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Small Businesses (Prompt Payment)

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2015

The Government are leading the way in paying their suppliers promptly. We have already legislated to “cascade”, as it says here, 30-day terms throughout public sector supply chains. We have also legislated for new transparency measures in the public and private sectors, which will allow full public scrutiny of payment performance. We will go further and consult on our proposals for a small business conciliation service.

There are many roofing businesses and other small and medium-sized enterprises in Falkirk, and the time and effort involved in chasing late and incomplete payments is a serious burden on them. What plans do the Government have to ensure that the onus is on large contractors to pay, as opposed to SMEs having to chase?

I completely take the point, and I thank the hon. Gentleman and welcome him to his place. As he will understand, smaller businesses are often reluctant to take action through law. That is why we are considering a conciliation service, which could provide a genuine answer. I would be delighted to come to Falkirk at some stage on my travels and meet some of the companies in question to assure them that we are on their side.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, half of small firms were paid late last year. What progress has the Minister made in ensuring that large firms do not take advantage of small businesses in their supply chain and risk livelihoods in the process?

I take a firm view that it is absolutely scandalous when people do not honour the terms and conditions of their contract and pay late. That is not acceptable, particularly in the modern world. I hear terrible stories about supermarkets; one can only imagine what would happen if someone went shopping on a Saturday and then said at the checkout, “I think I’ll settle my bill in about 120 days.” Obviously they would be told that it was not acceptable, and it is not acceptable for large businesses to treat smaller businesses in that way. That is why we take the problem so seriously.

I very much welcome the tone that the Minister is taking, which is in sharp contrast with the feebleness of the Government’s efforts on late payments over the past five years.

Some 2,500 businesses go bust every year not because of a failed business model but simply because they have not been paid on time. Some £46 billion is now owed to UK firms, a figure that rose throughout the Government’s previous term. Will the Minister take serious action, and does she agree that the last Government’s actions were inadequate? What message will she send to businesses that do not pay on time about the actions that the Government will take?

I hope that I have sent a strong message. I could not be clearer—it is completely unacceptable. [Interruption.] There is no need to add extra regulatory burdens. The law is quite clear: if two parties have come together and settled terms and conditions through a contract—forgive me for sounding like the lawyer I am, Mr Speaker—and one party then breaks the contract by not paying on time, legal action is available to the other party. As we know, the problem is that small businesses are understandably reluctant to go to law. I am exploring other options, including the continuation of naming and shaming.