Second Reading

Part of Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 2nd December 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 3:20 pm, 2nd December 2014

My Lords, I start by saying that I am delighted to see my noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe and am much looking forward to her maiden speech.

Over 200 years ago, Napoleon said that the British were a nation of shopkeepers. He was nearly right. If he had expanded his vision slightly and said that Britain was a land of small businesses he would have been spot on. Small businesses have always been the lifeblood of our economy—and recently there has been some good news. At the start of 2014, there were a record 5.2 million small businesses in the UK, 7% more than at the start of 2013, representing the largest annual increase in the business population since the business population estimates began in 2000.

The coalition Government have led the way in their support for small business. Among the measures taken are the cut in corporation tax from 28% to 20% by 2015, the doubling of business rate relief for small firms and the doubling of the annual investment allowance. But we recognise that it is not sufficient just to offer help. People also need to be able to discover easily what help is available. We have therefore streamlined the support though the GREAT business website, giving a single point of access for advice. Similarly, we will bring together schemes for small firms into a single service, so they can access a wide range of support in one place, tailored to their needs.

The Bill before the House builds on the Government’s commitment and is designed to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a business. I will briefly tackle the content of this long Bill using five broad themes: making life easier for small business; improving the climate for business; improving company transparency to deliver on our 2013 G7 commitments; encouraging better employment practices; and—to pubs—helping beer drinkers and the publicans who serve them.

On my first theme, helping small businesses, one of the most daunting things for a small business is to start trading as a company. The Government propose to make the whole process easier by streamlining the company registration process, and the Bill requires this to be in place by May 2017. Especially since the economic downturn, another key challenge for businesses starting up or trying to grow is securing the finance that they need. The Bill promotes greater competition in the banking sector by opening up the market to alternative finance providers. Some 71% of small businesses approach only one finance provider when seeking finance. The Bill will require the big banks to share information on small businesses that they reject for finance with online platforms, when the small business would like to them do so. This will help them gain access to alternative finance providers.

Nine out of 10 small businesses still use paper cheques. The Bill will provide for electronic imaging via smartphones and other mobile devices, allowing cheques to be deposited remotely, thereby speeding up the process in the banks, in addition to—not, of course, separate from—more traditional methods. This will dramatically reduce clearing times, from up to six days at present to less than two, increasing convenience and providing net benefits of nearly £94 million a year.

Cash flow is particularly crucial for small businesses and is often the difference between success and failure. It is not right that small and medium-sized businesses are, according to figures published by the Experian payment performance index in July, owed nearly £40 billion in late payments. This affects 60% of UK small businesses, with the average small business waiting for over £38,000 in overdue payments. The Bill introduces measures that will give small businesses more information on what payment practices to expect from their customers. These changes will incentivise larger companies to improve their payment policies and practices. Business representative bodies, including the Federation of Small Businesses and the Confederation of British Industry have welcomed this work.

We should not forget the public procurement market. It is worth £230 billion and is important to small business. Alongside other measures being brought forward through secondary legislation in the new year that will transpose the new European Union procurement directive into UK law, the Bill will further help small businesses to access public procurement opportunities. The measures will extend across the public sector, including local authorities and the NHS, and make an important change for small business.

My second theme is the business climate. This Government’s regulatory reform agenda has been at the heart of making the UK one of the best places in the world to do business. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2015 report ranked us eighth out of 189 economies—an improvement in our performance of two places on the previous year. Within the European Union we are behind only Denmark. We have reduced the annual cost of domestic regulation by over £1.5 billion since January 2011. For new regulations, our “one in, two out” policy seems at last to have led to something of a culture change in Whitehall. I have known and worked in Whitehall for nearly 40 years, in one form or another. The Bill will strengthen small businesses’ confidence in government by introducing a business impact target to be set at the beginning of each Parliament, which the Government will report transparently on. It will be used for the independent scrutiny of economic impact assessments related to this target.

Where regulation is essential, we know the regulators implementing it do not always enforce it properly; 63% of businesses have, at some point, disagreed with a regulator’s decision, but have never appealed. The Bill provides for small business appeals champions to be established in the non-economic regulators—ranging from the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive to bodies such as the DVLA—to improve the handling of complaints and appeals and, most importantly, to ensure that the process works, particularly for small business. For the financial services sector, the existing independent Complaints Commissioner will be required to report annually on the regulator’s complaint-handling procedures.

There are 2.9 million home businesses in the UK and they are of growing importance to the economy, with an increase of 500,000 in their number since 2010. The Bill will amend the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 to ensure that starting a business from home will not create a business tenancy, thereby encouraging further growth in this thriving sector.

The business community, along with all parents in employment, needs access to good-quality and flexible childcare. The Bill will make it easier for schools and other providers to offer more early education and childcare. The measures will promote a prosperous and growing market to meet the needs of working families.

