Election 2015: A day with Government Affairs

With today’s election looming large on the horizon, I thought it would be good to get a few words from our Head of Government Affairs, Adam Jackson.  Instead, Adam invited me down to London to spend the day with him and find out what it was all about.  On Tuesday morning, 48 hours before the polling stations opened, I was there …

On arrival, and after a quick lap of the 6th floor of our Euston office, I located Adam’s right hand man, Tom Rathborn, busy studying the movements of the various campaigns.  Tom seemed like a great person to have in your team, with vast knowledge of the seats to watch and key manifesto points available on tap, but also with time to chat about the weekend’s football or the almost equally political rollercoaster that is the England cricket team.

Tom explained to me the difficulty with keeping in touch by explaining the polls.  There are loads out there from phone polls to website conducted polls and the party you would like to win or who you are going to vote for in your constituency.  You might think a poll of polls is the answer but then that might include the odd outlier and, with the race for No. 10 being so close, any slight skewing effects the predicted outcome.  Lord Ashcroft’s poll seemed to be Tom’s poll of choice but trying to predict the future comes with a heavy caveat in any case.

The Government Affairs team, just Adam and Tom for the time being, cover three basic roles:  updating Grant Thornton on the happenings in Government and politics, keeping clients informed on the same and liaising with those in political positions of power in order to try and shape legislation that will aid Grant Thornton and our client base, primarily mid-sized businesses. These are often policies that support business growth and it was great for the team to see Vince Cable’s comments around our Business Growth Service (previously Growth Accelerator) work at our hustings event a few weeks ago and have our impact on the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill receive various very positive mentions in the House of Lords earlier this year.

Our huge presence in the public sector audit space gives us good access to information which can be fed-back to Government in a timely manner and the information gathered through this then forms the basis of reports which the team can go to Government with in order to help shape future policy.  Updates on changing regulations more generally are covered by others in the firm, for example an update to audit regulations would be handled by a specialist in that department.

Our first meeting of the day was about new legislation introduced requiring a firm or company to register if engaged in lobbying Government ministers on behalf of clients and in return for payment.  The upshot of the meeting was that whilst we organise some round table meetings with various MPs or ministers, we don’t lobby on behalf of individual clients and attendance at such meetings is free of charge.  The register of consultant lobbyists are to consult on whether simply being a Grant Thornton client attributes the work we do in speaking to Government on behalf of mid-sized business to you and, as such, whether we need to register.

Following that, it was a quick dash downstairs to brief our CEO Elect Sacha Romanovitch ahead of her appearance on news channel CNN later that morning.  Head of PR, Wendy Watherston joined us for the briefing and so we started with an informal discussion around the events of the bank holiday weekend, including Sacha’s letter being published in the Financial Times.  Also discussed was PwC dropping their A level entry requirements, a move which I’m sure you’ll be aware mirrors the stance we took about 18 months ago when we dropped all of our hard and fast academic requirements, preferring to focus on the candidate as a whole.

We then moved onto what Sacha would like to get across to the audience and topics of conversation which might come up.  It’s at this point that I should flag that, whilst I was shadowing Adam for the day, the meetings I was involved in throughout afforded me an input, from my opinions on our post-election strategy to Sacha asking my thoughts on what I’d be interested in hearing about if I were sat at home watching the broadcast.

Skills was at the top of the agenda, having come out as a focus of business at the hustings event and last week’s growth summit, with a strong desire and need to have the best talent available working in this country; alongside tax simplification. This is raised a lot as the UK has the most complex tax legislation in the world. As someone looking to take Chartered Tax Advisor (CTA) exams in the next year, no one needed to tell me how complex it is – I feel qualifying would be easier if there were only 350 pages of legislation such as in Hong Kong to study, rather than our 15,000 plus

One of my main observations about the briefing was how global all of the discussion was.  Not only do Grant Thornton have a huge presence worldwide, but so do our clients.  Sacha shared an example about how a dairy company based in the UK, proud of their organic operations can’t send samples to China because the Chinese don’t recognise their UK certifications and would need to come and certify every step of the manufacturing process themselves, at a great cost to the business.  This is one of many examples of how reform to make trading overseas easier is needed if we are to address our trade deficit, £34.8bn the latest figure announced in February and one which Sacha was keen to get across.

Following Sacha’s departure, Adam sent emails to the major political parties to inform them of our announcement that Grant Thornton is to become a shared enterprise firm.  This is something that some of the parties have been particularly keen on and it is hoped that someone may pick up on us taking the lead when addressing the topic in the future.

The busy day continued with a conference call about a post-election event for financial directors – a bit like the budget breakfast, the make-up of speakers: a politician, economist, journalist etc. top of the list.

The mainstay of the afternoon was spent planning the Government Affairs team activities for the next 100 days.  It is tricky business as nailing down a plan isn’t possible until a new government has been formed; however, by the time we know what’s happening it’ll be too late to form a plan with a timely reaction.  Therefore, Adam and Tom were planning for all eventualities, whether that be a continuation of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, whether those parties might also need other parties to get involved, or whether we’ll have a new prime-minister in Ed Miliband and a coalition with more of a Labour/SNP feel.

One of the main plans, whatever happens, was to try and stand out and be different (something I think we are excellent at here at Grant Thornton).  Social media is one of the ways we do so and Twitter was concluded as a great way to get our message out to incoming MPs and their advisors, music to the ears of Sacha when she popped by towards the end of the day with iPad in hand.  We also explored other tangible options to get our message across, whether that be figures, plants or other eye catching collateral.

Today, a temporary lull before the storm.  Adam is planning to watch the exit polls at around 10pm and then get his head down for a few hours before waking up in the small hours of the Friday morning to see the results flooding in and start to formulate a response to the events, likely to be analysis of which coalition Government is expected as a result.  Or maybe, just maybe, that caveat issued with the polls will come to fruition and we’ll have a party with a majority.

Either way, it’ll be exciting to see what happens!

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