UK ministers ask company executives to form ‘investment council’

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Ministers have asked business chiefs to form an “investment council” that will advise the government on how to boost the UK’s global competitiveness and help attract overseas investors to important national projects.

More than 30 executives from large multinationals in a variety of industries have been approached to take roles on the new council, according to several people familiar with the plans. Companies invited to participate include Kraft Heinz, HP and Publicis, they added.

The group, which will comprise up to 40 members, will advise on how to encourage global trade and attract foreign money to UK projects under investment minister Lord Gerry Grimstone, the former chair of Standard Life Aberdeen.

None of the executives will be paid for their work on the council and they have been selected in accordance with Cabinet Office guidance covering direct ministerial appointments, according to people with knowledge of the process.

Many of the companies are based overseas but with UK operations, according to executives who have been approached but who did not want to be named.

Grimstone was appointed as head of a new “office for investment” that spans the international trade and business departments in March last year to encourage investment into the UK from overseas institutions and sovereign wealth funds.

He has since helped strike a number of deals, including the recent agreement with Abu Dhabi state fund Mubadala to invest in the UK life sciences sector. The deal is expected to be finalised next month, according to people close to the talks. 

He wants to use this as a template to bring in other overseas investors in key sectors for British industry, they add, including further funds from the Middle East and India. Grimstone is also looking for investment in projects in green energy ahead of the COP26 climate change summit in November.

The new investment council is expected to be announced as early as next week, said people close to the talks.

The focus has been on attracting people from large multinationals to join the council, according to people familiar with the situation, given the desire to boost the UK’s standing among international businesses and encourage more companies to invest in the UK.

The council will operate alongside the office for investment to help identify and secure investment into the UK. It will “signal to global partners that the UK is ready and open for business as an independent trading nation”, according to one person with knowledge of the plans.

Both government departments involved declined to comment.

The new group of corporate advisers could trigger further scrutiny of government relations with business given concerns among transparency campaigners over access to ministers from top executives. 

The BBC on Wednesday revealed a series of text messages between Sir James Dyson and Boris Johnson which suggested that the prime minister would “fix” a tax issue for the billionaire industrialist. On Thursday, MPs were told Treasury officials held multiple meetings with collapsed bank Greensill as it attempted to secure funds through various Covid-19 support schemes.

Business groups have also raised concerns that larger businesses often have disproportionate access to ministers. Small business campaigners have criticised a separate entity convened by the prime minister, the Build Back Better business council, as dominated by large companies.

Government departments also operate a large number of other industry advisory groups, while lobbying bodies have regular access to ministers, including one called the Business Action Council organised by Maurice Ostro, a friend of the prime minister, that includes 32 other organisations.

Additional reporting by Jim Pickard in London

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