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Why you need to have a happy workforce

16th May 2024

Event report: Guy Opperman, Siobhan Baillie and Rob Halfon at the East India Club

Finito World, all photographs by Sam Pearce


It’s not often you have three heavyweight politicians in one room but that’s what happened at the East India Club where the great and the good turned out in support of Guy Opperman and Siobhan Baillie, both of whom will face competitive re-election campaigns, most likely later this year. Hosting the event alongside Finito was Rob Halfon, the outgoing Apprenticeships and Skills Minister. The event was kindly sponsored by Lorenzo Zaccheo, the owner and founder of the international haulage company Alcaline.

Baillie began by telling the room the story of her ascent to Parliament. “I grew up on a council estate and flunked all my exams,” she recalled, before attributing her success to love of hard work. “What I do like is to work – I will work and work until I achieve something.” Looking ahead to the General Election, Baillie said: “It is a genuine pleasure to work for Rishi Sunak. He is always incredibly thoughtful. What we are doing is solving quite a few long term problems but not necessarily getting the air time on the news.”

When Baillie handed over to Opperman, he was realistic: “Let’s be honest. There are very few of you in this room who think the Conservatives are going to win the next general election. Most of you would like that, but at the moment you think it’s not going to happen.  But the race is not over until it has been run. I admit that it is year 14 of the marriage and we are not quite as attractive as we were. Furthermore, it is a factual reality that we have dealt with 12 per cent inflation. There are three wars of real significance that are affecting this country but who is best placed to take us back to growth and prosperity?”

At which, Opperman and Baillie took questions beginning with Zaccheo, who outlined a major problem in the haulage industry. He explained that there is currently a 90/180 day rule for travellers to the EU Shengen area which is hugely impacting drivers’ ability to carry out their jobs. As things stand, Zaccheo pointed out, the Border Force penalties are not fit for purpose and provide zero incentive to drivers or hauliers to report clandestine entrants. It is only the innocent and not organised crime that are being penalised.

Opperman replied, plainly taking the problem seriously. “I am acutely aware that there is an issue here and we are very conscious of it. It relates to regulation in the Treasury. So bear with us: we are working on it to try and find a way forward.”


Zaccheo also raised the question of cabotage which isn’t being enforced effectively by the Drivers and Vehicles Standards Agency (DVSA,) and therefore taking work away from UK haulers. In addition, Zaccheo argued that very low pay in parts of the EU for HGV drivers is driving the movement of clandestine entrants into northern France. There low-paid eastern European drivers are easily convinced to transport immigrants from the east and the south and drop them in supposedly “secure” parking areas in northern France where they then gain access to UK vehicles.

This led to a discussion on immigration with all three MPs having recently voted for the Rwanda Bill. Baillie explained: “We can’t be squeamish when it comes to dealing with the problem, but let’s not forget that this is a very kind and compassionate country. We’re not going to be able to express our values if we’re not tackling illegal immigration hard. The Conservatives are being battered on the BBC, but it’s not compassionate to do nothing.”


Baillie spoke also about her successful campaign to extend the childcare provision. “The reality for families at the moment is that childcare is a second mortgage,” she explained, before adding: “Housing is the big ticket issue which needs to be dealt with.”

Opperman took a question on the apprenticeship levy. “The apprenticeship levy is very easy to announce but really tough to deliver and it takes years and years. Most of the product of Rob Halfon’s great work won’t be seen until ten years from now. Childcare’s the same: we’re subsidising childcare to get more people back to work to get more taxes in the long term. It’s about policy – we have to deliver the reality on the ground.”

Once the questions and answers had finished, Halfon had the floor. “After 25 years both as candidate and as an MP I’ve decided to step down,” he told the room. “In 2008, I went into a constituency in Harlow. I walk into a grim concrete building on a rainy day, and sit down with people from the Prince’s Trust and Catch-22. They start talking to me about skills and apprenticeships and how they’d love to do them, but the opportunities weren’t on offer. I came out of that building and said to myself: ‘If I get elected, I’ll make it my mission to champion apprenticeships and skills’.”

Fast forward 25 years and Halfon has been as good as his word and can look back on an impressive array of achievement. “What we’ve done on apprenticeships and schools is sadly the best-kept secret in government. Now we have apprenticeships for everything from aeronautics to zoology. FE used to be called the Cinderella sector; I hated that name with every fibre of my being. I went to visit FE colleges all over the country. I always used to say that Cinderella became a member of the Royal Family and we need to banish the Ugly Sisters of snobbery and under-resourcing which we have done.”

What the future holds for these three MPs only time will tell. But there’s no doubt that these are parliamentarians of rare passion, who show that politics can be a fulfilling and exciting career where there’s a real chance to make a difference.


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