Big business must recognise public perception

Alistair Phillips-Davies, chief executive of energy firm SSE. Picture: Neil Hanna
Alistair Phillips-Davies, chief executive of energy firm SSE. Picture: Neil Hanna
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BIG business must recognise that the public, rightly or wrongly, sees us as bending the rules, writes Alistair Phillips-Davies.

This week SSE hosted an event in London on the role of a good corporation in modern society which I hope will kick start a bit of a national debate.

It’s my belief that big business in Scotland and the rest of the UK has a problem with trust – and we need to urgently fix that.

SSE and Icas – the professional accountancy body – have just published exclusive YouGov research on public attitudes to tax paid by corporations and it makes for alarming reading for companies of our size and scale.

There is one result from the research that demonstrates the problem perfectly.

Just 34 per cent of people believe that big businesses, generally speaking, pay their fair share of tax, yet 80 per cent believe that small businesses do.

I believe that the notion that big businesses have the resources and the wherewithal to bend the system in their favour is at the heart of this lack of trust.

What’s at stake is much more serious than some technical argument over what is bending a rule and what is a proper way to plan complex corporate tax affairs.

This is about legitimacy and the permission to be commercially successful within the society that enables business to exist.

At SSE we’ve been trying to understand the problem – that’s why we’ve been undertaking research on public opinion. But more importantly we have been working to do something about it.

It seems to us, that if you pay people a fair wage, you contribute a fair share of tax and are transparent in doing so.

If you invest in people and you seek to respond to society’s greatest challenges, then you might have a chance of gaining the trust from your customers that is so vital for a business to be successful.

Businesses that are successful in a way that’s sustainable are vital contributors to a healthy society. So far, that has been the SSE response to the challenge of what makes a good corporation in today’s world.

But this is a collective challenge that all chief executives, across all sectors, must be up for.

• Alistair Phillips-Davies is the chief executive of energy firm SSE.

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