So there was a quiet announcement at the end of the last week amongst all the furore over the 'law breaking' Brexit bill, that the government has decided, in its great wisdom, to remove all Tax Free shopping in the UK.
With Brexit approaching, the UK retail industry had actually been lobbying hard over the last year for EU travellers to also become eligible for Tax Free shopping, therefore benefitting from the same advantages that International Travellers have enjoyed for many years.
Tax Free shopping acts a very clear incentive for travellers to shop whilst in the UK (receiving normally 10-15% of their purchase value back as a refund), and for many travellers this is one of the main reasons that they come to the UK in the first place. Certainly at the higher end of the spending spectrum this Tax Free incentive is a major driver of tourist expenditure. Currently tax free shopping generates some £3.5 billion of sales revenue.
Now, some genius has decided that this benefit is too 'London Centric' and should be scrapped altogether. So, at a time when the UK is trying to stand on its own two feet and compete on the global stage, we are instead disincentivizing tourists from coming here.
Clearly the whole retail industry, especially those based in the West End, are up in arms. Rightly so as we battle to survive in a city devoid of customers and life post lockdown.
Yet again, the UK is sending a message that it is not so 'Open for Business'. More importantly it seems to be that this government's focus for all future investment and growth is away from the Retail sector, seemingly forgetting how many millions of people are currently employed within it.
Yes, change is upon us, retail is evolving and being replaced in parts, but at least easing into this evolution rather than simply accelerating towards it at an even greater speed, would give time to adjust, redeploy and retrain.
Now, more than ever, we need to be opening our arms to the world - so far we seem to be better at turning our backs.
With each passing week I have been irked by my silence on all things Brexit. I know that my weighing in on the subject is not the same as some multinational like Airbus doing so but perhaps as the owner of a smaller business my views may resonate more easily with many of you.
I graduated in 1993 at a time when our future as a generation was pointed towards Europe – I avidly studied French and Spanish and like many of my friends took advantage of working and studying abroad. The experience, improved language skills and social integration was our gain, any money earned staying in the pubs and bars we frequented along the way.
I recently stumbled upon a pile of letters written from friends made during the summer of 1992 whilst working at EuroDisney. Apart from the nostalgia actual written letters brought upon me I was amazed at just how many I had and above all by the variety of European countries they came from.
As years have gone by this social integration has continued, not just through marriage but also with the flow of family and friends across borders.
Then in 2004 came Elliot Rhodes, a business that in its small way is a microcosm displaying the integrated and intertwined nature of countries, people and culture. Creating the belts and buckles we devote our life to revolves around relationships with tanneries, artisans and craftspeople in Spain, Italy and beyond. Our clients can be found around the world from East to West. Our stores have always had an eclectic mix of staff that I refer to as being much like the ‘United Colours of Benetton’ – French, Spanish, Greek, Estonian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, Italian, Croatian, British….this happy melting pot of diverse talents has always represented all that is great about living in the UK.
So, what does Brexit mean in reality for Elliot Rhodes? Simply put it will erect barriers, it will add costs, it will increase administration, it will create delays, it will take away the ease and flexibility with which we do business both in Europe and Globally. These are not mythical barriers, they are very real, and we will have to deal with and absorb them all along with the consequences. It has already changed the way I believe I am perceived as a UK national both visiting and working in Continental Europe, for now surmountable but will that perception over time manifest itself in other ways as we detach ourselves more permanently. How will a British business or buisnessman be perceived, will we just be seen as difficult and closed minded?
As I listen to the views expressed in Parliament I wish for once I could hear from an MP who had run a business, known how hard it is to survive let alone thrive. For those that espouse the theory that ‘everything will be alright’ – my question is when and based on what evidence? It is over 10 years since the financial crisis when every day has been fraught with fear of the unknown and progress has been hard won. Do we now have to endure 10 more years of the unknown, of yet more turbulence and uncertainty?
The press will focus on large companies and the impact on them with the government itself often quick to provide special exemptions to avoid headline grabbing closures or job losses – but it is the smaller companies like ours that keep tax revenue flowing, who pay business rates, who employ people, who drive the economy forward with innovation and passion. They cannot afford Brexit contingency plans and complex corporate structures, they do not have the deep pockets to easily weather the storm.
But mine is not the classic Remainer economic fear rhetoric as I feel just as strongly about the social impact this will have on our country and the sense of isolationism this promotes. There are many ills that weigh on our society and I certainly do not believe the EU is the answer to everything, but for now this is what we have and we should strive to make the best of it from within, devoting time to finding solutions to the real problems that beset us such as wealth distribution, crime, education and poverty. These are problems that need time, money and energy and leaving the EU will not bring us any closer to solving them. The time elapsed since June 2016 has already done nothing but wastefully distract our attention and resources.
I am proudly British but also proudly European, in this time of globalisation these two monikers should not be mutually exclusive. I hope that in this critical political week our parliament will finally see sense and let the people revisit the decision taken based upon misinformation and propaganda, this time armed with a better understanding of what a Brexit induced future really means.