We started small business procurement in central Government from a very low base, which I guess reflects the previous Government’s lack of attention to the problem.
The Bill will provide the Government with a series of measures to help us remove the barriers for small business across the entire public sector—pre-qualification questionnaires in bits of the public sector, such as foundation hospitals, and so on—and it will now be possible to open up procurement much more widely. Moreover, we want to increase the power of the public procurement mystery shopper, by giving it more teeth and ensuring that it has the capability to identify and address poor business contracts.
Another set of critical issues for small business that the Bill deals with involve access to finance. There has of course been an enormous problem of small business access since the banking crisis. We are now beginning to see really positive changes, including the emergence of challenger banks and crowdfunding, and the business bank, which we operate, is making a significant difference, but it is a slow process.
Some things can be helped through legislation. For example, all businesses depend on cash flow, and even successful businesses can run into trouble if there is a long gap between completing a job and receiving payment.
Small and medium-sized businesses are currently owed about £40 billion in late payments, and there is a lot of evidence that it is a particular problem for the small business sector. More than 50% of companies experience late payments, but the figure for big companies is much lower. That distinction is not completely clear, but the preponderance is obvious. We will enable a requirement to be placed on large businesses and quoted businesses to report on their business payment practices, thereby giving greater confidence to small businesses entering into new contracts and providing a boost to larger businesses that pay on time by attracting the best suppliers.