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Late Payments (SMEs)

Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 14 September 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Bill Wiggin.)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hood. I am grateful to have secured this debate to discuss the effect of late payments on small and medium-sized enterprises.

In the background to how I became involved in the issue and, in particular, launched the “Be Fair, Pay On Time” campaign is a constituent who came to one of my surgeries shortly after I was elected. He was a haulier and had been in business for a number of years. He said that his business was threatened by late payments, in particular from large companies. Although his contractual terms involved payment in 30 days, those companies often took 90 days to pay him.

I decided to see how wide the problem was in my constituency, and I was contacted by a range of SMEs. There was, obviously, an issue, but unfortunately most of them were unprepared to come forward to state their experience, because of fear of reprisals, in particular of being blacklisted for future work. So today it is with mixed feelings that I will discuss my constituents, Ann and Harry Long, and their experience. Ann is in the audience today, with her daughter Janine. They have travelled down from Oldham East and Saddleworth, so I am grateful to them for being present. They are interested to hear about the issue from all MPs and, in particular, about what the Government will do.

In July this year, the plumbing and heating company that Ann and her husband Harry had built up from scratch 35 years ago went bust due to the effect of late payments by larger contractors. Ann told me how larger companies have the buying power to stretch out the time that it takes them to pay their bills to smaller companies such as hers and Harry’s. She said that for most of their 35 years in the business many good local companies such as theirs held strong, honest values about paying suppliers on time. Ann believes that that was because their client base was companies such as theirs—local SMEs who care. When the recession hit, though, the only companies that seemed to have work were the larger ones, so Ann and Harry had to win work with them, even going so far as to compete on eBay for tenders. Last year, however, as a result of bad debts of more than £150,000 from companies not paying promptly or at all—the worst that they had known for 35 years—Harry and Ann’s company went into voluntary administration. With no cash flow, it was impossible for them to continue.

Ann and Harry’s story is not unique. I know about several other businesses which, went into voluntary administration in the summer, primarily as a result of late payments. Nationally, we know from the Bankers Automated Clearing System, which runs electronic processing for financial transactions, that £24 billion is owed to SMEs and that more than a third of SMEs say that large companies are not paying their bills on time. To put that into context, high street banks lend SMEs approximately £47 billion, so the late sum is not insignificant and is affecting the cash flow of those companies.

According to data from a recent survey by the Federation of Small Businesses, over the past 12 months 73% of businesses have been paid late, the average SME being owed £27,000 at any one time, with 56% of FSB members having written off invoices of up to £10,000 because of non-payment and 6% in the construction sector having written off more than £35,000. That position is getting worse. The Economy Watch panel of the Forum of Private Business said last November that late payment had shown a “continued decline”. Small businesses have reported that, typically, payment is now taking 50 to 60 days, not 30, with more than a third of a company’s turnover being tied up in late payment.

The FSB’s survey indicates that manufacturing is the worst industry sector for making late payments, followed by the construction industry. Although the private sector is the worst culprit for late payments, according to 77% of FSB members a significant section of the public sector still fails to pay promptly as well, including local authorities and Departments. New businesses, being particularly fragile as they start up, are also more likely to be affected.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her excellent speech and on all the energy and industry that she has shown in the House since being returned at the by-election.

A small company in my constituency of Kettering is owed £34,000 by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs under the construction industry scheme, and yet at the same time it is being pursued by HMRC for a £10,000 corporation tax bill. May I use the hon. Lady’s debate to pass on a message to the Government that they need to get the Inland Revenue in order, to be on the side of small businesses and not against them?

I agree that the action needs to be comprehensive, and I will mention that at the end of my speech.

The impact of late payment can be disastrous, as we have heard. During the recent recession, an estimated 4,000 businesses failed as a direct result of late payments. Small businesses do not have the cash-flow buffers of larger companies so, in turn, they often pay their suppliers later than they would like, and a downward spiral develops.

The BIS Barometer survey for 2010, from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, showed that 60% of businesses have noticeable cash-flow issues and that for 25% of them that is a big problem. The knock-on effects of late payments include the inability of SMEs to access capital from banks and other financial institutions. In the FSB survey, 18% of businesses cited poor cash flow as the reason for a loan application being unsuccessful.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that the banks, rather than helping small businesses whose cash flow is suffering from late payment, shove the companies down the invoice-factoring route? Invoice factoring is an extra cost for small companies, so the banks make more money out of them without as much risk, and yet they still fail to collect the old money afterwards.

Yes, a whole range of factors affect small businesses and their viability. No doubt one of those is the transactional costs being passed on to small businesses. SMEs are being affected not only in their cash flow but in their ability to get additional financing from banks.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate, which all Members surely agree is timely because of the economic difficulties of the country. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has mentioned HMRC, and the Northern Ireland Assembly agreed that for any work carried out by companies for the Government, whether it involves schools or whatever, an arrangement would be made for quick payment. Perhaps the Government in this House will look at that idea to help small businesses, because cash flow is their lifeline. It is difficult at the moment for small companies to get credit insurance, so that is an extra cost as well, so some form of quick payment or charging interest if a company defaults on the payment terms might alleviate the problem.

I join the congratulations on how my hon. Friend is putting forward this important case. Does she not agree that the previous Labour Government brought in the target of five-day payment, as well as the ability to charge interest, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) in his intervention? The problem is that in the public sector not enough Departments, agencies and local councils are complying with that target, so stronger measures are needed.

I thank my right hon. Friend for making that vital point. Yes, the previous Labour Government did a lot about that, but monitoring and reporting of the five-day target is needed. That is one of my action requests for the Government.

I do not wish to prolong the point, or your patience, Mr Hood, but under the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998, which was introduced by the previous Government, small companies may charge interest if the time for payment of a debt is exceeded. The problem is that as soon as a company rattles the chain of a larger company, it risks losing business. There is always a fine balance between the power of big companies and the lesser power of smaller companies.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady. That is one reason why companies are not prepared to come forward. A concerted effort is needed with a range of interventions to address the power imbalance that she has rightly identified.

