My Lords, time is precious today, but I think others would agree that there is very little in the gracious Speech specifically about business, so I want to raise points especially affecting small business.
A major concern relates to the late payment of debts, something that I have campaigned on for many years but which remains a big problem. It has been reported that as much as £260 billion of SME turnover is locked up in late payments. An alternative figure is that one-third of payments to SMEs in the UK are late. This situation, which many small businesses face, has not been resolved. The Government have come up with many ideas over the years, but it is a continuing problem. Indeed, tens of thousands of businesses fail every year because of cash-flow problems. I ask the Minister to look again at the problem to see if he can come up with appropriate ways of dealing with it, because it is not just businesses that are at fault; I want the Government to look at their payment practices, and local government also needs to be addressed in that respect.
Another point that needs to be addressed is the concern referred to earlier today about the availability in this country of necessary skills, which has become a continuing problem. Many colleagues have talked about the need to welcome people from other countries into this country to provide the skills that we need. It is important that we emphasise the importance of the skills that are needed as well as the quality of the technical education that is necessary to address this problem. That has been raised many times in connection with careers advice, another issue that I and other colleagues have raised and that, to be fair, the Government have tried to address. However, I assure colleagues here that careers advice and guidance throughout the country is not consistently as good as it should be. Young people need encouragement. They should be given opportunities to get skills—apprenticeships are an important area here—and encouraged to get them. When I left school I did national service, and I have been in business all my life. One company that I worked for was a “them and us” company, and the workforce was not encouraged to be encouraged, if you like. So I very much believe that careers advice and guidance is very important to give young people the encouragement that they need.
Other points have been raised. Briefly, the Government have talked about export and the need for trading overseas. That is often referred to and we all say, “Oh, yes”. The practicalities of it relate to Brexit, of course, but also—I have some experience of export with my small firm—to whether the quality of the diplomatic corps in its representation in different countries throughout the world is of the necessary calibre to help those business people who want to export to do so.
I hope that the Government will address those points and the many others that need addressing in relation to small business in particular. Many colleagues, including the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, have referred to problems with business rates and such like. I hope that we can address them.