Thursday, 31 January 2008

New penalties for employing illegal workers

Is this the latest example of regulation and red tape piled on to businesses to 'encourage' them to act as agents of the Government - where there own departments appear to be less than effective in enforcing their own regulation?

Criminal and civil penalties may be meted out after 29th February to employers who employ illegal workers. If any worker has not been granted permanent rights to work in the UK it becomes the employers' responsibility to check periodically on their continuing right to work, rather than simply carrying out an initial check at the outset.

The danger here, especially for smaller businesses whose systems may be less formal than larger organisations with specialist HR departments, is the possibility of falling foul of anti-discrimination law by making what might seem perfectly reasonable choices to avoid the new penalties.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Retail Development Bill

It is good to see that Parliament is, at least, trying to address some of the issues that disadvantage smaller retail businesses. A private members bill proposed in the House of Lords by Lord Cotter entitled "Retail Development Bill" was moved on 22nd January.

It proposes a number of different measures which, to my eye, are unfortunately not aways consistent with the best interests of small retail businesses because of the potential for unintended consequences. There are, nonetheless, some good things contained within the bill and for that I applaud Lord Cotter's attempt at persuading Parliament to adopt them.

In part one the bill demands that 'relevant authorities' "must have regard to the need to support and promote the development of small retail business". Surely a statement that has to be supported, that is until the good work is watered down by "where the authority considers that such support would be in the best interests of the local community". It is a sad fact of life that given a choice local authorities will claim shortage of resources and turn to large businesses to provide an injection of investment; in so many cases this seems to have the effect of leaving small businesses dealing with a dynamic town centre that first moves away from where their investment lies and then watches as the local services are re-focused toward the new bright and large scale retail sites - leaving the SMEs in relative isolation from their traditional customer bases.

The bill does try to address this in some way by the creation of the 'Office of Retail Planning' (ORP); perhaps they would be able to ensure that the local authority was truly mindful of the needs of the local communities or their micro-economies. They would certainly be able to deal with 'land-banks' if section 9 were adopted, and the holders of the land-banks were unable to persuade the ORP that they really did intend to seek planning permission some time in the next year - no-one would think of putting forward a scheme that would never be accepted by any thinking planning committee - would they? Mind you, in defence of the bill there is a consultation clause in respect of what the bill defines as class three retailing applications which will embrace a significant area (up to five miles of the proposed development); but the smaller scale retailers opinion is likely to be subsumed within the opinion of the residential opinion, and the residential opinion is likely to be uninformed about the disbenefits to the local economy.

The attempt by this bill to distinguish between sizes of retailer, in order that the small ones are not disadvantaged by policy or other factors, is a brave one. The bill defines three classes of retailer and the class one group would be more protected - however, if the class one retailer expands, but wishes to stay where their business has developed they could be disadvantaged by the bill. It would be reasonable to argue that you cannot have it both ways, but the problem is not one of large or small retailers, rather the current problems, in my view at least, are about ownership and capital. A small business that grows to become a large business, but remains in local ownership, is of equal worth (proportionately) than its smaller neighbour to the local economy. A large business that parachutes in, where the capital flows are towards distant shareholders and institutions - even where their local manifestation is no larger than the large local business - is of significantly less value to the local economy. This bill does not acknowledge that fact, which is a shame and an oversight.

Personally I think the bill is flawed, but, and it is a big but - I believe that Lord Cotter's ideas will open debate and that is a good thing, and probably the best thing that a private members bill can hope for.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

The alternative view

It is time that the SME Retail population of the UK was truly represented by a single effective voice to enable it to respond with a generally more considered opinion to the policy makers. At present there are a plethora of organisations and trade associations who claim to be 'the' truly representative group - but are they?

Take the British Retail Consortium, for example; they claim to be the mouth-piece of all retailers, including SMEs - but it costs around £3000 to join their ranks. Yet they are extremely influential at the highest levels - that, by the way is not a criticism, simply an observation.

There are literally dozens of other organisations, yet many concentrate on particular product sectors - the cycle trade, bakers etc; then there are the more general SME organisations, within which the particular needs and problems of SME Retailers are subsumed. All of these organisations have their individual strengths, but none can really claim to be the true representatives of SME Retailers with their interests alone to be considered.