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Small and Medium-sized Enterprises: Interest Rates

Volume 832: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support small and medium-sized enterprises in raising finance in a period of high interest rates.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I draw your Lordships’ attention to my register of interest, in particular as senior partner of Cavendish Corporate Finance.

We work closely with the British Business Bank to support SMEs through targeted market interventions. That includes improving the terms on offer to SME borrowers through the recovery loan scheme, providing businesses with up to £2 million of guaranteed government finance. We are also boosting availability of non-debt finance by extending British Patient Capital to 2033 and funding the Regional Angels Programme with an additional £150 million over the spending review period.

Given the economic growth that we now know has now happened since Covid, growing SMEs need equity finance to expand their businesses. Now that the Windsor Framework has been signed and the EU state subsidy restrictions withdrawn from our own state aid, will the EIS and SEIS be amended to take away restrictions such as gross assets and seven-year trading? In particular, will the sunset clause be removed?

I entirely agree with my noble friend about the very good news about the economy. The EIS and SEIS schemes, along with VCT, have been enormously popular and successful, with over £40 billion being invested since their inception in 1994. We are assured by the Chancellor that the Government are committed to their renewal. We absolutely recognise the need for investors and companies, so that investment continues without interruption going forward. My noble friend will understand that I cannot give exact timings today, but the details will be provided by His Majesty’s Treasury ahead of the renewal date. On the European clauses, I ask your Lordships to understand that the Chancellor will have in mind that any renewal is for UK business only and no longer for the wider European audience.

My Lords, on 17 July the Financial Times reported that the Prime Minister was convening a new business advisory council, bringing together senior bosses to shape government policy. The paper lists

“AstraZeneca, NatWest, BAE Systems, SSE, Google DeepMind, J Sainsbury, Vodafone, GSK, Aviva, Shell, Sage, Taylor Wimpey, Diageo and Barclays”.

That does not leave much room for the SMEs to get their message across, but it does typify the big business approach taken by this Government. Will the Minister confirm who is on this council, whether it has met yet, and how he expects small and medium-sized businesses to be able to catch the Prime Minister’s ear in such company?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. Those are some of the largest international companies in the world, and I am sure that they will provide the Prime Minister with some extremely helpful advice. Having said that, as we all know, in this country the vast majority of businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises. In my role, I communicate with them almost constantly, both individuals and representative bodies. The value they have to add to these sorts of fora should not be underestimated. They are an extremely valuable and successful part of our economy.

My Lords, there is evidence to show that the closure of bank branches leads to lower financial support for local businesses, especially as it also leads to the loss of local economic intelligence networks. What have the Government done to estimate the negative effects of bank branch closures on financial support available for SMEs?

My Lords, it is an extremely good point. If one goes back to before the financial crisis in 2008, when the big five really dominated, there has been nothing short of a revolution in business lending since then. In fact, last year some 55% of all SME borrowing came from challenger banks—at-base banks and specialist SME banks such as OakNorth and Hampshire Trust Bank. The whole structure has changed in the last few years, and my guess is that some of the more traditional banks are feeling the pain in this area.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the UK hovercraft industry is experiencing serious difficulties in obtaining performance bonds to cover stage payments in the construction of a hovercraft? If the answer is not in my noble friend’s brief, can he write to me?

I was not aware that there was this trouble in the hovercraft industry. My guess is that it is something to do with the balance sheet, but I will certainly write to him and we will follow that one up.

My Lords, the Government hold approximately 39% of share capital in NatWest and therefore are in a very powerful position to influence the bank’s policy and to provide small and medium companies with low-interest financial support. They could even turn NatWest into a specialist support hub. Have the Government presented any specific proposals to NatWest in this regard?

I am not aware that we have made any specific proposal with NatWest but, through the British Business Bank, with a base rate of 5.25%, SMEs can borrow at 6%. They will find it very hard to match that anywhere in the market.

My Lords, community development financial institutions lent over £80 million last year to in excess of 3,000 small businesses, 90% of which had been turned down by a conventional lender. Will the Government finally grasp the nettle and incentivise the major commercial lenders to invest in CDFIs in order to provide lending to those small businesses that do not fit the portfolio of commercial banks, as they do in the United States?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. CDFIs have been extremely successful and, if one looks at the plethora of lending opportunities right now, it continues to broaden because of the new entrants into the market. We will certainly take it up with the major banks and see where we get.

My Lords, SMEs are now looking to move from survival to growth as they recover from the impact of the pandemic. However, many SMEs that relied on government-back pandemic loans are finding the cost of borrowing far higher now. What can the Minister offer the millions of SME owners and employees whose prospects are hampered by the 15-year peak in interest rates?

The interest rate is a Bank of England matter. The reason why it has gone up, as we all know, is to battle inflation, which is incredibly important. Having said that, in business, financial rigour and accountability are paramount in managing a business, particularly through a growth phase. We saw insolvencies fall to quite a low level during the pandemic because of the Government’s support, and the noble Lord is right that we are starting to see the number creep up again. The Government will do all we can in providing both advice and teams to help businesses in trouble but, when it comes down to it, it depends very much on the financial viability of the business going forward.

My Lords, I speak frequently with small and medium-sized businesses, and I refer to my interests in the register. Can my noble friend say what the Government are doing to publicise the availability of help for the SME community?

I thank my noble friend for his question. The Government want the UK to be the best place to start and grow a business and to support new entrepreneurs, regardless of their background. That is definitive. In the DBT, we have officials throughout the country who run workshops and who help and advise wherever they can. The British Business Bank reaches out wherever it possibly can to help and support SMEs. Indeed, in the other place, we have an SME Minister who, with his team, is extremely active in engaging the sector.