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Small and Medium-sized Businesses (Witham)

Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 4 May 2011

I am grateful for the opportunity to draw attention to small and medium-sized businesses across the Witham constituency. I welcome the Minister responsible for business and enterprise, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), to the debate. Like me, he is a strong champion of business enterprise and economic growth, and he has a great deal of experience in the business sector. I know that he understands from first-hand experience many of the challenges facing businesses across the country. I also have absolute faith that he will want to hear some of the concerns and issues that I have, and that he will want to do what he can to help and support business growth in my constituency. As such, I would like to extend to him an open invitation to come to Witham and meet local business men. After today’s debate, when he has got a feel for some of the businesses we have, I hope he will grasp with open arms that compelling invitation.

By way of background, the Witham constituency has a variety of businesses across a number of sectors. That reflects its diversity and the wider strength of Essex, which I call a county of entrepreneurs. We have some great businesses and some passionate advocates of enterprise. In Witham town itself there are many shops, industrial estates, manufacturing industries and services. In the villages alongside the town, in the more rural part of the constituency, we have farms, village shops, market areas and some impressive post offices that do all sorts of creative things. They managed to survive the previous post office closure programme and I pay tribute to the work of the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. Those businesses across the constituency would benefit enormously—I touched on this point in the House—if Essex was made a designated enterprise zone. That would give added zeal to the spirit of enterprise that we have in the county. May I urge the Minister to consider that, as part of the wider proposition, with Treasury colleagues? We would love to be a prime candidate for that status.

Businesses in my constituency vary in size, from one-man operations and family businesses—we have many family businesses—to companies employing hundreds, which have multi-million pound turnovers. They provide everything from glass, plastics and clothing to food. Over the years, some businesses have grown to become world-renowned household names. The village of Tiptree is synonymous with Wilkin & Sons jam. It produces the finest preserves and conserves in the world—Tiptree jam, as it is known. Last year, Crittall Windows employed more than 200 local constituents. It is a pioneer in window making and has a tremendous local history in the Witham constituency. Silver End is the garden village founded by the Crittall family. Last year, it won the Queen’s award for enterprise.

We have a dynamic company called Servowatch, which is based in Tollesbury. Witham is a coastal constituency, and Servowatch provides alarm and monitoring systems and software programmes for yachts and boats. It is very creative and highly innovative—a small, family business doing incredible things. Hayman Distillers is another family business in Witham. There are historic homes that are open to the public. They are creative, and house many small businesses. We have Braxted park. Layer Marney Tower is the largest Tudor gatehouse in England, and hosts the “Antiques Roadshow” programme next week. All sorts of small businesses and enterprises are based there.

As important and essential to the local community are the small business men and women who day in, day out open shops at the crack of dawn, struggle to make ends meet, and provide essential goods and services and, importantly, local jobs. I pay tribute to the local chamber of commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses in Essex for the support network they provide to many of those small and medium-sized businesses. They have been a great avenue for networking and, as I discovered not long after being elected, are a good sounding board for many of the challenges that small businesses face. More than 80% of jobs in my constituency have been created by small and medium-sized businesses. Compared with a national average of approximately two thirds, that is very high. Those businesses showed tremendous tenacity coming through the downturn with very little help from the previous Government, and keeping many thousands of local people in work. I pay tribute to them, because they have struggled and are on the front line. Their priority is to keep their heads above water while at the same time securing local jobs through this difficult period.

Many businesses did not make it through the recession. I put that down to the underlying failure of the previous Government to support private enterprise. Too many local high streets have been left struggling and dying. In Witham town we are, like many, scarred with empty premises and shop fronts.

The Minister knows that the nature of what constitutes a small business has changed over the years and decades. I am the daughter of a small shopkeeper—my parents started a business in the 1970s. The term “small business” has changed beyond all recognition compared with 30 or 40 years ago. The Minister will therefore be aware that Government policies need to adapt to the changing needs of SMEs in order to keep pace with job opportunities and the changing labour market, and to provide opportunities for the private sector to grow and avoid past mistakes. I am a champion of our high streets and independent retailers. Speaking personally, whatever the Government can do—I look forward to the Minister’s remarks—to support them is vital. I emphasise that in the past 10 years our high streets have been neglected. There are three areas where action is needed, and I would like to raise those directly with the Minister: tax, regulation, and access to credit for small businesses.

There is a lot to talk about with regard to tax. I welcome the cut in the small profits rate introduced by the Chancellor, and the cut in the main rate of corporation tax, which was subject to some debate last night during consideration of the Finance Bill. Those measures sent a clear signal that business should not face excessive demands to repay the debt legacy left by the previous Government. In contrast, the previous Government had plans to increase the small profits rate, which would have stifled our entrepreneurs and put investment and job growth at risk. However, I urge the Minister, in his discussions with his colleagues in the Treasury, to keep making the case for those important tax cuts for small businesses. We need to give them the freedom to succeed, and take away the shackles of bureaucratic taxes that eat away at enterprises and stifle their creativity. Businesses have felt far too squeezed for a long time, particularly given the rising costs of doing business—costs in materials, fuel and energy. Of course, tax just eats into that.

I would like to touch on the role of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. It is a constant burden for business—full stop. In particular, I emphasise the attitude of HMRC towards business. I have raised with the Exchequer Secretary in previous debates a number of cases which were drawn to my attention through my casework. Given the way it conducts itself, I doubt whether anyone working in HMRC has any experience of running a business. Bureaucratic language is used. There is unfairness, a failure to get the facts right regarding individual self-assessment, and many issues arising from late-payment charges levied by HMRC. There are some desperate situations. I might write to the Minister following this debate to highlight some areas where we could work with the Treasury to introduce reforms. HMRC is over-zealous in the way it conducts itself with small businesses. We need a degree of common sense, better understanding and better dialogue. HMRC is far too faceless and bureaucratic in dealing with small businesses. We need to stop persecuting the people whom I call the nation’s wealth creators. Let them get on and do what they do best, and treat them in the right way on issues of taxation. There are some key areas of improvement for the HMRC.

On regulation, the Minister and the Government deserve a great deal of praise for the actions they have taken in the past 11 months, and for the commitment they have given to slashing the costs arising from red tape. The announcements in the Budget—long overdue—and the moratorium exempting the smallest of businesses, employing fewer than 10 people, from additional red tape for a three-year period are particularly welcome.

Businesses in Essex would welcome more support to take on apprentices, a cut in the red tape that hampers exports and more opportunities for our goods and services, in particular in the public sector. I have come across many small businesses that have struggled in that area, and more can be done. I will welcome the Minister’s thoughts. We would like to see more action taken.

The Minister must already be aware of an issue I raised with his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), regarding the Agency Workers Regulations 2010. They are having a significant impact and have been a constant worry for many small businesses. From talking to the businesses I have been dealing with locally, it seems the regulations will have a disproportionate impact on SMEs. Small businesses will struggle to absorb such additional costs and burdens.

I thoroughly appreciate the complexity of the issue, which was dealt with by the previous Government, the CBI and the trade unions. However, SMEs felt excluded from the process under the previous Government. SMEs tell me constantly that more could have been done on direct engagement and listening to them and their concerns. The Under-Secretary has been most helpful in taking concerns on board, but it is too little, too late, because a lot of the regulations were sewn up under the previous Government. I would welcome an update from the Minister on the regulations, as well as some more detail about the progress on the one in, one out rule. Businesses in my constituency definitely do not want to see more regulations and new burdens coming their way.

Clarification is also needed on the future of EU regulations. We welcomed with open arms the announcement that gold-plating would end; it was shameful that the previous Government disadvantaged British business to the extent they did. However, SMEs in Witham are eager to know how the current Government plan to protect them from further regulation by Brussels. Given my constituency’s manufacturing businesses, that is a big concern. The Minister is aware of the 2020 strategy developed in Brussels and its implications: we want assurances that it will not go unchecked. I ask for vigilance.

I also press the Minister to look at how to reduce regulation for the beer and pub sector. We have a lot of rural pubs in the constituency, and they create many jobs and have a good impact on the local economy.

Access to credit is a significant challenge for businesses in the constituency. Last autumn, I held a business advice surgery for all small businesses—with the Federation of Small Businesses and the banks, which were very good, actually—to facilitate dialogue and listen to businesses’ concerns. Obviously, without the credit lines, businesses cannot survive. My local businesses are struggling, and little progress has been made on access to credit. We welcome Project Merlin, but for me and my businesses locally it is about the money cascading down and going to the front line.

I would like to highlight an example—my constituent Amelia Rope, who runs an amazing chocolate business. She is an inspirational entrepreneur, as far as I am concerned. Her order books are growing—her clients range from Harvey Nichols to Selfridges—and she is desperate for funding. In fact, the Secretary of State saw her about a month ago. Despite even his interaction, no progress has been made with bank lending. That is simply extraordinary. Interestingly, her business seems to fall outside the scope of initiatives such as the enterprise finance guarantee, which should be available, and the banks are not helping her. I would welcome some thoughts on practical measures.

I have one further of example of where we would like to see credit going down to small businesses. A local convenience store in Witham wants to respond to local customer demand by opening a post office counter facility, and it is working with the Post Office to make what would be a good thing happen. Adapting the shop needs some investment, the cost of which is about £10,000. We have made lots of inquiries and have been told that for such a business to get any money, it would have to be making an investment of more than £1 million —that is the level of investment required under the terms of the available schemes, in particular the regional growth fund. That does not help small businesses of that nature, and certainly not that small shop, which I want to see survive, thrive, grow, expand and provide great postal services. I would welcome the Minister’s views on that as well.

To sum up, business is doing well in Essex and we want it to grow. We have the right Government with the right policies and initiatives to take away the shackles of regulation and other burdens. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts, and his accepting the invitation to come to Witham at some stage to meet our local businesses.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate.

As we have heard, my hon. Friend is an outstanding advocate for small businesses in her constituency—the wealth creators, as she has rightly described them. Although I am a Member of Parliament for a Hertfordshire constituency, I recognise that just across the border in Essex there are some fantastic wealth creators. She spelled out the passion of people who start and run a business, and who take that risk to create not only wealth for them and their family but jobs for their community. We often forget that role of small and medium-sized businesses. She has mentioned a remarkable variety of SMEs, including larger businesses, the self-employed sole traders, family firms and a household name. Tiptree, for those of us who enjoy a little jam on the side, is a fantastic household name, and it is seen around the world.

I note—I will go no further than that—my hon. Friend’s bid for the enterprise zone. I add that my hon. Friend is absolutely right to spell out the role of the business representative organisations. With 80% of SMEs in her constituency in that group, the networking opportunity is crucial. In many ways, that is the foundation for our thinking, as a new Government, on mentoring and business support, which have an important part to play. Government have a role in helping small businesses. That is not to tinker and meddle in every aspect of business, as perhaps we saw under the previous Government, but to create the stable, long-term framework sought by businesses so that they have the confidence to start, to build and to invest in their ventures.

My hon. Friend has mentioned three areas in particular. I am mindful of time, so I want to respond to her points, if I can. First, with tax, we are taking a comprehensive approach, starting by simplifying a system that has become hideously complex and has for far too long soaked up too much productive time, effort and resource. Simplifying the tax system would give businesses greater clarity and certainty, allowing people who are investing and trying to build a business to have some confidence about not only the current financial year but the next. Part of the process has been cutting the main rate of corporation tax from 28% to 23% and, as she has rightly pointed out, down to 20% for smaller businesses, which is one of the best rates in the G7. However, I am sure that the Chancellor is as open as I am to her suggestion that, in the right time and when the finances allow us, we keep that direction of flow with the tax burden, by reducing the rates further in due course.

My hon. Friend has also rightly raised the issue of high streets. The charges that matter, alongside business taxes, are business rates and national insurance contributions. We have sought to double the threshold of the small business rate relief and extended the duration of the scheme by a year. At the same time, we have reversed the previous Government’s bizarre attempt to increase the cost of employing people, through national insurance contributions, with the express intention of keeping jobs affordable. She rightly pointed out that many of the job creators are SMEs. If payroll taxes increased, as planned, how would businesses have been able to take on new people?

Equally important in such a context is capital gains tax. I am proud to be the member of a Government who in less than 12 months took capital gains tax entrepreneurs’ relief from £2 million to £10 million. That might seem somewhat technical, but we are saying to the business owner that we want to reward hard work and endeavour, which is an important part of the change.

I was concerned about the attitude described by my hon. Friend with regard to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. It has a business payments support service which, on the whole, works well, in particular with the time-to-pay initiative allowing people to defer VAT and other business taxes. However, I am not unaware of complaints about some offices and some officers, and if she writes to me I would be happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, because we want to ensure that a service that exists to help people with cash flow is operating effectively and consistently.

Let me turn to regulation, which is a perennial problem for all SMEs. During the past 12 months, we have sought to change a culture rather than just a few regulations. As Sir Humphrey might say, it is a courageous step for Ministers, because it is easier to find a few elements, and to say that we have got rid of them, without dealing with the system. The one-in, one-out system is intended to deal with the core of the problem, which is to get Ministers to understand, as SME owners do, that it is not the single measure of regulation that lies heavily on the shoulders of a business, but the cumulative burden. That is why we are forcing Ministers to show, before they introduce additional costs on businesses from regulation, where they can make a corresponding cut. That is the balancing act that we are seeking to achieve.

I can update the hon. Lady. Our first statement, for the first six months of this year from January to June, shows that proposals for 157 measures have been reduced to 46. That is a 70% reduction in the volume of regulatory measures. What is encouraging about that is that just 11 have a net cost on business. Most importantly, it allows us to deliver real savings. For example, the previous Government introduced the right for employees to request time to train, and were going to extend it suddenly to every small business. That would have cost £150 million, but we are scrapping it, not because we are against training, but because many SMEs are doing it anyway. The regulation would have subjected SMEs to paperwork and processes to prove what they were already doing. That was a needless cost, and we have got rid of it.

The net result overall in the first six months will be a reduction of £3.2 billion in the cost of prospective regulatory burdens on SMEs, which is mirrored in other areas. We are scrapping 16 of the regulatory bodies that exist at the moment. We are putting sunset clauses into new domestic regulations and, as my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out, we introduced from last month a moratorium for the smallest firms on the burden of regulation for the next three years.

My hon. Friend has mentioned EU regulations, and I shall touch on that matter, because I know that they cause great concern to her and many of her constituency businesses. We are taking three steps in this regard, first to ensure that Ministers engage far earlier in the process with Brussels so that we do not find ourselves behind the track, and that France, Italy, Germany and others have decided what the principles of the change will be. Secondly, we are ending gold-plating, whereby we have often tied the hands of UK businesses too tightly. Thirdly, on the 2020 strategy, the Prime Minister is leading the way in pressing the Commission to help small businesses, particularly with an exemption for SMEs in EU regulation. We have already taken that step in the UK, and we are looking to roll it out across the other half of the regulatory burden.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the agency workers directive and, as she has said, my hon. Friend the Employment Relations Minister is dealing with that specifically. The deal that was struck in May 2008 included a 12-week qualifying period before an agency worker is entitled to equal treatment. We recognise that some businesses will have real problems with the way that the directive will work from the autumn. If we seek to change the arrangement but do not secure the agreement of the CBI and the TUC as part of that, the danger is that we could find ourselves in a worse position. The dilemma is difficult, which is why we are consulting carefully, and I am pleased that, as my hon. Friend has said, the Employment Relations Minister is looking carefully at the matter to ensure that large and small businesses are engaged in the process.

Access to credit is also a difficult issue for many small firms. I understand the issue of Amelia Rope—what a super business it is. It can be frustrating, and I certainly find it difficult when the Government cannot intervene successfully in an individual case, but the Secretary of State is leading the way in challenging the banks to make sure that they are not only lending, but behaving reasonably.

If my hon. Friend does not mind, I want to answer the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham.

We are taking various steps to help SMEs. First, we have secured an effective lending code and an appeal process, so that, for the first time for a dozen years or more, businesses can tackle the unreasonable behaviour that they sometimes encounter. I have encouraged hon. Members—I suspect that I do not need to encourage my hon. Friend—to back up their businesses, because that is the sort of direct action that has an impact on the chief executive of a major bank.

Secondly, we are extending the enterprise finance guarantee—it is not directly relevant to Amelia Rope’s business—so that a further £2 billion of lending can be unlocked. For example, in Essex we have seen 397 businesses secure EFG funding to the value of around £34.5 million. I recognise that that is not the only answer, and my hon. Friend rightly has raised the issue of capital. Debt funding is important, but for many SMEs the capital side—the equity side—is also crucial. That is why we have sought to provide an additional £200 million through enterprise capital funds, which have been designed deliberately to unlock a total of £300 million—£200 million plus £100 million—in equity funding for capital investment for businesses.

Alongside that—this is specifically relevant to the regional growth fund—we recognise the value of business angels. I am a great believer that business angels sitting alongside a business often bring not only funding, but a little grey hair—I declare an interest in that aspect—in terms of experience. We must ensure that small businesses have someone to bring experience of funding. That is why the regional growth fund has been able to extend the way in which we invest through a business angel co-investment fund. The Government should be careful not to invest public money in the wild belief that we have great wisdom in what to invest in, but if we invest alongside those who are experienced, and have a little skin in the game, we can make a sensible investment and grow that market.

That leads me to a broader point about access to credit. I strongly believe that although we need to take short-term measures with banks, we must deal with the long-term issue of competition in the banking system. If we get more entrants—I believe that we will—we will have a golden opportunity to enable people to choose. Every market works when there is a choice of providers. The problem with our banking system at the moment is that most SMEs have a choice between three or four players who have similar terms.

My hon. Friend has raised some excellent points about tax, regulation and credit, as well as about how the agency workers directive will work. She has rightly pointed out that we must enable not only the CBI and larger businesses to have the ear of the Government, but also smaller businesses, which sometimes struggle. In the first 12 months, the Government have started to take effective action by cutting red tape, simplifying the tax system, ensuring that the tax system rewards endeavour through the capital gains tax changes, making it easier to start, fund and grow a business and, in particular, by ensuring that we send a message that the Government include people who have run businesses and who understand them and, just as importantly, that we are on the side of small businesses in Witham and throughout the country.

That concludes the debate. I place on record my thanks to the Commons staff, who have worked vigorously throughout the day.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.