Vital to listen to views of our SMEs

News that the electorate in Northern Ireland is to go the polls again for the seventh time in less than five years was not met with relish by owners of small businesses, however, any election is opportunity that must not be missed.

Tuesday, 12th November 2019, 10:04 am
Tina McKenzie, policy chair, Federation of Small Businesses Northern Ireland. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

As politicians seek support and make all sorts of commitments, FSB has been engaging with policy makers to ensure the concerns of small business owners right across the UK are heard and that party manifestos set out the right response to the issues faced by our SMEs. The votes of over five million small business owners are there to be won, so parties need to show their commitment and business-friendly credentials if they are to prevail.

However unwelcome a Christmas election may be, there is recognition that the current political situation has reached an impasse and an election may be required to break the Parliamentary deadlock. This election will fall at the busiest time of year for many businesses, bringing a new dimension to what is already a unique contest. We have to go back to 1923 to find another election that took place in December, however many commentators have made the parallel with the snap election of October 1974, when Parliament was similarly gridlocked.

While there is no doubting that Brexit will be to the fore in this election it is absolutely crucial that we do not lose sight of those key domestic issues which affect the day to day running of businesses much more than Brexit. Issues like late payments of suppliers by larger companies; how much tax we pay and how we pay it; and how we are going to be able to find and hire new staff. The relationship that the UK is going to have with its nearest market – the EU – after Brexit is a vital part of the discussion.

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Mixed messages were received from the current government on the implications of the Withdrawal Agreement for business, and these have been deeply unhelpful. Persistent uncertainty has already taken a heavy toll, with a third of small businesses telling us that they have delayed investment. This underscores why the Brexit situation needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

The initial days of the election campaign have seen parties discuss issues other than Brexit, such as health, education and infrastructure as they attempt to build a broad coalition of support. Of course, all of these issues are devolved in Northern Ireland, there is no likelihood of these vital matters being significantly addressed here, irrespective of the outcome. This remains an unacceptable blight on Northern Ireland’s economic prospects and a deeply shameful situation.

Notwithstanding, we must engage and ensure that these issues are given the profile and responses they deserve, both those UK-wide policies that affect the business environment, as well as those which will apply in Northern Ireland and will have to be delivered by whatever system of administration is to be applied.

While politicians will seek to appeal to different constituencies and sectors of the electorate, it is vital that they listen to the views of Northern Ireland’s 132,000 SME owners who are part of the UK’s 5.8 million strong small business community who will be looking to Westminster to provide clarity, direction and confidence. Ensuring policies are business-friendly and tailored to their needs is not only beneficial to SMEs but also for the health of the wider economy.

Having already engaged with policy makers, FSB will this week be publishing our policy proposals to help improve the business climate in which small firms operate. Some of these will help small businesses throughout the UK, such as by making tax simpler and reducing barriers to increasing employment, while others are reflective of the need for immediate action in Northern Ireland. The continued absence of devolved government at Stormont does not negate the need to improve infrastructure; help with skills challenges; and assist SMEs with changes to trading as a result of Brexit.

Adopting the proposals advocated by FSB can provide a roadmap for the next government to alleviate the uncertainty which has plagued business in recent years and provide a pathway to help small businesses achieve their ambitions. In so doing, it can create prosperity in local communities throughout the United Kingdom.