IoD director general on equal opportunities, T&C agreements, policing capitalism and Iran

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Website terms and conditions

Simon Walker discusses equal opportunities, Hillary Clinton’s attacks on corporate America, lengthy terms and conditions agreements, and the possibility of breaking nuclear power distrust between Iran and the West

Alan Milburn was, arguably, the most insightful and effective of New Labour’s ministers, and his departure from politics was a loss to political discourse, not just his own party. His views as chair of the Commission on Social Mobility are certainly worth reading. But the commission’s repeated concerns that middle-class parents ensure a “glass floor” for their offspring provides a dilemma.

Nothing can be more natural than the desire of parents to help their children, whether through independent schools, extra tuition or just helping them with their homework. But while no sensible person objects to special efforts being made to give remedial help to the disadvantaged, levelling down is always a mistake.

If Tim Nice-but-Dim’s parents push him to his outer limits, we can only wish them well. But let’s give every positive opportunity to the daughter of “White Dee” from Benefits Street, who really wanted to make something of her life, even if her mother preferred her to stay on benefits.

T&C or not to be – that is the question

I am unsurprised to learn that the average website’s terms and conditions are longer, and doubtless less lucid, than a Shakespeare play.

Apple’s iTunes, at 19,972 words, outlasts Macbeth for instance, and if you want to store your selections on iCloud, that’s a further 10,724; use its IOS operating system and you notch up another 13,366. PayPal at 36,275 is well ahead of Hamlet’s paltry 30,066. I have long since given up ploughing through the interminable qualifications, mitigations and excuses companies offer on the pretext of informing consumers of their undoubted limitations and inadequacies.

Bank notices and credit card terms are a particular frustration: with an economics degree and decades of business experience, I might be expected to have a basic understanding of what a financial institution is trying to say. Alas, I rarely do. It makes little sense to require businesses to qualify their contractual offerings with acres of guff.

Instead, a court should strike down a corporation’s defence based on such verbal diarrhoea simply on the grounds of unfathomable complexity, which no one could reasonably be expected to wade through. I’m not sure transactional T&Cs were what Wittgenstein had in mind when he wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. But I agree with him.

Policing capitalism

Hillary Clinton’s attacks on corporate America stem more from populism and a desire to tap into a perceived zeitgeist than serious analysis. But that doesn’t mean she’s wrong. Concerns about “quarterly capitalism” prioritising short-term earnings over long-term investment run right across the political spectrum and deserve proper evaluation.

BlackRock’s Larry Fink has criticised share buy-backs, which boost earnings per share (and executive compensation) and Andrew Smithers has written convincingly about the withering of long-term investment since the early 1990s. Where once 70 per cent of corporate earnings went back into the business and 10 per cent paid out to investors, now we are seeing the reverse. And the business community should be no less worried because perceptive criticism comes from the left. We who defend free markets have a particular responsibility to patrol capitalism’s occasional inadequacies.

Iran and nuclear power

Philip Hammond President Rouhani reopening of British Embassy in Iran

In the September issue of Director magazine, Simon Walker looks forward to accompanying foreign secretary Philip Hammond on his trip to Iran. You can read Walker’s preview below, but while the edition was being printed he filed a blog from his trip, which you can read by clicking here

For decades Britain has been known in Iran as the “Little Satan” for its past role in the Middle East. However, the UK now has a pivotal role after successful nuclear talks, which have led to Iran agreeing to give up 97 per cent of its enriched uranium.

The deal offers the best – perhaps the only – opportunity in a generation to break through the distrust between the West and Iran. President Hassan Rouhani is a relative moderate and with new parliamentary elections next May this agreement should provide a boost to those seeking reform.

Less than a year ago London hosted the first Europe-Iran Forum to discuss trade opportunities when sanctions are lifted. Last month David Cameron spoke with Rouhani about the desirability of closer co-operation post-sanctions.

This is a good time for British businesses to seize the opportunity to resume normal relations with a country of 75 million, with high literacy rates, an extensive middle class and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Sixty per cent of IoD members are exporters – let’s hope they’re awake to the opportunities this rapprochement provides.

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About author

Simon Walker

Simon Walker

Simon Walker served as director general of the IoD from September 2011 until January 2017, having enjoyed a career spanning business, politics and public service. From 2007 to 2011 he was chief executive of the BVCA, the organisation that represents British private equity and venture capital. Walker has previously held senior roles at 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, British Airways and Reuters.

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