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Thinking Smart: Interview with Lady Barbara Judge

Lady Barbara Judge

Lady Barbara Judge is chair of the Institute of Directors and a member of the ACE’s advisory board. Antony Oliver spoke to her about talent and the need to employ more women in engineering, the SME role in infrastructure investment and the challenge for new nuclear.

The first question when looking at Lady Barbara Judge’s resume, is what could possibly have led her to become involved with the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.

As a top commercial lawyer from New York, former US Securities and Exchange Commission commissioner - the youngest ever - chairman of the Pension Protection Fund and first woman to lead the UK Institute of Directors, engineering would seem far from her focus.

However, it is fair to say that as a member of the ACE advisory board she is, in fact, fiercely enthusiastic about engineering, the value of infrastructure investment and the role of businesses in the sector. 

“So far the French have been late and over budget with their projects in both Finland and France. Now the only way that they will build a nuclear plant is with Chinese investment. It is possible we could have faster, cheaper power delivered by Japan,"

And she is clear about the needs of the future. Asked how engineering and consultancy businesses can remain successful in a competitive and changing future, Judge is forthright: 

“My advice is to hire women. What is really going to drive businesses is brain power – there is no substitute for it and for a talented workforce,” she says. “Women are getting more and more skilled in engineering and maths so we should recruit them into engineering jobs then set up career paths and fast track the best.

“It is only going to happen if the leadership wants it to happen and they should hire a cohort of women not just one or two. My advice is open the door to the smartest and most dedicated people you can find, not withstanding their gender.”

Her passion for engineering came relatively late in her career and was prompted, she explains, by an increasing respect for nuclear power. 

It started in 2002 when Judge was immersed in the nuclear industry after being appointed as a non-executive director of UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). In 2004 she became chair and held the positon for two terms until 2010 after UKAEA sold its decommissioning business to Babcock International Group in 2009. 

Today she remains a consultant to a number of countries and companies on nuclear new build and decommissioning. And perhaps through her role at IOD championing a vast number of small businesses, she is also passionate about the engineering skills that exist down the supply chain.

“Since I have been in the nuclear industry I have met many construction firms – tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3 suppliers - and I have been on many government missions. For somebody that doesn’t have an engineering degree I am very interested in the subject,” she explains. “Today I am still surrounded by engineers as they are building nuclear power plants all around the world.”

Right now her nuclear expertise is underpinned through on going work with the Japanese nuclear industry where she is deputy chair of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, set up to oversee the decommissioning of the Fukushima power plant, damaged in the 2011 tsumani. She also chairs TEPCO’s Nuclear Safety Task Force, established in the wake of the disaster. 

“Business needs reliable energy to continue to grow – that means making sure the nation always has baseload power.”

And as chair of the IOD, which like the ACE has a majority of member firms in the small to medium sized business (SME) range, Judge understands the way that investment in decent modern infrastructure enables businesses to operate efficiently. Without reliable and affordable energy supplies, high speed broadband and robust transport links the nation’s productivity will suffer. 

Of course, her nuclear experience means that she has pretty strong and clear views on the UK’s track record of investing in and developing nuclear power, not least on the need to turn around the moratorium on new build that has dogged the UK since the last new reactor opened at Sizewell in 1994. 

“I was one of the people around government when we realised that we were importing more North Sea gas than we were exporting,” Judge explains. She reflects on her time as UKAEA chair, when, deeply engaged in the decommissioning programme, it was clear that there was nothing being built to replace the aged assets. 

“I said ‘why are we not thinking about building new nuclear power plants?’ – we were one of the first countries to build civil nuclear, have the expertise here and this is clean baseload generation,” she adds. “So I went on a mission to Number 10 at the time with our advisers and were amongst the people that convinced the Government to put nuclear back on the agenda.”

That campaign led to the well reported 2006 CBI speech by then prime minister Tony Blair to abandon Labour’s long standing opposition to nuclear power and kick-start a programme to create a new generation of nuclear power stations for the UK. 

