Comment: A little more Vince Cable, a little less Osborne please

By Hamant Verma

With the coalition keen to promote its agenda for economic growth this month, it should listen to calls by SMEs for a bit more Vince (Cable) and a little less George (Osborne) as we approach the busiest time of the year for retailers – and to ensure the government's messages about the economy are more relevant to Joe Public than Hooray Henry.

The impression that I have gained from the public and from business people is that Britain has had its fill of Osbornics for this year and it is time to put business rather than high finance on the agenda.

Actually, it is time to talk about the things that Vince Cable was talking about after he joined the Cabinet and before metaphors such as Europe being stuck in a blazing house began to dominate statements by the coalition.

And when it gets to the stage that advisers and economists seriously theorise that warmer-than-normal weather or a keen easterly breeze is to blame for a lack of growth in the country, it is probably time someone swapped their briefcases for shopping baskets.

I am sure that most politicians feel helpless and a sense of dislocation when they tune into the news to learn about the latest saga in this global economic drama. After all, that is what reading too much about economics does.

But it must not disguise the fact that there are practical things they can do to help businesses in their localities through deregulation – and there is something they can do right now to prevent the implementation of a scheme that the Federation of Small Businesses has termed 'anti-growth'.

I was invited by the National Asian Business Association to attend a Local Better Regulation Workship (LBRO) workshop to build relations between ethnic minority businesses and regulators, such as local authorities. And there was no mention of Europe or Goldman Sachs – just some common sense ideas to cut business people a bit of slack.

For example, it is vital that businesses have a strong working relationship with health and safety inspectors. This is precisely why it is the wrong time to extend its current systems of cost recovery.

The Health and Safety Exectutive (HSE) wants to include a fee for intervention, where an inspector will charge for the inspection and any subsequent actions when a material fault has been found.

The HSE itself estimates that it will cost a business at least £750 for an inspection. Furthermore, those businesses that wish to challenge the result of their inspection may have to cover the whole costs of the dispute if their complaint is not upheld. You would never guess that the HSE is facing a 35% budget cut, hey?

The idea to extend charges at this time is like giving a business people a slap in the face with a sterilised glove.

With the language of war so readily used by politicians when they discuss the economic crisis in Europe, some cool heads at the event that manage or represent small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) pleaded with regulators for an amnesty so their perspectives could be aired.

They want authorities to stop unannounced inspections and instead give them a notice period because it will enable the inspections to act as an incentive to improve their working practices rather than something to be feared.

They want inspections to take place either at the beginning or at the end of the working day, so the visits do not affect productivity.

They also want a 'one-stop shop' where they can get expert advice and complete applications with minimal fuss and cost.

They want more advice about regulations and laws that govern the internet before they
take their businesses online.

They want regulators, such as local authorities to simplify the language they use in their literature, in print, online and when they conduct inspections – and appreciate that ethnic minority SMEs still find language a barrier to effective communication with regulators.

Don't underestimate that final point because race can be an obstacle when dealing with regulators.

I know that Brent Council and its partner Capita have made a lot of effort in the past month to visit SME premises in its multicultural borough to inform them about methods to claim small business rate relief. However, it does not provide any literature about how to claim small business rate relief (SBRR) in Portuguese. Nor does it have any Portuguese speakers that answer its SBRR customer services phone line, despite the growth of small business that are run by Brazilians or Portuguese in the borough.

The council would probably plead the case that there is a limit on how many different languages you can fit on an A4 sheet of paper but the point is still worth being made!

And the bidding process for Olympic contracts has exposed the weak relationship between regulators and black-owned businesses, according to Wade Lyn of Cleone Foods, whose pasties will feed visitors at the Olympics next summer.

He said many of these businesses did not have a detailed enough understanding of compliance, such as health and safety regulations, or the networks and lobbying experience necessary to get these contracts. It never occurred to these businesses to bid as a consortium, for example.

Cable told Reuters on Monday that "They [European leaders] now see light at the end of the tunnel."

The bad news that he must now comment about in the UK was summed up by Sonia Brown, of National Black Women's Network, at the event. She said: "Small businesses feel they are in a hole and there is no hope of getting out."

But the good news is that Brown's comments were a reaction to learning about HSE charges, which Cable can do something about.

Targeting changes to regulation, especially HSE's £750 charge for faults found during an inspection, until things are better in the economy, would make a real difference in the real world.

Hamant Verma edited both the Asian Rich List and India Business Report for three years

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