On the impact on businesses that were refused additional finance, 13% said that they had had to lay off staff, and a worrying 40% said that they were having ongoing financial difficulties. There is growing evidence that late payments to SMEs are hurting our economic recovery. Data from the Office for National Statistics show that SMEs comprise up to 98% of the total number of organisations in the UK economy, providing 59% of all private sector jobs, 45% of all employment, and generating 46% of the UK’s income from the private sector—a massive £1,558 billion. If their growth and survival is being threatened, it is inconceivable that that is not impacting on the country’s economic performance as a whole.

One of the favourite myths that the Government like to spin is that the recession was made in Britain and that the public sector is somehow to blame for our flatlining economy and should be made to pay with cuts in public spending and vital public services. No one is fooled by that, because everyone knows that the recession started on Wall street, that it was the result of private sector debt, led by the banks, and that it affects every major economy in the world. It belittles my constituents to try to portray it is as anything else.

A little reported fact is that in 2009 City of London debt was 245% of gross domestic product, compared with public sector debt of 60%. It is time that this Government stopped blaming the previous Government and the public sector for the country’s economic woes and targeted action where it is needed on those who abuse their wealth and power. I want the Government to take action on those who flout their contractual responsibilities and fail to pay their bills on time, because those people are not above the law or untouchable. As the Federation of Small Businesses has said, this is not just an economic issue, because it is ethically wrong.

With the shadow Minister, I am calling on the Government to back the following action to address late payments. First, they should bring forward the new EU directive on late payment from March 2013. It introduces a minimum fixed amount of compensation for late payment and tightens the time period for payment. Secondly, the Government must ensure that all Departments are better at meeting the five-day payment target and have effective monitoring and reporting procedures in place. Thirdly, the Government must ensure that prompt payment is enforced all the way down the supply chain and not just between contractor and subcontractor.

I join the congratulations to the hon. Lady on securing this timely debate. Does she agree that in regions of the United Kingdom where there is higher than average dependency on the public sector for economic activity, the issues that she is discussing are even more prevalent, and require even more assistance? In Northern Ireland, for example, almost 60% of economic activity is directly related to the public sector.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that that is an issue in some areas of the economy.

We are calling on large businesses to sign up to the prompt payment code, and I can announce today that Oldham metropolitan borough council, which had not previously signed up, has agreed to do so.

Order. I have six Back Benchers on my list, in addition to the Front-Bench speakers. I am sure we will find time to fit everyone in, but if we are squeezed for time towards the end of the debate, I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers at 10.40 am.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this important debate. I am sorry that at the end she accused the Government of engaging in public sector bashing. This debate is much more important than scoring political points.

The “squeezed middle” is a phrase that we do not often use in relation to companies, but it is exactly what is happening to small businesses in this country. They are being squeezed on one side by their suppliers, and the late payments that the hon. Lady so eloquently described, and by the banks on the other side. They cannot obtain credit, and their tragic situation is worsening, as the hon. Lady said, and as the constituents who are here today illustrate.

Small businesses are much more fragile than larger ones, so having to endure late payment costs jobs and inhibits growth. Big companies with more than 500 employees pay, on average, 35 days late, but small companies with fewer than 100 employees pay, on average, 19 days late. Big companies have a great deal more relative credit than small companies, and big companies get fatter while small companies struggle and get leaner. However, as I said during my intervention, coming down hard on big businesses may be counter-productive, and may deter them from trading with smaller businesses.

The hon. Lady referred to the prompt payment code, which was launched last year by the Institute of Credit Management on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Companies promised to keep to payment terms agreed at the outset of a contract. However, I understand that fewer than 1,000 companies have signed up. What can the Government do to encourage many more companies to sign up to the prompt payment code?

A system that might benefit both suppliers and receivers is the BACS system—bankers’ automated clearing services. It ensures that money goes from A to B quickly and painlessly. Does the hon. Lady believe that there might be some way of incentivising that scheme so that everyone benefits?

I am grateful for that intervention. It is an excellent idea, and perhaps the Minister will address it when he responds.

The Companies Act 1985 requires public companies to submit their payment terms, but that has not been properly enforced. The Federation of Small Businesses has suggested that more resources be put into the policing of that requirement. Many companies write warm and woolly words about how socially responsible they are, but if that is not backed up with action and a declaration of their terms so that they can be measured against those terms, their warm words about how corporately responsible they are cannot be measured.

The House is scrutinising the late payment directive. The Government are challenging the EU to reduce the threshold at which payment is made from 30 days to 10 days, and, if that can be achieved, it will be admirable. It is, however, something that we can impose on ourselves in this country today.

The FSB suggests that we should introduce a social clause for sub-contractors. First-tier suppliers are often paid promptly but keep the little guys further down the supply chain waiting. If first-tier suppliers are being paid quickly it should be extended to everyone down the supply chain, and the further down the supply chain a business is the more important prompt payment is to it. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that.

On public sector procurement, there is an aspiration to simplify applications for approved supplier status and make them manageable for small businesses. What progress have the Government made with that? If small businesses can contract directly with Government bodies, their cash flows will be much improved.

I should like to ask about the enterprise finance guarantee, the aim of which is to make £2 billion available to viable small businesses without credit history or collateral. The Minister might not have the figures to hand, but I should be interested to hear how that is going.

The Government have an aspiration to award 25% of their procurement to small businesses. We are making great progress towards achieving that self-imposed target, but will the Minister update Members on it, either this morning or later?

It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, our having served on the Health and Social Care (Re-Committed) Bill. I know that we can look forward to a firm but fair hand in proceedings today.

I join Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this debate. The issue is of concern not only for my constituents but for us all, so I am pleased to see Members from all nations of the United Kingdom present to participate in this discussion.

I thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), for the work he has already undertaken in his new post in reaching out to businesses across the UK. I apologise for the fact that so far I have not provided him with information from my constituency, but work is ongoing. I am working with my political partner, the MSP, Iain Gray, to assess the challenges facing businesses in East Lothian. Although that is good for joint working, it is not so good for meeting deadlines.

This issue is vital, especially in my constituency, because the hope for economic recovery, for growth, for more money to go into the economy and, importantly, for more jobs lies with the public sector and SMEs. The issue is relevant to my local employers when they are considering taking on new staff.

