Alex Polizzi: how we can save small businesses

The hotelier speaks frankly about working hours, firing regulations and online etiquette

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Small businesses are the lifeblood of the British economy. More than 99 per cent of all businesses in Britain are firms that employ fewer than 50 staff. They provide just under half of the nation’s private sector jobs, and turned over £1.2 trillion last year. They are the engines that drive our economic growth.

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I’ve been involved with small businesses throughout my life; and not just through the programmes I’ve made for Channel 5 and the BBC. Having spent a lot of time on the shop floor, I believe that there is a lot more that government can do, and that we all must do, to help the owners of small firms. 

First of all, you might not expect me to say this, but I think we all work too hard. The working time directive [which says workers don’t usually have to work more than 48 hours a week on average unless they choose to] has been completely ignored, and nobody I know works fewer than 40 hours a week. It’s a cultural problem, and one that we as a nation need to solve. 

The regulations around hiring and firing staff have to change. At the moment,when the government talks about flexibility”, it is a call for businesses to offer flexible working for staff. But we have to make it easier for companies, particularly those looking to take on seasonal workers, to act more flexibly. If you’re only busy from July to August, it should be easier to hire staff when you need them, and agree that when business has slowed down, you part company, with no fault on either side.

Similarly, the maternity and paternity laws are very hard for small enterprises to administer. I am all for these protections – I don’t think I should be cast out of the workplace because I’ve taken time out to have a child
– but there are an enormous number of businesses that employ just two or three people, and it’s difficult for them to cope. 

And then there’s tax. Why not give micro-businesses – those with fewer than ten staff –a two-year moratorium on corporation tax, so their hard-pressed founders have on fewer thing to think about. There should also be more tax relief for childcare. Fifteen hours a week for free is not enough. Government has to decide if they want women back at work, or if they are better off at home. I’d like to see us move towards the Danish model, with far greater public subsidy for childcare, so mothers can get back into the workplace. 

But perhaps the biggest challenge we face is the internet. We need to follow the lead of Far Eastern countries and educate children far more about website building and e-commerce, which are vital skills in the modern age.

We also need to counter the internet’s more malevolent side. When I speak to small business owners, what I hear again and again is that internet review sites such as TripAdvisor are filled with warped and twisted criticism. People have complete impunity to say anything they like, and lots of it is either factually incorrect, or stuck up there by competitors.

Hoteliers up and down the country feel that they are literally being abused, as if people see it as one big joke. It’s in the review sites’ interest to have scurrilous stuff up, because it is fun to read, but people’s businesses can be destroyed. You can never get to talk to anyone if you think that something’s unjust, and there appears to be no way to get recourse. We have to do something, and that’s where you come in. Think before you click – your words could cost jobs. 

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Alex Polizzi: the Fixer airs at 8pm on Tuesdays on BBC2.