This week, we were joined by the new BEIS Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, who spent time listening to some of your short-term priorities, mainly around the Government’s ongoing response to the COVID pandemic.
We started with one member whose business is currently closed. He acknowledged the need for the country to come together to tackle to spread of the virus but said that his business would be unlikely to survive another national lockdown. Early clarity on the criteria for reopening ‘non-essential’ retail is key. Retailers have invested huge sums to make their stores COVID-secure and have learned many lessons from reopening last summer, and from their stores in other countries which have remained open. The member said that there is an opportunity to discuss lessons learnt with Government. The opportunity for close conversation with retailers on reopening was recognised.
We then turned to the issue of face covering enforcement, highlighting that retail businesses which have remained open have seen a dramatic increase in incidents of violence and abuse toward store colleagues, with face coverings a common flashpoint. BRC highlighted that retailers need support from government with a clear signal that retail violence and abuse will not be tolerated, particularly when retailers are not required to enforce the wearing of face coverings in stores.
One member noted that there were protest groups intent on entering stores at specific times and removing face coverings. A number of legal actions have also been brought forward by individuals and groups under the Equalities Act. It was noted that Government should be considering a route out of wearing face coverings, having limits to the number of shoppers in store, etc. to help rebuild consumer confidence and support a consumer-led recovery.
Another member reported 1,500 physical assaults and 17,000 incidents of threatening behaviour and verbal abuse across his business’s stores last year. He highlighted the #ShopKind campaign, which calls on the public to be mindful of COVID rules and retail colleagues who continue to work hard. He urged the Secretary of State to look at what can be done to send the message that retail violence and abuse will not be tolerated, and that legislation to protect shopworkers brought forward in Scotland should serve as inspiration in England and Wales. The BRC also highlighted the letter signed by 65 retail CEOs which was sent to the PM the week before last and called for action on the matter.
The Secretary of State noted members’ concerns about this very important issue and agreed to raise them with the Home Office.
The conversation then moved to COVID support financial support schemes, including business rates relief, the CJRS and the debt enforcement moratoria, which had been vital in supporting many retail businesses through the past year.
Members asked the Secretary of State about whether EU state aid limits apply to the Government lockdown grants announced in early January – and, if so, whether the EU’s new, higher caps also apply.
Several members offered their experiences with applying for the grants. One said that local authorities were applying different methods, with some automatically issuing grants and others requiring evidence that the business has not hit EU state aid limits yet. Guidance issued to local authorities is contradictory, suggesting the EU rules do and don’t apply to these grants. It was suggested that that clear guidance be issued to local authorities, stating which state aid rules apply and setting out a uniform method of dealing with grant applications.
The Secretary of State acknowledged members’ concerns and noted that the issue was currently being discussed within government. It was agreed that BRC would keep in contact with BEIS on the issue.
The conversation with the Secretary of State concluded by touching on business rates reform and recent media reports of a potential online sales tax. A member said that many retailers strongly believe that the UK’s tax system should be fundamentally reviewed for efficacy, but that the rates burden placed on retailers could be lessened in short order by ensuring that the system better reflects changing rents and current market values. He cautioned against an online sales tax, saying that it would be difficult to collect and more difficult to apply as physical and digital retailing become increasingly intertwined.
The Secretary of State said that there are fundamental questions which must be asked of the business rates system, noted issues with an online sales tax, and that there is a case to look at the balance between high street and online retailing.
We will continue to engage closely with the Secretary of State and his team in the months ahead.
Roger Whiteside kindly reminded members of the Better Jobs Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Charter and asked for as many of you to get involved as possible: the more registrants, the more data on diversity and inclusion we can pull together, and the more robust we can make our arguments.
myGP, an NHS-funded app, is working on a method that would allow an individual to show that they had received their COVID vaccinations without any personal data being used. They are keen to explore if there are any retail use cases, for example in helping to boost colleagues and customers. If you’re interested, please let me know.
I also gave an update on the lateral flow device (LFD) testing regime. A number of retail businesses are involved and are making progress, though a few barriers to take-up remain. These include the question of what happens to funding from 31 March, when businesses will have to pay for testing costs. DHSC have pushed the Treasury to continue offering financial support and we should hear more next week. A consistent model for local authorities on how to remove medical waste is also under consideration. We understand that DHSC are not currently pursuing the use of at-home test kits as an alternative to in-work testing, due to error rates. I told members that those businesses currently involved with LFD testing pilots are mainly using distribution centres, as stores may not offer the necessary space.
I gave an overview of last week’s sales data. Food remains up while non-food remains down, following recent trends. In terms of categories, home, furniture, clothing and health and beauty were all down last week, while household appliances and home computing both saw growth. Online growth continues to be strong, reflecting increased retailer capacity.
Finally, I have two quick requests:
- You should now have received the CEO survey – please do take five minutes to complete it as your feedback is vital to our future planning.
- I have circulated a strawman document on business rates and a potential online sales tax. Thanks to everyone who has already come back to me with comments – if you haven’t please let me know what you think of what is outlined in the document.
I look forward to speaking with you again next week.