Posted on Friday 10 January 2014 by Ulster Business

APR Budget Wilfredl

Wilfred Mitchell OBE, Policy Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland, says the organisation and its members still have big concerns around access to finance, employment law and energy.

Do you expect 2014 to be a better year for your members than 2013?

One drawback when using statistics is that the majority often differ from the average. The UK doesn't possess a single economy, so measurements suggesting the economy is getting better can be out of step with the experiences of many. Economic indicators are improving so it is reasonable to believe that recovery is coming but this will be at different paces in various locations. Indeed, in Northern Ireland, some of our most eminent economists question the upbeat interpretation of recent figures and suggest that, at best, we are bottoming out. That said, if we have at least reached the nadir then the direction for many in 2014 should be better than the past year and confidence is as important as good statistics.

What gives you cause for optimism about the future?

Small businesses have been reporting export growth which will be good news for the coming year. After extensive lobbying by the FSB and others, the Prime Minister has undertaken to make a decision on devolution of corporation tax powers immediately after the Scottish referendum in September. If he accedes to the request, which has united business organisations and political parties, it will be a truly transformative measure.

What one thing would most help our businesses to achieve success?

Locally, the single measure that could most assist small businesses is to remove the threat of costly, confrontational employment law. Both the law and the tribunal system combine to make it cheaper for businesses to settle unreasonable claims than to pursue justice. This is bad for businesses and bad for those people who don't get jobs because potential employers won't take the risk. The Assembly must remove the threats associated with employing people and level the balance between employee and small business owner.

What is the greatest challenge facing businesses in Northern Ireland?

The greatest challenge facing businesses in Northern Ireland is around energy; not just rising costs but security of supply. We have some of the most expensive energy in Europe, and there is little reason to expect the market to change anytime soon. We need our policy makers to explore every aspect of the market to identify ways to bring down costs and protect supplies.

Is there any one economic issue that you think will dominate the headlines this year?

The single issue which should dominate the headlines will be banking, although public fatigue with the issue may cause the media to downplay it. Further shoddy behaviour will come to light; access to finance will remain difficult; IT failures are likely and branch closures will continue; but the FSB will strive to ensure the focus remains firmly on the sector until we start to see the sort of behaviour needed for small businesses to thrive.

What are the top three issues your organisation will be focusing on in 2014?

Our three top issues for 2014 are public procurement, access to finance and energy prices. Procurement policy is failing in a number of areas so the FSB will lobby to achieve beneficial change for small businesses. We will lobby on access to finance to ensure that funds become available on a fair and affordable basis for all businesses that need them to grow. On energy, we recognise that the Executive has limited policy levers but we will lobby our legislators to ensure they understand the crippling impact that prices are having on many of our members. 2014 will be a busy year!

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