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Small Business Support

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019

We are backing young entrepreneurs by launching an independent review, led by the Prince’s Trust, to understand how we can better support them to turn their business dreams into reality. We are backing small and medium-sized enterprises with our spending power, with our ambitious strategy to ensure that at least £1 in every £3 we spend as a Department is spent with smaller businesses by 2022.

I thank the Minister for bringing forward the future high streets fund, which will be really important for small businesses on Mansfield High Street, and for the meetings I have been able to have with the Government about how to make sure that Mansfield can benefit. The council is now consulting with stakeholders on its proposals. Will Ministers agree to meet me so that I can make the case for Mansfield’s bid to the future high streets fund?

My hon. Friend is right. High streets are changing, and the Government are committed to helping communities adapt. In the Budget, we set out our plan for high streets, with a £1.6 billion package to support the sustainable transformation of our high streets, which includes the future high streets fund. My hon. Friend is a passionate campaigner for his town, and I would very much welcome the opportunity to hear his proposals for the regeneration of Mansfield town centre, coupled with the investment and plans already being put in place through the growth deal.

Will the Minister join me in acknowledging the welcome focus the Government have put on tackling late payment to small businesses? Will she confirm that improvement in payment times could release billions of pounds back into the economy to ensure that our SME sector remains vibrant and thrives?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is quite right. Tackling late payments will indeed do just as he says. It is true that late payments can be extremely damaging for small businesses, and that is why we are committed to tackling it. In his first year, the Small Business Commissioner has managed to collect over £2 million owed to small businesses. In the spring statement last week, we announced a requirement on audit committees to review their payment practices. I look forward, in the very short term, to bringing forward a full package of policy measures to tackle just that.

Last weekend, I was pleased to support High Street Saturday in Crawley town centre. Will my hon. Friend welcome the £900 million in business rate reductions, which is really starting to help small businesses on our high streets?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to welcome this cut in business rates. He will also be pleased to hear that, because of the updated forecasts from local authorities, the discount is now worth nearly £1 billion to retailers over two years, further bolstering this Government’s plan for the high street, which is now worth £1.6 billion, and directly benefiting some of our smallest retail businesses. My hon. Friend is a great campaigner for Crawley, and I am sure he will continue to ask questions on this subject.

With just 10 days to go to a possible no-deal Brexit, only a third of the small businesses that trade exclusively with Europe have applied for and received their so-called EORI—economic operator registration and identification—numbers that will enable them to continue to do so. Those numbers could be allocated automatically by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Will the Minister lobby HMRC to tell it to do that, and back British business?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It is true that we are making sure, as this Department is charged to do, that small businesses are absolutely aware of their obligations in regard to a no-deal Brexit. I would point out to him that HMRC is reissuing those numbers within 24 hours of small businesses applying.

Staff working insecure hours for the Hull-based small business Grotto Hire UK, which operates Santa’s grottos, have still not been paid, and many are owed thousands of pounds. The company owner offered to put the company into liquidation so that the staff could claim through the insolvency fund, but his appointed liquidators have now pulled out, leaving the company still running. Will the Minister please meet me to discuss this appalling situation and look at how the company can be wound up in the public interest?

The point that the hon. Lady raises is really important, especially for her constituents. I will be more than happy to meet with her to discuss those issues.

Small businesses and our high streets are hugely damaged by the closure of bank branches right across the country, which nets the banks, which we bailed out with taxpayers’ money, a vast amount of money in savings. Will the Minister consider a windfall tax on the banks to ensure that we redistribute some of that money back into our high streets to support small businesses?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Tax is a responsibility of the Treasury, but as he will know, including after our conversations yesterday—this was also alluded to earlier in questions—post offices are still an important part of our high streets, and the Post Office is currently negotiating a new banking framework. It is absolutely right that, when banks are pulling out of our high streets, the post offices that are delivering the services are remunerated correctly for that.

The duty for large companies to report how quickly they pay their suppliers is of course welcome—80% of businesses that fail do so as a result of late payments—but to be effective, the new duty to report will need some teeth, such as binding arbitration and fines for persistent offenders. This Government’s use of sanctions against the poorest has been disgraceful, so how about using sanctions against some of the most powerful and making sure that large corporations treat their small business suppliers fairly?

Late payments and the way that some large businesses have behaved in the past have been an issue for decades, and it is this Government who are prepared to make changes and bring forward policies to reduce them. We know that late payments can be incredibly damaging for businesses. That is the reason for the Chancellor’s announcement last week about the responsibility of committees to look at payment practices, and I look forward to making further proposals.