Supported by the NECC and chaired by BBC Breakfast’s business correspondent Steph McGovern, two spoke in favour of remaining and two in favour of leaving. On the remain side, Lucy Armstrong and Herb Kim – though Herb’s views erred more towards neutrality, being in favour of reform and a further referendum, should reform not occur – and for leave, Matt Ridley and Andy Saunders.
Businesses attending did find their opinions changed over the course of the hour long Question Time-style debate, with live polling showing a small move towards ‘leave’ by the end, but the ‘remain’ vote still outnumbered it by more than two-to-one.
Subjects up for debate included the higher education sector, the appropriation of funds for regional businesses, the subject of parity for North East businesses, what may happen in Scotland and the free movement of labour.
“The debate captured the mood of small and medium businesses, especially in the North East of England. We want the spotlight to be shone on those areas that affect businesses, whether it be issues like trade, red tape or the free movement of labour,” Stephen Kelly, Sage CEO told me.
“Less than 1% of our customers are going to be influenced by big names, celebrity endorsement, etc.,” he continued. “About a quarter of small business owners work 70 hours a week; their work and home lives are inextricably linked, so their decisions are made in the best interests of both things.
“There has been so much noise from front line politicians which has created a smokescreen over the debate. The quality of the debate now, especially relevant to small and medium businesses, is now being heard. We felt Sage had a job to turbo-charge those voices being heard by those businesses.”
Sage specifically wanted a panel of people who were informed about the issues, and who had experiences which mirrored those in the audience. Stephen particularly praised Steph McGovern for keeping the debate moving and ensuring parity for both sides.
“I’d encourage everybody to vote. If you have any ambiguity, take a look at the facts and the data – especially on subjects like the balance of payments.”
NECC chief executive James Ramsbotham spoke of the impact of the referendum processes on the Chamber’s members. “It’s impacting in so many ways; so few businesspeople are making decisions because they know what’s going to happen in ten days time could be dramatic. Years ago when the referendum was announced, global businesses stopped making decisions. The housing market is flat, and those who need to make significant business decisions are moving those.
“We’ve never had a time before where our own Cabinet can’t sit around a table and have a discussion, so it feels like we’re without Government.”
In terms of the Chamber’s activity: “We’re about to release a piece which is factual, as both sides rubbish each other’s facts, to help make this decision which is hugely important for the North East of England.”
And on the subject of a future second referendum, as suggested in the debate, James was quick to dismiss the concept. “People have to realise that this is really serious; the idea that we can simply come back in [to the EU] is nonsense. There’s no way that we would come back in on the same basis.”
“This will be the third referendum in the UK in three years; as a nation, this is not typically the way we conduct our politics.”
Nickie Gott, regional businessperson and owner of events business She’s Gott It, feels there’s a chance that we could be held responsible for a European crisis triggered by our leaving. “Some of the rational for staying put makes a lot of sense; diversity, funding, having a stronger voice within the EU.”
With responsibility for seven staff, with children and grandchildren, and owning property in Europe, Nickie has a lot of different hats to wear when making this decision, but for her, the pros of staying in outweight the cons on all levels.
David Van der Velde of Consult and Design, a North East based design business, is firmly rooted in the remain camp; whilst accepting that EU membership does have its flaws, for a business which conducts more than half of its trade overseas, he believes that the single market is beneficial to businesses.
And Sam Wass, owner of the Great British Meat Company based in Gateshead, was keen for more information from the debate to help him to make his decision, but felt more aligned to remain than to leave. Sam felt that the impact of the loss of ERDF funding to the North East could have major impacts, and finds it difficult to trust the UK Government to replace funds in order to create jobs in this area.
None of the attendees who were aligned to the leave campaign would speak to BQ.