“Government spends so much money on infrastructure it has to make sure that the benefits go to small businesses,”

Multiple converging challenges of energy security, climate change and increasing cost, she recalls, prompted Blair to call for a change in strategy.

Today the direction of travel is clear, she says, with public opinion now right behind nuclear, referring to a recent IOD survey highlighting that 81% of members were in favour of nuclear new build to deliver vital energy security for the UK.

“Our members are looking less at cost and more at not losing it,” she explains. “Business needs reliable energy to continue to grow – that means making sure the nation always has baseload power.”

So why, given the political momentum that has built behind new nuclear since 2006, and around investment in infrastructure in general as the key to economic growth, have we not yet managed to turn this ambition into UK reality? Three main issues, she says, have held up progress.

“First the then Government, unfortunately, said that they weren’t going to pay for it and that the private sector would – and the French were there but they struck a hard bargain and a bargain that has got tougher all the time,” she explains.

“Second, Fukushima happened,” she adds. “And while it has nothing really to do with UK – there are no tsunamis here - we all knew that there would be additional safety enhancements that would be expensive. As a result it all took time and the price went up.”

Then, she says, came the Coalition government and the need to convince the Liberal Democrat partners that nuclear was a deliverable solution. 

“We are now in a situation where we have said the first power plant will be French but we have the Japanese desperate to build. Meanwhile the French are trying to build a plant that has never been built before and a price was struck that is very high. And additionally the price of oil has fallen,” she explains.

“My opinion is that it may be that Hinkley Point is not the first [new nuclear plant to be built in the UK],” she adds pointing out that both Toshiba and Hitachi have proven technology and a desire to build. Government, she adds, might think about striking an early deal with the Japanese.

“So far the French have been late and over budget with their projects in both Finland and France. Now the only way that they will build a nuclear plant is with Chinese investment. It is possible we could have faster, cheaper power delivered by Japan, a country with which we have good relations – why not at least rethink it.”

The new Tory Government is, she says, much better placed than the last coalition administration to actually drive forward with such difficult decisions to make investments in new nuclear but also in other vital infrastructure assets.

“There was so much time spent in the last government negotiating what the policy would be. Now we have a majority and a very clear thinking Government,” she explains, reiterating that the investment is at the heart of driving business productivity.

“They have an opportunity and they mustn’t blow it,” she adds. “While you have a majority you need to be business focused. This country will only grow if the policies of Government are focused on the business agenda – all businesses – and this agenda should be at the forefront of policy.”

And, she adds, business understands the next five years of austerity will be tough, requiring firms of all size to really understand client needs and adopt the most efficient practices.

However, she is also clear that Government has an important role to support and encourage the SME sector.

“Government spends so much money on infrastructure it has to make sure that the benefits go to small businesses,” she says.

"If small business can get a tax incentive for taking on apprentices it makes it fiscally worthwhile and I think that you would get their attention. Simple is always better.”

She highlights the Government’s Contract Finder service, which allows firms to search for information about contracts worth over £10,000, as an excellent tool to assist small firms to take advantage of the opportunities on offer.

“A small company cannot perhaps deliver a £20M contract but they could deliver a £2M or £500,000 contract,” she says. “But they don’t always know about them. What small businesses need is more education on how to utilise the tools that they are being given by Government.”

Encouraging investment in training is, she says, also vital and the recently announced programme to focus on apprenticeships should be a great way to help business to invest in young people and a great way for people to get permanent jobs. 

However, whether the apprenticeship levy is the right way to drive action remains to be seen, she says, highlighting that it appeared to be quite a complex mechanism.

“In my view all Government needs to do is give companies a small tax break for every apprentice,” she says. “If small business can get a tax incentive for taking on apprentices it makes it fiscally worthwhile and I think that you would get their attention. Simple is always better.”