‘(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations impose requirements on certain companies to publish information about their policies, practices and performance in holding, safeguarding and releasing sums withheld by, or in behalf of, a payer from monies which would otherwise be due under a contract, the effect of which would provide the payer with security for the current and future performance by the payee of any or all of the payee’s obligations under the contract (“retention monies”).
(2) The regulations under subsection (2) may prescribe—
(a) the companies or type of companies to which the regulations apply;
(b) the information required to be published;
(c) the intervals at which, and format and manner in which, publication must take place; and
(d) the type of description of contractual provision to which the regulations apply.
(3) The restrictions on regulations in subsection (3) of section 3 of this Act shall apply to regulations made under subsection (1) of this section.
(4) The Secretary of State shall arrange a review of the operation of the type of contractual provisions mentioned in subsection (1) after a period of 18 months following the coming into force of the first regulations made under subsection (1). He shall lay a copy of the report of the review before each House of Parliament.
(5) The review provided for under subsection (3) may make recommendations for requirements and obligations to be imposed upon certain types or descriptions of companies in relation to the practice of retaining monies as described in subsection (1). After public consultation, the Secretary of State may by regulations impose such requirements and obligations on prescribed companies as were recommended by the review, in whole or in part and with such amendments as the Secretary of State believes to be required in order to—
(a) ensure that the practice of withholding retention monies does not give rise to unfair treatment of payees;
(b) provide assurance that retention monies are held securely; and
(c) ensure that the position of a payee company from whom retention monies are being withheld is protected when a payer company becomes insolvent.” —(Debbie Abrahams.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall—
(a) ensure that any business with payment terms of more than 60 days cannot sign up to the Prompt Payment Code, and that any existing signatory with payment terms of more than 60 days is removed from the list;
(b) at the end of each financial year, the Secretary of State shall write to all businesses in the FTSE 350 who are not signatories of the Prompt Payment Code asking them to become so;
(c) the Secretary of State shall publish a list of those businesses written to prominently on the Government’s website.”
New clause 4—Late payment review—
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall—
(a) conduct a review into how the Government can use the payment publishing regime to ensure that small businesses who are paid late by a larger supplier are automatically paid compensation, and into how the onus of reporting late payment can be shifted away from the smallest businesses who cannot afford to lose significant customers; and
(b) report back to both Houses of Parliament on the conclusions of the review.”
Amendment 6, in clause 3, page 4, line 33, at end insert—
“(g) about the circumstances and process for amending payment terms of the company.”
This is for companies to include details of the circumstances and processes (including who will be involved) by which payment terms would be amended, preventing unilateral and ad hoc changes.
Amendment 91, in clause 11, page 12, line 19, at end insert—
“(5) The Secretary of State may by order establish a Prohibited List of certain classes of exports that cannot receive UKEF/ECGD support.
(6) An order establishing , or thereafter amending a list for the purposes mentioned in subsection (5) shall be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.”
This amendment would grant the Secretary of State the power to prohibit specified types of exports from receiving government support, thereby enabling UK export finance provision to reflect government policies and priorities, such as preventing arms sales to certain regimes. The content of, or changes to, any such list would need to be approved by Parliament.
Government new clause 5—Independent Complaints Commissioner: reporting duty.
Amendment 92, page 20, line 5, leave out clauses 20 to 26.
This amendment removes the obligation on future governments to set a deregulation “business impact” target for each Parliament.
Government amendments 27 and 28.
Amendment 7, in clause 37, page 35, line 9, at end insert—
“() duties to establish the past payment performance of potential parties to a contract, before contracts are entered into;
() duties to ensure contracts entered into include the contractor’s requirements for prompt payment of their suppliers.”
These are to ensure that the payment performance of potential contractors are known before contracts are entered into and that contracts entered into require contractors to pay their suppliers promptly.
Amendment 1, page 35, line 16 , at end insert—
“() duties relating to the provision of apprenticeships and training opportunities as a result of procurement;
() duties to publish reports about the amount of expenditure undertaken by the relevant procurement function in relation to—
(i) amount and proportion of expenditure undertaken by small and medium-sized enterprises,
(ii) amount and proportion of expenditure undertaken in the local area.”
Amendment 2, page 35, line 22, at end add—
‘(5A) A person making regulations under this section may also specify the reasons why firms may be excluded from entering into contracts.”
Amendment 3, page 35, line 28, at end add—
‘(8A) Regulations under this section are subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000”
Amendment 4, page 35, line 30, leave out subsection (10).
This group of amendments is seeking to address the very significant issue of businesses paying their suppliers late. Recent data show that the late payment debt burden for UK businesses is more than £46 billion, with SMEs shouldering most of this. They are owed nearly £40 billion in late payments and 60% of small businesses are affected, with the average small business owed over £38,000 in late payments.
It is getting worse: £36 billion was owed in 2012, so the increase over recent weeks and months can be seen. In other debates we have heard about the implications of late payments for these small businesses, from productivity to access to finance and credit terms—all these are affected. For these businesses, there is not just the inconvenience of spending an extra 158 million hours chasing payment: vital cash flow that is stemmed often affects their very survival, their jobs and their livelihoods. In 2012 it was estimated that 124,000 small businesses were put out of business directly as a result of late payments.
For me, it has been about the personal stories. My interest in late payments started when a constituent came to me and said that their business was going under directly as a result of this issue. This opened a can of worms, not just in my constituency but across the country. The issue of late payments is endemic. When someone describes how their life’s work has been destroyed by what can only be described as corporate bullying—large companies paying their bills late just because they can, because they have the power—it is clear that it is one of the most raw forms of injustice.
From the late payment inquiry held last year, it was clear to us that it is not just a micro-economic issue. With approximately half the work force and half the UK’s income in the private sector coming from small businesses—a massive £1,558 billion—it is inconceivable that late payment is not affecting the wider economy and, of course, a sustainable recovery. I am glad that the Government are tackling the issue; it has been a long time coming. I started my Be Fair—Pay On Time campaign in 2011 and now the Government are finally getting to grips with the issue, but I am afraid that the measures in the Bill do not go far enough. It is regrettable that in Committee the Government failed to support measures that would have seen small businesses automatically compensated for late payment by their suppliers. I hope that the Minister will reconsider and have a look at new clause 1 and the amendments.
New clause 1 seeks to address the issue of retention of moneys in the construction industry. You may be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, that at any one time over £3 billion is outstanding in the construction industry by way of cash retentions. This is an aggregate sum of moneys provided for by small businesses in the event that they fail to remedy defects. I have several examples, including that of a company that wrote to me to say that £60,000 of retention moneys was withheld—5% of the overall contract—for eight months. There was nothing in the contract about that. They had to go through adjudication and it ended up with them losing £22,000. These are small businesses, and this is their livelihood.
Having worked all my life in the construction industry, I am very much aware of retention issues. My hon. Friend’s final point was valid. When it comes to negotiating retentions, it always comes to a compromise: people will always lose, as they will never come out with the £60,000 that they were owed. That is effectively their money going to somebody else’s pocket.
My hon. Friend speaks from experience. That is certainly the experience of many contractors, and we need to address it.
There is evidence that cash retentions have been used to shore up the working capital of local authorities and tier 1 suppliers. There is a key concern that if tier 1 suppliers become insolvent, the small businesses in the supply chain are at risk of losing their retentions.
I recognise that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has said in its construction supply chain payment charter that it wishes to abolish retentions by 2025. My new clause, however, is a stepping-stone towards that by requiring the publication of companies’ policies, practices and performance on retention moneys, reviewing this and subsequently making recommendations about further action to help secure and protect retention of moneys for small businesses—in trusts, for example.
The new clause is timely, with New Zealand considering the requirement for cash retentions to be taken in trusts, and New South Wales in Australia is currently reviewing regulations to that effect. The new clause would enable the Secretary of State to review published information and then issue regulations to ensure that these owed moneys are protected for small businesses.
Moving on to amendment 6, a key issue for small businesses has been the changes made to contract payment terms without negotiation or notice. My amendment recognises that and would require companies to include details of the “circumstances and process” by which payment terms may be amended in the company’s published payment practices and policies. This will prevent ad hoc and unilateral changes being made to the payment terms, which have again affected the financial viability of so many small businesses.
Amendment 7 looks at the issues around public procurement practices. One major issue identified in my late payments inquiry was that late payment is a cultural issue. Large companies pay small companies late because they can, as I mentioned—they have the power and the small companies do not. We need to change these attitudes, and we need to view late payment as being as unethical as tax evasion. Changing public procurement practices, as identified in amendment 7, provides an opportunity to do so, first, by requiring public bodies to determine the “past payment performance” of potential contractors before any contract is entered into; and secondly, by making the contracts of tier 1 suppliers commit them to pay their suppliers promptly. All the way down the supply chain, there should be a commitment that payments will be made on time.
