Micro-Businesses

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:09 pm on 25 January 2012.

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Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 5:09, 25 January 2012

I shall recap, although Hansard will seamlessly slide through the process, unlike the rest of us.

I was trying to respond to my hon. Friend’s suggestion that we need to revisit the definition of a micro-business, not least to make the policy more effective. This has largely revolved—in our previous discussions, including with other hon. Members—around whether we need to narrow that definition from 10 employees to fewer than five to target better the policies, as my hon. Friend highlighted.

I understand the point. I share the view that when we set policy, we need to ensure that it really addresses those people we are trying to help. It is also true that the Treasury will rightly want to ensure that when we are using taxpayers’ money, we direct financial support accurately at what they like to call leakage, which is a strange phrase but one that is understood in terms of the money being spent not necessarily reaching the people one is trying to support.

The definitions that we use are quite well established across Government and within the Office for National Statistics. As my hon. Friend also rightly said, those are clearly understood and are adopted on the basis of policy development in the EU as well. Without securing a change in definition across Whitehall and with the ONS and the EU, there is danger of confusion between different definitions when we develop policy.

Let me give some practical examples. At the moment, we are in the middle of discussions with EU partners about exemptions for micro-businesses from future regulations, to which my hon. Friend alluded. These are important. If we were to engage in a process, which would probably take a year or so to establish, according to which we might wish to define micro-businesses in a way that is different from the EU as a whole, clearly there would be a problem. It would be similar, in a sense, to our discussions with our EU partners over the next round of structural funds, which would start in 2014.

It is also true that we need to be careful about domestic policy and how that is applied. For example, my hon. Friend mentioned the micro-business moratorium, the moratorium from regulation, giving micro-businesses relief from the burden of additional changes in rules and red tape. We have secured significant reductions: the two that immediately leap to mind are, first, the postponement of the change in rules banning the display of tobacco products in shops, which is now only applicable to supermarkets, giving small businesses three years to consider how their business might be developed and, secondly, giving them the opportunity not to face those costs up front.

A similar case with a greater financial benefit to the smaller firms is the exemption that we secured, mentioned in part by my hon. Friend, on auto-enrolment for pensions. Again, that is a big saving for small businesses. Were we now to change the definition, there is a danger that there would be an immediate impact on firms employing between five and nine employees that are currently enjoying micro-business status.

I should like to highlight that, although there are benefits from considering the whether the definition is accurate, our concern would be that there are obviously adverse consequences as well.