Dido Harding: The world is our oyster with free trade

Tory peer Dido Harding.
Tory peer Dido Harding.
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AS the chief executive of TalkTalk and a businesswoman all my life, I know that free trade is a good thing: that unfettered, open and competitive markets at home and abroad bring out the best in people. They bring out the best in businesses and, in turn, give the best possible outcomes to customers and citizens.

It is not just physical trade that is a good thing in this modern world; digital trade is hugely powerful too. For this country in particular, digital free trade should be something that we are brilliant at.

We are already brilliant at consuming products online, and the UK’s reputation for the protection of intellectual property and the fair rule of law mean that a Chinese citizen looking at a website of an unknown British business is more likely to click “buy” than they would on a website from many other countries. So we should be brilliant at global free 
trade.​

I want therefore to focus my remarks not on whether free trade is a good idea or a bad idea but on how we bring everyone in the country with us. I voted to Remain in the EU, but, as a businesswoman, I cannot but hear the fury, frustration and disaffection of a significant number of people who feel that the modern, global, digital world that I have just described is not working for them.

We have all to work out how we make a global trading nation of Britain work for everyone in this country and take to heart that that is not the case now. I want to offer a few suggestions for business and for Government on how we might make the case for free trade genuinely working for everyone.

First, we need to focus on building skills. If you do not have skills to take advantage of free trade, you are understandably scared of it. You are more likely to be convinced that an open economy means that your living standards will be threatened rather than seeing it as an opportunity.

We need to make sure that we upskill our nation to be the global free trade bastion that we all want to be.

I hugely welcome this Government’s commitment to build basic digital skills across the whole country, but we know that we all need to invest in engineering and R&D skills, at every stage of people’s career. That is not just about 
Government money; all of us who run businesses need to take this much more seriously.

Secondly, we need fair and competitive markets, not just open ones. Competition drives out bad behaviour, provided that consumers have choice, so we need strong, independent competition regulation in every market. That is how you do the best possible job of ensuring that everyone in society benefits from global free trade.

We also need to tackle the issue of 
fair working practices in a modern, 
global world.

I welcome the Government’s appointment of Matthew Taylor to run an independent review of modern working practices. As the world changes, we need to make sure that business genuinely works for everyone.

I have been a strong advocate of zero-hours contracts, but I would be the first to admit that they can be horrendously abused if they are not properly 
regulated.

It is incumbent on those of us who operate in a modern economy to work through what the rights to sick pay and holiday pay of those working in the flexible, gig economy should be. The Matthew Taylor review could be a hugely important component in setting Britain up to be a brilliant trading nation in the future global economy.

Finally, businesses have a responsibility for this, too. It is not enough today to do a brilliant job for your customers and to make money for your shareholders. Successful Great British companies also need to make sure that they know what contribution they are making to their community and country as a whole.

In conclusion, although I campaigned to remain in the European Union, I am 
an entrepreneur and a businesswoman. The secret to successful business is to accept the world that you are in and to move on, rather than to fight yesterday’s battles.

I am excited that Britain really can be a fabulous trading nation. As we exit the EU, I think that championing free trade at home and abroad that genuinely works for everyone is a prize that we can all agree we want to chase after.

Dido Harding is chief executive of TalkTalk and a Tory peer who spoke in a Lords debate on Brexit. This is an edited version.