BREXIT uncertainty coupled with data protection pressures have led to a 15 per cent drop in the number of small and medium-sized businesses recorded as accessing free help such as advice and workshops last year.

The taxpayer-backed Business Gateway has supported 44,808 firms ranging from successful growth businesses to start-ups entering the marketplace, but Brexit has had an effect on confidence of those setting up and those looking to expand and invest.

It said General Data Protection Regulations compliance has also had an impact on the recording of contacts it has had with clients as some will have accessed advice online without leaving a footprint.

There was a seven per cent rise in overall website sessions, it said in its annual report, which is published today.

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It also said numbers of women starting up businesses represented half of all firms set up, and this has risen from 35% in 2011. It also said 7% of start-ups were created by people from ethnic minorities.

Hugh Lightbody, chief officer of Business Gateway, said that against the Brexit backdrop the figures are encouraging and accepted GDPR issues are a “challenge”.

The effect of the legislation has been coming into focus with British Airways and Marriott Hotels in the last few days being told they face fines of £183 million and £99m over data breaches.

He said: “I think the highs for us would be that we’re continuing to see strong take-up of the Business Gateway service.

“We’re seeing a change in how customers are accessing the service.

“There’s an increasing uptake of the online information content.

“It’s really good for us to see this year that the number of start-ups that we’ve assisted who are women-led is 50% of the total.

“I think that’s a fantastic achievement.”

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The Businesses Gateway scheme was created by the Scottish Government who transferred control of the service to local authorities in 2008.

One example of a firm that was helped is the Eco Larder, Matthew and Stephanie Foulds’ package-free supermarket in Edinburgh, which, after support from Business Gateway, received a £5,000 Start It award from Firstport.

A key element of the service was DigitalBoost, with more than 5,000 people attending workshops, more than 7,000 guides downloaded, and over 2,500 online tutorials viewed.

However, overall the figures show that support for established firms was down to 21,607 from 24,463 against the year before, for growth clients it was down at 2,951 from 3,166 and start-ups down to 9,083, from 9,129.

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Mr Lightbody said: “I suppose the first challenge I would highlight I think in that was the data protection regulation changes that took effect last year.

“In terms of unique customers assisted this year, the number is just over 44,000. Last year we had 53,000.

“So that looks at first glance, ‘it’s gone down’.

“Because of GDPR, we have had to be considerably more circumspect in terms of what information we are gathering from clients. In effect we’ve had to stop getting data from them.

"Basically they’re able now to download guides and so on, without leaving a footprint. The challenge is that we then don’t have a follow-up.

“The other challenge clearly has been the huge uncertainty of the whole Brexit debate.

“All of that points to a reduction in business confidence. Businesses are less keen on growing.

“They’re less interested in investing. Despite the consumer confidence issues, people are still interested in starting a business.”

Business Gateway helped clients access a total of more than £5m in RSA grants and helped access assistance from Business Loans Scotland, a consortium of local authorities which manages a £7m loan fund.