SNP ready to engage as IPSE visits Party Conference
Brexit and the implications for Scotland’s place in the UK and EU was the hot topic at the SNP Conference in Glasgow. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon rallied the delegates by declaring Scotland would hold a second independence referendum if the Conservative Government tried to force a “hard Brexit”. So it was no surprise when IPSE’s fringe event ‘Brexit: opportunity or oblivion’ was so popular that guests had to be turned away by the dozen.
Hosted by IPSE Director Gary Sharp, the star turn was Michael Russell MSP, the Minister responsible for leading Scotland’s Brexit negotiations. Expressing his frustration that neither the UK nor the EU were approaching the negotiations sensibly, Russell pointed to a ‘lack of rationality’ on both sides. He was also at pains to be clear that negotiations were at an extremely early stage, and the Scottish Government still needed to ‘work out what the actual options for Scotland are’.
Turning towards the impact on the self-employed who he emphasised were ‘vital’ to the Scottish economy, Russell then analysed IPSE’s Six-Point Plan for Brexit. Reflecting Nicola Sturgeon’s insistence that Scotland will not leave the single market, the Minister backed IPSE’s call for continued access to the single market but did admit this would be tough. He also expressed concern over IPSE’s call to remove the burden of regulation on small business, arguing that this burden would actually rise post-Brexit.
The lively and good-humoured speech was rounded off with a crowd pleasing turn on independence, which could ‘clearly be the answer’, according to Russell as ‘Scotland cannot sail off into irrelevance with the rest of the UK’.
Hannah Bardell MP, the SNP’s Head of Business & Economy Engagement at Westminster, then drilled down into what the SNP was doing in Westminster to back microbusinesses. She highlighted the difficulty the self-employed have navigating the tax system, and her worry that the ‘slashing of HMRC’ will make this even trickier. This point could become ever more pertinent as the months roll on, with big reforms around IR35 and Making Tax Digital in the pipeline.
Bardell also called for Scotland to have its own Small Business Commissioner, an argument she also made at IPSE’s Policy Conference earlier in the year. A commissioner will soon be in place covering the whole of the UK, which IPSE pushed for, to tackle late payment and other contractual disputes – a specific commissioner for Scotland would go a long way to improving business culture however, Bardell argued.
She then emphasised the need for specific networks of support for women returning to work after pregnancy. IPSE believes this is an important issue, and continues to call for a form of statutory maternity pay for self-employed mothers to make the transition easier. Our Women in Freelancing Network also helps women to flourish in self-employment and tackle any problems they face.
Brexit would add to the instability of self-employment, according to Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, founder of Business for Scotland. Kemp was positive on the rise of self-employment, noting that ‘people are looking for more freedom’, but thought Brexit would have an overwhelmingly negative effect on the Scottish economy. He argued that the Scottish economy hugely benefited from being in the EU, asserting ‘for every £1 Scotland gives we get £20 back’.
Echoing Michael Russell’s call for independence to be on the table, Kemp stated that Scotland had to ‘leave the door to independence open’ in order to have an ‘escape route from a dysfunctional and disinterested Westminster’.
The calls for independence were no surprise, we were at the SNP Party Conference after all. But on the question of opportunity or oblivion for the self-employed things were more equivocal. The panellists and audience members certainly acknowledged that things would be difficult for the self-employed, but there was a recognition of their resilience and their ability to thrive in tricky economic circumstances.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing for IPSE and the self-employed community was the fact that senior SNP figures were willing to listen and engage with the real issues facing the self-employed. As the SNP continues to occupy centre stage in Scottish politics, this constructive dialogue should ensure the self-employed are supported rather than penalised by Scottish policymakers.