[Mr Jim Hood in the Chair] — Late Payments (SMEs)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:43 am on 14th September 2011.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 10:43 am, 14th September 2011

I must confess to the hon. Lady that I myself have not made any assessment of Government Departments in relation to local post offices. I will see whether my Department or Post Office Ltd have made that assessment. If Post Office Ltd has made that assessment, I am sure that it will want to share the information with her.

The hon. Lady said earlier that the Government should work with the devolved Administrations on this issue. The whole of government—whether it is the devolved Administrations, local authorities or even parties working on a cross-party basis—needs to send out a clear signal that we want companies to pay their bills on time. That would make an important contribution towards ensuring that this economic recovery is as strong as possible.

There is an important point that was not made as often as other points during the debate, but it is none the less important to stress, which is the need to improve the way that companies manage their invoices. Obviously, many companies manage their invoices well, but some companies create the problem of late payment for themselves. Better management of invoices is something that we should emphasise. We believe that more than half of all UK business transactions take place with no pre-agreed payment terms, which is astonishing. Barclays has done some analysis in this area and its data suggest that only one in 10 suppliers regularly credit-checks their customers. Clearly, companies themselves need to do some work.

Under the previous Government, my Department undertook some research with Experian to look at payment of invoices to suppliers by four large FTSE 100 businesses. The total value of the sample invoices was more than £1 billion. There was no evidence at all of systemic late payment by those four companies. Typically larger companies in the UK have moved to electronic purchasing and invoicing, which means that late payment is no longer an option for them. I am not saying that there is not a problem with smaller companies; clearly there is, and we have heard contributions to the debate that show there is. However, it is worth putting on record that electronic payment systems in some of the largest companies are beginning to change things.

That research, which was carried out under the previous Government, identified clear evidence of poor invoicing by some suppliers. By that, I mean that invoices were completed incorrectly or submitted late. Consequently, data on payment across the UK economy are generally flawed, because of a single factor—due dates for payment are collected using the date provided on supplier invoices and more often than not those invoices reflect the terms assumed by the suppliers rather than the terms assumed by or contractually defined by the customer. So, there can be confusion about how that type of payment operates in practice.

That is why we see the average time for payment in the UK economy coming out at around 16 days beyond agreed terms. What typically happens is that suppliers assume a 30-day payment period, while the period adopted by the majority of larger businesses is 30 days net monthly; that is, 30 days from the end of the month in which the invoice is received. So we need to work really hard to ensure that suppliers have the information support that they need to manage their customer relationships and cash flow. Work is being done to try to help suppliers not only by the Department but by outside organisations. For example, since 2010 there have been more than 250,000 downloads of the simple checklists developed by the Institute of Credit Management to help suppliers manage customer relationships.

Inevitably, legislation was discussed during the debate. As I mentioned earlier, the UK was one of the first countries to introduce legislation setting out the rights of a supplier to agree payment terms and to secure payment. When we consider what other legislation might be introduced, I must point out that the majority of business bodies oppose any strengthening of the current legislation. Partly that is because many suppliers have long-standing relationships with their customers and—as has been mentioned—they are unlikely ever to resort to legal action to chase up payment from those customers. Where suppliers seek to use legislation to secure payment, weak invoicing means that all too often the courts are unable to intervene meaningfully. It is not that the courts are unwilling to intervene to enforce the law. Instead, when these matters have been examined, it has emerged that sometimes it was the supplier that failed to invoice the customer properly.

That is not to say that I do not see legislation as being entirely unimportant for setting the environment in this area. I encourage suppliers to set out their invoices with the agreed payment terms, stating very clearly the fee that will accrue if payment is not made by the due date. That is what Mr Umunna was advising his clients to do when he was in the legal profession. It is very important that these contracts are set out clearly. If they are not set out clearly, suppliers have no chance of using the legislation, whatever it might be.

There was a question about the European legislation on late payments. Actually, UK legislation on late payments has played a really important part in shaping the EU legislation, and the recently revised EU directive on late payment very much mirrors UK practice. Because the revised EU legislation follows UK practice so closely, we are seeking advice on whether it will entail any changes whatsoever to existing UK legislation.