Giving the North a voice over Brexit

Allie Renison Picture Tony Johnson.
Allie Renison Picture Tony Johnson.
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As Brexit approaches, the North of England has an outspoken advocate in Allie Renison, the Head of Europe and Trade Policy at the Institute of Directors.

One of the pet hates of every provincial journalist is the analyst who never ventures outside the Westminster bubble.

When some commentators refer to “the North” they appear to be talking about an LS Lowry painting; a landscape in which individual drive and enterprise never comes to the fore.

The Yorkshire Post business desk is often the unhappy recipient of calls from London-based public relations consultants whose understanding of northern geography seems to be based on a medieval map.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to spend time with Allie Renison, the Head of Europe and Trade Policy at the Institute of Directors (IoD).

Since the vote in favour of leaving the European Union, she has travelled the length and breadth of the UK, holding face-to-face meetings with IoD members to provide them with her analysis of the latest twists in the Brexit negotiations.

She also hears concerns voiced by hundreds of business people who work in a wide variety of sectors, so she can tell the Government about them.

Mr Renison has decided to take on a demanding schedule of personal appearances to ensure that she can speak up for business leaders in every UK region with real authority.

She doesn’t operate out of a think-tank’s cloisters. Unlike many self-appointed ‘experts’, she has actually met many of the bosses who are deeply worried about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit.

Ms Renison, who holds a masters degree in the political economy of emerging economies in the post-Soviet space, is fiercely critical of anyone who makes glib assumptions about commercial life outside London.

Here, for example, is her Twitter response to a pundit who described manufacturing as “outdated”: “You serious? Most of the manufacturing in this country is advanced, niche and innovating by turning to add services to their mix.

“What an inaccurate, unnecessary generalising slur, just because they trade with the EU and internationally and want to avoid no-deal.”

There is nothing mealy-mouthed about Ms Renison, who describes herself as a “transplanted DC native” and splits her time between London and Dundee.

She has developed a strong affinity with Yorkshire since the EU referendum. She has frequently visited the county to speak to business leaders about the potential shape of the post-Brexit world.

Ms Renison was the star turn at a sell-out IoD lunch which was held at the Mansion in Roundhay Park, Leeds. She is in demand as a speaker and TV pundit, but is in her element meeting real businesspeople.

“One thing that unites everyone is that we don’t know what it [the post Brexit landscape] will look like,’’ she said.

Companies have a range of concerns, with those trading in goods very worried about potential delays at the border, which could cause problems getting supplies to customers.

Ms Renison also said that the “visibility” of no-deal planning in the UK came later than people might have expected. She said: “When you look at EU planning [for no deal], the EU sent out documents on what you should do with a no-deal at least six months to possibly a year before the UK Government started issuing its own no-deal notices.

“One of the things we would like to have seen, which you do see in other countries like Ireland and the Netherlands, is financial assistance being provided by Government to help businesses to actually plan.”

She added: “We don’t really have any of that here in the UK, which is a big concern because most SMEs cannot afford the really tailored professional advice that you need to map out all of your supply chain to figure out how to insulate yourself from any potential impact.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We have carried out extensive preparations for more than two years to help get people and businesses ready for all scenarios, including no deal.

“Last year we published 106 Technical Notices on a range of topics, including advice for businesses on potential changes to data protection, copyright and intellectual property.

“Since then we have accelerated our preparations for Brexit, including publishing over 100 pages of guidance for businesses on processes and procedures at the border in a ‘no deal’ scenario.”

The spokesman said the Government had written three times to 145,000 businesses advising them what action they needed to take on customs in the event of no deal. The Government has also advised hundreds of ports, traders, pharmaceutical firms and other organisations which use the border about potential disruption so they can get their supply chains ready, the spokesman said.

The Government has also held more than 200 “outreach and engagement events” since November 2017 across Europe for UK nationals and businesses in the EU.

Ms Renison also said that there was a case for some form of “preferential reciprocal scheme” for labour movement between the UK and the EU after Brexit.

She added: “When you look at the issue of geographic proximity, there are lots of other examples around the world where you see countries that are physically close together actually having a preferential scheme for the movement of labour.

“You see that between Australia and New Zealand... so the same rationale and logic should apply for access to EU nationals, particularly when you’re moving engineers, for example, at short notice.”

Ms Renison added: “A lot of people have pan-European operations that they need to move staff quickly around.

“So, even if it is not full-on freedom of movement, some kind of preferential reciprocal scheme for movement of labour is massively important.”

These sentiments echo concerns raised by many business leaders who believe they will still need access to skilled EU labour after Brexit.

Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), also believes the Government should encourage EU workers to come to the UK after Brexit to help tackle “biting” skills shortages in areas such as health and social care.

Mr Carberry said EU nationals were needed to help fill labour shortages. He said multi-national teams are needed at highly skilled levels, where teams are serving clients in many countries from the UK.

One of the biggest problems facing businesses is a lack of clarity over the type of Brexit that will finally be delivered.

“Only belatedly are now politicians, almost three years after we voted to leave, still arguing with themselves about what leave meant, what leave should look like and whether we should leave at all,’’ said Ms Renison.

“When we asked businesses there was a surprisingly large number who thought a referendum would be the best way through the impasse. That reflects the lack of confidence businesses have in the politicians to actually sort this out between themselves.

“There are a lot of questions that could have been consulted on earlier, that’s for sure.”

You can’t help but feel that such woolly thinking would never have been permitted if Ms Renison had been given the task of negotiating an orderly exit from the EU.