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Brexit: Small Businesses

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the preparedness of small business for a no-deal Brexit.

My Lords, the Government have provided ample communication setting out the steps that businesses need to take to prepare for a no-deal scenario. As we set out in Implications for Business and Trade of a No Deal Exit on 29 March 2019, published last week, there is little evidence that businesses are preparing in earnest for a no-deal scenario; evidence indicates that readiness of small and medium-sized enterprises is particularly low.

My Lords, the Government’s own no-deal impact assessment last week revealed the bleak picture that only 17% of small businesses that trade exclusively with the EU had signed up to the necessary identification to continue trade in Europe. Small businesses are far less able to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. They lack the legal and regulatory expertise to do so, and the cash and the space to stockpile. They, and we, are staring disaster in the face. Should we not put a stop to this madness now, halt the Brexit process and give everyone whose livelihoods and futures are at risk a say on the deal?

My Lords, I remind the noble Baroness that no deal is the legal default position as agreed by both Houses, and that until we agree a deal, that will remain the case. What is important therefore is that another place, or Parliament as a whole, agrees a deal and gets behind the Prime Minister, so that business can have the certainty that is needed.

My Lords, of the licences to which the noble Baroness just referred, only 40,000 of the 240,000 companies that export to the EU have registered for those licences, and the capacity to issue those licences is currently only for 11,000 a day. Therefore, with 29 March getting closer, could the Minister say what precautions are being taken to increase the capacity for issuing these essential licences?

My Lords, the important thing is that businesses themselves get their act together and apply for the licences. As we made clear in that document last week—and this is why we published it—there is a failing on the part of many small businesses to apply for those licences. I am grateful to my noble friend for highlighting that again. There is capacity to deal with this in the time available, and we hope that small and medium-sized businesses will take note of the advice we have given them.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many British workers who run small businesses in the services sector are already losing contracts with EU companies because of their insistence on British access to the single market, in other words, free movement of people? In these instances, it makes no difference whether it is May’s deal or no deal.

My Lords, I do not accept that. What is important is that we get a deal, and that is what we should all be behind. That is what businesses want and what we should all look for.

My Lords, we are 584 hours away from Brexit and we are discussing business preparedness, or the lack of it. Labour has repeatedly urged the Government to take no deal off the table, and believes that the threat of no deal is creating unnecessary uncertainty for businesses both large and small. In your Lordships’ House, we are dealing daily with SIs that will impact on the services, productivity and finances of SMEs. Would not the Minister’s department’s time be better spent dealing with some of the more pressing issues for SMEs, such as the scandal of late payments and other day to day issues, rather than working on a no-deal Brexit that nobody wants?

My Lords, all I can do is to repeat the position we are in at the moment. No deal is the default position. What is important is that we get a deal; that is what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is seeking to do. If she had support from the party opposite, that would be a great deal of help.

My Lords, the overwhelming cry coming from businesses large and small is: “Tell us what our trading environment will be in 25 days’ time”. Does the Minister really think that any of the messages will get through when the credibility of the Government is completely shot if they cannot answer that question?

My Lords, we have been offering advice to businesses as to what they ought to do. We also made it clear in the document we published last week that we think a lot of businesses have not done what they ought to be doing: making preparations in case there is no deal because, as I made clear, no deal is the default position. What is important is that we get behind the Prime Minister and get a deal.

My Lords, in the light of what my noble friend said about making ample information available, is he able to cast light on the report in the Financial Times that the Department for International Trade is to cease the preparedness meetings that it has been holding with business? It is of course public knowledge that the department is very much behind hand in reaching agreements with our trading partners. If it is now ceasing to provide information, that really seems to be something of a dereliction of duty.

My Lords, without having seen that report in the Financial Times, I cannot comment on it but I can make it clear that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is having regular meetings with representatives of all businesses. He will continue to do so to offer as much advice and support as he and the department as a whole can.

My Lords, on the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, the Minister assured the House that if all 200,000 small businesses which have not yet registered do so, there is the capacity to deal with that before 29 March. Can he assure the House on the very important point that the noble Baroness raised?

My Lords, I am satisfied that there is capacity to deal with those businesses which want or need to do so.