Russell Borthwick: Policy makers out of step with firms

They say that a week is a long time in politics. Well clearly a fortnight is akin to a lifetime.

As I write, just 14 short days ago the Principles Agreement between Scottish Government and Business was unveiled and, along with other business organisations, we welcomed the intent.

It responded to calls from this and other Chambers of Commerce for a relationship reset between Scottish Government and the private sector to begin to repair the chasm of mistrust exacerbated by pandemic policy response.

In his Advisory Group on Economic Recovery in June 2020, Benny Higgins noted that business does not believe the Scottish Government understands or engages enough with the private sector.

He added that: “We need to restart the economy, get people back to work across the country, and invest in jobs and businesses that can succeed sustainably. A large part of that will mean securing a significantly enhanced relationship between government and business to ensure that policy and interventions can be delivered practically and with purpose”.

At the time the First Minister responded by saying “if that is the view and a perception, then we have to recognise it as real and address it”.

So fast (or quite slow actually) forward to December 2021 and we have the solution. Or do we? The agreement set out a shared commitment to co-development, collaborative delivery and collective assessment of policies impacting business. Based on trust and mutual respect it was meant to provide a framework for meaningful two-way engagement with the 370,000 enterprises in Scotland that are collectively responsible for over two million jobs in the nation.

Let’s examine two of the principles contained within it and how we think the government is performing against these so far.

Evidence is paramount – a shared commitment to evidence-based policy development and evaluation.

We are aware of a number of recent instances where meetings have been declined and other occasions where very robust evidence of economic harm has been presented but dismissed as ‘manifestly untrue’ or simply disregarded if it conflicts with the data selected by government and its agencies to justify policy decisions. So, evidence is paramount but only if it suits their narrative. A fail on this measure already.

Effective communications – communications should be timely, meaningful and avoid surprises.

Where to start with this one?

Christmas parties. No Christmas parties. Guidance. But not optional. At 12.44pm on 16th December businesses were given notice of a raft of requirements that would come into force less than 12 hours later. Confused? Surprised? You will be.

And the continuing tsunami of propaganda and hyperbole is further destroying already fragile consumer confidence and delaying any prospect of economic recovery.

In summary, the only conclusion that can be reached is that our policy-makers simply do not understand how business works. Or worse, they just don’t care.

Forcing through the current measures in the knowledge that no meaningful fiscal support is in place simply confirms this.

At risk from these decisions are our air connectivity as a nation, the very existence of our high streets and huge productivity decreases in companies forced to make their staff work remotely to name just three.

And I say again. It is not the role of government to interfere in the contract between employers and employees by mandating or even advising a permanent change in office working post-pandemic. This is a dangerous signal of an administration beginning to get too used to intervention.

Although these views are only guidance as to the sentiment of the business community, I hope that the people in charge of making the decisions right now that will shape our economic future do not think of them as optional.

Otherwise thousands of companies and tens of thousands of jobs, already hanging by a thread, will be added to the Covid casualty toll.

Russell Borthwick is chief executive of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce

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