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Small Business Sector

Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2018

Apologies, Mr Speaker. I was congratulating myself too much!

The Government-owned British Business Bank provides £4 billion to support more than 60,000 UK small and medium-sized enterprises. We plan to unlock more than £20 billion of investment in innovative and high-potential businesses, including a new £2.5 billion investment fund with the British Business Bank. The Small Business Commissioner helps with payment issues, dispute resolution, and the sourcing of advice throughout the UK. Through the industrial strategy, we are continuing to invest in 38 growth hubs across England, as well as the business support helpline.

Of course I join in the congratulations to the Minister, but he will know that one of the crucial requirements for the success of the small business sector is access to and understanding of finance, and there is considerable evidence that there is currently a knowledge gap in the market. What are the Government doing to address that?

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. We are concerned by reports that businesses, particularly small businesses, are reticent about coming forward to access finance that could help them to invigorate and grow. That is why the British Business Bank produces “The business finance guide”, in partnership with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and industry bodies. The guide explains the different sources of finance that are available to smaller businesses, and is also published online. The British Business Bank will launch a new digital platform in the spring to raise awareness even further.

Small businesses in Cumbria, particularly those involved in farming and tourism, were integral to the Lake district’s gaining world heritage site status last summer, a designation that could lead to a massive increase in the number of visitors to what is already Britain’s second-biggest visitor destination. Will the Government back those small businesses with the infrastructure investment that they need in order to cope and to grow? Will they, for instance, electrify the Lakes Line?

I am delighted to support the small businesses to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. He will be pleased to know that we are boosting infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, with more than £1 billion of public investment, including £176 million for 5G and £200 million for local areas to encourage the roll-out of full-fibre networks. I should also be delighted to meet him to discuss what more we can do for lakeside businesses.

Hitchin and Harpenden, which are both small towns, have a thriving independent retail sector, but in recent months they have reported that things are getting harder for them. Will the Minister reassure me that the Government are doing everything they can to help independent small retailers in thriving market towns?

As the retail Minister, I recognise the real challenges faced by our high streets and, in particular, by independent businesses. In his spring Budget statement, the Chancellor announced a package of measures for business rate relief, including a £1,000 discount for pubs with rateable values below £100,000, £300 million for local authorities to fund discretionary rate relief, and a cap on rate increases, which means that businesses that lose their small business rate relief will not see their bills increase.

The Minister should stop being quite so complacent. Carillion was a signatory to the prompt payment code; Interserve still is. Carillion suppliers were paid on terms of 120 days, while Interserve subcontractors say that they are being absolutely hammered by late payment. Yesterday the Federation of Small Businesses again highlighted the damage done to growth by late payment. When will Ministers support smaller firms in the public sector supply chain, and enforce the prompt payment code?

We are certainly not complacent, which was why we set up the trade body group to assess the impact of Carillion. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that yesterday I spoke to Phil King, who runs the prompt payment code, and I will be meeting him later this week to discuss how we can tighten up the code and give it real teeth. We are determined to help small businesses.