During the summer of 2011, as part of the Get Britain Trading campaign, the Forum rolled out the Business Buddy initiative around the UK, with the aim of improving politicians' understanding of the impact that their decisions have on small firms and their ability to grow.
If you're an MP, MSP or Member of the Welsh Assembly and would like to take part in Business Buddy during the 2012 summer recess, please complete and send us this form
What is Business Buddy?
Through Business Buddy we arranged about around 100 visits by politicians to Forum members' businesses in their constituencies. A wide variety of policymakers – MPs, Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and Welsh Assembly Members (AMs) – representing all of the main political parties, took part, including several ministers and shadow ministers. Even Prime Minister David Cameron encouraged politicians to get involved.
The policymakers who got involved each spent half a day with a member of the Forum to gain a real grasp of the issues they face. At the same time, Business Buddy gave small-business owners an opportunity to communicate their concerns and issues directly to top decision-makers.
Unsurprisingly, the most frequently discussed topic was the state of the economy, closely followed by regulation affecting business.
Perhaps the most daring visit was made by John Penrose, Minister for Tourism and Heritage, to Mendip Outdoor Pursuits, based in Congresbury in his Weston-super-Mare constituency.
As a government minister, Mr Penrose was no doubt prepared for a robust debate about legislation that makes life difficult for small businesses, but he was to face an even tougher challenge, as the company warned him on Twitter in advance of his arrival: "Since we like to add a little excitement to everything we do, we thought we'd have a chat while doing a 150ft abseil. Good luck Mr Penrose!"
The minister came through unscathed and had a useful meeting with David Eddins, owner of Mendip Outdoor Pursuits, who is grateful to the Forum for setting up the introduction. "It was great to meet John and chat to him about the challenges we have running a business in our sector," says Mr Eddins, who remains hopeful of some genuinely constructive outcomes. "I have received official correspondence from Mr Penrose's office and it appears that he is doing some follow-up work on our behalf by talking to his ministerial colleagues," he says.
The most senior and business-focused minister to support the initiative was Vince Cable, the Business Secretary. Unlike most of his parliamentary colleagues, Dr Cable, a former Chief Economist at Royal Dutch Shell, has extensive business experience. He was also an outspoken critic of the last Labour Government for its lack of ministers with a commercial background. Dr Cable visited luxury furniture manufacturer and retailer Lawrence Walsh Ltd, based in his Twickenham constituency. Dominic Walsh, Sales Director at Lawrence Walsh, says the event – which coincided with the family-run firm's opening of a new showroom – proved a great success.
"We certainly got something out of it. It was a morale boost for all the staff and Vince Cable was both interesting and also interested in our business," he says. "He asked us about various government policies affecting small businesses like ours, and we were happy to pass on our views."
What do MPs think of Business Buddy?
Among several politicians on the Opposition benches to go on ‘work experience' was Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary and MP for Leigh in Greater Manchester. He visited local firm Brad-Chem, giving the company's Managing Director, Christopher Brady, the opportunity to "discuss issues that are impinging on the chemical industry," as well as "the problems we face on a daily basis in respect of red tape, while managing a growing, speciality additive chemical company supplying products worldwide."
Mr Burnham says the Business Buddy scheme "… is a great way of allowing me to obtain a closer understanding of the way a small business like Brad-Chem operates," providing him specifically with an opportunity to "discuss the issues faced by the company in growing its business".
What do business owners think?
Janet McMahon, the owner of the Elms Court Hotel in Ayr, who was visited by Jim Hume MSP says "The Business Buddy scheme is a fantastic idea".
"The meeting went better than anticipated. Jim was very friendly and approachable. He was shown the daily tasks of the hotel, and we talked about different issues faced by small businesses and also the increase in paperwork and costs with new legislation. There was an in-depth chat about going green, which Jim is going to look into on our behalf".
"We would have liked to have raised the issue of lowering VAT for the hospitality industry, but the visit was cut short as Jim became a grandfather for the first time during our chat!"
Mrs McMahon may yet have an opportunity. We hope that the politicians involved in Business Buddy will stay in touch with business owners, creating a permanent ‘hotline' for firms to communicate emerging issues and concerns.
Fancy becoming a Business Buddy?
If you're interested in taking part in Business Buddy in 2012, get in touch. Due to high demand experienced last year, we're only able to make arrangements for members of the Forum. To become a member, sign up online
or call 0845 130 1722