Second Reading

Part of Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:13 pm on 2nd December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Wakeham Lord Wakeham Conservative 4:13 pm, 2nd December 2014

My Lords, one of the great pleasures I have had in this House before today is to follow a speech by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. He always makes an interesting speech. In the first part, he tells us how he has been around the world advising people in different places how they should run their affairs, and he talks a great deal of sense thereafter. He is an old friend and he will not mind me saying that. He made one of his typically very good speeches and I enjoyed it.

I congratulate the Government on this Bill. I started my small business on 1 June 1960. If you work it out, it was very nearly 55 years ago that I started my first small business, and I think that this is the first Bill before the House that is entirely devoted to small businesses. That is some credit to the Government. While the noble Lord who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench made some interesting points, I did not detect from them that the subjects he raised, which were out of the Bill, were directed to small businesses in this country, important as they might be.

This is a very good Bill and it is designed for small businesses. It is interesting to look back to my early days in business 55 years ago; what was important then was persuading any bank manager to lend you any money to get going. That was the really important thing. Fifty-five years on, we still seem to have problems raising the money, but we also have problems dealing with the regulations that have arisen. There were not too many regulations 55 years ago when I got started. The question was: how was I going to get it going? So I welcome a great deal in this Bill. It is going to help cash flow and assist exports, and also start something to help small businesses to get paid quickly by big businesses. I suspect, however, that that will be more difficult than what is indicated in the Bill.

I remember when I was a major subcontractor for British Steel. Could I get paid on time? I could not. It was absolutely hopeless. In the end, they invited me in to see their accounting systems and how they did it. They said, “If you think we ought to be able to pay you quicker, tell us how we should do it”. In the end the compromise was that I added something to the bill to get my money, but I still could not get them to pay on time. So I congratulate the Government on trying to have a go in getting big business to pay on time; it should pay on time, but it is very difficult.

I was interested in reading the Second Reading debate in the Commons, which the Minister referred to. Of course, a lot of the debates were all about employment. They agreed an amendment to do with pubs and what is really important is whether that question can be resolved without creating unemployment. I have no great technical knowledge about it, but there are some interesting questions that the Government have to take on board.

There is one part of this Bill that I particularly welcome. It creates a duty on the Minister to set up the small business appeals champion. The aim, as I understand it, is that we should have clear and effective procedures in place so that small businesses are not hampered by decisions of various regulators that are cumbersome or unfair. If I wanted one word to say what that man should be asking, the word is “materiality”. That is the word that needs to be considered by these people.

There are quite a lot of areas where people have tried to improve things but have actually still made things quite significantly difficult. I will give a few examples. The Inland Revenue now has a very good system where, as a small businessman, you can ring up and speak to some quite well informed people. You can find out what is the position with this, that or the other thing that you are concerned about. But if it is going to take you an hour to get through on the phone, the thing needs to be speeded up. It is the same with planning decisions. I am not criticising necessarily the planning decisions, but when I was running a small business, I wanted to know quickly whether I was going to be able to do this or not. The delays in the bureaucracy need to be sorted out, because that is very unfair.

I have given two examples from the public sector; the third is from the private sector. I think that the present money-laundering arrangements are a disgrace. The banks and financial institutions have turned all the work around to the customers—of whom 99.9% are perfectly innocent—and they expect them to do all the work in order that they can employ cheap labour to do the job. If they employed better people who were able to make some sort of judgment on the situation, it would be more effective for money laundering and it would be better for the customers. One gets the impression that some of these institutions are more concerned with not being held responsible for money laundering than with trying to detect it. If the small business champion gets moved into some of these areas where people have tried to lessen regulations that do not help, that will be a very worthwhile effort.

I am going to sit down, but I want to say how much I am looking forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend. I made my maiden speech on small businesses in the House of Commons 40 years ago, and I guess that she will make a much better speech than I made then.