Britain is a nation of shopkeepers.
With more than 50,000 convenience stores across the UK, small shops are at the very backbone of local communities and are integral to this country. Small shop owners get up early, work hard and do the right thing - I'm determined to help them succeed. However, the prosperity of this industry is under the increasing threat of illicit tobacco smuggling and the cumulative unintended consequences of public health policy. I'm standing up for small shops - here's how.
In July I visited my old friend Hitesh Pandya - the proprietor of Toni's News in Ramsgate - along with other South Thanet retailers. We discussed the impact that increasing government regulation was having on small shops, and what measures could be taken to try and ease this problem.
Illicit tobacco not only robs our NHS out of the funds it is owed through taxes, but also places our national security at risk by incentivising organised crime and smuggling. Small shops are hit hard by so-called 'fag-houses' which undercut them by selling cheap, smuggled counterfeit tobacco. I have been working with the Tobacco Manufacturer's Association (TMA) to plan how best to make small shop owners' voices heard. I will be hosting a reception in early October for the launch of the TMA's Illicit Trade Survey. The survey details consumers understanding of the illicit markets and its concerning contents are a signal to redouble our efforts to eradicate this crime. As well as this, I will be holding a retail crime forum in Ramsgate in late October to talk to local shop owners and the issues of policing in the area.
Early October 2016
In October, I hosted a reception for small retailers in Parliament, where small shop workers launched a manifesto of their interests to a gathered audience of MPs. Small shops have had it tough, and while the big retailers have access to armies of lobbyists, small shops sometimes struggle for a voice. This event was successful in making the voice of small retailers heard loud and clear in Westminster, and highlighting the issue of illicit tobacco smuggling.
Late October 2016
Following from the reception in Parliament, I held a Retail Crime Forum in Ramsgate. Many shop owners from South Thanet were in attendance, so I was pleased to also welcome the Kent Police & Crime Commissioner, Matthew Scott, to listen to their views. We had a very constructive discussion, with several shop owners telling us of their own experience with theft and how a lack of police resources were making them struggle to keep up with costs, as well as having suggestions of their own. The PCC took their comments on board and gave some very positive indications that policing in Broadstairs and Ramsgate would receive increased resources.
In November I held a Parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall, in order to discuss the issue of ever-increasing government regulation on small shops. I raised my concerns to the Minister about the convoluted tax code, as well as the administrative burdens of Making Tax Digital which, along with auto-enrolment, could cost small businesses around £3600 a year in software and professional services. I also called for a simplification of the way VAT is structured once we leave the EU and, on a broader scale, highlighted the impact of illicit tobacco smuggling and crime in general on struggling small shops.