Forget the Vat rate — the Restaurants Association of Ireland should have a laser focus on staffing

Representative body for the sector needs to rethink its strategy given the thousands of vacancies across the country

Continuing to campaign for a lower Vat rate makes no sense given the staffing crisis affecting the restaurant sector

Running any kind of voluntary organisation is a pretty thankless task, and it’s easy for the members of such organisations to carp from the sidelines at those who roll up their sleeves and do the work. But sometimes a bit of carping is required.

The Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) has been the representative group for the sector here since 1970, and has a membership of around 2,500 restaurants, cafes and hotel restaurants. On a day to day basis, it lobbies politicians and policy-makers, and provides training and networking opportunities to people in the trade. But is it doing a good job?

Representative bodies, like trade unions, are often damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they loudly stand up for their membership, they’re described as being tone deaf and out of touch with the public. If they take a more measured tone, they’re accused of selling their members short.

A good lobby group will pick one or two key issues and focus on them relentlessly. The RAI has had success in the past when it has done that. In 2013, for example, it worked to maintain the 9 per cent Vat rate for the sector, which provided a vital lifeline during the economic crash and recovery.

From speaking to friends in the trade, it appears to me that views on the more recent performance of the RAI are very mixed. A number of them believe it did very little to highlight the sheer absurdity of some of the Covid-19 lockdown regulations.

Its website still notes that the RAI “welcomed” the shutdown of the industry “as a necessary public health measure”, making it surely the only body to look back fondly on the complete shutdown of the sector it represents.

Despite the much-vaunted “high-level” meetings with ministers and officials that the RAI talked about, rules such as €9 meals were introduced, which suggested that those writing them had no knowledge of how the hospitality sector worked in practice.

After initially objecting to vaccine passports (remember them?) as a potential breach of equality legislation, the RAI got on board with the plans. Last November, Adrian Cummits, its CEO, told the BBC that the passports had “a carrot and stick element” and that “on a health basis, it was the right thing to do”.

These stances created a distinct impression among many restaurateurs that the RAI was unwilling to offend the government at a time when many businesses were happy to remain closed and receive generous Covid supports.

The RAI recently returned to the issue of the 9 per cent Vat rate, securing an extension until March 2023, and seeking a further extension until 2025. I worry that this horse has been flogged to death. With the sector doing reasonably well in business terms, it’s difficult to sustain an air of victimhood and claim that restaurants are deserving of special tax treatment in the long term.

Beyond the Vat issue, the RAI seems to comment on everything from the availability of taxis to the need to regulate AirBnB. Surely it should be focusing on the single greatest problem facing the sector at the moment — staffing.

I’ve written here more than once about the need to attract and retain talented staff at all levels, with better conditions if necessary. But the RAI says little about the issue.

Last month, I wrote about the commis chef apprenticeship programme, which was launched with much fanfare in 2017 with the RAI as a stakeholder. I have learned since then that just 60 chefs have completed the programme, and that it has a dropout rate of over 50 per cent.

These are worrying numbers at a time when there are thousands of vacancies across the country. Staff recruitment should be the single focus of the RAI in the years to come, with issues such as the Vat rate taking a back seat.

Added to this, the RAI website gives very little away about how it operates, and some more transparency would seem to be in order. Its latest set of accounts show that it has 20 directors, all unpaid, and 17 staff who between them earned €460,000. For a relatively small national organisation, that seems more than a little top heavy.

In spite of being heavily staffed, a fellow member emailed the RAI’s office recently and received an automated reply stating that it is “experiencing an influx of queries at this current time and will respond shortly.” Members deserve better than that.

The RAI can give the impression of being a one-man-band, with Adrian Cummins being the only staff member identified on its website, and the only person who seems to speak on its behalf. This should also change.

Above all though, the RAI needs to try to read the room a bit better. It needs to refocus on a couple of consistent messages that are key concerns for its members, and which can resonate with customers and the public at large.