The one bill that employers must meet every week or every month is that for wages. We have seen evidence of slippage in Whitehall Departments achieving the five-day target. The impact of a Department being a couple of days shy in meeting the target might be viewed as small, but, bearing in mind the fact that private companies may not have signed up to the target, many companies were assured by the good practice set under the previous Labour Government because they knew that money would be in their accounts. That security meant that they could meet their wages bill.

Labour’s opponents criticised its manifesto and plans to increase national insurance tax, saying that it would inhibit growth in jobs, but confidence in the economy and in their cash flow is far more important for SMEs considering taking on new staff. If youth unemployment in my constituency is to be targeted, with an increase in the number of apprenticeships for young people and those retraining and reskilling, it is vital that the Government support the health and stability of SMEs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth spoke of the danger of a contagion, and in this respect I can draw on my experience of working in the private sector. As a company’s cash flow starts to become restricted, it must start to decide which bills to pay, and when. The health of the small business sector is under threat because many companies are now having to make such decisions.

SMEs face a resource issue. We did not have the capacity vigorously to chase late payments or to send threatening legal letters, which meant that larger companies and the public sector, aware of our dependence on them, could feel secure in not making payments on time.

Although not all the public sector signed up to the five-day target, I acknowledge that it is a good thing, but does the hon. Lady agree that the problem is that if a private sector company is not being paid it will go to the man behind and say, “I’m not being paid quickly enough to pay you”—a chain reaction? How do we ensure that the chain works as we would want?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is the job of the Government to set the tone and encourage businesses to change that culture by making it clear that late payment is not acceptable.

The issue must be set in the context of the many challenges facing SMEs in my constituency, across Scotland and across the UK, such as rising energy and fuel costs—having to fill vehicles at the pumps, which particularly affects large rural areas—VAT increases and a shrinking public sector. I appeal to the Minister to recognise that, yes, we need to rebalance the economy—especially in Scotland, where we are far too dependent on the public sector—but also that many small businesses are dependent on the public sector for their health and economic activity and if we shrink the public sector too quickly they will not have a chance to adapt to the challenges the Government are setting them.

We welcome the Vickers report and the prospect of more effective bank regulation, but I appeal to the Minister to ensure that it is not SMEs that pay the cost of that regulation in increased credit charges and more restrictive access to credit.

The Government can act on this issue and make a real difference. Labour started that work in government, but the danger is that we are slipping into reverse. I therefore hope that the Minister gives a positive response to the proposals set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth. There is an opportunity for Government to change the culture and to give a lead. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

This is an excellent debate and very timely. The focus to date has been on the challenge in the public sector, but as the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) explained at the outset, the biggest offenders are in the private sector. They are the large British corporates. My comments will therefore focus on what we might be able to do there.

RSM Tenon examined the figures and found that in the first quarter of 2011, 80% of SMEs were paid late. A lot of evidence has been given about the length of those periods. The points made have referred to 30 days, 60 days and 90 days. What we have not put on the table and should is that some SMEs are waiting six months. That is not in any way acceptable.

To deal with the problem, we need to understand why it exists. This has already been implied, but I think that it is worth putting on the table the fact that one of the main problems is the imbalance of power. The large companies have significant trading power over the smallest, and as the recession has bitten, so all the very small companies are fighting for every contract that comes through the door and do not necessarily think as strategically as they might about whether a contract is a good one or a bad one.

Small businesses could do a couple of things to help themselves. I was interested to learn that a large number of small businesses enter into no form of written contract. The consequence is that they are then dependent on the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998. That is excellent legislation, but as has already been expressed, it depends on the willingness to enforce it, because clearly there is a cost to litigation.

I was also surprised by how few small businesses do any form of credit check. According to the Institute of Credit Management, 25% of businesses make no checks at all. If people make those checks, they can be a little more streetwise in terms of how they negotiate the contract and they might think about some form of part-payment in advance.

On contracts, does the hon. Lady think that there would be merit in exploring the idea of a default contract that automatically applied if one had not explicitly been negotiated and in legislating to that effect?

I think that it is very difficult to imply a contract, because contracts are inevitably quite complex and varied and depend very much on the nature of the business. However, the 1998 Act gives protection. I suspect that in terms of legislative moves, that is probably as far as it is sensible to go.

May I now consider the current solutions? Credit insurance was mentioned. Clearly, that is expensive for the smallest businesses. I spoke yesterday to one of the agencies, which told me that the average cost is 45p for each £100 of turnover. That makes it almost a luxury for the smallest businesses. The other challenge is that those schemes have to some extent been discredited, as they have been withdrawn, sometimes in a rather prompt manner, leaving some of the smallest businesses with particular problems.

However, the schemes do have a place. I am pleased to say that in my own constituency, Westaway Sausages has taken out credit insurance, which has made a huge difference to that business. It suffered a bad debt of £22,000 and now annually pays £10,000 to ensure that the business is protected. It has also considered the trade terms that it enters into and is very diligent in what it does.

With regard to current solutions, we have talked briefly about the prompt payment code. I certainly agree with the comments that we need more corporates to sign up to that. The challenge, of course, is whether they comply when they sign up and, if they do not comply, whether the small businesses that suffer act as whistleblowers. As has been well evidenced in the Chamber, the challenge, given the imbalance of power, is the extent to which those small businesses are willing to do that. Therefore, I am not sure that the answer is necessarily a greater number of people signing up to the code, although I would like that to be encouraged, because I think that it is morally the right thing to do.

The Companies Act 1985, which has been referred to, requires public companies at least to submit payment term details to Companies House and to list on the register their average payback time to SMEs. The problem is that getting all that information into Companies House is a mammoth task, requiring substantially more resource than is currently available. It might be desirable, but I have a suspicion that it might be unaffordable. In a minute, I will make a suggestion that might be equally effective but not as expensive.

Questions have been asked about whether the best way forward is through compulsion or through an additional voluntary code of practice or steps to impress on companies the fact that there is a better way to behave. Compulsion has been tried in California with the public sector, but the experience in Australia and the European Union is that it has not really worked. I suspect that that is partly because of the cost of litigation.

So what about voluntary solutions? What could we do in that respect? Clearly, we could consider a league of shame, which I think was one of the things suggested by the FSB, but at the end of the day, we have to come up with something that will put pressure on and change the attitude of the customers of the offending companies, rather than the suppliers. That is really the challenge.

