With small businesses identified as a key swing vote in the coming EU referendum, both campaigns have today (Monday) gone head to head to make their pitch directly to small firms during a debate hosted by the Federation of Small Businesses.
For 90 minutes, leaders in both campaigns were grilled by an audience of FSB members, facing questions from small business owners from right across the UK, all wanting to know the impact on their business of staying in, or leaving the EU.
An FSB poll found two fifths (42%) of small business owners could still be swayed on how to vote on Thursday 23 June. With over half (52%) saying they didn’t feel they had the information they needed, the debate was wide open for the panellists to tell small businesses what they needed to hear.
The FSB debate was held at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre and was moderated by BBC presenter, Polly Evans.
Commenting following the discussion, Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, said: “What’s clear from today is that there will be no status quo – whatever the result – we can expect to see changes to our relationship with the EU. Small firms want to know more about what these will be and how they will impact their business – yet many questions throughout the campaign have proven either unanswerable or heavily disputed.
“Throughout the campaign we have worked hard to uncover the facts, check the truth behind the arguments, and give our members the best tools available to make up their own minds. Whatever happens next week – small firms will need sustained support to deliver the growth and stability both campaigns have promised will come after voting date.”
During the debate, John Longworth, Chairman of the Vote Leave Business Council, said: “If we leave the EU our economy will be better off. If we can shave off just a fraction of the cost of EU red tape we can deliver a huge boost to the economy – even if we are left with no access to the single market at all. The single market is a mirage – not a nirvana – but of course we well get a deal.
“Government ministers have to go to the EU with a begging bowl just to change the VAT on tampons. If we leave the EU we will be able to take control of our own tax and trade – setting our own rules to support UK businesses.”
Richard Reed, Deputy Chairman of Britain Stronger in Europe, said: “The idea that leaving the EU will help our exports is total fiction. Right now we can trade freely with the largest trading block in the world. Leaving would only result in more barriers to trade – not fewer.
“Having unfettered access to the largest trading block on the planet is unquestionably good for businesses. Inward investment is already being affected by this debate. We only need to look at what’s happening to the markets right now to see what will happen if we leave.”
Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Vote Leave, said: “Everyone agrees the EU has massive problems and we’ve been talking about reforming it for over twenty years, but nothing ever happens. The only way we are ever going to get real change is a vote to leave.
“The EU is the slowest growing economy in the world. The idea that this is the best place for the UK and economic growth is simply not true. To answer your question, and to be totally candid, the biggest risk to leaving is a short term market shock. But the biggest risk to remaining are fundamentally long term and come from being tied to the troubled economies of the EU with no room for independent action.”
Chuka Umunna MP, Britain Stronger in Europe, said: “The biggest regulatory issues facing businesses in recent years have been the national living wage and auto-enrolment – both nothing to do with the EU. The EU has become the dumping ground for blame for barriers to business which are almost always issues originating with the UK government.
“There is not one respected, well known economic forecaster who thinks leaving the EU is going to be good for the UK economy. Stay or leave, the main global challenges facing the UK – terrorism, climate change or migration, will still remain. I believe that the UK will be better placed to face these challenges with a seat at the table in the EU, not left out in the cold.”
As well as today’s debate, FSB has provided a number of other opportunities for our members to get the information they need to make up their minds. FSB has produced a series of podcasts debates as well as an EU referendum dossier. FSB’s EU referendum support has sought practical information that the UK’s 5.4 million small businesses need before casting their vote.