Although my next topic does not relate to my amendments, it relates to public procurement practices. A report came out today from the Walk Free Foundation on the subject of modern slavery. Although the UK is supported for what it is doing to combat modern slavery, it finds that we are not doing as much as Brazil and the US, for example, in addressing Government procurement practices to stop this happening. I know this is highly irregular, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I hope the Minister is listening so that he can respond and make clear how we will deal with this problem in future Government practices.
My hon. Friend may be approaching the end, but if I am any judge, I know she is nowhere near the end of campaigning on this issue. She has been a robust and resilient campaigner on late payments, and I know that she was granted an award for her work yesterday by the Federation of Small Businesses. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate her, not only on that thoroughly deserved award, but on the fantastic campaigning work she has done on late payments.
That was very kind of my hon. Friend, and I am grateful to him. I will continue to campaign, because, as I have said, I do not think that the Government’s measures are strong enough. They have been dragged here kicking and screaming; I hope that they will now listen, and will address what are still weaknesses in the Bill.
I hope I am right in thinking that I can speak about any of the amendments in the new clause 1 basket. That seems be the case, and I am delighted, because it means that I can speak about my amendments 91 and 92.
The Bill contains important provisions to help United Kingdom firms to export, which is, of course, welcome news for many of them. However, UK export finance is, in the Government’s own words,
“not presently legally able to discriminate between classes or types of exports”.
Amendment 91 would alter the Export and Investment Guarantees Act 1991 to give the Secretary of State power to create a prohibitions list, thereby allowing the Government to ensure that UK export finance was not available to projects overseas that undermined other Government policies—specifically, policies on human rights and arms exports, and the 2010 coalition pledge to
“ensure that UK Trade and Investment and ECGD become champions for British companies that develop and export innovative green technologies around the world, instead of supporting investment in dirty fossil-fuel energy production.”
The amendment would not bind a Secretary of State, now or in the future, to introduce such a prohibitions list, nor would it prescribe what should be included in the list. It would merely allow the Secretary of State to create such a list if he or she chose.
Given that the amendment is so moderate, I find the Government’s arguments against a prohibitions list very unconvincing. First, they argue that it is better to consider projects on a case-by-case basis, but the case-by-case approach is not working, even when measured against the coalition’s own pledge to support “innovative green technologies”. In 2012-13, UK Export Finance gave a £147 million guarantee to support oil and gas exploration by Petrobras in Brazil, and £15 million in guarantees for a loan for a gas power project in the Philippines. In March 2014, support worth US$215 million was announced for a major petrochemical project in Vietnam. Nor is the current approach working when it comes to military exports to repressive regimes. Many of the deals that have been underwritten by UK export credit support are controversial, including sales of military aircraft to Saudi Arabia and Oman, armoured vehicles to Turkey, and intelligence equipment to Indonesia.
Secondly, the Government argue that the UK would be less likely to be effective in achieving change through multilateral routes if we acted unilaterally in this way. If that is the case, why do other countries have prohibitions lists? The Export-Import Bank of the United States, for instance, prohibits
“loans, guarantees, and insurance as to sales of defense articles or services”.
In June 2014, the German Finance Ministry announced that Germany’s official export credit agency would be prohibited from supporting nuclear contracts.
I simply do not think it credible to argue that if the UK showed some leadership and led by example, that would somehow hinder multilateral action to the same end. Indeed, the reverse is the case, as John Ashton, the UK’s top climate diplomat in former years, has pointed out. In his view,
“our influence has always depended on the credibility of our domestic policies. How can we expect to persuade others if we are not doing ourselves what we ask of them?”
Thirdly, the Government say that there is not a problem with coal, because UKEF has not funded a coal-fired power station overseas since 2002. However, there is clearly a loophole in the UK’s policy on export finance for coal projects abroad. Mr Umunna highlighted that loophole in a speech in April this year. He said that he would take action to close the loophole; I hope that he will follow through, and vote for my amendment today.
A change in export credits could also offer a boost to UK low-carbon industries seeking to expand overseas, as the chief executive of a British solar company operating in a number of African countries has explained. It is not just about stopping export finance in one area; it is about expanding it in others, so this is a pro-business proposition. Finally, I reiterate that this amendment does not specify what goes on the prohibitions list; it simply gives the Secretary of State the power to create one, in recognition of the fact that the current approach is failing on both human rights and environmental grounds, even measured on the Government’s own terms.
Amendment 92 would remove the clauses that impose a deregulation or business impact target on future Parliaments. In effect, the Secretary of State is trying to lock future Governments into continuing their obsession with deregulation. This provision was not subject to any public consultation. The regulatory reform factsheet published alongside the Bill gives some indication of the thinking behind the target, which is:
“To entrench in law the setting of a deregulation target—similar to the ‘One-in, Two-out’ approach—and transparent reporting of new regulatory burdens on business.”
One-in, two-out is a current Government policy which requires that for every £1 of additional cost imposed on business by new regulations, the Government must save businesses £2 by removing or modifying existing regulations. That policy is supported by the publication of statements of new regulation which are published every six months. This is not a good place to start. Nobody supports regulation for its own sake, but it is equally facile to oppose all regulation in a similar manner. The deregulatory zeal of this Government, which the new duty will entrench, is premised on just that: on the assumption that all regulation is bad and is something we should seek to minimise. This is a worrying example of the “market knows best” mindset and of the “Government’s role is to get out of the way” mantra, which is implicated in the banking crisis, air pollution, food safety scares, higher energy bills for householders and sky-high rents, to name just some examples.
I have to say that I am a little surprised that the Labour Front-Bench team has essentially just nodded along with the coalition on this. Its leader says he has learned that relying on a deregulated market economy will not be enough to tackle social injustice or deliver an efficient, sustainable economy.. He is right—I suspect many of his Back Benchers might agree—and that is because there is a fundamental problem with such a simplistic approach. A deregulation target, an arbitrary cap on business costs associated with regulations, or even a one-in, one-out approach all completely fail to recognise the benefits of regulation, not just for incredibly important social and environmental reasons, but for their economic benefits as well.
A report for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, for example, on product market and labour market regulation found:
“Regulations can have a positive impact on growth by removing certain market failures and improving economic efficiency.”
Just last week, the London School of Economics said that its new research on environmental regulation
“exposes myth that green regulations inflict major harm on business competitiveness and economic growth.”
Contrary to the apparent assumptions behind these clauses, environmental regulations in particular can boost the economy by encouraging business innovation and technological development. That same report also states:
“The costs of environmental regulations need to be weighed up against the benefits they provide and which justify the regulations in the first place. The benefits are often important and severely underestimated.”
It is not just in the environmental field either, as the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards found that
“the financial crisis demonstrated, particularly in view of the position of banks that proved too big to fail, the need for strong regulation to protect the public interest,”
I could go on, but I shall not. I shall begin to bring my comments to a close, but there are plenty of examples of business groups themselves saying that this approach to regulation, which is very simplistic, simply does not make economic sense.
Many people and many businesses are crying out for politicians to act in the public interest, not simply to shore up short-term corporate profit and business as usual, whatever the societal or environmental costs. I think we should remove our fingers from our ears and look again at whether this new deregulation duty will help or hinder. Of course it is important to focus, making sure regulations that are introduced are well-drafted and have a clear purpose—a topical example of which is new clause 2 on pubs, which I am delighted has just been passed. It is important to look specifically at the impact of regulation, or lack thereof, on the ability of SMEs to flourish, especially in markets dominated by a small number of large players, and it is important to remove outdated or unnecessary regulations, especially where, inadvertently or by design, they protect incumbents and get in the way of innovation, progress and consumer protection, which is what we are seeing in the energy and banking sectors. We do not need these provisions to do that, however. It is ironic that the imposition of this business impact target on future Governments fails on the tests one might hope are applied to good regulation: meeting a clear public interest objective and being based on strong evidence of need. At best it is a bureaucratic faff; at worst it is economically, socially and environmentally harmful, and I would like the Government, and maybe even the official Opposition, to think again.
It is a pleasure to follow Caroline Lucas, and I should like to speak to new clauses 3 and 4. Before I so do, I should like to draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
New clause 3 is designed to flush out late payers. It seeks to press, or perhaps encourage, FTSE 350 businesses that have not signed up to the prompt payment code to do so. It would also empower the Secretary of State to publish a list of such companies on the Government website, thereby highlighting those that had not committed to the code. I support those ambitions. The new clause sets out to do what the Government said they would do—namely, name and shame large companies that did not commit to prompt payment practices. However, they have now reneged on that promise. New clause 4 proposes that the Government conduct a review into how the payment publishing regime could be adapted to ensure that late payments would be automatically accompanied by a compensation payment, and how the onus of reporting late payment could be moved away from the customer waiting to be paid.