I have three suggestions. First, I think that local enterprise partnerships have a role. We have asked them, on a region-by-region basis, to consider how they can support private sector growth. I believe that they have a role in providing advice and training for SMEs and that they could well collect information about bad payers. That information could then be shared among SMEs.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way during a very useful contribution. How does she envisage LEPs doing what she has described, given the sheer lack of resource that they have to fulfil all the other responsibilities with which they have been charged?

I am delighted to report that I have found LEPs to be excellent at doing an awful lot with very little. Let me give an example. In my own constituency, we have a mentoring system, Teignbridge business buddies, which is supported and endorsed by the LEP. No one is paid anything, but we support new businesses, including people who were formerly unemployed, and it is a very good system. A lot can always be done if the will is there.

I am not being critical when I say this, but does the hon. Lady really believe that a voluntary system will work? We are talking about money, about people and about the natural instinct of companies to hold on to their money for as long as they possibly can. In addition, does she agree that among the biggest offenders in creating cash-flow problems are the major supermarket chains in the United Kingdom? All hon. Members help to get planning approval for them, but it is between four and six months before they make their payments.

Indeed. Things can be done that are not simply voluntary, and I will expand on those. As for the supermarkets, I think that the plan is to have a supermarket ombudsman at some point to consider just this issue.

I hope that my second suggestion will give the hon. Gentleman some comfort. The Government could consider introducing Government-backed credit insurance for micro-businesses. Clearly, that would be unaffordable for the whole of the sector, but it could be done for the smallest businesses—those with fewer than five employees and a turnover of less than £250,000. That could be edged up to just under 10 employees and turnover of £500,000, but either way we are talking about a relatively small part of the economy. I am pleased that the Government have already introduced export credit insurance for the first time in 20 years. I say “Well done” to them for that, but we could do more.

I come now to my third suggestion. There is something that we could do to make large companies change their behaviour—change the accounting standards. I believe that in the annual report and accounts, there should be a report on the debtor days with regard to SMEs that are suppliers to a company. Clearly, it would be inappropriate for a report of debtor days to be too extensive, although any good company will keep such records. However, it would be helpful if it applied to any supplier providing more than, say, £100,000 of goods and if the number of debtor days was limited to 30, because that would ensure that it was included in the auditor’s report.

In the 1997 debates on this issue, it was suggested that the policy adopted by companies should go into the director’s report, and the proposal was subsequently implemented. However, it was decided not to include any information about debtor days in the auditor’s report. If such information were included, it would be in the accounts filed at Companies House, and the Federation of Small Businesses, the Forum of Private Business and other groups could easily look through the reports and accounts for the top 250 companies. They could then begin looking at how to campaign and raise the issue of the bad boys in the press. That might be a cheaper and more viable approach than simply dealing with Companies House filing requirements, laudable though that is.

Finally, small trade groups must begin to take ownership of, and responsibility for, the problem. We can sit here and say there is too much of a power imbalance, and it is easy for a small SME to say, “We can’t rock the boat, because X, Y and Z Ltd down the road will simply get the contract instead,” but power comes from acting together. Clearly, companies will not do that in every case, but it will be worth standing up together against some individuals and large corporates.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing the debate, which has been extremely interesting so far. We have heard a huge number of positive and constructive ideas from both sides of the Chamber, which is a measure of the interest in SMEs and the recognition that they are, as we heard in the statistics which my hon. Friend has mentioned—I will not repeat them—the backbone of our economy.

I have experience of running an SME. I worked in a television production company, although not for a huge amount of time. I have also worked in quite a few large companies, so I have seen the interaction from both sides of the fence. The obvious lesson that came from that experience was, first, that turnover and cash flow are critical for small companies, especially in the early days. Late payment is therefore central to their viability in not only the long term, but the short term, especially in the early days. Secondly, as several hon. Members have said, large companies have enormous power to make or break small companies through the contracts that they dictate and put in place and through the payment structure that they observe.

In a recession and a downturn in the economy, all those problems are compounded. Small companies’ cash-flow problems become exponentially greater. Larger companies—here we come to where the late-payment culture intersects with a wider culture of irresponsibility in our corporate sector—are instantly tempted to renegotiate contracts, and they are often encouraged to do so by their procurement, supply and legal teams. They are tempted to pass on their problems to the supply chain and to screw down on smaller suppliers by squeezing the maximum amount out of them to insulate themselves. I have seen that; it is a common occurrence, and late payments are part of it. It is no surprise, therefore, that late payments have increased in the recession; indeed, that is inevitable because they are standard practice among large firms. Although they do not happen only in this country, they are a particular problem and cultural issue here.

One interesting aspect of the debate is the number of hon. Members from different parties who have said that the Government have a large role to play, rather than that the best thing for our economy would be for the Government to get out of the way. In this instance, there is clearly a real interest in the Government intervening and playing a leading role.

May I say that television production’s loss is our gain? There was a large gathering of Eurosceptics last night—[Interruption.] I am disappointed. However, does my hon. Friend agree that introducing the EU directive on late payments would be one way for the Government to ease this problem?

Yes. Indeed, they should think of introducing it earlier than anticipated. Europe clearly recognises that late payment is an issue. The Government should recognise that it is an issue, as the Opposition do, and they should introduce the directive. I hope the Minister will tell us he is interested in doing that.

The Opposition have long recognised that late payment is an issue. As we have heard, several pieces of legislation were introduced in the late 1990s. Initially, there was legislation allowing small companies to charge interest and seek compensation. Subsequently, the Labour Government sought to set an example by setting targets. They also talked about the need for a greater culture of responsibility on the part of all businesses. They set an example through the targets that they set Departments, although they should have gone further and pushed that right out across the public sector. The current Government would do well to look to that example. They believe in a big society, and they could use a bigger society to bring about that public good.

Late payments also relate to a wider issue: the culture of dog-eat-dog, devil-take -the-hindmost, beggar-thy-neighbour irresponsibility—call it what you want—that is an absolutely common feature of corporate life in this country. Suppliers are vital for all large firms, but they are inevitably and invariably low on the list of priorities for large firms. Some people, including Government Members, might say that that is inevitable in a system predicated on the primacy of shareholder value, but that system should not preclude other objectives, such as social responsibility. The most immediate form of social responsibility that larger firms can show is responsibility towards the welfare and viability of smaller firms. That is a matter not only of late payments, but of the way in which larger firms move their investments.

