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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.

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

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.