These are tough economic conditions for all sorts of businesses, including small and medium-sized businesses, but the small business sector is showing signs of considerable resilience. The number of small and medium-sized enterprises grew to 4.5 million at the start of last year—an increase of over 270,000 since 2008—and the proportion of people involved in setting up and running new businesses has increased to over 7.5% in 2011, up from under 6% in 2009.
I am afraid that is not true in the Cynon Valley. Earlier this week I was talking to small businesses, who said the failure of the banks to lend has made it very difficult for them to expand and take on new workers, such as the former Remploy workers in my constituency who were so disgracefully sacked by the Government last month. We have had enough of the donkey talk of carrots and sticks. Is it not time to hold the bankers’ feet to the fire and get some movement on this matter, because it is not happening now?
I have never been shy of criticising bank performance in lending to SMEs, and I am not going to change on that. None the less, I think we should be a little more positive about what is happening. One of the most interesting figures of the last two-and-half years is that the number of private sector jobs has increased by 900,000 in conditions of economic difficulty. Almost all of those jobs are in SMEs, despite the difficulties they face. We are taking action to ensure we get a better flow of funds from the banks, particularly through the new funding for lending arrangements, over and above the guarantee scheme. There are new challenger banks such as Aldermore and Handelsbanken that are specialising in that sector and meeting some of the unmet need.
Does the Secretary of State agree that what the small business sector in this country needs is confidence, not carping from those on the Opposition Benches? The fact that the Government have created over 900,000 jobs since the election suggests they are doing a lot of good. Does he also agree that the World Economic Forum report of this week showing that Britain’s competitiveness has risen from 10th to eighth in the world league, because, it says, of our more efficient labour market reforms, suggests we are doing exactly the right thing?
I thank my colleague for reminding me of that. It is a very positive report, and it is striking that it puts such emphasis on the fact that we have very flexible labour markets, which is one of the reasons why the private sector has been able to take on so many more people. That is publicly appreciated by many of the large manufacturing companies as well as by SMEs.
Two and a half years in, this Government still offer no significant support for small, innovative, high-growth businesses, which are exactly the kind that we need to get us out of this double-dip recession made in Downing street. The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts has called on the Government to expand the small business research initiative. Started by Labour, it uses Government procurement to help to turn innovative small businesses into world beaters—we support that call. Is it any wonder that business confidence is low when the Government plan to spend 10 times more on subsidising local weekly bin collections than on innovative small business procurement? Can the Minister tell me whether they will now change—
Small, innovative businesses are absolutely crucial, and the CBI, in particular, has focused on what it calls the “gazelles” in that space. One specific initiative that we introduced—I launched it—and which the hon. Lady may not be aware of is the growth accelerator, which is a system of providing high-quality coaching for 26,000 small and medium-sized enterprises of exactly the kind she has described. All our evidence so far suggests that it is appreciated and is working extremely well.