'Small firms need clarity - and a better skills pipeline' says FSB head

Mike Cherry, national chairman of the FSB, pictured in Belfast, where he spoke to the Irish News on issues around Brexit, rates and skills
Gary McDonald Business Editor

BUSINESSES in the north “need clarity on Brexit - and they need it now”, small firms chief Mike Cherry insists.

And he has lambasted the impact of the current business rating system as “a regressive and unfair tax, which is anti-growth”.

Mr Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), which has around 6,000 members in Northern Ireland, was speaking during a visit to Belfast, where he admitted he was “frustrated and angry” at the perfect storm of Brexit uncertainty and political malaise.

“It adds up to a dangerous combination for small business owners, and it's fair to say confidence is in the doldrums right now,” he told the Irish News.

“It also comes in the wake of the introduction of Making Tax Digital, where HMRC is forcing VAT-registered businesses to comply and where the software required to meet MTD obligations alone is costing an average of more than £500.

“Small firms are such a vital component in the UK economy, the lifeblood of our high streets, town centres and local communities, even more so here in Northern Ireland, so its crucial they are supported and their value recognised.”

Mr Cherry welcomed the announcement last month by the Department of Finance that a “full and comprehensive review of business rates” would be undertaken in the north.

He said: “Rates are a disproportionate burden on smaller businesses and restrict their ability to invest, grow and create jobs.

“A significantly higher proportion of small businesses in GB are exempt from rates compared to their counterparts in Northern Ireland, and the benefit of enhanced rates relief announced by the chancellor at the last budget was not passed on to firms here.

“We look forward to having substantive discussions with the Department and seek to change rates policy so we can help SMEs survive and thrive.”

He added: “Business rates is an unfair, regressive tax that hits small firms before they've made their first pound in turnover, let alone profit.”

On the issue of Brexit, Mr Cherry said small business in Northern Ireland have been “left hamstrung by the uncertainty,” and said the FSB has been unwavering in its view that then need clarity on a range of issues, principally that there remains free and open access to trade.

Skills has also been a major issue for the FSB, and Mr Cherry added: “Any company is only as good as its people. To be a successful, business owners need to be able to access the right people with the right skills, in the right place and at the right time.

“We've always been able to meet our labour and skills needs by taking advantage of access to workers particularly from the EU, but the decision to leave has called into question the viability of this arrangement.

“But going forward we need to make sure skills are better aligned to our business needs, otherwise it threatens our productivity, economic resilience and international competitiveness, and there's a huge onus on the education system to do more to ensure our future labour and skills needs are met.”

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