On Friday 19th September, Gordon Henderson – MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey – returned to Kent Science Park to take part in a question and answer session with local businesses. This was a general Q&A, inviting business owners to ask Mr. Henderson about anything affecting their business. The event was well attended and, with the Scottish Referendum Result announced the previous evening; a hot topic for debate was the implications of the result to the local economy.
Mr. Henderson’s discussion began with a presentation from Shaw Trust, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping disabled people or those at a disadvantage to find and sustain employment.
Hasan Hijazi, Lead Employer Relations Consultant, explained the importance of business owners being involved with the Shaw Trust and its nationwide programmes.
He said: “We work in partnership with the Job Centre but access benefits in a different way. We understand the problems faced when trying to obtain work and encourage employers’ participation in offering work experience, work trials and potential paid work for people with disabilities and health issues who consider themselves job ready”.
The Scottish Referendum was an important matter to be addressed, proving its magnitude to local businesses. Mr. Henderson said: “The Scottish Referendum is an extremely important issue across the whole country, it is a common misconception that the Scottish Referendum will only affect Scottish people and business. I am absolutely delighted that we are staying as one nation but I am even more delighted with what the Prime Minister had to say about the voice of England having to be heard.
Mr Henderson added: “We have an English Parliament in place; we just need to make sure that English MPs vote on English matters. We have sometimes been dominated by Scottish and Welsh MPs. Under any new government structure, we English are more likely to have a business friendly government”.
Amongst the topics discussed was the problem of unemployment in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, with local business owners seeking advice from Mr. Henderson on finding skilled workers who wish to be employed. This is something that the MP has been championing for some time, with previous Q&As suggesting an unsympathetic government to business.
Mr. Henderson commented: “Sheppey has always been an unemployment black spot but we are starting to see improvement in job prospects even on the Island. We have lowered the unemployment level in Sittingbourne and Sheppey from 3,500 to 1,700.
“The South East is the economic dynamo of England and I would like to see Kent become the economic dynamo of the South East and Sittingbourne and Sheppey the economic dynamo of Kent. In five years, the Eurolink Industrial Park will be the biggest of its kind in Southern England.”
Mr. Henderson said that he was continuing to focus on employment and small business growth: “We have to break the cycle of the benefit culture and I am keen to instigate change. I believe that the introduction of Universal Benefits will help that change because one element of it will allow the unemployed to earn a certain amount of money whilst keeping their benefits.
“In addition, we must encourage youngsters to develop the desired work ethic and attitude needed in society. This will mean involving everyone from small businesses taking on apprentices to schools preparing their students better for the workplace.
“I believe that Sittingbourne and Sheppey has a bright future, but no one can do it on his or her own. This is one of those occasions when are all in it together”.
The Q&A was followed by a topical presentation from Lorna Wyrill, Business and Skills Officer in the economy and Community Department at Swale Borough Council. Lorna discussed how important it is for local businesses to ‘think local’ and utilize the skill set readily available in our district. She also discussed the Council’s plans for introducing easier access for small businesses to supply the needs of Local Government procurement.
James Speck, Site Director at Kent Science Park, concluded by adding, “Kent currently has 42,000 businesses each employing less than four people and it is important that business owners have the opportunity to participate in lively debates with their local MP, addressing issues that directly affect them. The presentations from The Shaw Trust and Swale Borough Council were valuable additions to the event, highlighting alternative routes for small businesses in terms of employment and access. The Q&A is always well attended at Kent Science Park, but this one in particular was lively and superbly debated; an encouraging sign for the redevelopment of our borough”.