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Are Brexit talks neglecting our services sector?

As someone whose job it is to represent business interests to government and other politicians, there have been plenty of times over the past few months when I have wondered why it is that some of the most straightforward arguments do not seem to cut through.

In particular, it is perplexing that despite businesses consistently pointing out the dangers of a no-deal Brexit, politicians have struggled to resolve their differences about the best way forward.

Setting the spiralling Brexit machinations in Westminster to one side, there is one fundamental issue exposed in the aftermath of the referendum that now cries out to be addressed: the neglect of the most important part of the UK economy, the services sector.

Time and again, as ministers have sought to shape trading relations with the European Union, and then sketch out future relations with other countries post-Brexit, they have emphasised the need to protect trade in goods. Right at the start of the whole Brexit process, it was Nissan putting the squeeze on ministers to prioritise the automotive sector.

Subsequently, we have heard again and again about “just-in-time” supply chains in sectors as disparate as food manufacture and pharmaceuticals that may be disrupted by a poorly managed Brexit. But what about the services industries that employ the vast majority of British people and generate 80 per cent of our national wealth? They have been left to watch on the sidelines as ministers float proposals to maintain frictionless trade in goods.

Some of this is tied to the specific and thorny imperative of maintaining seamless movement across the border in Northern Ireland, where customs checks would take on a huge and toxic political importance.

But there is a bigger picture here that we need to reframe. It is too easy for politicians to assume services industries do not really “make” anything, and that their value is less tangible. Thinking back to previous chancellor George Osborne’s incessant photo opportunities in high-vis clothing as he sought to associate himself with thriving sectors of the economy, one might argue services suffer from a high-vis prejudice.

That prejudice comes to light every time broadcasters cover GDP or employment figures – it is so tempting for them to film objects big or small coming off a production line to show the economy in action.

Many services are simply harder to encapsulate in a photo or two-minute TV report. But this means politicians’ views of the economy are skewed. They do not see the “making” that is at the heart of every services employee’s work: services make people happier, smarter, healthier. They make lives easier and make us more prosperous.

It is our job to seize every opportunity to tell this story. We must ensure this reality is heard loud and clear in the months ahead. If we do that, 2019 can be the year of services, when the sector enjoys its own political high-vis moment.

Joey Jones is strategic counsel at Cicero Group

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