In my constituency, there is a filters factory called Sogefi. It is now Italian-owned, having been purchased from a British company a number of years ago. It is downscaling because its order book is declining. Two hundred jobs will probably be lost at that firm, which is in the Rhondda—a part of the country where there are all too few well paid and secure jobs. The knock-on effect of that company cutting jobs and potentially eventually moving on is enormous, because 12 or 13 suppliers throughout the area rely on it. One thing that we have failed to impress on the company is that it has a responsibility to those suppliers, because it clearly does not feel that it has. The culture of feeling that a company’s primary job is to look after its own shareholders and that it is for other companies to worry about themselves is precisely what motivates and underpins the culture of late payment in our country.

What do we need to do? Clearly, the Government need to set a better example. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has mentioned HMRC, and other hon. Members will have had builders in their area tell them that the chaos at HMRC—especially over the construction industry scheme—has resulted in enormous backlogs in the reimbursement of taxes already paid by small construction firms. That is but one example where the Government need to intervene to provide the resources to ensure that small firms—in this case, construction firms—do not go under.

This is also a question of the Government pulling their socks up when it comes to hitting the five-day payment target, because they are falling back right now. My understanding is that in the last quarter of the Labour Government we were hitting about 90% of the target figure for five and 10-day payment, but we are now somewhere south of 80%. That looks like falling back to me, but if my statistics are wrong the Minister can correct me—I would be delighted to learn that the figures are better than I thought.

We should be looking at introducing the European directive early and expanding that payment culture to the whole public sector. However, other aspects of intervention and legislation should not be off the table. It is not fashionable to talk about regulation, but clearly regulation is required in the present context; there seems to be a huge amount of consensus about that. I thought that the idea that we heard a moment ago about changes to accounting standards, and naming and shaming, was excellent. It would not necessarily require changes to legislation. Filing requirements at Companies House should also be looked at. Although the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) has rejected the notion of standard default contracts, the Government should look at the idea of minimum standards in contracts to try to marshal larger firms’ behaviour, so that they do not instantly fall back on screwing people lower down the food chain, which inevitably happens.

The Government have an enormous role to play. It is a myth, as the debate has shown, that the most effective way to get growth and efficiency in the economy is for Government to get out of the way. That myth has been wholly exposed by the recent crisis in capitalism. Late payments are a small but telling example of how the Government have a vital role to play. I hope that the Minister and his party recognise that.

I shall be brief, given the time.

I want to deal with the so far unexplored issue of late payments due to legal disputes and to touch on one example from west Wales, which highlights that point. RWE npower is constructing a £1.6 billion power station, using Alstom as its main contractor, which in turn is using SOMi Impiante, a company based in Italy. That company is using a range of local subcontractors. Because of a legal dispute—I will not go into the rights and wrongs of it; the legal process will unfold—a wide range of subcontractors to SOMi Impiante, which has now gone back to Italy, have found that the money due to them for work done in good faith in accordance with their contract has not been paid. It is uncertain when it will be paid. They face the prospect of a considerable wait for the legal process to unfold.

Those companies are important to our local economy. They tendered competitively for the work, and their margins are extremely tight at the best of times. They have a sensitive and vulnerable cash flow, and their local reputation is important to them. Yet they are the victims of delays that are way outside their control and beyond the terms of the contracts that they signed. The delays are also outside the terms of the prompt payment code, but those companies do not have the money to engage in expensive and long-running legal battles against major companies based in foreign countries. Even if they had a reasonable chance of success, the sensitive cash flow that I have mentioned is hardly on their side. Of course, typically at such moments, the banks are facing in the opposite direction just when they are needed.

If the Minister were in my shoes, advising companies in my area that are victims of late payment as a result of others’ legal disputes, what advice would he give me?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this important debate. I have tried unsuccessfully on several occasions to secure a similar debate, so I must talk to you afterwards to find out how you were so successful, while I failed miserably.

Thank you, Mr Hood.

The hon. Lady had all of us in the Chamber nodding in agreement and support. We all—from all the parties, and all the nations represented here—want to do more to support small and medium-sized businesses, but such businesses in my constituency, and, I am sure, in the hon. Lady’s, do not want us to engage in party politics. They want us to work together and not to make party points.

I know that time is short and others want to speak, but I want to focus on an issue that has been raised with me in my constituency several times. We all go and talk to people who run small businesses, who tell us that things are tough, but that they are surviving. They tell us about difficulties with finance and the banks, and they have faced difficulties with late payments for many years. My family had a small engineering business and had to endure the “cheque in the post” argument when we chased payment of invoices after waiting a long time. However, a new phenomenon has begun to hit businesses in my constituency, and elsewhere. Large companies are arbitrarily extending their supplier payment terms. In recent months some larger businesses have decided to extend their normal payment terms of 30 days to 60, 90 or, in some cases, 120 days. Small businesses, which are desperate for the contract and do not want to lose the potential for future business, must live with having to finance an extra two or three months while they wait for payment.

I pay tribute to the Federation of Small Businesses, which has done a great deal of work on the issue.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in that competitive and hungry market many SMEs take the risk of doing business with companies that they know may not have the best record of invoice payment, because that is the reality in these tough economic times?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. It is a case of better jam tomorrow than no jam at all. Many businesses must make difficult decisions, and take risks to keep their work force ticking over and to sweat their assets.

I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a survey by Touch Financial. It surveyed 200 businesses and found that in the past year half of those had had their credit terms extended. The Forum of Private Businesses has a hall of shame of companies that have extended credit terms in that way. It includes well known businesses such as Dell, Argos, the Co-op and United Biscuits. Molson Coors in my constituency recently extended payment terms to suppliers there. That has a devastating effect, particularly when many of the businesses affected are being rung up by their banks, and told that their credit facility is being reduced—sometimes by up to half. It has a massive impact on cash flow, which as we know is the life blood of any small business. If we cut off that cash flow, those businesses will bleed to death.

