Aodhan Connolly: Two years without an Assembly has taken its toll on business
Retailers as well as the public are being failed by the lack of an Executive here
Reaching two years without a sitting Assembly or Executive is an ignominious accolade. We have been falling behind our neighbours to the south and to the east on issues that affect our industry and the 90,000 people we employ as Northern Ireland's largest private sector employer.
In this past two years across the UK we have seen the debate on business taxation drive forward. Headway coming from the Barclay review in Scotland such as three-year revaluations is now being delivered and the same is happening in Wales and England.
They have also set the poundage rate for Scotland at 49p in the pound, while here we have a poundage of up to 63p in the pound. The fact that retail in Northern Ireland is 12% of the economy but pays almost a quarter of business rates is simply untenable.
We also have no access to the millions of pounds that we are paying in to the Apprenticeship Levy which has become no more than a tax. We need reform to allow us to remove the barriers of age and of delivery that mean that the system and the Levy do not work for our industry. This is in stark comparison to Scotland where not only is there a Flexible Workforce Development Fund but Levy payers can claim back £15,000 of their fees.
Both the reforms needed for business rates and for the Apprenticeship Levy could happen very quickly, if we had our Assembly back up and running.
But this is not just about money. According to the last British Retail Consortium Crime Survey, nearly 51 retail workers were injured every day in the UK. Attacks on retail workers are intolerable, that is why our sister organisations, the Scottish, Welsh and British Retail Consortia, have been supportive of legislation in their jurisdictions to protect workers.
In Westminster there is a major push to ensure the Offensive Weapons Bill provides to create a new offence of assaulting or threatening a retail colleague. What do we have in Northern Ireland? Nothing. No Assembly, no Executive, no Minister, and no means to ensure that retail workers here are afforded the same protection as in Great Britain.
Two years of no Executive has slowed progress on many issues to a snail's pace. It is making Northern Ireland a less competitive place to do business, not only now but for investment decisions being made going forward. And perhaps worst of all, we have no Assembly at a time of Brexit, the biggest economic and political upheaval in a generation.
It's time for our parties to get back to work and protect the economy, jobs and our workers. 2019 would be a better place for business in Northern Ireland if we have an Executive to take the bold decisions needed.
- Aodhán Connolly is director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium