Dear Members of Parliament,
As you head off on recess today and step away from the Westminster bubble – here’s a bit of homework on behalf of the business communities that we both represent.
Over the next six weeks, redouble your efforts to listen to businesses in your constituency – and ask them what you can do to help answer the practical, real-world questions they face at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and change.
Make even more time to learn about the realities of the local business environment, and the challenges and opportunities facing those who create jobs and prosperity in your area.
Use this time to gather evidence on the ground, away from the 30,000-foot ideological debates of SW1.
Firms don’t care about parliamentary arithmetic and ministerial intrigue around Brexit. Most companies are, in fact, sick to the back teeth of the Westminster Brexit tug-of-war.
What they really need to know is who they’ll be able to hire in future, how they’ll pay VAT, whether their goods will be stopped at borders, and whether the contracts they enter into will be enforceable.
They need clarity, precision and reassurance. The longer businesses wait to understand what the future UK-EU relationship, the bigger the hit to near-term investment, expansion and confidence.
The clock is ticking. As our recent Business Brexit Risk Register makes clear, 22 of the 24 top real-world issues facing businesses are glowing ‘red’ – and only two are ‘amber’, reflecting limited progress. Your mission during recess should be to explore these concerns with your business constituents – and return to Westminster determined to get practical answers.
Whatever your political party, business also needs you to challenge the government of the day to give clear answers on how it would deal with an inconclusive negotiation and a rocky exit from the EU. We need to know how everything from immigration to customs to regional funding would function on these shores in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit – and all of the answers are entirely within the UK’s own control.
That said, Brexit isn’t the only thing where business needs action. As I’ve said before, even the best possible Brexit deal is worthless if we don’t get the fundamentals for growth and prosperity right here at home.
Take a tour around companies in your constituency and ask them about the biggest current barrier to growth. The overwhelming majority will have the same answer: people.
Chamber research shows we’re currently in the midst of a mass labour shortage, as firms struggle to find the people they need. Businesses recognise they have a role to play in creating a pipeline of future talent, but for too long Westminster has been tinkering with the training system and introducing piecemeal policies, undermining the stability and coherence of the system, and causing companies to disengage. Join us in advocating for a stable apprenticeship and training system – one where we have a coherent long-term strategy and an end to constant upheaval.
Talk to firms, too, about the importance of immigration to dealing with skills gaps – with the government set to publish its Immigration White Paper in the autumn. Listen to businesses of all sizes and sectors – facing skills gaps at every level – and think about the local economy in your area will suffer if access to these skills is restricted by heavy costs and Home Office bureaucracy in the years ahead.
Over recess, talk to businesses about the cost of doing business in your area. No surprises if they tell you that costs have been rising inexorably, as firms face inflation and wage pressures compounded by poor digital and mobile connectivity, congestion, and ever-higher up-front taxes and costs.
Many will bend your ear on business rates – and not just on the high street – because this broken system needs further reform and change to make it fairer and less of a block to investment.
Others will want to talk about the impact of potholes and deteriorating rail services, or the lack of mobile phone signal and decent broadband in their areas. These bread-and-butter issues need to be at the top of your in-tray, not just now but as we approach the Budget this autumn. Use the evidence you glean from business to propose changes that help them spend less coping with the business environment, and more on investment, productivity and risk-taking.
These are the issues that your businesses care about – and the issues they need you to champion when you return to Westminster.
So as you return home, spend time with your local Chamber and its civic-minded businesses, who are plugging away at the coal face at this time of great change.
Help them get practical answers on Brexit – and champion a far stronger set of domestic economic policies that support growth and confidence.
And when you return to Westminster in September, translate what you hear into tangible action – and ensure parliament makes decisions based not on ideology, but on the evidence from those who generate jobs, wealth and prosperity.
With all best wishes for a busy and productive recess – and an autumn dedicated to getting answers for your business constituents.
British Chambers of Commerce
Dr Adam Marshall is Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce (@BCCAdam)
This article first appeared in Times Red Box on July 24th – to subscribe, visit www.thetimes.co.uk