I realised that there might be a bit of a gap, Mr Hood, so I thought I would try to build on some of the excellent speeches that have been made. My remarks will be brief. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I ran, for 11 years, a small business that would have fitted excellently within the category that my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) has championed through her work on micro-businesses.

In the spirit of praising the public sector, we should recognise that if a small business can secure a contract with the public sector it has a far better chance of being paid quickly. As several hon. Members have said, cash flow is king, and that makes a difference. However, it is extremely difficult for a small business to secure those public sector contracts, which are nearly always snapped up by the big boys who then subcontract the work on to small businesses. I welcome moves from the Government towards opening up the books and the contracts to smaller businesses, but I should be interested to hear more about how that will work in the real world.

Many businesses that struggle are either start-up businesses or are simply caught unawares. Those who start up businesses believe that, with a bit of hard work and some graft and enthusiasm, things will be great. They do not anticipate other businesses paying late or choosing deliberately not to pay. I therefore have a couple of requests. I understand that the Government want to create 40,000 business mentors for start-up businesses. I urge that the No. 1 priority for those mentors should be to teach start-up businesses about the necessity of invoicing quickly and using contracts and other available methods, because all too often new businesses are caught unawares.

Banks, too, have a role to play when start-up businesses ask for a new business bank account. The banks could provide training—or at least information on how to invoice and chase up late payments. I have often championed financial education in Parliament. I predominantly want to equip the next generation of consumers, but I also want to encourage entrepreneurial skills, and part of that is about basic accounting and ensuring that businesses understand how to invoice.

A tip from my own experience is that one should talk regularly to customers and suppliers, because there are times when even good businesses will struggle because of the knock-on effect of some of their customers not paying. If others are aware that there are likely to be problems, everyone can plan accordingly. There is nothing worse than waiting on a cheque from a supplier or customer when you have to pay the wage bill, but one can at least talk to the bank about it.

The majority of suppliers that I knew which had folded, folded because their customers continued to spend money even though they knew that they were highly unlikely to be able to pay, and in the end it dragged them down. I would be interested to know the Government’s thoughts on that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he indulge me by going back to what he said about the pay roll? The Government say that their Work programme is about not only creating jobs, but making those jobs sustainable. Does he agree that those SMEs that we hope will create jobs for the unemployed in our constituencies are far less likely to create sustainable employment if they have cash-flow problems?

Absolutely. Cash flow is the most crucial element for small businesses. In my case, I did not even have an overdraft. There were times when things were comfortable and times when we were anxiously waiting on customers to pay us. If they did not pay, that had a knock-on effect for suppliers. Access to cash is crucial, and banks need to be sympathetic and not simply say that the computer says no. The banks should take account of the fact that a business with a successful track record has a couple of customers who are taking longer than normal to pay.

There are some customers who continue to spend money that they do not have. If I go into a high-street shop as a customer, put things in my bag and walk out without paying because I cannot afford to do so, I will be done for stealing. All too often, however, I see good businesses that have traded for many generations being brought to an end because some of their customers have taken advantage of their credit terms, knowing that they could not pay. The consequence is that many jobs are being lost, and things need to be tightened. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this debate. Frankly, the subject has not received the attention that it deserves, given the adverse impact of the fact that the economy has flatlined over the past nine months.

Everybody knows that there are disagreements about the Government’s economic strategy, but the Opposition agree that growth, which we all hope will return, will ultimately be driven by the private sector. If Britain’s 4.47 million small and medium-sized businesses do not thrive and prosper, our economy will not thrive and prosper. The simple reason is that they are the bedrock of our economy. Many of the owners and entrepreneurs running these businesses have identified a gap in the market, left their jobs and risked all to set up shop. They have had to cope with a difficult economic climate and have had many struggles.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) spoke of the problems of SMEs in accessing finance. At the end of the day, they work hard and employ local people. They treasure every customer. It is not only about making money and a decent living; many of them have a huge passion for their businesses and many of their customers are the large companies about which we heard so much during this excellent debate.

The eight speeches that we have heard so far amply demonstrated the trials and tribulations of businesses in this country, but many of those businesses are going under not for want of sales, but because they have been let down by their customers. The culture in this country is that customers and those who receive supplies seem to think that it is okay not to pay for goods and services on time. I shall give an example of that attitude.

About 20 years ago, a well known businessman famously said how skilful he had been in stringing along his company’s creditors. That businessman was Lord Heseltine, currently the chair of the independent advisory panel for the regional growth fund. When challenged about that statement, he did not withdraw it but said:

“Anyone who has started a small business knows they are likely to need tolerance. Small business people know it, creditors know it, bankers know it”.

The problem is that such unacceptable attitudes still continue today. It is not surprising that 73% of members of the Federation of Small Businesses, responding to a survey in May, reported that they experienced late payments.

The Opposition carried out a survey in July and August of more than 150 businesses, and 83% of them said that the problem had become worse over the past year. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth cited the situation of Ann and Harry Long, whose business was forced under by late payments. The hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) spoke of his family’s engineering business’s struggles in dealing with late payments.

The consequence of all this, as my hon. Friend said, is that SMEs are owed a staggering £24 billion—more than the entire budget of the Department for Transport. It is not only a question of lost cash. There is also a huge loss of productivity; 158 million man hours are wasted every year in chasing bills. The latest figures from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills show that 18% of business failures are a direct result of late payment.

I turn to where the problem resides. We know that it is primarily a business-to-business problem, although we heard today from many Members that it is a problem also for the public sector. Indeed, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who is no longer in his place, referred to the irony of HMRC owing moneys and paying late, yet demanding the payment of taxes. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) also referred to HMRC.

Shortly after Lord Heseltine made his famous comment, the Labour Government responded to the growing problem with the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998. That Act enables firms to charge interest and obtain compensation on overdue payments. If a firm has agreed a credit period with the purchaser of its goods, interest applies from the expiry of the credit period until the invoice is paid; if no credit period is agreed, a default credit period of 30 days applies instead. I appreciate what has been said, but although that Act serves as a deterrent it requires a certain amount of courage for businesses to litigate in such circumstances.

