All this swap and change is bad for SMEs

SMEs face uncertainty.

Last week I sat for an hour or so with a couple of entrepreneurs. They have both founded more than one business and are both heavily involved in helping to promote the UK’s start-up and small business economy, one through Start-up Britain and the other through Young Brits and the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance. As often happens when you talk to entrepreneurs, the discussion turned to the relationship between government and business and the role government plays in promoting a better environment for those running a business. Both were clear that the UK has a long and noble tradition of an economy built on small business, with several references during the conversation to Napoleon’s description of a "nation of shopkeepers".

The consensus, as it often is, was that government’s role is to create the conditions for start-ups and existing businesses to grow and thrive and then get out of the way and let them get on with it. "We need an end to this constant political need to announce new initiatives," said Alex Mitchell, co-founder of Young Brits. In short, both wanted a bit less government. In fairness, the stated ambition of most politicians for the last 20 years (and maybe longer) has been reducing red tape. This chimes well with entrepreneurs, but all the talking has hardly resulted in less regulation. The current government has made a lot of its commitment to red-tape reduction. It has appointed two "entrepreneurs in residence" at BIS, launched a Red Tape Challenge and promised that all new legislation will be introduced on a "one-in, one-out" basis.

It was interesting last week to see a number of legislative announcements within a few days of each other, all purporting to make life easier for those running businesses. At least two of them will impose new reporting requirements on some or all listed companies. What’s given with one hand in terms of easing the burden on businesses seems bound to be whipped away with the other.

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act is intended to make life easier for those running small businesses and in large part it has been welcomed as achieving that by those it aims to help. But as is often the case, simplification is complicated and the new rules and regulations surrounding areas such as settlement agreements will require entrepreneurs to put in time and effort to understand them. In the long-term there may be benefits for those running SMEs, but in the short term the time pressures may increase. The entrepreneurs last week were clear the best red tape reduction policy of all would be for the government to just stop doing things. A moratorium on any new policy announcements would be the best initiative.

Less welcome in some quarters (judging by reactions to our story on it) was the announcement of changes to the Companies Act requiring listed companies to divulge information in their annual reports on subjects such as diversity (giving the breakdown of the number of men and women on their board, in senior management positions and across the company as a whole), the company’s greenhouse gas emissions and human rights, as well as a new strategic report that focuses on the business model, strategy and risks to replace the existing business report. Even those who welcomed some of these changes (partly out of desire to see this narrative part of company reports be more useful) reacted negatively to the tight timetable imposed, with the changes due to come into force from 1 October, 2013.

Elsewhere, the EU was also trumpeting simplification while adding in a degree of complexity for some companies. The abolition of mandatory quarterly reporting was welcomed by most, but the requirement for country-by-country reporting in certain sectors was less welcomed by those affected, although it will please those keen to see greater transparency in reporting. The new accounting framework also reduces reporting requirements on small and micro businesses, although the category of micro business is a new addition to the regulations.

These are just some of the recent changes announced and all from last week. The net result of all this change is uncertainty. One thing that those at the sharp end, running businesses, talk about is the need for greater certainty. The confidence to invest in their businesses, which is ultimately what will be behind any sustained economic recovery, depends on it. Perhaps it is time for the politicians to leave business to just get on running and growing their businesses.

This piece first appeared on economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder