It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan, and I am pleased to see so many hon. Members present, particularly the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins).
This debate came about as a result of a conversation between me and my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), who is sitting next to me, about people in this country setting up their own businesses. We reached the conclusion that not enough people do so. Everybody knows the benefits of people setting up their own businesses, but there is a certain culture against self-employment and business in this country, notwithstanding everything that this and the previous Government have tried to do. Politicians brand the terms “entrepreneur,” “small and medium-sized enterprises” and similar without really understanding what they are about. My hon. Friend and I have, therefore, decided to focus the debate on how Governments can change attitudes.
Like so many people of my generation, I was the first member of my family ever to go to university. Few people at that time had the idea of setting up their own business, and I do not think that much has changed. I have two sons, one in his late teens and the other in his early 20s, and from what I have observed of my family life, as well as that of my sons’ friends and during my constituency duty of visiting schools—some very good, others not so good—and further education colleges, there is very little idea, culture or yearning among people, from the most academically gifted to the least so, to set up their own business. However, I commend people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), whom I am pleased to see and who is co-chair of the all-party group on micro-businesses. Others have also tried very hard in the main Chamber, as well as elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster and throughout the country, to help the cause of small business. The Government themselves have also made a lot of effort, and I do not feel that it would be right for me to criticise them.
This debate will be divided into two halves. I will deal with social, cultural and educational barriers, and what I think the Government might do about them. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest will then deal with taxation, regulation and other more direct governmental aspects. It is also nice to see so many other hon. Members present who want to take part.
On the face of it, self-employment seems to be going well. Recent figures show that 300,000 people have become self-employed in the past year, which means that they are registered with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs as being self-employed, but I do not think that that necessarily means that they have set up their own business. Some of them will, legitimately, have taken on part-time functions that classify as self-employment. I do not want to get into a political debate about whether that is self-employment or not, or whether the recession is to blame, because I want to focus on a culture that will give ambitious young people the desire to set up their own business.
The education system is the most important opinion-former for young people, and many aspects of it are encouraging. Like many other hon. Members, I have Young Enterprise groups in my constituency. We have Hertfordshire Young Enterprise in Watford, and I have seen many teams of young people setting up little businesses at school. They are largely supported by voluntary contributions from local businesses and they get mentors. In fact, only last Saturday, there was a display of the best teams at the Harlequin centre in Watford, which is well known to some Members present and to those more illustrious alumnae of the better Watford girls school—without naming names—whom I am also pleased to see present. It is interesting to see that these teams set up real businesses, producing bracelets, handbooks and all sorts of things. Some of the products make them a bit of money, and it is good to see local businesspeople helping them. This, however, is only useful if it gives those young people a desire to say that, when they graduate—assuming that they want to go to university; I am not saying that that is necessarily the most important thing—they want to set up a business, but I do not find that to be the case.
I recently visited Watford grammar school for boys, which is one of the better schools in the country— 30 boys are going to Oxford or Cambridge this year. After I finish my talk to the sixth form, I always ask them what they want to do after university—most of them go to university, but I would ask a similar question at a school where not so many pupils do so. When I ask how many want to be lawyers, accountants or involved in advertising or the media, many hands go up, but when I ask who wants to set up their own business, very few want to do so, including those who have taken part in the education system’s successful schemes.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important case for the role that education can play. Another part of getting young people excited about running their own business is the experience of those who do so at the moment. Today’s Financial Times includes an article on an Aviva report that involved interviewing 500 owners of SMEs for its research. A quarter of them said that they were considering returning to work as an employee, because of how difficult it is at the moment to run a small business. When people who actually run their own business find it that difficult, will it not be more difficult to persuade young people to do so?
The shadow Minister makes a valid point. I read that article in the Financial Times online—if I cannot sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning, I find that that is the best way to get back to sleep. It focused on the general problems of the economy and how much more difficult it is for people who are self-employed and have their own business. Some of those people look towards employment as an answer, and I do not disagree with anything that was said. I am sure that some people want to go back to the comparative security of employment, but I do not think that that changes my main argument. People becoming self-employed and setting up their own businesses is one of the most important things for this country to expand the economy.
I come from a small business family. My parents were immigrants to this country and it is interesting to see the number of immigrants who are self-employed. My hon. Friend’s premise is to get young people engaged in self-employment. Does he agree that part of the challenge is getting started, which is always very difficult, particularly for young people who feel insecure about doing so? Does he also agree with the concept of a youth investment fund to provide Government funding or incentives that give people a cushion and confidence to develop their own ideas to become self-employed?
I appreciate that comment, because I intend to address the youth investment fund, which is important. Indeed, Sir Richard Branson has expressed an interest in this debate. He is elsewhere in the House at the moment and will join us later. The fund is important, but it is just one aspect and I hope to come back to it shortly.
On the education system, it frightens me that 60,000 people a year do GCSE business studies—this was true of my own sons—and are forced to learn accounting ratios, liquidity ratios and the difference between US generally accepted accounting principles and British accounting standards, but there is nothing whatsoever that will give any of them any desire or incentive to relate to business as they see it, which is buying a product and selling it at a profit, or providing a service for which people will pay. That is a real gap in the system, which, at the moment, is filled by Young Enterprise and various other very good schemes. However, that does not change the deep cultural point that people in this country do not perceive business as something to do that is either socially or economically worth while.
On igniting the flame of desire for a young person to start a business, does my hon. Friend agree that it would help if we had better, bolder, more ambitious career advice encompassing enterprise for our kids and young people at school and university?
That is a very valid point. It could help and it is part of the whole picture that I want to build up in this brief speech.
We have to tell young people that setting up a business and employing people is socially acceptable and good for the country, and that they will make a lot of money. If they want fast cars, big houses and all that stuff, providing they pay their taxes, well done to them. It is very easy in politics to take examples of capitalism not working, of people being paid large amounts of money without doing much work for it and of people avoiding tax. We all have our views on those things and I think that everyone would agree that many of those issues need correcting. However, my fear is that such matters help to fuel the view among young people that business is not a very cool thing to be in, which is not right.
A socially responsible young person should be told, “Yes, you can do the kind of occupation that is directly socially responsible. You can be a teacher; you can be a nurse; you can qualify as a doctor and help to cure cancer; you can be a social worker. Those are all very good. But if you decide that you want to go into business and employ people, providing you pay your taxes, that is as much use to the country, if not more, because you are helping many people in their way of life. You are helping to fund the teachers, the doctors and the social workers and it is a very, very creditable thing to do.” Society should say to such a young person, “Well done to you. You have done something that is very worth while. Do not believe the stuff about Gordon Gekko and greed is bad. Actually, greed is quite good. Providing you pay your taxes and employ people, you are really contributing a lot to society.”
One of the big problems in this country is leaping over that barrier to make people think. Let us consider the notion of wanting things. People will only go into business to make money. I did it to make money. I did it because I did not have any money, and I did not like not having it. There is nothing wrong with that. People have to understand that going into business is a good thing to do. When I got my business to the level of employing 600 people, it was a constant nightmare. I was often worried. I did not sleep at night for thinking, “Have I done the right thing?” My wife once told me at 4 o’clock in the morning—she did not help matters; she never says things at 4 o’clock in the morning that help matters—that I was directly responsible for the lives of nearly 2,000 people. That is quite a burden of responsibility. People might think, “He’s filthy rich,” or, “He makes loads of money.” However, whatever people think and say about those in business, they do not believe that they are performing a socially responsible function.
I want the Government and all of us who are in the opinion-forming business—that is what politics is, irrespective of what party hon. Members belong to—to realise that something has to be done to change that attitude, because it is in the national interest.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. The problem is that teachers by definition have chosen teaching as a career, so it is very hard for them to communicate on that. I do not want to take much more of this Chamber’s time, but I will come on to a proposal that I think answers my hon. Friend’s question.
I am not being critical of what the Government are doing. Yesterday, the Prime Minister and other Ministers made an announcement about this year being the year of the business and said that a minibus will go around different institutions, helping to give people the idea to set up businesses. All that is very good, but the cream of young people who are thinking, “I’m going to go to Goldman Sachs,” or, “I’m going to become a top man or woman at the Bar,” or, “I’m going to be a partner at Deloitte,” need to think, “Actually, the status of my setting up my own business and employing people will launch me to a higher level in society. I will be applauded and not thought of as a person who tries to avoid taxes and should hide the fact they have bought a decent car.”
The last vestige of the class system in this country is contained in the attitude that business is a bit grubby, something to be looked down and not something that proper chaps do. Until we change that attitude, we will not have enough people setting up businesses, employing people and providing the growth that we need in the future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) on raising this important debate. I also congratulate Virgin on the support and work that it is doing in this field. Like many hon. Members here, I am sure that he agrees—he has touched on this—that part of what we must do is to help those youngsters who do not have the experience of entrepreneurship and self-employment through their family, so that they can experience it through schools. Many of us in our constituencies can help and, indeed, are helping with schemes. In my constituency, we have set up a programme called the Norfolk Way enterprise bursary and we are linking school leavers with local businesses, which can be very empowering. Lastly, does my hon. Friend agree that it is very striking that some of our best entrepreneurs, for example, Richard Branson and Bill Gates, are not graduates? They started their businesses pre-university, which sends a very powerful message to youngsters who are feeling disillusioned and disengaged by the mainstream curriculum. Some of our most deprived communities could benefit hugely from such initiatives.
My hon. Friend makes very valid points. I hope that I speak for all hon. Members involved in this debate when I point out that Richard Branson and Bill Gates are examples of people whom we would regard as being very successful and would look up to. Both Richard Branson and Bill Gates were rejects from the mainstream academic system. Obviously, when I say “rejects”, I do not mean that they were not up to it, but that they were, through whatever personality they had or whatever came about, not part of it. My hon. Friend’s helpful intervention supports my argument, rather than the other way round.
In my constituency of Watford, there are some excellent initiatives. For example, Wenta, which is run by Chris Pichon and Sharon Gaffney, has many schemes to help schools give young children the opportunity to become entrepreneurs and to create an incubator for people who are without a job to help them set up their own business. Lots of good efforts are happening, but the fundamental point is to ask people to think culturally, socially and educationally. There is still a feeling against the acceptability of business in this country that is not present in Germany or the United States. As I have said, such an attitude is a result of hundreds of years of looking down on business.
I agree with everything my hon. Friend has said. Back in the 1980s, the manpower allowances service scheme was brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s Government. That scheme took people who were on the unemployment register and gave them twice the amount of unemployment benefit, so that they could go self-employed. Indeed, I was one of those people, and I built up a business that employed more than 100 people and experienced the same sleepless nights as my hon. Friend.
I absolutely agree. Indeed, I was also one of those people. My hon. Friend is talking about a business start-up scheme whereby if someone was unemployed, they got £100 a week. If they did well, they paid tax on it. That scheme helped a lot of people to start their business. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest will discuss many of the schemes that the Government are doing.
I have a final proposal for the Minister. There should be an institution at university level—whether it is called a university technical college, a special university college or whether it is part of an existing university, such as the university of Hertfordshire, which does a lot of work in the field of business studies and management training—that exists entirely to train and help people to set up businesses. The course should be run predominantly by people who are successful in business and who are prepared to give up their time to do that, rather than by people who have taken business studies. At least half the course should involve practical work on how to set up a business. Sir Richard Branson’s scheme for the youth investment fund could help to fund it, as perhaps could the Government if local business people were to become involved. Students may include mature students as well as those from sixth forms going into the normal higher education system, and when they graduate they should have set up a business that either works and is doing well, or does not work. If it does not work, it should not mean that they do not graduate, because many people in business try things that do not work.
I have set up several businesses, some of which were not successful, but one of which was, and I am very aware of the shadow Minister’s reasonable point that 25% of people are seeking to go back into employment because of the difficulty in starting a business. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must be careful not to sugar-coat setting up a business? It is a difficult career, full of challenges, and if we teach it in schools and universities, we must be realistic. People must understand that failure is part of the education process, and that although it may lead to success, the road on the way will be bumpy.
That is an exceptionally good point, and I am sorry that my hon. Friend, like me, in later life has had to do the job that we are doing now instead of being in business. However, I know that he, like me, benefited greatly from his time in business. His serious point was well made. The alternative of salaried employment for a company is not secure either, and many people lose their jobs. My generation may be the last one that believed that the professions provided a job for life. There is a risk element now.
I return to my university college, which I hope the Minister will immediately decide should be located in Watford, because that is the obvious place for it. Watford is a good example for small businesses. It used to depend on two heavy industries—printing and lorries—but it now has more than 1,600 small businesses, and the employment background is small business, so Watford would be a suitable place for the college. It would be an ideal location because of being well known internationally as a centre for commerce, culture, intellect and so on.
My serious point is that the Government, with all the excellent measures that they are taking, should consider introducing a degree on setting up a business—obviously, that is not what it would be called—helped by local business people who would agree to take part for perhaps two or three days a week. Students could set up real businesses that would go on to provide real employment for people. That is where academia should meet the practicality of setting up a business.
Does my hon. Friend agree that banks need to be more reasonable in their behaviour and attitude to businesses and potential business clients, and that if they were, that would encourage business and future enterprise? At the moment, banks are so overly cautious that they are impeding business.
I want to explore the hon. Gentleman’s idea. He has rightly identified that many successful entrepreneurs with great business careers were not academically inclined, and perhaps those who have that motivation and spark do not sit well with long periods of study. How does he square that argument with his idea that people should undertake three or four years of study to set up a small business, when many of the best small business people have been instinctively brilliant rather than studiously and academically brilliant?
I have to accept the logic of that point. Not everyone who wants to go into business would go to the sort of college that I am proposing. Many people would start businesses as happens now. Many people who have been in employment may decide when they become a bit older that that is for them. There are different routes to the same objective. However, I believe that an all-star college with teaching by people such as Sir Richard Branson and senior politicians and business people—people who have been in business—would show that the Government are serious, and that the status of such a course is as good as those at Oxford, Cambridge and so on. It is wrong for people of my age to use the expressions of younger people, but that would show that it is cool to set up a business, and just as good as anything else. In addition to the many other things that the Government do, they could help with that, and it would not cost too much money.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) for his helpful and useful comments. As he said, I will speak about the slightly more tangible and gritty problems facing businesses. Before getting into the meat of my speech, I am struck by how many MPs are in the Chamber and the fact that I cannot see one who has not been in business. It is remarkable that the Chamber is so full, although I am sorry not to see more support for the shadow Minister with responsibility for small businesses. It is incredible to see so many politicians here, all of whom have extensive business experience.
As my hon. Friend said, I want to speak specifically about taxation, regulation, access to finance and cash-flow management. For the purposes of clarity, we are interested today in self-employed people and those who employ fewer than five members of staff—small businesses and micro-businesses. It would be wrong to start my speech without highlighting some of the initiatives that the Government are already taking.
On finance for businesses, the Government are introducing measures to increase the availability of equity finance through venture capital trusts and improvements to the enterprise initiative scheme. They are making regional growth fund allocations for business opportunities and addressing tax initiatives, such as rolling over capital gains into new venture funding. The national loan guarantee scheme is seeking to push debt finance further down the line, and the emergence of community finance organisations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) highlighted, is providing locally based informal financing opportunities.
On helping businesses with advice, my hon. Friend the Minister has recently announced three new websites. The Business Link website has an information section offering help on a range of business-related issues, including how to start up a new business. The “mentors me” website offers an opportunity not just for new businesses to find business mentors, but for business people to provide mentoring services. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) made the very good point that setting up a business is tough and that having the benefit of the experience of business people who have learned from their mistakes and can impart their wisdom to new businesses is incredibly important. Websites such as “mentors me” are a way of disseminating that information.
Finally, the improved Business Link website has a wide range of information on how to finance and grow a new or expanding business. However, were I to stand here praising the Government’s glorious achievements, many though they are, as I am sure all hon. Members agree, the Minister would have nothing to say, so I shall turn to some of the problems facing businesses. I hope that he will address some of them and explain how the Government can help and thereby reinforce the process of developing part of the economy that has so much potential for growth and is so liberating for a huge number of people.
I shall start with taxation. No one wants to pay tax, but if we all want to enjoy the wealth of services that the Government provide and to sort out the problems that we inherited, we accept that we must make a contribution to tax. But as we know, it is widely reported that the UK tax system is the most complex in the world. Whether that is true is a moot point, but irrespective of where we are in the ranking of complexity, the fact that we have tax complexity at all is completely at odds with any sort of entrepreneurial spirit that we may want to foster. The last thing a bright, young and enthusiastic business creator wants is to have that entrepreneurial spirit crushed by the dead hand of taxation regulation.
There are various simple answers. On national insurance, for example, the Chancellor has not only put in place a policy to help small businesses by giving employers a national insurance holiday for the first 10 employees, he is investigating doing away with that pointless and superfluous tax. That is definitely a noble direction, but things such as the accounting period for national insurance and PAYE and the fact that two forms must be filled in doubles the bureaucracy facing small businesses. Something as simple as dealing with that would be a quick fix.
We are familiar with the Federation of Small Businesses, which is an incredibly rich source of information on issues facing many small businesses. However, for micro-businesses and the self-employed, there is little specific data. The FSB definition of a small and medium-sized business is one with up to £25 million turnover and 250 employees. I do not know about other hon. Members, but certainly in Wyre Forest anybody bigger than that is quite a large employer locally, and there are few of them.
I agree from a standpoint of running a micro-business myself: I have been a farmer and my wife has been a restaurateur. Regulation, and the fear of it, is particularly damaging to a micro-business, because the individual running it simply has to have the capacity to deal with all these things. In a larger business, often other people can deal with such matters, but it is typical of the small and micro-businesses that we meet for one person to do so. That is incredibly difficult. Fear of regulation and not being able to deal with health and safety issues are probably more of a deterrent than anything else.
I will come to the regulatory burden in a minute. My hon. Friend is right. I have seen a turkey farm that has had to comply with huge industrial reporting requirements for toxic chemicals, because turkeys produce ammonia, but it also has to prove that it is not producing a great range of other chemicals. These are the unintended consequences of over-bureaucratic regulation.
The FSB provides a great deal of helpful data on business attitudes. Sticking with the taxation issue, 60% of FSB members—two thirds of businesses—complained that the UK tax system is not only too complex, but has a negative impact on their ability to take on more staff and expand.
The VAT threshold creates problems for micro-businesses. The fact that that kicks in at £73,000 is a cliff edge for many small businesses, because if they hit that level, they end up being penalised to the tune of £10,000, so they make a decision not to grow. Having a tax cliff edge of that nature is a barrier to growth for many micro-businesses in my constituency.
I agree. Our complex tax code is full of all sorts of unintended consequences exactly like the one that my hon. Friend mentioned. It is ridiculous having a tax that means businesses going above £73,000 will have to start charging their customers. That is a disincentive to growth in terms of going out and gathering business. If people stay below that threshold, it is a disincentive to employ more people.
I am sorry; the hon. Gentleman is talking about extending it to micro-businesses. Yes, all this has to be put into the mix of things that we need to look at. It is important to consider any way that we can help more micro-businesses.
FSB members say that our tax system is detrimental to their ability to make capital investments in their business, which again is another reason why people are being held back.
On a wider social point—sticking with tax complexity—it is worth noting that a complex tax system allows a huge range of opportunities for tax avoidance and tax evasion, which makes it extraordinarily complex for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to collect tax and ensure that we avoid the tax gap, which is estimated at anything between £40 billion and more than £100 billion a year. The rest of us have to pay for that tax gap and lack of revenue through increased taxes.
Half of small businesses spend at least two hours every week complying with their tax responsibilities alone and for 10% of businesses, particularly small micro-businesses, that can take up to six hours per week—six hours when those businesses should be capturing new customers, developing new products and investing in their future.
Two thirds of businesses feel that they need professional help to complete their tax returns, which costs them on average an extra £3,000 a year. One third of them find that national insurance in its various forms is difficult to understand. Half of businesses find allowances difficult to get to grips with. Frankly, it is all far too complicated and too expensive in man hours and financial resource to administer.
Regulation is the second area of extreme unrest for micro-businesses. According to the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report, the UK is ranked 89th out of 139 for the burden that regulation places on businesses. Aside from the obvious problem of possibly deterring inward investment, the overburden of regulation, especially in the realm of employment law, is cited by businesses as a reason not to expand.
In a business survey in 2008—that was some time ago, but it gives a good idea of trends—a third of businesses thinking about expanding cited fear of regulation as a significant headwind to be faced in expansion and therefore a key factor in their decision. The same survey revealed that half of businesses planning to downsize or close rated regulatory burden as important in their decision to do so. The 2008 survey was undertaken in difficult trading conditions, but regulatory burden should not be a significant factor when businesses are struggling to stay alive in a difficult environment.
Possibly more worrying is the fact that in the 2009 business survey 34% of businesses that were no longer employers cited complying with legislation as a reason for no longer employing staff. This is madness.
Yes. Being a small business man is quite an isolating experience, as many hon. Members will know. People are out there on the front line, struggling to get more business in. They can join network groups and all the rest of it, but they feel like they are in a foxhole, with letters in brown envelopes coming at them from HMRC and all sorts of regulators. That is not necessarily a particularly enthralling experience. My hon. Friend is right.
In addition to accountants and tax specialists to handle tax compliance, a plethora of organisations offer advice on human resources, fire and emergency, health and safety and other things. All that is welcome and they provide an excellent service, but the fact that they are needed and that a sub-class of business advice has been created shows the amount of regulation that we have to face.
The Government have made some progress on access to finance and cash flow. I do not want to be an apologist for the banking crisis. I have to declare an interest here. I was an investment banker and one or two other hon. Members here were, too. It is important to understand that banks have an aversion to risk. Part of the problem faced by the banks is that the Basel III and the Vickers’ recommendations, and so on, are trying to deal with the problem of not wanting the banks to fail. On one hand the banks are being asked to tighten their balance sheet, and on the other they are, rightly, being asked to lend more money. For the banks, those are opposing requests. We need to take great consideration of that as we go through the process of implementing the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Banking, because we cannot ask the banks to take on more risk and expect them not to go bust. That is a contradiction.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency—with particular reference to the fishing industry—someone receiving training who then wants to start a business needs to purchase a fishing vessel? The banks will not just accept that fishing vessel, although it is a valuable asset, as collateral for a loan. They ask for additional collateral, such as a charge on a property, which a lot of young people do not have. That is stopping industries that support our coastal communities from expanding. Does my hon. Friend think that there is an answer to that?
My hon. Friend raises two important points. First, on the general point about raising finance for businesses, part of the problem is that, in the past, loans have not so much been business finance loans as mortgages, where a bank has taken a secure guarantee, such as a property, thereby effectively giving a mortgage used to finance a business and the cash flow out of the business is used to service that debt. The feeling that I get out there is that banks have slightly morphed away from being business financers to being mortgage companies dressed up as business financers.
Secondly, my hon. Friend mentions marine finance. We have one of the finest marine businesses in the world. We produce the most fabulously made yachts—we are world class. I hope you will forgive me for getting in a plug for one of my constituents, Mrs Riordan, but Sealine in the middle of landlocked Kidderminster builds very good ocean-going yachts, and if you ever get a chance to take one out, you should. However, this country does not have a significant marine financing industry, and that is a real problem for all the marine industry, whether we are talking about luxury yachts or working fishing boats. I am working with constituents and various marine industry representative bodies to see whether we can address that point, because we must look at it specifically.
In addition to problems with equity and debt, part of the problem businesses face lies with cash flow. All too often, small businesses suffer as a result of delayed payments. To return to the FSB, three quarters of its members have received late payments in the past 12 months, while nearly half claim that a third of invoices are paid late. That is costly in terms of the time spent chasing invoices. In addition, a fifth of the claims for money owing to those businesses are for more than £20,000. Many businesses go bust not because they do not have enough capital or customers, but because of their cash flow. The problem is that, although a business is perfectly viable, it can easily go bust because of a late payment.
Further to that point, is the problem not that businesses have difficulties with their cash flow, but that banks do not offer decent overdraft facilities to tide companies over in such difficult times? We need to ensure that, when banks lend money, they do not simply do so through loans tied to interest rates and specific rules. They should be much more flexible about offering overdrafts, so that businesses can get through difficult times.
My hon. Friend is right. Various factoring, invoice and financing arrangements can be put in place for businesses. They are designed, in theory, to help businesses through their cash-flow problems, such as paying for stock to put on their shelves and sell on. A number of the banks in my constituency are certainly much more cautious about asset filing and invoice filing than they were. That is a serious problem, but it can be dealt with, despite some of the bigger problems that the banks face in meeting the Basel III requirements. My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point.
I want to look at what the Government can do to help. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take note, and I am sure he will have some helpful comments at the end of the debate. First, we already have the Office of Tax Simplification, and it is incredibly important that we get the Government to take on its recommendations. We must make absolutely certain that any tax changes are properly thought through in terms of simplicity and that they have a good economic and social justification. If we are going to write taxes, we should do so with an eye to international competitiveness. They should make it easier for our businesses to trade and for us to attract businesses to come and invest in our country.
I talked a bit earlier about merging income tax and national insurance contributions, but I should stress again that it would be incredibly helpful if the collection of national insurance and PAYE could be merged, so that people have a simple form to fill in, rather than two complex forms.
The one-in, one-out system of regulation is welcome, and it should start to force some helpful changes. However, the system needs to be rigorously enforced, and the Government’s commitment to it must remain strong.
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. Does he agree that, as well as introducing regulations in a rigorous way when they are absolutely necessary, we should measure whether they do their job, with a post-examination within a specific period, so that we can sunset those that we do not need and get rid of them?
Does my hon. Friend agree that, with very small businesses and start-ups, the Government might need to be more radical than they are being at the moment? On issues such as flexible working and the right to request training, there may be an argument for exempting very small businesses and new businesses from legislation. We should seriously think about more radical measures, such as making it easier for small businesses to get rid of staff. That is politically difficult, but I would like to encourage the Government to think carefully about those proposals from Adrian Beecroft.
My hon. Friend could have been reading my speech, because my very next point was exactly that. It is vital that we help businesses. Ronald Reagan introduced a law under which businesses with fewer than five employees were exempt from a lot of business regulation, and he increased the number of jobs by 30 million as a direct result.
On a practical point that is deliverable, rather than necessarily doing something wholesale, it is vital that we have a system under which we exempt micro-businesses with fewer than, say, five employees from new legislation. We should also give such businesses a holiday when new measures are introduced. If we introduce new regulation—to follow on from the comments of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt)—we need to see how it beds down with those organisations that can afford to implement it. If it works and it is sensible, we can translate it through to smaller businesses when we know how to implement it. We should not load it on to small business right at the beginning and expect them to tackle it and to be the crash-test dummies, when they do not really have the resources to deal with such regulations.
Another problem with regulation is that its introduction is like Chinese water torture, with one drip after another throughout the year. It is quite difficult for many businesses to tackle that drip-feeding of regulation. If we are to bring in regulation, we should bring it once a year. That would make it a lot easier for businesses to focus and comply.
Finally, there is no doubt that the Government have plenty of opportunities to help businesses on cash-flow issues. They have quite a lot of money, although, admittedly, not as much as they used to, and they have a useful cash flow. When they take on contractors, particularly SME contractors, they could achieve a number of things by having a process whereby invoices were paid within 10 days. First, that would set an incredibly good example to the business community and show that early payment is important. Secondly, the Government could push such early-term payments from the contractors to the sub-contractors. Such a process would also give them the ability to persuade their sub-contractors and contractors to sign up to an agreement to help businesses by adopting better payment terms. Those are just a few suggestions, and I am sure that hon. Members will have many others.
I am heartened to see the Minister in his place. He has been in the private sector and has worked hard in business in the past. It is incredibly heartening to see so many business people here, including the Minister. I have every confidence that he will have some helpful comments when he winds up. Much more importantly, when he goes back to his civil servants, he will have a zeal and an enthusiasm for helping small businesses that can come only from somebody who has first-hand experience of the business world.
I will speak for two minutes, and I will probably speak very quickly so that more colleagues can get in. I congratulate those who secured the debate on the excellent way in which they opened it.
I would like to talk about enabling self-employment from the point of view of groups of people who find it difficult to engage with the workplace. These are not necessarily people who would go on to set up a business of their own. One such group is people living with disabilities that make it difficult for them to leave home. Another is women who would like to balance employment with caring responsibilities for children, an elderly relative or perhaps somebody with disabilities. I am really talking about people being self-employed as home workers.
I would like to share with Members the story of a really successful organisation I have been working with over the past 12 months. It enables call centres to be in-sourced back to this country by creating a network of call centre operators based in their own homes. The Government are investing a great deal of money in superfast broadband, and we are definitely benefiting from that in Cornwall. The networks I am talking about would be a good way of utilising that investment to encourage people who are probably not in a workplace now to get training and to become self-employed as call centre operators from their homes.
In America, such an initiative was set up a couple of years ago. It was specifically targeted at getting people off welfare and into work. Globally, the company to which I am referring and which invested in the technology employs more than 22,000 people. It set up in the UK just 12 months ago. It employs 1,500 people and is taking on 2,000 this year. Companies such as Littlewoods and many well known holiday organisations are involved.
With a concerted effort, all of us as Members of Parliament can promote what I have described. I would also like my hon. Friend the Minister to consider something that President Obama is considering this week. I am talking about giving tax incentives to the very big employers, the very big national companies, such as BT, that are outsourcing their call centres throughout the world to repatriate those jobs to the UK—to in-source them back to the UK. Barack Obama is considering giving financial incentives to companies through the taxation system—a financial incentive for every job that they bring back to America. I would like the Minister to examine what is being done in America to see whether we can do the same to repatriate what would be tens of thousands of jobs to these shores and enable people who are finding it difficult to fit into the workplace—such as people with disabilities and people with caring responsibilities—to be self-employed.
I shall be brief. I intended to make two points, but I will now make only one, in the interest of enabling other hon. Members to speak. I want to talk about the role of education and of finance and how help can be provided to people. I fully confess to being heavily influenced by a constituent of mine, who has been working under the scheme led by Virgin Media. In the past year, she has taken steps to establish a competitive business. In fact, while she was at college, she was so entrepreneurial that she decided to use some of her student loan to help to fund the website that is driving her business. The entrepreneurial spirit is to be admired. I have no idea whether she was allowed to do that, so I will not name her, but it shows that with some lateral thinking, perhaps some of the young talent that exists can be put to good use.
I myself did not go to university. I went to a technical college in Cambridge, which I am told is now a university. The business studies course that I did was a sandwich course. It struck me that the only choice that I had during that sandwich course was to go to a placement that was put to me by the college, very helpful though it was at the time. Why cannot we set up an arrangement whereby we allow a sandwich year, even in a course of reduced time length, to become an opportunity for someone, under mentoring and guidance and with the ability to use student finance at their disposal, to take their first steps towards running a business?
If we think creatively, we can not only foster the educational and mentoring skills that are so vital; we could even allow people access to finance, perhaps on the same terms as those of the student loans scheme. I suspect that it would not be able to extend its remit to do that and we may have to look elsewhere for other sources of financing. However, if we are genuinely saying, “Let’s educate and let’s motivate,” and we have students who are showing character and willingness by seeking out the courses, there could be a useful match with an existing system in order to help them. At the end of the day, the payback to them as individuals will be substantial—the payback to the economy will be vital.
I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give the initiative that I have described some consideration and not to lose sight of something that we all too glibly talk about—
I have given that some consideration and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think we will do it. I think it is a very good idea and I will ask my civil servants to work something up.
I will be brief, given the number of hon. Members who want to speak. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which reported last August, said that we are at an all-time high; we have 4.1 million people in self-employment at the moment. That report was particularly interesting because it examined what drives the increase in self-employment, and it does not depend on the economy, as we might have thought. It is principally driven by looser regulation, access to finance and Government policy that specifically drives unemployed people into self-employment. The 1980s was a particularly fine example of that.
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
Let me deal with each of the three elements. With regard to Government policy, the new enterprise allowance has been a great step forwards; I endorse it entirely. The Government now need to consider whether, having extended it from young people to the whole working population, they should take away the requirement for a person to have been on jobseeker’s allowance for six months as a precursor to being eligible to receive it. Many people see unemployment as a bit of a stigma. They may want to come into employment after having brought up children or for many other reasons.
Equally, the Work programme is excellent. I am working with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who is responsible for employment, to consider the extent to which the Work programme is enabling and encouraging individuals to become self-employed rather than going into employment.
I come now to the two other issues raised by the commission’s report. On regulation, the Government have clearly taken a very good first step by exempting micro-businesses from regulation for three years. However, I urge them to exert all their energies on getting the European Union to exempt micro-entities—that is a new definition for the very smallest businesses—from new regulation. I gather that that is being discussed, but I urge the Government to push it forward as a priority.
The Government’s red tape challenge has been extraordinarily useful and powerful. It has explored 12 different areas of red tape—12 sectors—and five more are to come. The Government have said that they will report on that three months after the closure of the consultation. I look forward to those results. I urge the Government to examine in particular those regulations that disproportionately disbenefit the self-employed and the very smallest businesses. The EU has recognised the need to simplify regulation for the very smallest businesses. I ask the Government to work hard at insisting that the EU has its own red tape challenge. It has examined simplification, but it has not considered root-and-branch removal, which is crucial.
Finance is the third issue. Points have been made clearly and well about the challenge faced by the self-employed and the small business in trying to access finance. Tributes have been paid to Business Link. A new portal, Business in You, sets out a number of schemes that are available. There are 851 of them. My advice to Government would be that it is a great idea, but some guidance is needed because it is quite difficult for a self-employed individual to work out which of those is particularly beneficial.
The real challenge is ensuring that a very small business can find information about the opportunities available. It is the case that 28% of micro-businesses are not online, so we need to make the information available in libraries and to encourage the chambers of commerce and the local enterprise partnerships to play a role in disseminating that information. Without that, we will not secure the change that we need.
There was mention of the Government schemes to support access to debt, equity and guarantees. Most of those schemes are aimed at the whole remit of the SME community, which takes us up to 250 employees. The banks, who are usually the people delivering the schemes, will go for the easy wins because they are in business to make money, and the easy wins are the bigger businesses with good business plans and a good track record. The Government need to ring-fence—perhaps they will do this with their credit-easing proposals—a pot specifically for the self-employed, recognising that they are looking for smaller pots of money and do not have well developed business plans.
Perhaps the best initiative has been the growth of the community development finance initiative. The Fredericks Foundation should be recognised for the work that it has done to provide loans to those businesses that cannot find money anywhere also. I also pay tribute to the Government for considering making credit unions able to lend to small businesses, rather than just making loans to individual people. In addition, the Virgin Media pioneers proposal to enable those wanting to set up a business to be given financing at the same rate as applies to a student loan is definitely to be welcomed.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who initiated the debate. He is absolutely right to say that culture change is the key. In the November report of the all-party parliamentary group for micro-businesses—I have to declare an interest here because I chair that group—the research that was supported by the London Business School, Lancaster university, Imperial and Manchester Metropolitan indicated that we needed an education change, not just at university level but at primary and secondary level. We need to consider how to inculcate the idea that setting up a business is a good, valuable and genuine alternative.
I am delighted with the Government’s support for the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurship, which has put in £500,000 to support the establishment of entrepreneur groups in universities across the country. It has succeeded in establishing groups in about three quarters of the universities across the country. It is now looking at colleges.
Finally, we need to enable the self-employed who are setting up small businesses to have bottom-up mentoring support. Although there is a Government scheme to create 40,000 mentors, a scheme that will require the banks to mentor those who get refused loans and the “mentors me” website, which is great, it is still not enough and we need to consider bottom-up volunteering, and, as has been suggested by the Virgin Group, we need local chambers of commerce and others to take some responsibility as well.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply. I hope that I have not taken up too much time and I welcome the changed agenda that this debate heralds.
Government should, of course, try to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), I welcome the reintroduction of the enterprise allowance scheme, which enabled me to kick off my business in the early ’90s. I learned last night that in India, thanks to advances in technology, it is possible to incorporate a firm in 24 hours, which we cannot do here. We also need an increase in the availability of start-up loans. Banks should get better at providing some of the money that they were bailed out with.
In the spirit shown to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois), perhaps the Minister will consider this idea. Graduates who start businesses and then employ people should be eligible for university fee debt relief—well, that clearly went down well in the Chamber. I appreciate my colleagues’ support!
Starting a business should not be an ambition exclusively for young people. Many successful entrepreneurs become self-employed later in life after a successful career. They may be interested in helping others make money or they may become self-employed out of necessity or because of redundancy.
Advances in technology have led to an explosion of people working from home. As such an approach has advantages for family life, I urge the Government to continue their efforts in ensuring that every part of the UK gets access to superfast broadband.
If there is one thing that entrepreneurs know, it is that waiting for Parliament to act will get them nowhere. Entrepreneurs do not wait around for help; they take action. Although business people cannot do anything about clearing university fee debt or increasing the availability of start-up capital, which is down to the banks and venture capitalists, one obstacle they can help young people and anybody wanting to start a business overcome is lack of knowledge.
I am encouraged by the Government’s plans to set up a network of experienced mentors. For too long, business advice has been doled out by well meaning people who invariably have never run a business. Recently, I met some careers advisers who had hardly ever spoken to local employers.
I am pleased to say that via the excellent local business accelerators programme, which was set up by the Newspaper Society and backed by the Prime Minister and that excellent newspaper The Selby Times, I shall be providing mentoring to a local Selby business called LRB Trophies run by the Butler family. The company was born out of adversity, but it will hopefully go on to great things.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Prince’s Trust also runs a business mentoring scheme? I was a business mentor for the Trust, which helps young people to start businesses. Again, such organisations are really helpful for young people.
I am aware of that, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend is involved in such a scheme. It is crucial that people get to speak to those who have been at the coal face. There is nothing like real world experience to help people with small businesses.
The Government should say to existing business people with an interest in encouraging the next generation of entrepreneurs, “If you know anyone who is interested in entrepreneurship, be their mentor. Check out the excellent apprenticeship programmes at your local college and hire some apprentices. If you have kids of your own, involve them in your business at an early stage and show them that entrepreneurship is a viable option for them. Let anyone you come across know about the benefits and thrill of being their own boss.”
Finally, we should be celebrating entrepreneurs and the wealth creators and not demonising them. There is nothing wrong with success and there is nothing wrong with those who fail while trying to succeed. Those who put everything on the line to grow businesses, to create jobs and to pay the taxes that pay for the public sector and our services should be applauded and supported.
I am very grateful to you, Mr Streeter, and I shall be very brief.
I shall mention two things that the Government have put in place. The first is universal credit, which is coming through as part of the Welfare Reform Bill. The 65% taper takes away the 16-hour-a-week cliff edge, which is incredibly important. Those who are unemployed and who are looking to start their own business from their own homes now have an incentive to look forward to the future. I am talking about them having not just a limited income but a proper business run for the long term. They can now go through that 16-hour barrier and not see some of their benefits disappear. That has a beneficial effect for those bosses who would employ such people in, say, restaurants, bars or whatever. They can invest in the training of such employees and expect them to remain full-term employees for the long term. That has to be a good thing both for the employer, who is generally self-employed, and the employees.
The second area is planning. Hon. Members who know me well will not be surprised to hear that I am going to bore them slightly on planning. They may ask, “How can that possibly relate to self-employed businesses?” Let me say very straightforwardly that I chaired a conference on that matter last Thursday. We talked about neighbourhood planning. It is now entirely within the remit of small businesses, especially rural ones, to petition for the go-ahead of neighbourhood development plans that take a real account of what local businesses need, particularly in regard to converting farm buildings and using redundant rural buildings for accommodation. I urge all hon. Members to make it plain to their constituents that there is a real opportunity for small businesses here. Small businesses can shape their communities around them and take full account of affordable housing all the way through to the conversion of redundant buildings for their business for the long term. It is a huge opportunity, and one that they should all take.
I will try to use that time wisely, Mr Streeter.
Many people often have a rosy view of self-employment. They think of afternoons spent on the golf course, corporate boxes at cricket matches, sloping off early and the large financial rewards that come with all that. In reality that is not the case. The hon. Members in this Chamber who have run their own businesses know that running a small business involves hard graft and long hours. That is particularly the case to start with, when there are often few rewards and plenty of stress. My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) hit the nail on the head earlier when he mentioned taking on people and the fact that for small businesses it is about not only employing people and the difficulties that come with that but being in a situation in which people are dependent on them for their living and their livelihoods.
As I have so little time, I will focus on the issue of risk and reward, particularly in relation to taxation. I will then specifically focus on the relationship between people who operate very small and micro-businesses and those who then expand those businesses so that they can take on people to grow our economy. When I looked on Wikipedia, it said that taxation may well be higher for someone starting a small business than for someone who is actually employed. We must ensure that we allow people to expand those businesses. One example that I want to bring to the Minster’s attention is that of a hairdresser who may go from renting a chair in an existing business to taking on their own premises, if they were so incentivised. A VAT threshold of £73,000 could cause a problem with incentivising people. That is one micro-example, but we need to consider taxation in the round and think about how it affects micro-businesses and small businesses in comparison with medium-sized enterprises and larger businesses to ensure that the Government create an enterprise culture, which was sadly lacking under the previous Government.
It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, even if only for 10 minutes. It has been an excellent debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on obtaining it and on his speech.
Like some other hon. Members, I have run my own business—twice: the first time was at the back end of the last century, when I set up an IT recruitment firm; subsequently in 2005 I launched a rugby product business, Club Rugby, which I continued to run until I was elected. As someone who has been on that journey twice, I know very well the different motivations for heading towards self-employment. In my case, it was inspiration on one occasion and desperation on another. In fact, many great businesses have been created from fledgling inspirations caused by the desperation of those trying to feed a family and keep a roof over their heads in tough times. Certainly, some will still thrive in these most desperate of times. However, the fact that some will still come through, and that the strongest may still thrive and survive, is not a reason for the Government not to do everything in their power to support people in all walks of life and all parts of the country to take that first brave step and put their name above the door.
One of the lessons of the recent past is that we must create an environment that gives the greatest number of new business people an opportunity to be a successful business owner. Why would any Government not want to do that? Therefore I particularly welcome a debate in which the hon. Member for Watford expressed his frustration at what he sees as the unglamorous image of running a business in Britain today. Of course, he is right to say that we all—politicians, school teachers, careers advisers, business leaders, media figures and trade union leaders—have a responsibility to promote the vital importance of new start-ups and small businesses in creating the growth we need to get the economy moving again. For that reason I welcome television programmes such as “The Apprentice” and “Dragons’ Den”, which for all their flaws at least tend to get young people to see business in a sexier light.
I am afraid that there is not time, if I am going to leave time for the Minister.
“The Apprentice” in particular also has a welcome focus on the importance of sales techniques and ability, which is a vital and intrinsic part of business success, which the nation has neglected for too long, and which I want to promote through the Labour party’s policy review. I started my first job in sales at the age of 17. The old adage that until someone sells something in a business nothing happens has never been truer than it is today. As part of the Labour policy review programme Nigel Doughty, a tremendously successful business investor, is chairing our small business task force. Within that policy review process, he hosted a session on high-growth businesses. There were many contributors to that session from across the business spectrum, but one of the key defining facts revealed during it was that about 7% of all businesses will go on to become high-growth firms, irrespective of market sector or geographical location. The key to getting more high-growth firms coming out of the bottom of the funnel is to get more going into the top.
Of course, we have been here before. Starting in 1997, Labour’s new deal programme was the most successful back-to-work programme in British history. The self-employment programme was the most successful part of it. Some 70% of the people who started on it went into business, and 81% of those businesses were still trading three years later. Moreover, they were employing, on average, an extra 1.6 people each, meaning that for every 100 people who started on the programme, 112 were employed three years later as a result. That may be the first and only back-to-work programme ever to have a greater than 100% success rate.
The key features of the success of that programme that are not being duplicated by the current Government’s back-to-work programme are the special provision with a ring-fenced pot of new deal money specifically for the self-employment option and the financial cushion in the early stages of self-employment, which was so important in giving new business people an opportunity to test trading as a viable career option. In that context, the void in face-to-face business advice left in the absence of Business Link is deeply worrying.
It is a key aim of the Government to encourage the unemployed to look towards self-employment as a viable career option, and we entirely support them in that general aspiration. However, we must also be aware of the dangers of false self-employment. Bogus self-employment has rocketed in the past decade, particularly in the construction industry. Workers are often told that they will be taken on only if they agree to declare themselves self-employed, thus giving up hard-won employee entitlements such as national insurance contributions, and sick and holiday pay. Recognition of the unique challenges that the unemployed face in setting up new firms or becoming sole traders must lead to specific actions to support them into self-employment. The unemployed are less likely to have the cash to enable them to set up in business, and less likely to be able to borrow money towards start-up costs. They are likely to be less able to cope with the early cash flow shortages that are often inevitable for fledgling businesses.
As a Member of Parliament, I am a publicly employed representative of the people, who earns about £64,000 a year. Yet if I decide to write an article, provide advice or even take on a directorship to provide me with extra income, I am legally entitled to do so. However, if an unemployed person on £65 a week wants to see whether they can make a go of a business as a painter or hairdresser and does a few jobs before coming off benefits, they are committing a criminal offence. In the new deal, there was an opportunity to recognise the fact that the informal economy plays an important part in helping people to move from unemployment to self-employment.
On the new deal programme, the test trading aspect entitled people who were unemployed to enter the world of self-employment with a six-month financial cushion between leaving benefits and setting up. Subsequently the tax credit system replaced that financial cushion. Originally there was hope that the universal credit would also be an effective tool. However, as it is currently structured it works on the narrow basis of a set number of hours and set earnings, which does not fit easily with the self-employment model. Under Labour’s policy review, we are investigating an enterprise credit that would recognise the flexibility of income derived from self-employment and replace that all-important cushion to give new start-ups the security that they need.
I want to touch on a couple of speeches by other hon. Members. The hon. Member for Watford talked about the sleepless nights that often come with running one’s own business—and, indeed, we are led to believe, with being a Conservative Member of Parliament. He expanded on his wife’s role and the lack of help that she provides him with on those occasions, which she may wish to discuss with him at a future date. He also talked about children who want to go into fields such as advertising or marketing, but who do not see setting up their own business as a viable or exciting option. He rightly mentioned the huge social value in setting up a business and going on to provide employment to other members of the community.
The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) supported Labour’s policy on a national insurance holiday for micro-businesses that take on a new member of staff. He was also right behind us on pushing the Government to take forward the late payments directive. We thank him for that support. I hope that he will be successful in persuading other hon. Members to be equally enlightened.
The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) shared my concern that the “mentors me” website may not provide enough support for new businesses, and she expressed the importance of that. The hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) said how important it is to celebrate entrepreneurship and highlight people’s success. The hon. Members for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) warned us not to give a sugar-coated view of the ease of running a business. In doing that, however, I feel that the hon. Member for Nuneaton added to the myth that Britain has a particularly difficult regulatory system. The reality discovered by the World Bank is that Britain is the easiest place to set up a new business anywhere in the EU and the fourth easiest place in the world. It is important that hon. Members speak up for all the positive aspects of running one’s own business and do not exaggerate the difficulties.
There is a broader context to the discussion. When the Government have choked off the recovery with their anti-growth policies, they cannot seriously expect the private sector to provide the growth that we so desperately need. That is why we have put growth at the heart of our five-point plan and why we called for a temporary cut in VAT; it is why we supported the call by the Federation of Small Businesses for a cut to a rate of 5% for VAT on home improvements; and it is why we are calling for a national insurance holiday for micro-businesses to boost employment at small firms.
People want more than gimmicks from Government. They want a genuine programme for growth. Where the Government deliver that, they will have our support. We recognise the vital role that self-employment can play in delivering growth, creating jobs, reducing unemployment and, most of all, giving people back their pride and their sense of belief. They need have no doubt whatever about Labour’s commitment. After all, we got Britain working for itself before.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to speak in this important debate, to which there have been many valuable contributions. I do not want to be excessively partisan—as you know, I regard it as vulgar—but it is noticeable that this debate has been dominated by my party, the party of business. It must be slightly disappointing for the shadow Minister that he has been so poorly served by his own Back Benches. There is almost no one here to support his—I was going to say oratory, but I do not want to overstate the case.
Ezra Pound, the great poet, said that genius is the capacity to see 10 things where an ordinary man sees only one, so I shall try to make 10 points in response to what has been said in this debate. Education was mentioned in the introductory remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), whom I congratulate on securing this debate. He led it with style and acumen, making a strong point about the importance of education, of ensuring that young people are imbued with a sense of enterprise, which permeated several Members’ contributions, and of countering the prevailing prejudice against business.
No, will not, because of time. Forgive me. Chesterton said that those who were impatient enough to interrupt the words of others seldom have the patience to think of good words themselves. I put on record that that is not true of my hon. Friend, but just in case, I will not give way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) spoke about the importance of finance. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) discussed enterprise and small business, and what a champion he is for the small businesses of Britain. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) spoke about tax and the importance of having the right tax regime. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who is no longer in her place, made a useful contribution on information about careers. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) made a point about the disproportionate effect of regulation on very small businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty also mentioned skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) mentioned mentoring and my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) discussed the communal value of business. I think that I have covered most of hon. Members’ contributions. If I have not, I apologise. They were all immensely valuable, and are valued by the Government.
It is important to recognise the critical role that small business in particular plays in our economy. As an expert on these matters, Mr Streeter, you will know that small and medium-size enterprises are a crucial engine for growth and are critical to our national economic success in every sector. Together, they are responsible for almost half the private sector’s £900 billion output and 60% of private sector jobs. Since 2000, the 31% increase in businesses has been driven entirely by SMEs. Small business is the backbone of our nation and the driver of innovation. It is the embodiment of enterprise, because it is in start-up businesses that ideas have their genesis and subsequently germinate. Every business starts as a small business.
Politely—almost flatteringly—several Members referred to my own business career. I was lucky in business. All success in business is a combination of good luck and good judgment. I entered the IT industry when it was growing; what a great place it was to be in the 1980s. I learned there that politicians must be sensitive to the needs of business. They particularly need to understand that by and large, businesses want politicians to get off their back and on their side. The Government play their part through regulation, the tax system, information, support and pump-priming, but they must step back to let business thrive.
Having said that, I will mention the 10 things that Government can do, in the six minutes available to me. First, we are focusing on education. We are establishing an enterprise village website, which we will develop further, enabling teachers to access free online resources to assist them in developing school businesses. Secondly, on the “inspiring the future” website, we have made more information available about business and business education to at least 2,500 local enterprise champions and role models.
Thirdly, the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs, which was mentioned in the debate, is building sustainable national infrastructure to develop and drive forward student enterprise societies across higher education institutions and further education colleges. I expect about 90 universities and 160 FE colleges to be involved in that initiative. Fourthly, reducing the small profits rate from 21% to 20% from April 2011 and reversing the previous Administration’s plans to raise the rate to 22% will undoubtedly help business.
Fifthly, we have increased the national insurance contributions threshold for all employers by £21 a week above indexation from April 2011, reversing the previous Government’s plan, which I think the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) failed to mention because he is embarrassed about it. He is a decent and honest man, so I can understand his embarrassment, and I will not dwell on it further.
No, I cannot, because of time.
Sixthly, the Government also know that ensuring the flow of credit to viable small businesses is essential and a core priority for the Government. We want to ensure that the financial sector can supply the affordable credit that businesses need, and we would like to see more sources of credit and finance. I accept that banks have a role, but other organisations need to play their part too.
Seventhly, in April, we will launch a new seed enterprise investment scheme to encourage investment in new start-up companies. Eighthly, at the same time, we are launching two new Business Link services with an additional investment of £1.2 million and a new initiative to recruit and train 15,000 volunteer business mentors, which numerous people have welcomed during the debate.
Ninthly, as I am sure you know, Mr Streeter, the Government have placed great emphasis on start-up Britain. This is the year of enterprise. We want everyone to know what is happening in the UK, to promote enterprise and to give young people who wish to set up a business access to diverse sources of finance. We want to support SMEs with improved information and streamline the process by which they and others can get the knowledge and information that they require to set up their business.
Tenthly, the introduction of a national loan guarantee scheme to help businesses raise funds from non-bank sources, the £1 billion finance partnership to invest in medium-sized businesses and SMEs, the continuation of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, a new export enterprise finance guarantee scheme, the continuation of the Government’s enterprise capital funds programme and, of course, the encouragement of the business angels scheme that we established will give businesses the boost that they need.
What has been repeated in speeches throughout this debate is that we need to change the culture to one that recognises that business has not only a communal role in delivering the growth that we need to prosper but also a vital role in enabling many of our citizens to achieve their potential to be the best they can be and, through that role, to create jobs and growth, seeding recovery in every community in Britain. The problem in Britain is not that none of that exists; far from it. We know from our constituencies and our personal business experience that that spirit exists. The problem is creating circumstances that allow it to thrive.
In those terms, the contrast between this Government and the last is profound. There is no doubt that the last Government were starry-eyed about the glitz and glamour of money, but it is clear that they were blind to the needs of small business and enterprise in particular. I hope that there has been a change, as the hon. Member for Chesterfield said. My hope is that we can understand throughout the House that business is virtuous, because it builds jobs, sustains growth and fuels healthy communities. My business is the promotion of growth, and my mission is the pursuit of the common good. It is clear that in that mission, I have the support of many colleagues in my party and throughout the House who share my enthusiasm for British business and my determination that business will prosper under this Government.