Following the 2008 crash, the Government worked with others to set up the prompt payment code. In the March 2010 Budget, shortly before the election and leaving Government, we tightened the existing rules governing payments by the public sector, setting Departments the goal of paying 80% of undisputed invoices within five days, and requiring them to do so within 10 days. Departments were also compelled to include clauses in contracts with suppliers, to ensure that contractors paid any subcontractors within 30 days.

Clearly, more needs to be done. In her excellent speech, the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) talked about some of the things that SMEs can do themselves, including ensuring that they have a written contract. When I worked as a solicitor, I always encouraged my business clients to have a written contract. She also talked about the need for SMEs to carry out credit checks.

The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) also talked about the need to ensure that invoices are chased in a timely fashion. A number of suggestions have been made about what more we need to do. I have publicly said that I welcome the Government’s decision to carry on with our prompt-payment code. I should like to work with the Minister and his colleagues on a cross-party basis to get more companies, particularly large ones, signed up to that code.

We need to ensure that not only Whitehall Departments but all public sector organisations meet the 10-day and five-day targets. It is interesting to note that in the Federation of Small Businesses survey, those who reported problems with late payments from local government exceeded those who reported problems with late payments from central Government Departments and agencies.

Given that the health and strength of the economies of the devolved nations of this country benefit from being part of the United Kingdom, is it not important that the Minister should also work with them to ensure that the practice is spread across the UK?

How could I possibly disagree with such a fantastic suggestion?

The Government need to be ever vigilant in enforcing the public sector targets because the figures obtained by the Opposition in July showed that seven Departments had not paid around £3.5 billion worth of invoices within the five-day prompt payment target. The Government must improve their monitoring of Departments to see whether they are meeting the target. At the moment, monitoring is quite patchy.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said that the prompt-payment target should be enforced all the way down the supply chain, and I could not agree more. The EU directive has also been mentioned. Although some Conservative Members are not famed for their love of Brussels, the Minister himself is. Perhaps he will ensure that the EU late-payment directive is transposed some time before the March 2013 deadline.

In conclusion, successful firms with sound business models are going under because customers abuse their position of power and disregard their contractual obligations to pay on time. Given that we all agree that SMEs have a key role to play in contributing to the future prosperity of the country—I should be careful to say here that I know that the micro, the small and the medium-sized business are all very different—we must do all we can to ensure that they are paid in a timely manner.

This has been a fantastic debate, Mr Hood, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for introducing it. In pursuing this issue, she has shown both her knowledge and her determination. I am sure that she will agree with me that all Members here have not only shown knowledge of what is going on in their own constituencies and in the sector but contributed some interesting ideas and a number of questions. I will try to do justice to this debate by explaining what the Government want to do.

I was economic researcher for the Liberal Democrat party during the recession between 1989 and 1992, and late payment was one of the biggest issues on which we pressed the then Conservative Government. It is depressing that this issue has not gone away. In 1998, Labour passed legislation allowing compensation to be paid in cases of late payment. I never thought that measures such as that would be a silver bullet, but I hoped that they would begin to change the culture. I therefore welcomed that legislation and felt that it was the right approach. None the less, legislation can never sort out a problem. It can begin to change attitudes, particularly in an area in which millions of contracts are made between many different companies of all shapes and sizes.

Things are slightly better than they were in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, we have heard from some eloquent speakers that there is still a problem here, so we need to tackle it. Sometimes, however, the debate on late payment becomes a little simplistic and lacks real evidence. That is not to decry today’s contributions, but we must look at the evidence to ensure that we get to the real causes of late payment so that we can identify the best means of tackling it. We need to diagnose the problem properly.

Late payment is not exclusive to any sector or to any style of business. Although I sympathise with those who say that this is big business abusing its power, an awful lot of payment is between small businesses. The majority of contracts that any small business has are with other small businesses. We should not say that it is just a big business problem against small businesses, because the issue is about more than bully-boy tactics. Research shows that of the moneys owed by large businesses, around 40% is overdue compared with 30% for small businesses. The problem therefore affects businesses of all sizes.

I acknowledge that it is important for large businesses to give a lead here, to step up to the plate and set a good example. There is support across the Chamber for the Institute of Credit Management’s prompt-payment code, which is backed by the UK’s leading businesses and finance bodies. The code requires signatories to pay according to agreed terms, and there are now more than 1,000 signatories. People may say that that is not many, but they represent more than 60% of the total UK supply chain.

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), who normally speaks on such matters, launched the new “Be Fair, Pay On Time” campaign in June, which backs up the prompt payment code. I agree with the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) that we should work on a cross-party basis to encourage even more signatories to this code. Certainly, that is the Government’s aim. We very much want actively to encourage new signatories to this important code.

I agree with those Members who argue that the public sector should be an exemplar. Indeed the previous Government played a role in developing that policy. At the time, the Opposition parties argued that they should develop that policy, too.

There is some confusion over how the Government are performing, which is mainly due to the confusion over the pre and post-election targets. The pre-election target from the previous Government was 90% in 10 days. The target that we have been operating is 80% in five days. We felt that a quicker period was important. My own Department is paying 93.6% of our bills within five days, which is significantly faster than the target. Our evidence shows that the performance in this area across Whitehall has been continuously improving. Private business is also saying that local authorities are improving and paying faster than ever. On average, they pay in 18 days.

I am happy to allow hon. Members to speak, but I must say that our record is rather better than it was portrayed.

One of the other areas of confusion is that the five-day target is an aspiration; the 10-day target is a requirement.

Some of the most vital SMEs in all our constituencies are local post offices—I have debated this issue with the Minister before—and they depend on the Government for their health. Has the Minister carried out any assessment of the weakening of the requirements on Government Departments on local post offices?

I must confess to the hon. Lady that I myself have not made any assessment of Government Departments in relation to local post offices. I will see whether my Department or Post Office Ltd have made that assessment. If Post Office Ltd has made that assessment, I am sure that it will want to share the information with her.

The hon. Lady said earlier that the Government should work with the devolved Administrations on this issue. The whole of government—whether it is the devolved Administrations, local authorities or even parties working on a cross-party basis—needs to send out a clear signal that we want companies to pay their bills on time. That would make an important contribution towards ensuring that this economic recovery is as strong as possible.

