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HouseofLordsFebruary 3 2016

MPs have heard that of the £41.5 billion owed in late payments across the British economy, around £32 billion is owed to small and medium-sized businesses.

Central government departments and government agencies tend to pay reasonably promptly, with more than 70% of invoices being paid early or on time. However, more than three quarters of UK businesses are being forced to wait at least a month beyond their agreed contract terms before getting paid, with SMEs bearing the brunt of late payments.

Opening the Westminster Hall debate, Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West, said: “The late payment difficulties for SMEs are further compounded by the additional costs that have to be borne by businesses as a result of late payments, which average around £700 a month per SME, including staff costs for chasing late invoices. That equates to a total cost to small businesses across the year of more than £8 billion.”

He noted that the Government is “committed to cutting £10 billion of red tape” by 2020. “Can colleagues imagine what would happen if we also managed to eradicate £8 billion of late payment costs from SMEs? It would provide exactly the sort of boost to jobs, productivity and economic growth that the Government want to encourage,” he said.

Among concerns that have been relayed to the Federation of Small Businesses are that late payments contribute to reduced profitability, lateness in paying SME’s own suppliers, lateness in paying tax, and potentially the loss of contracts and a risk of insolvency.

“Cash flow is vital for a small business, as it is for larger businesses. The sum total of all this is that the very real risk of insolvency sometimes results from late payments. A poll of 1,000 business owners carried out in August 2015 by the electronic invoicing network Tungsten showed that more than 20% of businesses faced with unpaid invoices were having a brush with insolvency, and some of them, sadly, were having more than a brush.”

Mr Sharma urged the Government to establish a small business commissioner who will help to solve complaints from small businesses about late payments. “The FSB wants the scope and remit of the commissioner to be broadened to consider complaints about poor payment practices in the public sector as well, which I understand is not currently the role that has been prescribed for it. The FSB is also rather keen that the commissioner should have the power to make referrals to the Competition and Markets Authority.”

Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, Anna Soubry, said the small business commissioner will be set up by the forthcoming Enterprise Bill, and will have a specific role of considering the problem of late payment.

“The commissioner might want to look at other things as well, but primarily he or she will look specifically at that problem,” she said. “The small business commissioner will look at the practices that lead to unfair terms and conditions and at those that mean people breach terms and conditions and make late payments.”

The FSB also noted that another debate had taken place earlier in the week on quarterly tax reporting. The FSB had met with MPs in advance of the debate and MPs raised a number of concerns:

  • HM Revenue & Customs should consult more widely with FSB members about the proposals;
  • the Government had failed to publish initial options for the form that the quarterly return will take, and this has not been defined;
  • and the Government needs to be aware of the needs of the many people who are sole traders and the person doing the tax accounts.

Links:

House of Commons Daily Hansard January 27 2016

FSB briefing

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