Why are the new clauses so important? Any small business owner will know that a late payment can often mean the difference between continuing to trade and business failure. Insolvency specialists have estimated that one in five business failures are down to bills not being paid on time; they are nothing to do with a failed business model and purely down to cash being withheld from the business by its customers. The Scottish Building Federation has highlighted the fact that four out of five building firms have reported instances of late payment in the past year. I can assure the House that the overwhelming majority of those businesses will not have considered seeking redress through interest payments.
The problem that the Bill will not solve is that it will still be up to the supplier—usually a smaller business—to pursue its customer for prompt payment. The supplier will either lose the argument, and lose the prompt payment, or win the argument and put at risk its relationship with that larger customer.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make the case for a level playing field when it comes to the payment of smaller suppliers by larger organisations. He has also made the point about the human and social cost of late payments to the people who run and work in small businesses. Does he agree that it is incredibly short-sighted of larger businesses to disrupt their own supply chains by delaying payments in that way? Is not that another reason to deal with this issue once and for all by adopting these important amendments?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that valid point. The bigger companies have to understand that there is a need for smaller companies in the supply chain. They should view the situation in the round and acknowledge that not every company is big enough to withstand late payments in the same way that they perhaps could. There is a moral argument running through this as well. If I supply goods and services to someone on a Tuesday and they agree to pay me a particular sum by
I totally hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I agree that small businesses are the backbone of this country. Does he agree that the banks also have a role to play in loosening up their working capital facilities to help small businesses? That, too, is a challenge that small businesses face.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that valid point. I shall come to that matter later in my speech when I talk about the changes that have happened over recent years, and perhaps decades, and try to illustrate why prompt payment has become so important.
Let me return to what I was saying about people trying to get their payment on time, and whether they win the argument and risk losing the customer in the process. There does not seem to be much incentive for small businesses to utilise their right against late payers, because just 10% of businesses have even considered doing so. I have been in private business all my working life, having set up my own business in 1986. I can tell this House that late payments are the biggest curse small businesses face: people striving, working hard and going out to sell their wares but then struggling to get paid. As I said, that part of the bargain is not being upheld.
Yes, I am aware of that research, and late payment is a major problem. It is not just a transient major problem, but a constant one, week to week. I have lain in bed at night worrying whether the cheque was going to come in so that I could pay the wages of my staff. That is not a position that any business should be put in, and certainly not because of late payments.
A small business, perhaps a new one trying to establish itself, often finds a degree of comfort in dealing with a larger, perhaps household, name in its business sphere. The saying in my sector is, “You know your money is safe with so and so.” It may be safe but it may also be in their bank all the time and not yours. We also need to consider the credibility that comes from working with such a customer and the possible opportunities, arising from volume increases, for small business suppliers to be able to renegotiate rates from their suppliers. In my experience, those will more often than not be larger companies. So the small business can find itself sandwiched between a large business customer and a large business supplier, perhaps a multinational company, and being strung out at one end and wrung out at the other. These multinational companies, understandably, have strict credit limits and they will be very quick to stop supply if they are not being paid within 30 days. Within a limited period of time they will remove the small business’s credit facilities, so damaging its credit rating, and reducing its access to key products and, in effect, its ability to pay the bill for which the multinational is awaiting payment.
As we know, the reason for late payment in these cases is often because a large customer fails to keep its side of the deal. I wish to draw the House’s attention to an experience I have encountered a number of times, where large multinationals have been pressing for payment within 30 days for a commodity sold by them to my business and yet that commodity has been sold to another division of the same company and it has no intention of paying within 30 days. Even within the same organisation we may have the supplier pressing for payment within 30 days, the product having been sold to another division in the same company as the supplier and yet it not upholding its part of the bargain and being prepared to pay in 30 days—it just strings you out. So the company wants its money in but does not want to pay the money out. That is just not good enough. The current system of being able to charge interest, at the supplier’s instigation, or being able to apply a debt recovery cost is not adequate and we have to improve these experiences.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on this important subject. He will probably be aware that in Committee we tabled a worked-through amendment that would have moved the onus from small businesses having to pressure their large business customers for repayment on to the large businesses. Does he agree that the fundamental change we need is for small businesses not always to have the onus on them to pursue their large business customers?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is not morally or structurally fair for a small business to be trying to squeeze a few hundred or a few thousand pounds—perhaps even tens of thousands of pounds—out of a large multinational company. That onus must be shifted away from the small company. After all, the company is only endeavouring to get what it is owed. If the larger customer is made to pay its bills on time, it will take the onus away from the small supplier.
One reason why a fair system for recovering payment is needed is that small businesses do not have the people, time or money to chase late payment. Large businesses do, and they can defend themselves against smaller businesses. This is really about making it fair and equitable, and ensuring that small businesses can compete on equal terms with large ones.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I have seen larger businesses behave in a way that smaller businesses would never ever dream of doing. They might say, “We only take purchase ledger calls on Tuesdays and Friday mornings.” If a firm cannot get through on a Tuesday to ask about a cheque or an invoice, no one will take its call until Friday. The other issue about resources is valid too. I have worked in business since 1986, and have found that cash monitoring and cash control can almost become the things that the company was set up to do. As a by-product, it happens to sell stuff, but the real purpose of its existence is to get in the money for the goods that it has sold. That should not be the case. The real benefit should be the freedom to sell materials, and the expectation that one can get payment for the goods and services in a negotiated and agreed contractual period. Small businesses are not asking for anything more than that, but they should not be prepared to accept anything less than that.
The issue of resources, which enables small businesses to manage purchase and sales ledgers, is a really important point to make, as the bigger companies are always able to work things more to their favour. That goes back to the point that I made earlier, which is just how hard will I, as a company, push for that cash within 30 or 35 days if it means that that is the last cheque that I will get from that business, and I might lose 10%, 20% or even
40% of my turnover? A company will understand when a certain thing is in a vice, and how far they can go. That is another example of what is not fair.
Anyone in business will understand the experience of agreeing credit accounts, which are often paid in excess of the terms—but not by enough to kick up a fuss. So, we could have a 30-day account being paid in 35, 36 or 37 days, or a 60-day account being paid in 66 or 70 days. For that four or five days, that week, or that 10 days, when the small business is out of pocket, they are not just a supplier to that customer, but a banker.
What about delayed payments? I am talking about when invoices issued perhaps a month or six weeks earlier are queried, or when the cheque comes in and the payment for those invoices is missing. Some of these queries might be accurate, and in those cases the supplier has the responsibility and the right to rectify the error and, of course, get things right for the future. However, these are often simple ploys that are timed to delay payments and that result in even more work and cost for the supplier. If someone has issued their invoice and a statement to the company concerned, it is unacceptable for them to be told 30, 40 or 50 days later that there is a query about that invoice, or a problem with it, and that it cannot be paid.
Those actions are deplorable, but they go on every single day. Every small business in Britain will have encountered them. I want the Government—I would like the Minister to listen to this point, if he would—to consider setting a legal limit on the length of time that it can take to query an invoice. Although I appreciate that there might be some challenges to that, will the Minister consider the question before he makes his closing remarks and comment on it? It cannot be right for a small business to chase money for 30 or 60 days only to be told, “We need proof of delivery—proof that we received the materials,” when the proof of delivery has already been supplied but has become separated from the paperwork. I want the Minister to consider setting a legal limit on the period in which the content of an invoice can be queried.
Is there not a problem with the hon. Gentleman’s idea? As I understand it, it is unlawful for any agreement to seek to exclude the jurisdiction of the British courts, and if, as he suggests, a provision was introduced to ensure that one could not query an invoice after a certain date, could that not be construed as not allowing the matter to be adjudicated on by the courts at a later stage?
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I have asked the Minister to give the issue some thought before he sums up, and I have also said that I do not necessarily think that there will be a simple solution, but I am convinced that there is a way in which this can be developed so that small businesses—in fact, all businesses—can rest assured that 30, 35 or 40 days after they have submitted their invoice, that invoice will not be challenged. Is not 40 days long enough?
In Committee, we proposed an amendment similar to my hon. Friend’s new clauses. We suggested that there be a period of up to 30 days for someone to register a complaint; after that point, they would be deemed to have accepted the invoice, so that there could not be this constant adding to the payment period.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that point. I am prompted by a sedentary comment to say that my argument is not so much about an invoice being queried as about a customer saying that they have not received the invoice, or that it is lost, 30 days after they have had a statement listing all the invoices they should have received. Basic accounting practices are either not being carried out within the business, or they are being carried out but no regard is being paid to them, and the process is being used as a payment delaying mechanism.
