Ever since becoming Prime Minister, I’ve wanted to make a speech about the role of business in helping to build the Big Society.
There was no doubt in my mind about who I wanted to speak to.
From the moment that Tom King convened the Sunningdale Anglo-American business conference in 1980, which first led to the establishment of Business in the Community, from the time when Michael Heseltine took business leaders to Liverpool to show them the need for their leadership on urban regeneration you have been the great champions of responsible business in Britain.
And now today we have the results of your consultation on corporate responsibility.
Once again Business in the Community is leading the charge. And - your Royal Highness - you continue to be one of the great sources of inspiration and leadership for all those who care about corporate responsibility…
…not just here in Britain, but around the world.
Let me start with what the Big Society is about.
It comes from the belief that over many decades this country has become too centralised, too bureaucratic and too top-down.
And this is not just inefficient and overly-bureaucratic but also has an insidious cultural effect, because it robs people of responsibility.
Regaining this shared sense of personal responsibility goes to the heart of my political philosophy - in fact to the heart of my whole approach to life.
When we were re-shaping my party in Opposition, shared responsibility became one of the new values that defined our approach.
And now in government it is this Coalition’s belief in shared responsibility that drives our determination to bring people together to build a bigger, stronger society and to make our country a better place.
So that’s the thinking. That’s why we want to build the Big Society.
But what does it mean and how do we get there?
There are three key areas.
First, decentralisation of power. A radical devolving of power not just to local government, but beyond that to neighbourhoods and communities.
We want our neighbourhoods to feel they are in charge of their own destiny. That’s why we’re changing the planning rules to give local people real control over what gets built where, devolving power to executive mayors in our major cities and giving people the right to take over local assets like pubs, parks and post offices.
This is community empowerment.
The second key area is public service reform: opening up public services so that anyone can offer to provide them.
Whether it’s schools, hospitals or rehabilitation of prisoners, we want the best providers coming in to offer the best possible service and held to account with transparent information to enable people to make informed choices.
The third part of our Big Society approach is social action people giving their time and effort to support causes that matter to them.
Of course, this is already happening, much of it with the support of the companies represented here today.
We just need to give it a boost to really foster a culture of volunteerism and philanthropy.
That’s why we’re introducing National Citizen Service and setting up the Big Society Bank to connect private capital to investment in social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups.
So these are the three key parts of our plan to build the Big Society: community empowerment, public service reform and social action.
The question is now how we take them forward…
And most importantly what role can business play?
Soon after I became Leader of the Opposition, I made a statement which at the time surprised people.
I said that we wouldn’t just stand up for business but would stand up to big business whenever that was in the interests of our society.
Some people wrongly saw that as a kind of veiled attack on our free enterprise system.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s precisely because I care so passionately about free enterprise, because I’m so focused on jobs and growth, that I think it’s important to be clear about the responsibilities of business, government and wider society.
The way I would put it is this.
It’s a deal.
Business has some very clear “asks” of government. Economic stability. Lower taxes. Low regulation. Minimal interference.
A framework within which you as businesses can do what you do best: innovate, invest and generate the profits that are the life-blood of our economy.
We understand what we need to do for British business to succeed.
That’s why we’re getting to grips with our budget deficit. Because if we let our debts spiral out of control, interest rates will go up, investors will lose confidence, stability will be lost.
And it’s why we’re doing everything possible to remove the barriers to enterprise in our economy, cutting needless red tape, cutting the time it takes to set up a business, cutting corporation tax to 24 per cent - the lowest in the G7, and creating the most competitive corporate tax regime in the G20.
This government will stand up for business.
We will not let you down.
That’s our side of the deal.
That’s our commitment.
But we need to be honest with each other.
The truth is that governments don’t just interfere for the sake of it, they do so because there are social and other problems that need government action or government spending to pay for them.
So it’s not enough simply for government on its own to try to reduce taxes, regulation and interference with business.
We need to reduce the demand for those things.
That demand comes from social breakdown.
So the long-term, lasting way to get that low tax, low regulation, dynamic economy we all want to see is to solve the problems that give rise to an over-burdening state.
And this is where you come in.
We need the commitment, creativity and innovation of businesses to help tackle the challenges that confront us, from worklessness to obesity, from the break up of families to the break down of communities, from environmental damage to economic dislocation.
I simply can not think of an area of public policy where the creative thinking of business wouldn’t help in delivering a better outcome.
Whether it’s the car industry working on immobilisers to reduce vehicle theft, or health insurance companies promoting public health by offering discounts for going to the gym, or educational computer games for children business can do so much to help.
And if business is prepared to do that, government can go even further in cutting taxes, removing regulations and reducing the overall burdens on business.
That is the essence of the deal. So the question is what exactly is it that we want business to do?
