficult times, then your business is robust for all times. Cashflow is king – so make sure you eek out the money that you do have, and make sure you’re really confident that what’s going to come in comes in when it’s meant to.