I understand that some might see new clause 4 as another piece of red tape, but it is a piece of red tape that can be easily discarded and thrown in the bin if companies do not make late payments, so it does not have to be onerous at all. That brings me back to the point that my hon. Friend made: the new clause takes the onus off the small business. It is up to the larger paying business—the debtor—to ensure that the bill is paid on time, and if it is not, an automatic compensation payment is made on behalf of the company making a payment to the company receiving it. New clause 4 need not be particularly onerous in action at all. It will cause no problem to a good, organised, thoughtful company.
Banks are much less willing to provide business support than they were in 1986, and that is often a nightmare for small and medium-sized businesses, especially in the construction industry. The banks will say that they do not particularly want to be involved in the construction sector, which I find depressing and extremely strange. Every business that needs to expand requires the construction sector. Every Government project for infra- structure, housing, schools, roads, telecommunications or railways—anything of that nature—needs the construction sector. That sector is the most likely to lift us out of our current economic position and deliver an improvement to our infrastructure that is long overdue and long needed. It is a particular challenge to have a good business in the construction industry that is adequately financed and resourced in this day and age, and that is short-sighted and a crying shame. It is not helped by the failure of Project Merlin and the funding for lending scheme. General financing is relevant to new clauses 3 and 4, as it is because working capital is tighter these days that prompt payment has become a real issue.
Is it not also the case that late payment and issues around cash flow affect a business’s ability to access finance and the terms on which finance is made available?
Of course they do. Every £1,000 not received has an impact on whether a business can prove to a possible financial investor, whether that is a bank or anything else, that it is a responsible company with the processes and the people in place to take the business forward. It may well have the people and processes in place, but it may be being stymied by the Tuesday and Friday phone calls to try to get the money that is long overdue.
New clauses 3 and 4 are a step along the way to moving the responsibility to where it should lie, ensuring greater financial impact on those who make late payments, and naming and shaming those who are not signed up to prompt payment practices. I was looking at the prompt payment code website last night. I represent a
Scottish constituency, so I did a search on Scotland and I found that 43 businesses there have signed up to the prompt payment code. That level of commitment is extremely questionable. There are hundreds of thousands of businesses in Scotland.
I agree with my hon. Friend entirely on that. Does he agree that if a prompt payment code allows a business to pay on 90-day terms and if, so long as it meets those terms and conditions, it is deemed compliant with the code, that calls into question the use of the word “prompt”?
It most definitely does. Prompt payment in my business experience is 30 days. That is fair and prompt payment. In my book, 90 days is not and should not be considered prompt payment. It is a massively overdue payment allowing one business to make its way in the world at another’s expense.
I fear that we have a long way to go, unless the Government listen tonight. I do not think that the Bill really gets us to where we need to be. It does not, in its current form, lift the onerous responsibility from the shoulders of small businesses; it actually empowers the larger businesses in their relationships with small businesses. However, it could be improved if the Government listen and support new clauses 3 and 4.
I am delighted to be called to speak in this debate and apologise to the shadow Minister and to those on the Treasury Bench for not being here at the beginning. It is a very important Bill that the Minister has brought before the House, and it is one that I feel strongly about, because my first job was running a very small business, and then I ran one that was only slightly larger. When one has lived and breathed cash flow, and dreamt about lack of payment for invoices that have been outstanding for 60, 70, 80 or 90 days, one knows why the provisions in the Bill are so important.
I know that the Minister understands small business; he was brought up in it. I also know that the shadow Minister is one of the very few people on the Opposition Benches who has business experience. It is good that we are having a discussion about some of the things that are incredibly important and pertinent to small businesses —pre-packs, zero-hours contracts, payment terms and director disqualification, all of which I plan to talk about —but it is also good that we are having this discussion, full stop, because they were not discussions that were had in any detail under the previous Government.
I would like to start on that note, because one of the things that I, as a small business owner and manager, turned to time and again was the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998, a piece of legislation that was well meant by the previous Administration, brought in early as a result of a manifesto pledge, but that was almost completely useless. No one was really able to go to their customers and enforce the 8% above base stipulation set out in the Act, because they were afraid of upsetting them. I had recourse to it on only two occasions when dealing with customers. The frustrating thing was that although Parliament had willed the means, following a long campaign at the end of the Major
Administration and the beginning of the Blair Administration, it was unable to will the ends. That is why I am so pleased with what the Minister has created in the Bill, because we are getting much closer to a system that will work.
The first thing we must recognise is that it has taken this amount of time, and the innovation of the coalition Government, to be able to do something of this magnitude. That is why I think that criticising the Bill and trying to claim that it is deficient in some way or other is a pretty mealy-mouthed approach to what is a big step forward in helping small businesses control the terms of trade that they have with their customers.
Having run a business that, at the start, was turning over only a few hundred thousands pounds, I know the pain that was caused to my business when every week the results showed, almost invariably, that we were trading at a profit, yet that was not reflected in the bank account because of poor payment terms by large companies and, frankly, large parts of the public sector, and that is a pain I will never forget. I remember getting towards the end of the month and being genuinely terrified that I might not be able to pay the people working for me because I had not been paid by big customers. It is a very unnerving, frightening and frustrating experience. The amount of energy it takes out of small business people, who should be deploying that passion and energy in building a business, employing people and increasing wealth and prosperity, means that it is very destructive to business growth.
The hon. Gentleman is very gracious in giving way and is making a moving speech about his experience. Constituents and many small businesses from across the country who have come to talk to me have shared that experience. Does this mean that he will support new clause 4, which is about undertaking a review so that small businesses which have problems with late payers are automatically compensated so that they do not have to risk using measures that have previously been unsuccessful?
I understand why the hon. Lady wishes to push new clause 4. I have read the Minister’s response in Committee to the points raised by the shadow Minister, and I think it was compelling. We are making a very big change which will have a revolutionary impact on the payment terms of small businesses, but if the regime and the legislation are too rigid, we could end up with perverse consequences, which is precisely the problem with the previous legislation and why it was reformed and then repealed in the course of one Administration.
To those who claim, for whatever reason—probably connected with the proximity of the coming election—that the Government could do something else, I would say that the measure is a magnificent change and one that we have waited for since 1998. The previous Government could have done all these things but did not. We now have a Government who are willing to do so, and we should give them our full support without moderation.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many of the late payment problems, particularly in manufacturing, when a lot of product has to be bought before it can be turned into something, arise because small companies have been sent down invoice financing routes to finance their cash flow? The charges for invoice financing, and sometimes the prohibitive interest charged by invoice financing companies, heaps extra cost on those companies, which does not help the bottom line of a small company struggling to work and provide jobs and prosperity for the industry in which it is working.
I could not agree more. When I tot up in my head the amount of interest that I have paid on a business account for overdrafts incurred because of non-payment by large customers over the years, and when I think of the amount of money that could have been spent on product development, employing new people and growing my business, it is immensely frustrating even now to think of all that wasted money. My hon. Friend is entirely right that in any business in which the process involves the purchase of large capital goods, whether that is in manufacturing or in construction, and the business is dependent on paying its suppliers in order to create an end product, the middle guy is stuffed if he is not paid on time.
Gordon Banks referred to the construction industry. That is where my first business was. I was running a small business, largely working for very large multinationals or for the Government, and my suppliers were often small businesses. Sometimes they were larger ones. When a business relies on the good terms of its suppliers in order to satisfy the punitive terms of its customers, that is a wrong place to be. It is, in effect, pushing credit all the way down the line. That is what I find most objectionable about large companies and Government agencies that behave in that way. They are using their supply chain as a bank. The businesses serving as that bank are not large banks; they are, in many cases, small businesses which cannot bear the cost.
A second important aspect of the Bill relates to the disqualification of directors and pre-packs. Too often, in running a small business, I ended up with bad debts because of suppliers who went bust, cleared out their overdue creditors, reinvented themselves the next day with precisely the same shareholders, directors and a whole load of other people who were connected with the previous company, and then suddenly emerged, phoenix-like—in fact, pre-packs are called phoenixes in the business—and ready to trade again. That is an absolute outrage. It goes against all the principles of a decent, liberal market economy. It is fraud.
The two key provisions that will go some way towards helping that situation are those on director disqualification, for which there is a five-year horizon—I hope that the Government will be able to use the provisions within that period—and on pre-packs, also within that period.
I am reminded of the time when I was running a small business. I thought that what my hon. Friend has just described was utterly illegal and people could not do it. I never believed that it was possible to close down one day and then start up as a new entity the next. I thought it was highly illegal even then, and that was 15 years ago.
I remember thinking it was illegal the first time it happened to me. It involved a business based on a trading estate in the east midlands, not far from where I was based. I went there one day to try to get some money out of someone who had bought something from me, and was refused the cash. When I went back two days later, everything was exactly the same apart from the name plate over the trader’s shop window and the fact that the filing cabinets had been thrown away because they contained all the creditors’ records. There was a brand-new sign but it was an old business.