The UK labour market is also dependent on having a properly skilled workforce to meet its demands. Until now, Governments have not done enough to track a person’s progress through their school life and into the labour market. The Bill will enable the effectiveness of education providers in preparing pupils for employment to be assessed. The additional data we will secure will be invaluable to young people and their parents, and will focus educators on employment outcomes, as well as performance tables.

My third theme is company law. As I have said, the UK is an outstanding place to start and grow a business. However, there is a clear link between illicit financial flows and company structures. Measures in the Bill will therefore help ensure that UK companies are not used to facilitate criminal activity, such as money laundering and tax evasion. The Bill will establish a register of “people with significant control” over each company, increasing transparency around who ultimately owns and controls UK companies. The Bill will abolish bearer shares, directly removing an easy means of facilitating illegal activity. This meets an important G7 commitment. At the same time, we are simplifying the current filing requirements for companies, removing duplication and improving the accuracy and integrity of our public companies register.

Unfortunately, a natural consequence of a competitive market is that sometimes some businesses become insolvent. The Bill makes a number of changes that strengthen and modernise our insolvency regime.

My fourth theme is encouraging better employment practices. Part 11 of the Bill deals with these matters. We should not forget that this Government have secured great achievements in job creation. There are now more than 30 million people in employment, which is a record high. Since 2010, an additional 2.1 million private sector jobs have been created. Within these totals, small businesses employ an estimated 12.1 million people. Therefore, for small businesses to succeed we must ensure that those employed are treated fairly and that businesses playing by the rules are not disadvantaged by those which do not.

The Bill will provide assurances to people who step forward and whistleblow that action will be taken. Last year, a report by the University of Greenwich and Public Concern at Work found that 75% of whistleblowers believe that nothing was done about the wrongdoing they reported. The Bill will require regulators or professional bodies dealing with whistleblowing to publish an annual public report.

The Bill will also improve confidence in the ability of the employment tribunal system to deliver justice by incentivising payment of awards and addressing the current position that there are no significant consequences for non-payment. The Bill will also reduce the delays in the tribunals process caused by frequent postponements, addressing the costs to business that often arise from these delays.

The Government are committed to ensuring that employers are penalised if they fail to pay the national minimum wage to their workers. On 7 March this year we increased the penalty percentage from 50% of total underpayments owed to workers to 100% and the maximum penalty from £5,000 to £20,000. The Bill goes further: it sets the maximum penalty to apply on a per-worker rather than per-notice basis.

Finally on employment, I know that there are strong views in this House on zero-hours contracts. Used correctly, I believe that such contracts support business flexibility and they are often welcomed by those employed on them. Recent research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggests workers on zero-hours contracts are more content than their counterparts in permanent employment. However, we want to make sure that these contracts are not abused and we recognise that exclusivity clauses sometimes included in zero-hours contracts are wrong, as they prevent people seeking work elsewhere. This is not in line with free-market or any other type of economics. I am pleased that the Bill addresses the problem by making such clauses invalid.

Finally, I turn to the subject of pubs. In my immediate family there are five adult males and me. That fact has many important consequences, one of which is that the majority view of the family is very much in favour of pubs. The pub industry makes a significant contribution to the UK economy. It is made up of many small businesses run by hard-working people and employs hundreds of thousands of people. While it is an industry which has suffered due to societal change, it contributes substantially to community spirit and cohesion, and it is one that we want to see grow and flourish.

The Bill will address the imbalance in bargaining power between pub-owning companies and their tied tenants to ensure that the latter are treated fairly and are no worse off than they would be if they were free of tie. For the first time, tied tenants will have a statutory code that they can rely on, based on the industry’s own voluntary code. It will be enforced by an independent adjudicator, who will have real sanctions at his or her disposal.

Noble Lords will be aware that this issue has a long history. Over the course of a decade there have been four Select Committee investigations into unfairness in the relationship between pub-owning businesses and their tenants. The Government have received, and continue to receive, a huge amount of correspondence from tenants about problems in their relationship with their pub-owning business. Research by the Campaign for Real Ale appears to show that 57% of tenants tied to large pub companies earn less than £10,000 per year, compared with just 25% of tenants who are free of tie.

Industry self-regulation has brought a number of improvements, and there is evidence that there is much responsible practice in this industry, yet some tied tenants continue to face unfair treatment and hardship. The Government gave self-regulation ample opportunity to succeed but the truth is that it has not delivered.

Noble Lords will know that there was much lively debate on this subject in the other place. Members there voted against the Government to include in the Bill a market rent only option. This provision requires large pub-owning companies to offer their tied tenants the right to go free of tie in certain circumstances. The Government resisted this proposal partly on the basis that it could have unintended consequences for the sector. However, we recognise that a majority of Members in the other place believe strongly that pub-owning companies need the threat of tenants going free of tie before they will offer their tenants a fair tied deal. The elected Chamber has spoken by voting this into the Bill and the Government have listened.

On that basis, I can confirm today that the Government intend to accept in principle the introduction of a market rent only option. Our focus now will be on making this option workable to ensure that tied tenants are no worse off than free-of-tie tenants and to minimise the risks of unintended consequences, such as job losses.