Jonathan Riley: We need a community to speak for business

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THIS year is going to see a General Election that will be like no other in my lifetime. The country has gone through the worst recession since the Second World War, with years of little or no growth.

This has admittedly picked up in recent months, and although unemployment has remained lower than in previous recessions, wage growth has stalled, and has remained stagnant.

This has meant that living standards for the majority have declined markedly in real terms and remain below pre-crash levels.

As such, politicians will be battling harder than ever for the electorate’s support, focused on promises that will have a tangible impact, direct to individuals.

The obvious subjects will dominate the election campaign, and we have already had a taste of this in connection with the challenges faced within the NHS A&E departments. Europe will feature strongly, as will environmental issues and further devolution – to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as to the regions, especially Yorkshire.

But all of these things, and the spending and cost saving implications that follow as a consequence, need to be paid for. 

This is where I climb onto my soapbox. Without a vibrant business sector which encourages start-ups, nurtures business growth and allows corporates to prosper, all the while rightly rewarding those stakeholders who have taken the risks to make the business work, we will not have the levels of tax revenue necessary to provide the essential public services we have grown to expect.

Nor indeed those we believe should be essential to provide for the fairer society we all aspire towards. All political parties are guilty of throwing pledges around like confetti at a wedding. Talk is cheap – actually paying for things isn’t.

The use of the word “wealth” can attract jealousy. It shouldn’t. As an economy, we need wealth, and the creators of it to prosper, understanding that all benefit in part from the wealth and prosperity that is created.

This is, however, all reliant on having profitable UK businesses that are relevant, that are innovative, that can export and which invest in skills and product development.

The jobs created and taxes paid ultimately pay the bills of the public services we need.

I am head of tax at Grant Thornton in the UK. It is a role that I am proud to fulfil and I take my responsibilities with the utmost seriousness.

As a result, in the last 12 months or so, in addition to the “day job”, I have used the platform my role gives me to focus some of my time on raising the needs of mid-sized businesses (MSBs) with Government, Opposition and within Whitehall.

And not just from a tax perspective. My role has enabled me to engage with many MSBs, within Yorkshire and throughout the UK, around a range of issues – skills, apprenticeships,the regulatory regime, access to finance, and help to export to name but a few.

The traction I have experienced with Ministers and shadow Ministers gives me hope that “they” get that a dynamic private sector led economy is vital if we are to have a fairer society where all can have the chance to benefit. 

This is true of all the main parties and the recent Autumn Statement, for example, resulted in a number of measures being announced that will directly help MSBs.

However, being in the early stages of the election campaign, politicians and their parties tend to revert to their most primal mode, that of fight and survival. Going for soundbites and knocking copy.

I am not going to be able stop this, but I will continue to lobby, write and tweet to try to bring balance to their pledges with a focus on what business needs as well.

I believe passionately that people like me need to stand up for business. I also believe, as it happens, that too many in the professional services business community do not do enough to speak out for their constituents – those who actually start up, grow and run businesses.

This is especially true for the MSBs segment who often have their needs overlooked by policy makers in favour of those of the Megaphone-voiced larger entities who have the resourceto put forward and argue their own cases; as well as small businesses who enjoy a plethora of support from bodies such as the Chambers of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses.

These are controversial comments and may very well cause me to be dropped from a few people’s Christmas card lists, but in Yorkshire we used to have a community of many who would speak out for business, putting to one side professional business rivalry for the common good. We need to get back to this.

I call on all business leaders, especially those in the professional services community, to act on behalf of and represent the interests of business as we head through this election campaign.

We need to ensure that the needs of business are not lost within the cacophony of a campaign that will become tribal. That we work together to try to ensure that it is not dominated by political class shouting at political class. Instead, that it is focused on the needs of business and in so doing is relevant to all of Britain’s needs, both social and economic, meaning we can together work towards achieving our aspirational society.

• Jonathan Riley is national head of tax at Grant Thornton. He was born in Hull and lives in Yorkshire.