Business accused of 'fiddling while Rome burns' over Brexit preparedness

MPs on the Exiting the EU Select Committee accused businesses in Northern Ireland of not prepared for a no-deal scenario on Brexit
Gary McDonald Business Editor

BUSINESSES in the north have been lambasted by a powerful Westminster committee for effectively 'fiddling while Rome burns' by not planning for a no-deal Brexit.

Members on the Exiting the EU Select Committee rounded on local business chiefs when a delegation was in London today to give evidence in the inquiry into progress of the UK’s negotiations on withdrawal from the union and the proposed arrangements for the Northern Ireland backstop.

Despite businesses claiming they simply can't forward-plan because there are still too many "unknowns" around what will happen after March 29 next, MPs Peter Bone and Christopher Chope insisted they ought to be better prepared.

"Why do none of you seem to be making any contingency plans for no-deal, when there's never been a guarantee there will be any deal?" Mr Chope asked the six-strong northern delegation, made up of four business groups and two academics.

And Mr Bone added: "You've known we've been coming out of the EU since June 2016 and now you're just waking up with five minutes to go that there might not be a deal. You've not done a pretty good job."

It came as a survey by the NI Chamber of Commerce revealed that nearly half (47 per cent) of businesses in Northern Ireland have not yet sought Brexit advice because of the uncertainty over a deal.

Only one in three have sought help from accountants, lawyers, private business advisers or the government, breaking down as 40 per cent of medium or large firms, 27 per cent of small companies and 21 per cent of micro-businesses.

The Northern Ireland grouping at Westminster comprised Declan Billington (NI Food and Drink Association), Stephen Kelly (Manufacturing NI), Aodhan Connolly (NI Retail Consortium), Seamus Leheny (Freight Transport Association), Dr Katy Hayward (Queen’s University) and Dr David Shiels (Open Europe).

Mr Billington, responding to the criticism from MPs Chope and Bone, said the food and drink sector had produced a paper two years ago identifying threats and opportunities from Brexit, but claimed the government was not geared up for it and the policy framework is still not in place.

Mr Kelly challenged the MPs to look at the official no deal technical notices and "judge for yourself the advice government has been sending out to Northern Ireland businesses".

Elsewhere Mr Connolly painted a doomsday scenario for the north's already struggling retail sector and described Brexit as "the perfect storm" for Northern Ireland shoppers.

He said: “Retailers need to see rapid progress towards a deal and a transition period. Businesses still can’t plan effectively and have real fears that shoppers will be badly affected by the inevitable delays from a no deal Brexit.

“We already have half the discretionary income of GB households, we already pay more for essentials such as fuel, we are the only part of the UK with a land border and we don’t have a government to advise our businesses on how to prepare.

“EU and UK negotiating teams must deliver a withdrawal agreement to avoid the severe consequences that would result from a cliff edge scenario next March.

“Quite simply, shoppers here cannot afford to absorb the cost rises of a no deal Brexit. The cumulative burden could be devastating for Northern Ireland households."

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