The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) today publishes its Quarterly Economic Survey – the UK’s largest and most authoritative private sector business survey.
Adam Marshall speaks at the BCC Annual Conference
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Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
And thank you very much, Francis.
Colleagues, it is right and proper that we will spend most of today’s conference looking beyond Brexit – where it will be the businesses and communities represented in this room that will drive our future success, come what may.
Yet today we must also give voice to the concerns of our business communities in the face of ongoing political turmoil.
To Westminster we say:
We are frustrated. We are angry.
You have let British business down.
You have focused on soundbites, not substance.
… Tactics, not strategy.
… Politics, not prosperity.
… Listening without hearing.
And as a result businesses and communities in every part of the UK are still unsure about when the future starts – let alone what it holds.
Three years going round in circles.
Three years is long enough.
We in Chambers of Commerce have been practical and pragmatic from the start.
We have campaigned – since the day after the referendum in June 2016 – for clear, precise answers to the real-world questions that face our businesses.
And we have won answers to some of those questions, by doggedly pursuing the detail that our politicians so easily gloss over.
I am proud that most businesses have remained resilient and resolute.
Some have turned uncertainty into real opportunity.
But many others are facing enormous challenges, and are counting the cost of uncertainty as the political impasse at Westminster continues.
In many parts of our economy – real-world damage is happening right now.
… Increased costs.
… Orders lost to competitors elsewhere.
… Contracts unrenewed, or put on hold.
… Investments postponed, cancelled, or diverted elsewhere.
… Queries from customers that simply can’t be answered.
And many more besides.
Chamber members want their voices heard.
And what they are telling us, over and over again, is that they do not want a messy and disorderly exit from the European Union.
We are, now, just two weeks away from yet another Brexit deadline.
Despite the latest debates and votes in the Houses of Parliament – despite the newspaper headlines and endless broadcast reports,
… businesses are none the wiser as to how a messy exit can be avoided on April 12th.
… They are none the wiser as to the terms on which the UK will leave the EU. Or indeed, at this moment, whether we will leave at all.
One thing is clear: the UK is not ready for abrupt change.
… Government and many of its agencies are simply not ready.
… Many businesses are not ready.
… Nor is the general public.
… Some of our business communities – particularly in places like Kent and Northern Ireland – would be acutely affected overnight.
… Too many critical questions remain unanswered.
No one would run a business like this – and it is no way to run a country.
It cannot be right that we leave in a way where government itself predicts there will be mass disruption to businesses and communities.
It cannot be right that some in Westminster shrug off the possibility of shortages that could affect the well-being and the jobs of many people.
A messy and disorderly exit would not just be deeply irresponsible – it would be a flagrant dereliction of duty.
It is true that there are some in business who are so frustrated that they have come to the conclusion that it would be better to simply accept the disruption and damage of a swift no-deal outcome because they believe it will draw a line in the sand, and give them the certainty they so desperately crave.
… But this would have very real dangers.
… It would raise more questions than it answers.
… It would coincide with a looming slowdown in both global and UK economic growth.
… And it is unthinkable without clear leadership and a clear plan for the future.
Throughout this process we have engaged with individuals from across the political spectrum who have listened and have told us that they understand our concerns. But as a collective, they have failed to agree a future path.
Whether led by government or by Parliament, they must now act – to stem the corrosive damage and dislocation of ongoing uncertainty.
Not just for businesses – but for their constituents.
Now it’s true that there is immense fatigue out there after three frustrating years in our national public life.
Businesses want to get on – and escape from the gravitational pull of the Brexit ‘black hole’ that has sapped energy, investment, and confidence for far too long.
But uncertainty is generating a growing list of business casualties and a litany of rising costs.
The damage is happening right now.
… To the business in the West Midlands mothballing its flagship project and putting assets up for sale because its investors want to move their money, and I quote, “to a more stable country”.
… To the Westcountry companies racing against time to move their products across borders to avoid no-deal tariffs that would wipe out their margins.
…. To the business in North East England that has lost its biggest customer due to Brexit uncertainty, and with it over a quarter of its turnover.
… And the agri-food companies in Northern Ireland shifting operations across the border to avoid extreme fluctuations in costs.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg – but they are living proof that the UK’s political impasse is having real-world consequences.
Ladies and gentlemen, I think it is safe to say that every person in this room wants the dispiriting process of the past three years to come to an end.
If the vast majority of our elected representatives say that they want an end to uncertainty and want to avoid a messy and disorderly exit, they must act now.
… They could choose to vote for the withdrawal agreement negotiated by the government over the past two years.
… They could seek a longer extension to the Article 50 process, tied to a concrete purpose and endpoint.
… Or they could choose to revoke Article 50 and commit to membership of the European Union for the immediate future.
All of these options are difficult.
All of them are controversial, with varying levels of support both within our business communities and with the public at large.
And I want to underline that in raising these choices, we are absolutely not endorsing any one of them.
But we in business must make it clear that our elected representatives cannot keep chasing rainbows.
Like all of us in business, they need to start making tough decisions, however personally or politically difficult they might be.
Because all of us in business want to move on from this and get back to talking about creating the best possible environment for businesses to thrive, in every part of the United Kingdom.
We want to restore our hard-won international reputation as a great place to do business.
After all, it is business and trade that will ultimately restore confidence – both across the nations and regions of the UK and with our many partners around the world.
If there is one thing I am sure of, it is that business will lead the way in helping the UK rise to new challenges, seize new opportunities, and shape what comes next.
We have not, and we will not sit back and wait for others to create opportunity.
As business communities – there is much that we can and will do together in the face of relentless political, technological and social change.
As Francis has said, we are working to expand our global network of British Chambers, to build new connections for businesses on every continent world wide – to give just one example.
We are championing the civic businesses who are passionately dedicated not just to profit, but also to their people and the places they call home – and those that embrace innovative and flexible ways of working that fit our changing society.
We will be unapologetic in our support for the big infrastructure projects – both private and public – that will boost local and national economies.
But there are also things that only governments can do – and must do – to create the environment that helps businesses to deliver growth and prosperity.
That is why we as Chambers of Commerce are sharpening our campaigning focus on people, infrastructure and trade.
Calling for change on issues, beyond Brexit, that matter to business communities in every corner of the UK.
The issues that need to be tackled for the long-term growth and prosperity of our nation.
…. A stable training system that works with business to develop the huge potential of our people,
…. And an immigration policy that opens our doors to skills from around the world.
…. A resolute Government commitment to funding and financing our infrastructure,
…. That delivers not just better transport networks, ends digital not-spots, and ensures our energy security.
…. An approach to international trade that fixates less on the political symbolism of trade agreements, and more on helping businesses in the real world to win new customers and explore new global markets.
These are the priorities that we fight for, day in and day out.
Where Chambers of Commerce will work together – and with government – to create the conditions for success both here at home and around the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, the next chapter of our national story is about to be written.
It is a chapter that will be marked by the challenges of Brexit and global economic change.
It will be a tough period for many in business who will be forced to take difficult decisions due to factors far beyond their own control.
But it will also be a time when the dedication and passion of British business truly shines through.
The steely determination to be successful here at home and across the globe – no matter what.
Through it all, Chambers of Commerce will be there for business, looking ahead with confidence – and a fierce belief in what we can achieve together.
Thank you all for being with us here today.