The provision on the late payment of commercial debts is part of a package of measures that will transform the ability of small businesses to carry out their business.
The hon. Gentleman says that this Bill will transform the experience of small businesses. Surely he has to admit, coming from a small business background, as I have, that the only way the late payments situation can be transformed is by forcing people to make payments on time, and that can happen only with financial detriment to the payer.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, although I understand his point. In the end, having thought about this at considerable length, because it is something that has taxed me, I came down on the side of the Minister, because transparency is the best way of ensuring exactly what he intends to achieve. If we start mandating people on payment terms, we end up with perverse consequences as regards the payment terms themselves, and a race to the bottom as regards their length. One supermarket famously gave terms of a minimum of 90 days. We cannot change that by legislation, because, in the nature of things, payment terms must sometimes be short and sometimes be long. Mandating would force, or encourage, companies to extend their payment terms. That is the first problem.
The second problem, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, having been in business, is that there are many times when someone’s invoice is disputed. The problems in the construction industry caused by the winding-up orders and appeals to the commercial courts—the county courts—that are often used as an excuse to try to avoid payment would be compounded all the more by the mandating of payments. We would end up in an unholy mess that would not be good for small businesses, for honest large businesses, or for customers who did not want to pay a bill but felt forced to do so because of terms such as he proposes.
I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the objective, which is not to get the extra forced payment, but to make sure that the original payment is made on time so that the debtor does not have to pay that forced payment.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is driving at, but much as I would love there to be a mandatory payment term in a theoretical world, I just do not think that it would work in practice. As I have tried to indicate, I think it would result in perverse consequences that would be worse for small business than if we go down the Minister’s route of transparency and openness with regard to the terms offered by businesses.
The hon. Gentleman may well think that the proposal would make things worse, but his opinion is not shared by the Federation of Small Businesses or the Forum of Private Business, both of which support our approach. Why does he presume to think that he knows better than those well-respected bodies, whose members tell them that they support our approach?
I can only speak from personal experience, which is what I have tried to do, to explain why I think it makes sense to go down the Minister’s route and why we would end up with perverse consequences were we to go down the route of mandation. Many small businesses are not members of the Federation of Small Businesses, and the Federation of Small Businesses is not absolutely right in everything it suggests. All I would say is that, in this instance, my own experience is that mandation would have a perverse consequence that would be inimical to the well-being of all small businesses. As a good first step, transparency, as the Government suggest, will create a new environment for businesses, which will change things for the better for people trying to build wealth and prosperity in our nation today.
The shadow Minister intervened on me to suggest that something better could be done. All I will say to him is that, when in government, his party did absolutely zero. They were, if I may coin a phrase, a zero-zero Administration when it came to small businesses. In 13 years, they did nothing apart from put up taxes on small businesses. They did nothing to cut red tape. Labour Members oppose the Minister’s efforts to tackle bureaucracy and claim that they can do better, but that sits a little ill in their mouths. I know that most business people—this is true of almost everyone I speak to in my constituency—think that it sounds a little false, and there is a reason for that: it comes neither from the heart nor from a real desire to do anything right. The difference is that the Minister understands what needs to be done and he is doing it.
Like Ben Gummer, I have also run a small business—for 15 years, in my case. The reason new clause 4 is so important is that the status quo just is not working: small businesses are not in a position to chase late payments. In Committee —the Minister will probably repeat what he said then —members on both sides came up with examples of why action is needed, but I am afraid that what is being suggested just is not adequate. That is why we need measures such as new clause 4, which goes so much further.
As my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams has said, small businesses account for half of our economy. They are a crucial part of the economy and of prosperity and future prosperity. Very many small businesses are struggling at the moment and late payment is one of the main reasons for that. They are used by suppliers for working capital—in fact, they are used as a bank. We have heard about how accounts departments are available only on Tuesday at 5 o’clock or Friday at 3 o’clock, and if people cannot get hold of them at those times, they have had it. When I was in business, there was only one payment run a month, and if people missed that, they had had it for a month. The following month’s invoice would then be queried and sent back to them, so they would miss two payment runs and two months’ worth of pay. I am afraid that that sort of practice goes on all the time, which is why action is needed to go further than the Government’s proposal.
A total of £39.4 billion is overdue in payments to small businesses. On average, small businesses are owed £38,000 in overdue payments. One in four companies spends 10 hours or more a week chasing late payments.
Given the time in the calendar that we are now approaching—November, December, January, February—does my hon. Friend share my experiences of and concerns about what happens to cash flow and cash collection over these months, when for a number of reasons, or rather excuses, cash collection during the winter months, when in some ways it is needed more, is greatly reduced?
That is absolutely true. It is certainly my experience that the delays at this time of year are an additional burden on small businesses. They of course have a knock-on effect not just on the businesses themselves, but on the staff, who potentially lose out in the run-up to Christmas, when families need support more than at almost any other time of the year.
The proposal is about unlocking the potential of small business to do so much more for our economy and our future prosperity. As I said at the start, the status quo is not working, and we need something to change.
As we have heard from other Members, 10% of small businesses have considered using late payment legislation, but they have not actually done so. At the same time, 22% of them have ended a relationship because of late payment. That is a demonstration not that the system is working, but that it is not working.
Small businesses cannot and will not challenge their larger customers for fear of losing them. As I said in an intervention, there are moral reasons, community reasons and other good reasons for ensuring that payments are made on time, including to support the supply chain and the bigger business, as well as to benefit the wider economy and individuals in our country.
The issue is crucial, and we must make sure that the right solutions are brought forward to support small businesses and everybody who owns them or works in them. The system is not working at the moment, which is why the concept of automatically having to pay an 8% penalty on late payments is so important. Such behaviour will not change on its own. My hon. Friend Gordon Banks made that point very well by saying just how few businesses in Scotland have signed up to the prompt payment code. It is a derisory number: is it 43?
I do not know how many businesses there are in Scotland, but there are 5 million in the UK as a whole, and it is not too hard, by scaling that up, to calculate that the number signing up to the prompt payment code overall is not very big.
“a welcome addition to the proposals outlined in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill and would go a long way to reducing the time and cost small firms spend on chasing late payments and allow them to concentrate on growing their businesses and creating jobs.”
Government Members must accept that it is supported across the business community. As my hon. Friends have said, the only way to support small businesses is to make the proposal mandatory to ensure that big businesses pay on time. New clause 4 does just that, and I hope that the House will support it.
I am in the rather unusual position of speaking to my new clauses and in effect winding up the debate at the same time, but it is a challenge I relish.
There have been some very valuable contributions to the debate. I reiterate my admiration of the campaign on late payments led my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams. She has been a really doughty fighter on the issue, and there is no doubt that late payment is a key factor in holding back small business growth. Suppliers frequently report that it is one of the key hurdles that they face, alongside access to finance, because small businesses do not have the cash flow buffers of their large competitors.
Ben Gummer has been forced to leave his place—he arrived in rather a rush and left in rather a rush. Let us hope he is properly dressed when he returns. He said, rather ungenerously, that I was in a lonely position as a Labour Member in having run a small business. However, we all know that my hon. Friend Ian Murray was a small business owner, as were my hon. Friends the Members for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) and for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and many of my other colleagues. And so are several of Labour’s parliamentary candidates, who we hope will be joining us here in just a few months. Conservative Members often try to create the impression that they are the only ones who have ever been in business and that all Labour Members were previously engaged in social work, school teaching or whatever they think is not worthy.
Absolutely right, there is nothing wrong with that. However, the suggestion that none of my colleagues has been involved in the business world does not stand up to scrutiny
The hon. Member for Ipswich described the Bill as a thing of “magnitude”, which was an incredibly generous description. It contains a number of measures, none of which has anything particularly wrong with it, but it is not in any sense a thing of magnitude. It contains small steps in the right direction on transparency, with some positive commitments from the Government— [Interruption.] Oh, he’s back. I’ve just been talking about you. For the benefit of anyone watching on television, the hon. Member for Ipswich has returned. There are positive steps in the Bill on the role that central Government will play by paying people on time, but it is certainly not a thing of magnitude. The steps are relatively minor, and the steps that the Opposition proposed in Committee and have alluded to today on Report would have been far more significant, which was why they enjoyed such broad support.
The hon. Gentleman attempted to say, “The Federation of Small Businesses—what do they know? They might be wrong.” I believe that having more transparency would be a significant step, so he was wrong to say that. Many owners of the 2,500 businesses a year that go bust as a result of not being paid on time will think so, too. It is important to get on record the full scale of the problem that we are highlighting, and to reiterate some of the statistics that my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth gave. Figures published by Bacs reveal that Britain’s small businesses now carry a burden of £39.4 billion in overdue payment.
