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Businesses: Debt

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 17 May 2012

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to monitor, enforce and improve the provisions of the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 to aid small and medium-sized enterprises’ access to finance.

My Lords, the Government closely monitor UK payment times. Experian reports that UK payment duration has been and continues to be historically low, and has reduced by more than four days since the first quarter of 2009. However, the Government recognise the importance of prompt payment to business cash flow, especially to small and medium-sized businesses, and we plan to improve the provision of the late payment Act by transposing the 2011 EU directive by 16 March 2013.

My Lords, at a small business event this week I met a “Dragon’s Den” winner who tells me that over the past three years paying late has increased and payment periods have increased, causing him to spend time on chasing people up and wasting valuable time that could be spent adding value to the business. When will the noble Baroness find the inner dragon in herself, not only to breathe fire into existing legislation but on big businesses and public institutions that deprive small businesses of £35 billion that should be available to them to add value to their businesses?

I thank the noble Lord—and, yes, I have been a dragon, but nowadays I am quite quiet. There is no doubt about it that half the problem is caused by the fact that small and medium-sized businesses are so grateful to get the contracts that they usually do not look at the payment terms and do not make sure how they are going to be paid in the first place. We have the legislation in place—the Labour Party put it in place. We are going to improve on it by using a system covering late payment which, after all, we were the first to put into the European Community. We are now writing it for them to extend it so that it will cover local authorities and any business-to-business transactions that are not being carried out successfully. I hope that that helps.

I am delighted to be able to say that, after two years, government departments are paying their bills on time. We are paying within five days to the main contractor, which then has to make sure that it pays within 30 days to its sub-contractors. We are watching that very carefully.

During a House of Commons debate on late payments on 14 September 2011, the then Business Minister, Ed Davey MP, announced that the Government would transpose the EU directive on late payments,

“into UK law in the first half of 2012, which is earlier than we are required to do”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/9/11; col. 280WH.]

Can the Minister tell us why we are now talking about some time in 2013, given the Government’s commitment to assisting small and medium-sized enterprises?

It is a long-standing commitment of the Government not to gold-plate European Union legislation by implementing it early. We have confirmed many times our intention to transpose that directive, thereby providing business—especially smaller business—with certainty. We are making sure that it is written as it should be written and in a way that we think it can be enforced. As we know, within the European Community, our problem is that our Anglo-Saxon law here is not necessarily the same law as applies to some of the other countries. Therefore we have to be very careful that what they are going to do is enforceable.

Now that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is in his place, is the Minister prepared to give any more detail as to exactly how the implementation of this European directive will help small and medium-sized enterprises on this topic?

The fact that we are being asked to substantially write it is an enormous help. It means that we can write it following the legislation that we already have, which I have already explained and on which I complimented the previous Government for putting in place. The most important thing that we can get out of this is a requirement that local public authorities have to pay within 30 days. It is very important to get that in place, and it is certainly worth taking the time to get it right.

My Lords, is it not the case that this Act will never be adequately enforced until a public official is given the statutory task of enforcing prompt payment and prompt interest payment on behalf of SMEs? Next week the Government will announce the appointment of a groceries adjudicator to help farmers in their battles with supermarkets. Surely there are wide reasons for saying that a public official is needed to assist in enforcing this Act as regards the late payment of debts.

The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, who is a former Director-General of the Office of Fair Trading, always comes up with something on which I would like to reflect, and I will do so on this occasion. If he would like to write to me explaining exactly what it is that he thinks is a good idea, this Government are always willing to listen.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if we did not have to create legislation that suited all members of the European Community and could just do this legislation on our own to suit ourselves, it could have been done months ago—perhaps even years ago, during the time of the last Labour Government?

Will my noble friend contemplate more active support of small and independent businesses given that they are so much greater contributors to community life and local cohesion than their monstrous brothers?

The late payments that we have studied indicate that it certainly is not just large organisations which pay late. I say again that very often small and medium-sized companies do not make sure that their payment terms are right and do not do credit checks on companies. They should do credit checks no matter how big the company is. Nowadays we no longer hear the word factoring. When I ran my small business factoring was very important. If noble Lords look at today’s newspaper they will see a letter from the Royal Bank of Scotland which says just that. It advises small businesses to go to their bank and learn how to factor.