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Businesses: Contracts and Payments

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 3 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage large companies, with regard to contracts and payments, to act considerately towards small and medium-sized enterprises with which they deal.

The Government support the Institute of Credit Management’s prompt payment code, which requires signatories to pay according to agreed terms and to give clear guidance to suppliers. The code is working—Experian analysis suggests that signatories represent around two-thirds of total UK supply chain value. We are also helping suppliers to help themselves through the managing cash-flow guides, which help suppliers to manage their customer relationships, payment terms and invoicing arrangements.

My Lords, that is a most welcome and encouraging reply, following as it does on the policy of the previous Administration and the CBI and the Institute of Directors. Will the Government go a little bit further and consider establishing a blacklist of companies which fail to observe these exhortations when it comes to giving public sector contracts?

My Lords, the question was whether the Government will create a blacklist of firms which consistently act in an inappropriate manner. I do not think the previous Government did that and I do not think we will. The Government are working with the UK’s main business organisations and UK business to promote and encourage good practice. If the noble Lord knows of a practice that has been brought to his attention which is not being sorted, I hope that he will contact me to see whether my department can help in any way.

My Lords, the situation is not working just now. Last year, NatWest research showed that three out of four small and medium-sized enterprises are suffering with a £63 billion mountain of unpaid bills. It is very important that we recognise that large firms, as Serco indicated, are working on the back of small firms to improve their cash flows. I think it is time for a level playing field between the public and private sectors. Can the Minister look at the prompt payment code that was introduced in 2008 and build on it so that we have well defined time periods for the private and the public sectors in order to get rid of the bullying that we saw the other day with Serco?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises two points. He is talking about the private sector and the public sector, which are not necessarily exactly the same. He will know about the work we have been doing in the public sector on speedy payments. The public sector is paying faster than ever before. Central government departments aim to pay 80 per cent of invoices within 10 days. There is now a contractual requirement for main contractors to pay their own suppliers within 30 days. With regard to the private sector, the law stands. We also have very big organisations, such as the CBI and the Institute of Directors, with which we work all the time, as did the previous Administration, to see whether encouragement can be given—not to intervene in that sector, as that would not be correct. I have been a small supplier to a large company. I would say that there needs to be more training and education and more pressure on small companies to ensure that, when they get wonderful contracts with big companies, they do not get overexcited and that they reward the salesman but do not reward the invoice clerk in the back office who gets the invoices wrong 30 per cent of the time.

My Lords, has the noble Baroness reflected on the solutions offered by the Federation of Small Businesses, to which I drew attention in a Question I asked last week, which included obliging firms to pay their subcontractors as quickly as the Government pay the contractors, thereby easing the cash flow of small businesses, which is such a vital advantage in this competitive market?

Yes, my Lords, I well remember that Question being asked by the noble Lord and the supplementary question. Central government is paying within five days. I also know that some of the people it is paying within five days are paying their people within 20 or 30 days of sight of invoice. We shall certainly look at all those contracts that have been set up as soon as they come to their due date. You can be absolutely certain that I, as a Business Minister, who has been on the receiving end of that, will ensure that the terms are right all the way through the system.

My Lords, will the Minister say how the Government square their support for the prompt payments code with Sir Philip Green’s recommendation that the Government should pay their bills more slowly?

My Lords, I am a bit of an expert on Sir Philip Green’s report because I have read it now. His report says nothing specific about government payment terms. In interviews, he says that the norm in most departments is to pay suppliers in five days, compared with the standard 30-day-payment period for most private sector transactions and the 45 days demanded by some bigger companies like his own. If the Government demanded a minimum of 30 days of credit from suppliers, they would save hundreds of millions of pounds in financing costs. That is what he has said in conversation but his report actually says nothing at all about it.

Will the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, consider issuing vuvuzelas to his Benches? They would make a much better noise. In the document recently published by BIS, Backing Small Businesses, I have read many of the claims which the Minister has stated today about 80 per cent of invoices being paid in five days, prime contractors paying their subcontractors within 30 days, and 15 per cent of business being dished out by Government to small businesses. That is a restatement of what the previous Chancellor said in the Budget of 25 March this year. Do the Government have any of their own ideas of what they are going to do to back small businesses instead of restating policies that have already been implemented?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, knows what a fan I am of his, so I will always try and please him. I am delighted to know that the previous regime did such work in this area and we intend to do good work to build on that. I hope he will give me time to get that all under way.

My Lords, can the Minister clarify one brief and concise point? When it comes to government contracts being given to big companies, is it not right and proper that those big companies should be required by Government to pay small suppliers within the same time that the Government undertake to do so?

I have sympathy with that and we are certainly looking into all the government contracts we have to see how they have been dealt with in the past. We can see that there is great room for improvement and I hope the noble Lord will follow my progress on this.