I apologise for missing the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He has just characterised what I said in terms that were completely different from what I actually said. He quoted me as saying with reference to the FSB, “What do they know?” That was not actually what I said. Maybe if he reflects on precisely what I said, which was that I thought the proposal could have perverse consequences, he might give a different response.
Members will be able to check Hansard for the exact phraseology, but I was attempting to paraphrase the hon. Gentleman rather than to quote him. He said, if I remember rightly and can quote him more directly, that the FSB was not always right, or that it was wrong on this issue. He said that he believed he was right and the FSB was wrong on the issue—is that close enough? Anyway, anyone who wants the word-by-word definition can check it in Hansard.
Some 60% of Britain’s small businesses report that late payment is a problem, and as far as I am concerned, that is all that matters. It is important that small businesses, which on average are waiting for £38,186 in overdue payments every week, should be satisfied. The hon. Member for Ipswich was right to say that different Governments have come forward with measures to address late payment, and we continually return to that. None of us wants the issue to return in a few years’ time and for us to go round again and recycle the whole debate, so it is important to come up with a solution that gives small businesses the sense that we are taking the matter seriously. One in four companies spends more than 10 hours a week chasing late payments, and evidence from the Federation of Small Businesses indicates that more than half of small businesses are not paid promptly by large companies, with the average payment time being 58 days—nearly double the normal contract time.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that we cannot sit in this place and say what a fair level of payment is across every business sector, but we are attempting to deal with people who pay businesses later than expected. It is right for the Government to ask questions of the major supermarket chains, for example, and say, “If you are buying comestible products that are out of date within four or five days of their arriving in your store, is it legitimate to say that you cannot pay someone for 90 or 120 days after that point, since the product will long since have been consumed or expired?” It is legitimate to ask those questions.
Insolvency specialists have estimated that one in five business failures is down to bills being paid late rather than a failed business model. During the recession, it is estimated that 4,000 businesses failed as a direct result of late payments. Often businesses get paid late, pass on late payments to their suppliers because they are waiting for money, and someone down the line who was in no way the cause of the problem goes bust. It is right constantly to consider how to address that issue. My message to the hon. Gentleman and the Government is that we should not say that nothing can be done. We must not give up; we must ensure that we act on behalf of those small businesses.
Does my hon. Friend share my ambition that new clause 4 does not have to be onerous or deliver any financial problem to the debtor? All the debtor has to do is pay on time, and there is no penalty. It is simple; it puts money back into the economy and oils its wheels. It ensures that small businesses do not totter on a knife edge of survival at the behest of a larger company. There need be no financial detriment to the large company in the new clause.
My hon. Friend is right. The proposals brought forward in Committee were detailed, and new clause 4 is investigating those ideas. Small businesses have the right to expect to be paid on time, and we should be taking serious steps to support that.
Current provisions in the law are not adequate to deal with the extent of the problem, and the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 was an important step. The EU late payment directive that the Government introduced in 2012 was broadly built on the same principles. They are valuable as far as they go—the prompt payment code is valuable as far as it goes—but they are clearly not adequate. The idea that more transparency, welcome though it may be, will be a silver bullet or even a significant step towards a resolution, is entirely wrong.
The Bill includes some provisions on interest charging. For reasons that other Members have highlighted, many small businesses feel that they are not able to charge interest because of the impact it would have on their relationship. This was a real opportunity for the Government to take hold of the issue and tackle the problem once and for all. Our amendments in Committee should have won the support of the Committee and the Government, because they had potential and I look forward to promoting them as part of a Labour party business manifesto in 2015. Small businesses will recognise that the measures we proposed were a step forward and that the measures in the Bill are a much smaller step.
The Government have dragged their feet on this issue over the past four years: the EU late payment directive was introduced at the last possible moment and the steps proposed at this juncture are small. We were disappointed after the very successful Back-Bench debate on late payments secured by my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams and Stephen Metcalfe. In the run-up to that debate the previous Minister, Michael Fallon—he was great; he used to attend debates and everything—said that he would write to the FTSE 350 and warn businesses that they would be named and shamed if they did not sign up to the prompt payment code. Unfortunately, because that had not happened by May 2014—almost two years on—I tabled a series of written parliamentary questions to find out if companies were due to be named and shamed. We were told that it was no longer Government policy.
It ceased to be the policy of the Government before it had ever actually become the policy of the Government. The Government’s record on this is not strong and to describe it in the terms that the Minister did was generous in the extreme.
New clause 3 would take this issue out of any Minister’s hands by ensuring that the very biggest businesses would know that they would all be named and shamed publicly if they did not comply. It would also provide an opportunity for Ministers to name and praise businesses that paid on time and complied. That carrot-and-stick approach is valuable as it would ensure that businesses that played by the rules and ensured that their customers were paid on time would not be tarnished with the same brush as those that gamed the system. It would ensure that the Government had a focus on signing up businesses to the prompt payment code. There was some talk previously about the number of people signed up to the prompt payment code. In the last two years of the Labour Government 978 businesses signed up to the code, whereas in the first two years of this Government just 204 did—a real difference in the number signing up. Our proposed changes will ensure that companies comply with the spirit of prompt payment, not just the letter of the code. I hope Members will give the new clause the support it deserves.
New clause 4 was tabled because the Government’s draft legislation fails to grasp the central problem behind the late payment crisis. Ultimately, despite the extent of the crisis, small businesses are often reluctant to report late payment as they rely on the custom of businesses for their very existence. Just 10% of businesses have considered using late payment legislation, despite 22% of businesses ending a relationship with a customer because they could not be paid on time.
Previous policy initiatives have focused on increasing prompt payment from public sector bodies to contractors. In the March 2010 Budget, the last Government took significant steps to tighten the rules on late payment by the public sector, and this Government are looking to take further steps in that direction, which we welcome. However, the FSB is clear that late payment by private sector businesses is the major problem, and although it is right that government should put their own house in order first, the challenge for policy makers is to shift the burden away from small businesses going out on a limb to ask for interest payments to their being paid as a matter of routine. Ministers are wrong to say that transparency, welcome as it is, will solve the problem. Yes, businesses might know they are dealing with a company that often pays late, but none the less, because of how their businesses are constituted, they might be utterly dependent on that relationship and be unable to do anything about it.
We are clear about the changes we think should be made to alter the balance of power in the late-payment relationship, and our proposed review would be an opportunity to investigate the matter in more detail, away from the cut and thrust of a Committee stage, where Governments, for whatever reason, are often reluctant to take forward ideas simply because they come from the Opposition. Our review would be an opportunity to explore an idea that we think has real merit. Our proposed quarterly statement would list all payments made late to suppliers without a formal query having to be made. It would also confirm whether interest has been paid to compensate the supplier and set out a payment plan to ensure it is paid promptly where it has not. As a package, those measures would be a significant step forward, with greater potential than any other to change the relationship between small businesses and their suppliers in the context of late payments.
My hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams spoke to her new clause and amendment. Amendment 6 would require companies to include details of the circumstances and process by which payment times can be amended and details of whose permission is required, which would prevent individual directors from making rash, unilateral or ad hoc changes to companies’ payment policies. Her new clause 1 addresses the issue of retention money in the construction industry, where it is common for firms to withhold payments to protect against problems with work and/or materials. We think that these proposals are worthy of consideration, and we look forward to hearing what the Government have to say. Many jurisdictions abroad have legislation in place for protecting retention money. It has worked well elsewhere and certainly deserves significant scrutiny.
Caroline Lucas proposed a couple of amendments, including one on exports. Like the rest of us, she will know that the Government have failed spectacularly to secure the export-led growth they promised us back in 2010. We have the largest 2014 trade gap of any major industrial country, which is a significant issue, particularly in relation to goods, and we believe that the Government should pull their weight in supporting our exporters and that a case can be made for examining the overall role of UK Export Finance.
I have been following the hon. Gentleman’s remarks very carefully. To touch on what my hon. Friend Ben Gummer said, the charging of an 8% levy for late payment might not be a catch-all, because there might be people not paying because they have a legitimate complaint about the quality of the work done who might fear being charged the 8% levy for late payment if they raise a legitimate concern but are not successful. That would be unfair and might discourage people from making reasonable complaints.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The Bill, as originally drafted, would have meant that a business that had raised a legitimate concern within 30 days would have been exempt from punishment for late payment. That is a valid concern.
But that would depend very much on the type of work. If it was a construction contract that was running over a long period of time, and if the 30 days were taken from the moment of the invoice, the actual consideration of the quality of the work might come some time afterwards. Again there would need to be much more flexibility built into the system because different jobs may take different periods of time. Assessing the quality of the work might take longer because of the length of the contract.
