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.

Co-CEO of DLA Piper

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.