George Freeman is a former Minister for Life Science and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18). He is Co-chair of the Prime Minister’s Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform.
Conservatives understand that growing the economy is a better way to raise revenues than raising taxes.
What defines a Conservative? The cornerstone of my conservatism is the belief that the best way to boost Government revenue is to grow the economy through enterprise rather than raise taxes.
History – and this Party – has shown time and again the power of the Laffer curve: that the best way to raise revenues is to set tax at a level that incentives enterprise, investment and growth.
UK growth has stalled in recent years through the Brexit stalemate and then Covid lockdown. The pandemic has left us with massive debts, and a huge NHS backlog which the Chancellor is right to insist we have to find the money to fund. The key to that is growth. We will never pay off the Covid debt or pay for the rising long term costs of an ageing society or crumbling infrastructure by raising taxes.
We have two once-in-a-generation opportunities. The vaccine triumph has given us roughly an eighteen month head start in the global race for recovery. Brexit gives us a regulatory dividend. If we move fast we can unlock a decade of inward investment, innovation, competitiveness, high growth and prosperity. We must.
Just look at our recent success on vaccines: the result of strong UK leadership liberated by EU bureaucracy. The vaccine success is the result of a bold package of reforms we put in place in 2011/12, when global pharma was leaving the UK because of ever-slower and more expensive clinical trials, slow & low price NHS procurement and poor uptake of innovation.
The new Government in 2010 responded. Having just been elected after a career in the biomedical research sector, I was lucky enough to be appointed Government Life Science Adviser to lead the UK Life Science Strategy.
We appointed Sir John Bell, launched a ground-breaking ten-year strategic commitment to lead in the genomics and clinical informatics so key to modern research; launched Genomics England, NHS Digital, MHRA parallel approvals, the Biomedical Catalyst, the Accelerated Access Reform to NHS procurement, the Early Access to Innovative Medicines Scheme and the UK Life Science Investment Office. We worked with AZ to persuade them to move to Cambridge UK, not Cambridge Massachusetts. Over the next five years, we pulled in over £5 billion of inward investment. The vaccine success of 2020/21 was in no small part the result of all that work.
It’s a model of what we can now do in other sectors with our Brexit freedoms.
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak get this. That’s why I was delighted to accept the Prime Minister’s invitation to help lead the new Taskforce for Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) work on new growth sectors.
Our TIGRR report published in June shows how the UK can deliver on the promises of Brexit without abandoning our high standards. How? By using our regulatory freedom to set the standards for fast-emerging new sectors like Ai, Fintech, Nutriceuticals, Cannabinoid medicines and Digital Health to make the UK the global destination of choice for innovators.
But whilst the UK is indeed a ‘science superpower’, we have traditionally been woeful at commercialising here in the UK. There are many reasons for this. But, in recent years, the EU’s increasingly slow, bureaucratic and ‘precautionary’ approach to regulation – gold-plated in Whitehall – has made the EU and the UK an increasingly poor place to commercialise new technology.
That’s why I wrote the Fresh Start Report in 2014 urging the EU to reform to avoid regulating the UK into the slow lane of global bioscience. And it’s why, as UK Minister for the sector, I pushed for reform, and warned the EU that it risked the UK leaving if they didn’t reform. They didn’t. We did.
Five years on, we need to harness the Brexit dividend. Brexo-sceptics have cynically sneered that there is no Brexit regulatory dividend apart from slashing protections in a “race to the bottom”. They’re wrong. The opportunity is to race to the top to SET global standards.
Of course, there are some daft regulations we can easily get rid of, such as the EU ban on the blight-resistant potato (which reduces the need for around 14 applications of toxic (and highly carbon intensive) fungicide to each potato crop) and the gene editing which means we could pioneer drought resistance crops for Africa.
But the real opportunity isn’t about slashing and burning regulation. It’s about smart regulation: using our flexibility to develop more agile, proportionate and evidence based RegTech to set the global standards in a raft of fast emerging new sectors.
How? The TIGGR Report sets out a clear Plan – based on over 70 roundtables with industry innovators:
First, a coherent new strategic framework for UK regulatory leadership based on more agile digital RegTech, a new ‘Proportionality Principle’ to replace the EU Precautionary Principle and enhanced citizen, consumer and patient rights rather than ever more ‘tickbox compliance’.
Second, ten emerging markets in which we could unlock big growth now with the right regulatory structure.
Third, a strong framework for scoring Departmental & Regulatory implementation and accountability to Parliament.
There’s no time to waste. If we move fast, we can attract a wall of global investment capital looking for safe places to invest in high growth sectors post-Covid. By making the UK public sector a testbed, we could have world class healthcare by better using cutting edge medtech and securing proper funding from a growing tax base.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We need to seize it.