Former Conservative minister and new Association of Consulting Engineers chief executive, Nicholas Bennett is this week lobbying Chancellor Gordon Brown over the double tax burden faced by consulting engineers working abroad. This year's Budget closed the net around high-earning tax exiles, but in doing so forces British consultants working abroad to pay taxes on their earnings locally and at home.
Until this year these people only had to pay UK income tax on money earned abroad over periods of less that 365 days. Since the Budget all foreign earnings are brought within the British government tax net, facing overseas engineers with an extra tax penalty.
Bennett fears that as a result British companies have lost a major incentive to compete for work overseas. To pay employees who have lost out in terms of net earnings, employers will have to either take a cut in profit - not possible on marginal jobs - or raise the value of their tenders. Without adjusting taxes to assist UK companies, Bennett fears the last Budget is bad for business.
Ushering a new approach to managing members' professional representation, Bennett is using his parliamentary experience to make direct and effective contact with MPs. 'One of the good things about politics in this country,' he says, 'is that Members communicate and form relationships across party lines. I know quite a lot of the people in this government.' He says the ACE has also enjoyed good relations with the upper house: 'Lord Howie and Lord Acking have been good friends to the Association'.
Bennett is also taking commercial and trade issues affecting members to the European Parliament. He talks regularly with MEPs to ensure British firms get the same competitive opportunities abroad as local companies. He is currently monitoring a paper on procurement that should help produce a level playing field. 'We need to be there before legislation is drafted. Once a bill has been drafted it becomes difficult to change,' says Bennett.
His curriculum vitae is eclectic. Shortly after leaving secondary school in Lewisham, London (where Status Quo's Frances Rossi was one of his classmates) he began his political career as a borough councillor in opposition. By 1987 he was MP for Pembroke and 1990-92 he was Minister for Health, Housing, Planning & Local Government in Wales. During this period, Bennett says, he consolidated analytical, multi-tasking and management skills that translate well into his new job as chief executive.
As a junior minister, Bennett had a £2.5bn budget: a sum equivalent to many large construction-sector sums. 'The job was about priority setting and accountability,' he observes.
His experience as a minister was also diverse. 'One of the things about being a territorial minister is that it is a multi-disciplinary experience. You need to see the interaction needed and take things out of boxes.' A subsequent period as water minister gave Bennett experience as a client during the transition from public to private ownership.
The ministerial post was followed by a period in independent management consultancy, advising Price Waterhouse among other clients.
He has consequently brought a fresh approach to the ACE. 'I'm the first chief executive of the ACE who hasn't come from a military background,' says Bennett, and this translates into a non-hierarchical management style.
The ACE has a weekly brainstorming session. 'Take people with you,' is Bennett's philosophy. He describes his approach to running the ACE as a 'mini-parliamentary democracy'.
The day you stop being excited about new changes is the day you hang your boots up, he says. Bennett hopes to enlarge the ACE's membership and improve the service it offers its members.
A professional indemnity scheme is also planned: 'There has been a tendency for clients to risk-dump on consulting engineers,' he says. And the ACE is looking at setting up a client relations committee and is working on setting up a client referral service, linking engineers with clients by geographic area.
There is also a plan to establish a code of practice that will help set standards for the industry. To do that the ACE needs to attract a broader member base. Bennett is well aware that the most effective way for the organisation to achieve that is to serve the industry's business interests as well as possible. 'I have three 'e' words: economy, efficiency, effectiveness,' he says.