An evil still lurks at the heart of the British economy: lateness

Cash flow problems account for a huge percentage of corporate bankruptcies. A change in the law, and our culture, might just give the economy a much-needed boost.

Sometimes parliamentary inquiries can be drab, dull affairs - events that feel compelled to occur for form's sake rather than for any great purpose. A recent special parliamentary inquiry however shone a light onto a dark and shameful corner of business culture in the UK, a culture that is undermining our economic recovery. The enquiry was looking into the UK's systemic late payment system and in particular the escalating impact overdue invoices are having on SMEs and their ability to stay afloat. As of the end of last year, outstanding debts to small and medium-sized business stood at a record £35.3bn in late payments - and large companies have been identified as the main culprits.

That the government is aware of this issue is of course to be applauded. A couple of months ago the Late Payments of Commercial Debts Regulations 2013 came into force, designed to protect small businesses struggling with cash flow due to late payment of invoices. However, this legislation only goes halfway to addressing the problem because it does not stipulate the length of time that an invoice must legally be paid by. The government should strongly consider imposing fines on serial late payers. Protecting SMEs with a mandatory payment time limit is a no-brainer and will surely be coming down the track at some stage.

This will take some time though. Therefore until the law is amended we need to start changing the culture in which large businesses sit on sizable cash reserves and hold SMEs hostage to their reluctance to pay in a timely fashion. My question to large businesses with ample liquidity is: what is there to gain in taking an age to pay a supplier? It engenders bad relationships, a negative perception of your brand and, worst of all; it slows economic growth – growth that you, the reluctant-to-pay business, could take advantage of. The great unintended consequence of this late payment culture is that the SME or start up – a growth engine for economic acceleration and source of so-called 'green shoots' - is being strangled at birth by its neglectful elders.

Cash flow problems account for a huge percentage of corporate bankruptcies: in 2008, for example, 4,000 UK businesses failed as a direct consequence of late payment. As of the end of 2011 the average small firm had approximately £45,000 of unpaid invoice debt sitting on its books, up from £39,000 from the previous half year. Furthermore, given that SMEs account for about 60 per cent of private sector employment, if their cash flow was more stable they might employ just one more person, which would make a huge difference to the overall level of unemployment. With lending shrinking at 2.5 per cent a year, despite the Government’s Funding for Lending Scheme, this is an escalating problem that, like a pestilent, is killing green shoots just as they begin to grow.

If large corporations start to pay their suppliers on time, i.e. within 30 to 60 days, we would see a sea change in business activity and, consequently, SME growth. As the saying has it, it's not rocket science, and is perhaps one of the simplest and most practical way of stimulating economic growth in our current flat lining economy.

Stop all the clocks - Overdue invoices are having a damaging effect on SMEs. Photograph: Getty Images.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.