When it comes to business confidence, Brexit isn’t so much the elephant in the room as the insomniac neighbour who is addicted to thrash metal; it is simply drowning out everything else.
When respected, canny and successful firms like Bettys & Taylors warn of challenging times due to the economic uncertainty, the Government should sit up and listen.
The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has just published its ‘real-world questions’ being asked on Brexit by businesses across the UK. It says the Government has managed to make limited progress on just two of the 24 issues where clarity is urgently needed.
In fairness, Bettys & Taylors’ results do not actually mention the ‘B’ word. But it’s hard to see what else can be cited as the main cause of this damaging sense of unease. Meanwhile, the BCC – which speaks for firms of all sizes and across all sectors – cannot contain its exasperation.
The business organisation is calling on the Government to draw a line under internal political debate and deliver clarity on the practical, detailed issues that underpin trade “or face a continued deterioration in investment intentions and confidence as the clock ticks down to complete the UK’s withdrawal agreement”.
The BCC statement continues: “To date, businesses have had some assurances on the status of EU nationals in the UK workforce and on the industrial standards regime – hence the ‘amber’ ratings for these two issues.”
Alarmingly, all other issues carry a ‘red’ warning.
Here are just a few of the unresolved matters that are causing nightmares for firms up and down Britain. On tax, for example, the BCC wants to know whether a business will need to pay VAT on goods at point of import, and whether services firms will need to be registered in every EU state where they have clients. The BCC is also demanding to know what ‘Rules of Origin’ firms will have to comply with to receive preferential tariff rates.
With regards to customs, the BCC wants to know whether goods will face new procedures, and delays at border checkpoints.
Other unanswered questions highlighted by the BCC relate to staff mobility. Many firms have operations in the UK and the EU. They need to move staff quickly to the place they can operate most efficiently. The BCC is seeking clarity over whether businesses will be able to transfer staff between the EU and the UK using the same processes as currently exist.
If our economy is to keep growing we must invest in innovation. Research and development (R&D) work is the lifeblood of all businesses, and in recent years, much of the expertise in this area has come from the EU. The BCC wants to know whether UK businesses will still be able to participate in EU R&D projects after 2020.
To quote Adam Marshall, the director general of the BCC: “Over the past two years, businesses have been patient. We have supported the Government’s drive to seek the best possible deal for the UK economy. We have given time, expertise and real-world experience to support hard-pressed civil service negotiators. We have convened meetings all across the UK to ensure that every business community’s Brexit concerns can be heard by elected representatives and officials.
“Now, with the time running out ahead of the UK’s exit from the EU, business patience is reaching breaking point
“Businesses have every right to speak out when it is abundantly clear that the practical questions affecting the competitiveness of their firms and the livelihoods of millions of people remain unanswered.”
As Mr Marshall observed, these are not “siren voices” or special interests.
He added: “They are the practical, real-world concerns of businesses of every size and sector, in every part of the UK.”
Business leaders are innately resilient. Every day they face down challenges thrown in their paths by the appalling transport system, and the skills deficit.
But our shambolic preparations for Brexit have pushed them too far. It will take years of skilled negotiations to rebuild trust between business and the Government.