It’s hopeless to try and generalise. The precise contribution of every business will be different depending on its size, sector, location and much more besides.
And I certainly don’t want to be prescriptive about what businesses should do.
But I do want to give you a sense of our priorities. We know your asks of us. What are our asks of you?
The way I’d put it is this.
There are some basic things that are the responsibility of every business. Upholding the law. Treating employees fairly. Avoiding environmental harm.
And for some companies today there are some aspects of their activity which still contribute to causing social problems rather than solving them.
And that is something we need to deal with.
If we remain silent in the face of these issues we do an injustice to the reputation of the vast majority of responsible businesses.
For example, I’ve been a consistent campaigner on the protection of childhood innocence against excess commercialisation and premature sexualisation.
This is wrong - and we’ll be announcing further work in this area shortly.
Equally, we need companies to take a lead in making the country more family-friendly by promoting family-friendly working practices.
This is a real priority for me; and for the Deputy Prime Minister; and for this Government.
Because corporate responsibility is much more than simply businesses avoiding doing harm, it’s about contributing to a better society.
And this brings me to the commitments that are being published today.
I know that companies can sometimes find it confusing and frustrating when different parts of government ask them to get involved in different campaigns and initiatives.
Now, of course, there will always be areas where government departments will need to engage with specific sectors on specific issues.
But what you’ve been saying to us is that you want a sense of consistency and clarity, right across government, about what it is we’d like you to do.
That’s what we’ve been discussing with Business in the Community and I’m enormously grateful to Sir Stuart Rose and Stephen Howard and all the team here for their help.
We’ve tried to boil down into simple terms the real priorities for action the areas where we in government would value your commitment the most.
Don’t worry, it’s not compulsory. It’s not new regulations.
It’s just a simple explanation of where you can help us with our priorities.
It’s called Every Business Commits.
It’s specifically designed to apply to every business of every size. And businesses of every size are already doing many of these things.
In fact, the businesses represented here are probably already doing all these things.
The challenge is to spread the word and inspire every business to emulate today’s leading businesses.
Every Business Commits is made up of a small number of simple actions, under five headings.
First, improving skills and creating jobs.
That could include increasing the number of apprenticeships or offering more work experience placements for unemployed young people.
Second, there’s supporting small and medium-sized enterprises.
That could involve mentoring a start-up or a social enterprise like the Business in the Community social enterprise mentoring programme which together with the accountancy firm KPMG has now matched over 70 senior level executives with social enterprises ready to expand.
Third, there’s reducing carbon and protecting the environment.
That’s about cutting energy use like Anglian Water, who have cut their overall electricity use for the fourth year running and have now set a goal to halve their overall greenhouse emissions over the next 25 years.
Fourth, there’s improving quality of life and well-being.
That might mean investing in the health and well-being of your workforce like Unilever’s Fit Business programme which has brought together occupational health and public health advice in the workplace.
And finally, there’s supporting your community.
That includes the support you offer for volunteering, such as the way businesses support those in the Territorial Army - something I’d like to see extended towards Special Constables and all other voluntary services.
So those are our five priorities.
Simple, specific and I hope they provide the clarity and consistency you’ve been asking us for.
Over the weeks ahead Ed Davey, our Minister for Corporate Responsibility will be working with Business in the Community and others to spread the word and encourage every business in the country to make this commitment.
But as Sir Stuart explained so powerfully, there are still barriers in the way.
I promise you I’ve got the message loud and clear.
And we will do everything we can to tackle these barriers head on.
But there’s one more thing that’s needed when it comes to making this happen on the ground.
I know there’s no substitute for people who can make connections between local businesses and local organisations that need support.
There are already many people seconded from businesses to work for a year in their local communities to make these links.
But today I want to challenge you to scale this up so we can have 1,000 of them working in communities across our country with Business in the Community playing a crucial role in making sure that these 1000 business connectors are in the areas that need the greatest help, addressing the problems that are of greatest concern.
So that’s how I believe we can build a new understanding between business and government.
Government committing to lower taxes, lighter touch regulation and the most pro-enterprise, business friendly environment that Britain has ever had.
And every business committing to responsible business practice with simple actions in five priority areas.
That’s how you as businesses can play your part in building the Big Society a society where people feel engaged in their community and where they feel they can make a real difference.
And at the same time helping us to deliver the conditions you need for a more dynamic economy.
Next year is a crucial year for our economy. But it is a crucial year for our society too.
As Jeremy Hunt will be setting out shortly, we want 2011 to be the year of corporate philanthropy.
And as Business in the Community shows every day Britain’s great businesses are not just a force for good in our economy.
You are a force for good in our society too. You have the power, the creativity and the enterprise to help us tackle some of the most pressing social challenges we face.
By meeting our shared responsibilities we will build a shared future.
A stronger future and a better Britain.