I almost wish the hon. Gentleman had been on the Committee. We debated many of these issues and he raises thoughtful questions on it. His would have been a valuable contribution to the Committee. We are referring to something that we are not debating today but, in terms of his question, the invoice would usually become due for payment at the moment the work is completed. If we were talking about a six-week construction project, the moment at which the invoice would start would be once the work was completed. There would then be a period from that point. A late payment penalty would be due 30 days after the invoice was due. In practical terms, on a traditional contract of 30 days’ net monthly, the business would provide the work and present the invoice. There would be 30 days when the payment was due. There would then be another 30 days before any late payment interest was due. There are a number of safeguards in place to try to deal with that.
I understand that, but the hon. Gentleman has just made a point that reveals his misunderstanding of how an industry works. Herein lies the problem; his answer suggests that he fails to understand the way in which payment terms work in the construction industry. Often, invoices are not issued when work is complete. They are done on a staged basis when applications are made and certified by an architect or a quantity surveyor. Often the work is not complete; it is part of a process. It might well be that the work may not have been completed to the satisfaction of the customer, but they will be afraid of raising a complaint because it is not worth the 8% premium, or whatever it might be under the proposal. Herein lies the issue; he proposes legislation the impact of which he does not quite understand. It would have perverse consequences, and he has come back with another clause just to satisfy a particular interest group rather than actually trying to support what the Government are doing.
That was a bizarre contribution in a number of ways. First, we have said we are going to support what the Government are doing so he was factually wrong in that regard. But saying that by giving a single example of how it might work I was suggesting that that example would always work in every single case is a complete straw man. That contribution did not take us anywhere, so let us move on.
In Committee we tabled amendments that would have required the Secretary of State to initiate an independent assessment of the functions on export finance and how to improve awareness of the body. Unfortunately the Government did not accept our amendments. But the next Labour Government will make it a central mission to boost exports. Within that, there is a role for examining the overall way in which UK Export Finance works, but I would be hesitant at this stage about saying that, on that basis, the amendment of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion should be supported. She may be minded to explore the issue today and consider whether to push it to a future stage.
On amendment 92, we strongly agree with the principle that Ministers should be accountable to Parliament for their performance in supporting businesses, and I accept what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said about not wanting a series of meaningless measures with things being deregulated just for the sake of deregulation. I also think, however, that having a deregulatory target has some value in ensuring that Governments and their civil servants are constantly conscious about the impact of any proposed new regulations. We thus think the deregulatory target has some value, as I say, although I share some of the hon. Lady’s reservations about how it will work.
Public procurement is a hugely important function of government. Central Government spend about £45 billion a year on the purchase of goods and services, and ensuring that more of that money delivers for the UK economy is one of the most valuable things that any Government can do. We are absolutely behind ensuring that the power of UK Government procurement delivers for the real economy. That is principle behind our amendment 1, which outlines three areas in which such value can be found for our constituents, constituencies and communities, ensuring that proper reports are made and kept in each of those areas.
There is much good practice around the country coming from various public authorities. The TUC has championed the “one in a million” campaign, which aims to ensure that as far as possible, every £1 million of public spend results in at least one apprenticeship opportunity provided to a young person. A Labour Government would deliver on such principles. We would, for example, require the HS2 project to create 33,000 apprenticeships for young people at no extra cost to the taxpayer. Likewise, Labour’s new immigration Bill would compel multinationals to create an apprenticeship place each time a skilled worker was hired from outside the EU. We should leave no stone unturned in fighting for apprenticeships.
We should ensure, too, that we fight for quality apprenticeships. They should be at or above NVQ level 3, so that every business that takes on someone who has had an apprenticeship will know that they have taken on someone who has had a really significant quality of training. We think there is a lot more to be done to support apprenticeships, and our amendment 1 would take significant steps forward in supporting those apprenticeships and the type of economy that we are looking to create.
On both apprenticeships and late payments, we think that the Government are taking small steps in the right direction, but they could have been far more ambitious and delivered far more for small businesses, apprenticeships and a skilled economy. We hope that the Government will support our amendments, which would enable us to do precisely that. If they do not, they can be sure that a future Labour Government will pursue these themes and make sure that we have the kind of economy in which we can have confidence and faith in the future.
We have had a good-natured and largely well-informed debate on these new clauses and amendments.
I shall deal first with late payments. We have heard passionate speeches from Members on both sides of the House on the importance of tackling late payment.
I will start by addressing a comment made by Bill Esterson, who performed admirably on the Public Bill Committee and made many important interventions. He argued that the current situation in the country on late payment is not acceptable and is not working, and I think he is right. The question is what to do about it.
We consulted broadly on all the potential options surrounding late payments, including many of the options covered by the amendments, and we listened carefully to the responses to the consultations. There was a range of responses, including from those who would firmly regulate all private contracts and from those who did not want any change at all. It is important for us to take steps that will have a positive impact, and to think about the unintended consequences. If we introduce into English law a requirement for a contract to take a specific form, we will remove a freedom of contract that has served the country extremely well for a long time.
We have today heard passionate arguments about the importance of dealing with late payment, as we did on Second Reading and in Committee. We have heard them from my hon. Friend Ben Gummer and from Opposition Members. I bow to none in my passion for sorting out the problem of late payment, because the family business in which I grew up nearly went under thanks to it, but let me point to the big picture. Gordon Banks argued that there was a moral case, and I agree with that. He also observed that the problem arose when there was a cascade of companies paying late—when, because some paid late, others had to do so, and then others had to as well. I have been at the receiving end of that, as I am sure he has. He is nodding now. The best way to tackle the problem of companies going bust and others paying late is first to establish a stable economy, and then to establish a culture of payment that is stronger and better.
I will in a moment. Many Members have ignored the fact that the Bill already contains measures to improve transparency and increase prompt payment in the public sector. My Department pays within five days of receipt of 95% of undisputed invoices, and within 30 days of receipt of 99%. That excellent performance—which is what I would call it—must be rolled out much more widely in the public sector if the culture is to be changed, but we also need transparency.
I am glad that the Minister did not give way to me earlier, because he has made my point quite well. By improving its payment terms, the public sector is helping the economy. Rather than concentrating on putting the economy right in order to boost prompt payment, we should bear in mind that boosting prompt payment will help us to grow the economy, and if that is right in the public sector, it will be right in the private sector. We merely want to start the ball rolling. We in the Chamber do not have the perfect answers; it is for others to go away and design a system that works. If we assumed that all amendments must be perfect, we would never agree on anything here.
All Government amendments are, of course, perfect, at least when I am at the Dispatch Box. However, I strongly agree with the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman has said. We must take the situation as we find it and then improve it, which is what I think the Bill does. However, I do not think we should go as far as the hon. Gentleman suggests. Let me begin by tackling the transparency provision, and explaining why I think it will make such a difference.
We propose that not only the average payment terms but the percentage of invoices met beyond agreed payment terms should be published. That is a different sort of late payment, but it is still a problem. However, we also propose that the proportion of payments made within 30, 60 and 120 days of receipt be published. Toby Perkins has made a great deal of the fact that he received a parliamentary answer from my predecessor about naming and shaming. My predecessor was true to his word—he did publish a list of non-signatories to the prompt payment code in the FTSE 350, as he had committed himself to doing—but we have gone further. The fact that the Bill requires transparency means that all payment practices of all large companies will be published. It is not a question of having to ask a Minister to name and shame, or even the good idea of naming and shaming on the one side and celebrating on the other. The argument about naming and shaming will be driven by the measures taken in the Bill.
The Minister is right to talk about unintended consequences. Getting companies to sign up to the prompt payment code made many of them extend their standard payment terms. What does he see happening to a company like Procter & Gamble, which has now extended its payment term to 180 days? I regard naming it in this place as naming and shaming it. It is such a powerful organisation that it can be as transparent as it likes and simply ignore any consequences.
First, the fact that everybody will now know, because they will read the Hansard, that that company pays in 180 days will have an impact, but the transparency measures in this Bill will take that information in Hansard and make it much more widely public. We have also made a change to the prompt payment code. Big companies could stay within that even if they made their payment practices worse, and we have seen a couple of examples of that recently, so we have convened a new prompt payment advisory board to strengthen the code. That code will only work if it has teeth, so people in the code who have poor prompt payment practices, or who make their prompt payment practices worse, need to be removed from the code, and that must be made to happen in a very public way to demonstrate that the code has teeth; otherwise, it does not have any teeth at all.
There are 1,700 businesses on the register from across the country as a whole. Of course, this is targeted at the biggest companies because they are typically the ones at the top of the supply chains, but I would be very happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to increase the number in Scotland.