There is an important point that was not made as often as other points during the debate, but it is none the less important to stress, which is the need to improve the way that companies manage their invoices. Obviously, many companies manage their invoices well, but some companies create the problem of late payment for themselves. Better management of invoices is something that we should emphasise. We believe that more than half of all UK business transactions take place with no pre-agreed payment terms, which is astonishing. Barclays has done some analysis in this area and its data suggest that only one in 10 suppliers regularly credit-checks their customers. Clearly, companies themselves need to do some work.

Under the previous Government, my Department undertook some research with Experian to look at payment of invoices to suppliers by four large FTSE 100 businesses. The total value of the sample invoices was more than £1 billion. There was no evidence at all of systemic late payment by those four companies. Typically larger companies in the UK have moved to electronic purchasing and invoicing, which means that late payment is no longer an option for them. I am not saying that there is not a problem with smaller companies; clearly there is, and we have heard contributions to the debate that show there is. However, it is worth putting on record that electronic payment systems in some of the largest companies are beginning to change things.

That research, which was carried out under the previous Government, identified clear evidence of poor invoicing by some suppliers. By that, I mean that invoices were completed incorrectly or submitted late. Consequently, data on payment across the UK economy are generally flawed, because of a single factor—due dates for payment are collected using the date provided on supplier invoices and more often than not those invoices reflect the terms assumed by the suppliers rather than the terms assumed by or contractually defined by the customer. So, there can be confusion about how that type of payment operates in practice.

That is why we see the average time for payment in the UK economy coming out at around 16 days beyond agreed terms. What typically happens is that suppliers assume a 30-day payment period, while the period adopted by the majority of larger businesses is 30 days net monthly; that is, 30 days from the end of the month in which the invoice is received. So we need to work really hard to ensure that suppliers have the information support that they need to manage their customer relationships and cash flow. Work is being done to try to help suppliers not only by the Department but by outside organisations. For example, since 2010 there have been more than 250,000 downloads of the simple checklists developed by the Institute of Credit Management to help suppliers manage customer relationships.

Inevitably, legislation was discussed during the debate. As I mentioned earlier, the UK was one of the first countries to introduce legislation setting out the rights of a supplier to agree payment terms and to secure payment. When we consider what other legislation might be introduced, I must point out that the majority of business bodies oppose any strengthening of the current legislation. Partly that is because many suppliers have long-standing relationships with their customers and—as has been mentioned—they are unlikely ever to resort to legal action to chase up payment from those customers. Where suppliers seek to use legislation to secure payment, weak invoicing means that all too often the courts are unable to intervene meaningfully. It is not that the courts are unwilling to intervene to enforce the law. Instead, when these matters have been examined, it has emerged that sometimes it was the supplier that failed to invoice the customer properly.

That is not to say that I do not see legislation as being entirely unimportant for setting the environment in this area. I encourage suppliers to set out their invoices with the agreed payment terms, stating very clearly the fee that will accrue if payment is not made by the due date. That is what the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) was advising his clients to do when he was in the legal profession. It is very important that these contracts are set out clearly. If they are not set out clearly, suppliers have no chance of using the legislation, whatever it might be.

There was a question about the European legislation on late payments. Actually, UK legislation on late payments has played a really important part in shaping the EU legislation, and the recently revised EU directive on late payment very much mirrors UK practice. Because the revised EU legislation follows UK practice so closely, we are seeking advice on whether it will entail any changes whatsoever to existing UK legislation.

I agree with the Minister that the EU regime is essentially very similar to our existing domestic regime. However, the EU regime introduces minimum fixed amounts of compensation for late payment, and I think that it also slightly tightens the time periods for payment.

In the five minutes that the Minister has left to respond to the debate, can he say what more can be done about expanding the compliance with targets of the public sector organisations beyond Whitehall? In Whitehall, the worst offender on late payment is the Department for Communities and Local Government and surely that Department has a role to play in getting local authorities to pay suppliers promptly and on time. As I said in my speech, in some senses local authorities are a bigger problem than central Government in terms of public sector bodies failing to pay on time.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is keen to ensure that all Government Departments are doing their best, and I am sure that when he reads this debate he will note the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

Regarding the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the EU directive, we will undertake a second consultation in the winter of 2011-12 and will then transpose the legislation into UK law in the first half of 2012, which is earlier than we are required to do. I hope that that addresses some of the concerns that colleagues have expressed during the debate.

In the final minutes that I have left, I want to try to address some of the points that I have not yet dealt with. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) asked how we are progressing with the approved supplier status, having committed ourselves to trying to simplify the application forms. I recommend that she reads the Cabinet Office report published in July that shows that 14 out of 17 Government Departments have removed the requirement for pre-qualification questionnaires for contracts for less than £100,000. As she is aware, those questionnaires were the really big bugbear that many companies complained to us about. The remaining three Departments are piloting an open group process. So there has been some real progress. Clearly there is more to do, but we are going in the right direction.

There were a number of excellent contributions to the debate. I particularly liked the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), who showed a lot of knowledge of this issue. She made the point that late payment is, in many ways, a private sector issue, because both this Government and its predecessor have made some headway on late payment within the public sector. She also referred, quite rightly, to the issue of trade credit insurance. That is one of the issues that I asked about in preparing for this debate. In many ways, trade credit insurance is a private sector solution. The market for trade credit insurance is relatively small and—almost by definition—those people who use it tend to be more educated and better trained in managing their cash flow and invoicing. She referred to the sausage firm in her constituency, which is obviously now growing with a bang, and she was quite right to say that trade credit insurance is not the answer for everything.

My hon. Friend was right to say that we should be very careful before we go down the compulsion route. That has always been my view too and the examples that she referred to from Australia and other EU countries that have gone down that route showed that in the end compulsion is not helpful to businesses on either side of the late payment issue.

My hon. Friend also talked about accounting standards. She will be aware that the Government do not want to tie up business in red tape, but as I am the Minister with responsibility for corporate governance and as I am looking at narrative reporting, I will certainly take on board her points and consider them very carefully.

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, who is the Minister with responsibility for small businesses, will read this debate with relish, because of the quality of the contributions to it. I thank hon. Members for their contributions, and I particularly thank the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth for ensuring that we had the opportunity to debate this issue.