Although many people will of course race off to Hansard tocatch up on this debate, some, unbelievably, may not. Is it not entirely wrong that a business could have a term of 180 days, pay “on time”—that is, within those 180 days—and be seen as a signatory to the prompt payment code? All we are proposing in new clause 3 is that if they do not pay within 60 days, they should not be considered part of the prompt payment code.
There is a lot in what the hon. Gentleman says, and that is why we are strengthening the code and will in future kick out companies that say that they have signed up to the code but then have unreasonably long payment terms, so I think we are basically in the same place on that point.
I wanted to address a couple of points made by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth about modern slavery. She has run an admirable campaign on prompt payment over many years, and we have had exchanges across the Chamber before. She has brought a huge amount of pressure to bear on this issue, and has pushed this agenda. I strongly agree with the direction of the agenda, and I agree with her on modern slavery, too. We are determined to work with businesses to ensure that supply chains are not infiltrated by the abhorrent crime of modern slavery. There is a new disclosure requirement in the Modern Slavery Bill, requiring all large businesses to disclose what they have done to ensure that their supply chains are slavery-free. That is an important step forward and takes into account the point she made.
New clause 1 would introduce a power allowing a new reporting requirement on the retention of money, require a review, and provide a further power to act on that review, but we already have a new obligation to report on these practices in this Bill. The transparency measures are at the core of the prompt payment changes proposed in the Bill.
We will seek the views of business bodies during the consultation. We are also aware that retentions are particularly prevalent in the construction industry, as the hon. Member from Scotland said—[Laughter.] Gordon Banks, as I should have said. We are working with industry to move to a position where retentions are no longer necessary, and I would be happy to work with Opposition Members to push that further.
New clause 3 deals with prompt payment. It would introduce a maximum payment term of 60 days, and also place an obligation on the Secretary of State to write annually to all non-signatory FTSE 350 companies asking them to sign up to the code. I am delighted to say that I commit wholeheartedly to writing to all non-signatory FTSE 350 companies asking them to join the strengthened prompt payment code, and we should continue the cross-party push aimed at getting more large companies to sign up. The new reporting requirement will provide sufficient transparency, which will lead to competitive pressure on companies to improve their payment practices.
Absolutely, and I would be happy to work with my hon. Friend on that. There are large private companies that are not in the FTSE. Larger companies, however they are formulated, need to be considered.
New clause 4 also deals with prompt payment. It proposes a review of how the new reporting requirement can be used to ensure the automatic payment of compensation by large companies. This is the nub of the proposal, which we discussed in Committee, that interest be automatically allowed to accrue after 60 days. We consulted on something similar during the consultation, and some bodies were in favour and others were against. Some of the bodies representing small businesses, such as the Institute of Directors, were against the proposal because of the way in which it would change contract law. I therefore do not think that the new clause is necessary, but like Opposition Members, I want to work to strengthen payment practices. We will resist this proposal today, because we do not think the case for it has been made and we do not believe that the unintended consequences have been thought through. However, we will report back publicly on the findings of further work before the end of this Parliament.
That is terrific. After our voting performance today, I am delighted to hear that.
Amendment 6 proposes that companies disclose details of the circumstances in which, and processes by which, payment terms are amended. I have already said that the Government believe that it is poor practice to subject suppliers to unilateral and ad hoc changes to payment terms. We talked about that in Committee. I agree that greater transparency could increase accountability for this practice, and we are launching a consultation on how that transparency could be achieved. I hope that that deals with the substance of amendment 6.
Amendment 7 seeks to ensure that contracting authorities know about the historical payment performance of potential suppliers before they enter into public contracts with them. It also seeks to ensure that the companies entering into those contracts pay their own suppliers promptly. The new procurement regulations that will be made early next year will place a duty on contracting authorities to pass 30-day payment terms all the way down the public sector supply chain, from the contracting authority to the tier 1 supplier. This has been discussed here today and in Committee. I hope that Members will therefore agree that this amendment is not required in addition to the regulations.
On amendment 1, having prompt payment in procurement is dealt with in the new procurement regulations. The requirement for training in procurement is something I agree with where it is cost-effective. We have delivered that in Crossrail and I very much hope that HS2, which has been mentioned, will also deliver it. That is exactly the sort of training, alongside contracting, that is common in the private sector, but of course we have to drive value for money in the public sector, too. The Government agree that transparency and reporting in public sector procurement is vital, and Departments are already required to report on procurement expenditure with smaller businesses. As hon. Members know, that expenditure has been rising rapidly as a proportion and we are on target to hit the goals we set.
Amendment 2, also on procurement, is designed to ensure that the Minister making regulations under clause 37 is able to specify the reasons why firms may be excluded from entering into contracts. Under the existing procurement regulations a contracting authority can already take account of certain types of past behaviour by an economic operator, such as grave professional misconduct, when deciding whether it is eligible to take part in a procurement process. So that is already allowed for.
Amendment 3 states that any regulations made under clause 37 are subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, and I reassure hon. Members that contracting authorities, as public authorities, are already required to respond to FOI requests. Amendment 4 is designed to increase the level of parliamentary scrutiny by removing the reference to the negative resolution procedure. I agreed to consider, following the debate in Committee, whether it would be appropriate to change the level of parliamentary scrutiny for these regulations. The Government think that the negative resolution procedure provides the right level, but I did go away and consider the matter. We think that an affirmative process would slow down potential changes when the Government want to remain nimble in responding to the needs of small businesses.
I thank Caroline Lucas for tabling amendment 91 on UK Export Finance. In our response to the consultation on these issues, the Government rejected such a proposal and set out the rationale: a prohibited list, by its very nature, would not allow the Secretary of State to take an open-minded approach in coming to a decision on whether to support an export falling within an included class. The measures already enhance the support that UK Export Finance can offer, and creating an ability to prohibit support for certain exports which are otherwise perfectly legal goes directly against that goal.
Amendment 92, again tabled by the hon. Lady, relates to the business impact target. I am delighted to debate that with her, because I believe the need for the target proposals set out in the Bill is clear. Too many businesses, particularly smaller ones, find that complying with Government regulation is the single biggest challenge to running their business. We had strong support in Committee for the target. It is only by having a competitive business environment that we can have prosperity, growth and indeed the environmental protections that she is so passionate about. I strongly support, and urge her to support, the deregulation target.
Of course, if we can achieve the regulatory objectives with a lower burden on business, we can get the best of both worlds. Almost all the examples the hon. Lady gave were about the crash and the banks, but systemically important financial institutions are excluded from the one-in, two-out approach, precisely because we need to ensure that we have regulations so that we do not repeat the messes of the previous Administration.
Very briefly, let me speak to Government new clause 5, on the independent complaints commissioner duty, which I commend to the House, and Government amendments 27 and 28, on the business impact target. I made a commitment to look at what more parliamentary scrutiny of that target there should be. We are proposing that the report should be to the House. I look forward to building on the cross-party support for these measures and to explore whether a Select Committee can take a formal role in scrutinising the target. I therefore support those provisions.
Before we come to the next matters relating to the Bill, I have received a report from the tellers in the No Lobby for the Division earlier today at 3.59 pm. They have informed me that the number of those voting no was erroneously reported as 269 instead of 259. The ayes were 284 and the noes were 259.
New Clause 5
Independent Complaints Commissioner: reporting duty
‘(1) Section 87 of the Financial Services Act 2012 (investigation of complaints against regulators) is amended as follows.
(2) After subsection (9) insert—
“(9A) The complaints scheme must provide—
(a) for the investigator to prepare an annual report on its investigations under the scheme, to publish it and send a copy of it to each regulator and to the Treasury;
(b) for each regulator to respond to any recommendations or criticisms relating to it in the report, to publish the response and send a copy of it to the investigator and the Treasury;
(c) for the Treasury to lay the annual report and any response before Parliament.
(9B) The complaints scheme may make provision about the period to which each annual report must relate (“the reporting period”) and the contents of the report and must in particular provide for it to include—
(a) information concerning any general trends emerging from the investigations undertaken during the reporting period;
(b) any recommendations which the investigator considers appropriate as to the steps a regulator should take in response to such trends;
(c) a review of the effectiveness during the reporting period of the procedures (both formal and informal) of each regulator for handling and resolving complaints which have been investigated by the investigator during the reporting period;
(d) an assessment of the extent to which those procedures were accessible and fair, including where appropriate an assessment in relation to different categories of complainant;
(e) any recommendations about how those procedures, or the way in which they are operated, could be improved.”—(Matthew Hancock.)
This amendment requires the scheme established by the financial services regulators for the investigation of complaints to provide for the investigator to produce an annual report on its investigations. The report must describe any general trends emerging from such investigations, and assess the accessibility and fairness of the regulators’ handling of the complaints investigated.
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.