Is 'Quick and Cheap' Best for Preventing Late Payment?

Hardly a month goes by without a new government or industry scheme aimed at preventing late payment - since the EU Late Payment Directive was introduced, we've seen the voluntary Prompt Payment Code, proposals to name and shame poor performers on a public database, the Supply Chain Finance Scheme to raise funds against outstanding invoices, and several suggestions of new conciliation schemes.

Now small business minister Anna Soubry has outlined proposals for a Small Business Commissioner to intervene when the UK's smaller firms are faced by contractual issues with big brands, including problems relating to on-time payments.

In the foreword to a consultation document, Ms Soubry writes: "I want the Commissioner to help small businesses settle disputes quickly and cheaply."

But is this something that should be the main aim of the SBC, which many have nicknamed the 'Late Payment Tsar'?

Industry Response

The immediate response to the consultation has hardly been unanimous support, as Contractor UK already reported.

After month after month of new attempts to tackle late payments, many in the business world seem resigned to the fact that the government is largely powerless to enforce any new measures - small businesses must choose to do so using the legislation available to them, and many simply don't want to risk the time or the money on doing so.

The British Chambers of Commerce's Dr Adam Marshall called the SBC "far from a silver-bullet solution", while the Federation of Small Businesses added that it is concerned about whether the SBC will have "sufficient powers to intervene and resolve late payment disputes in a timely and effective way".

It remains to be seen what input the big brands will have into the consultation process too, as businesses of any size - including the biggest in the country - are able to submit their opinions to the government, giving the usual suspects the chance to water down the measures.

The Quick and the Good

In the printing industry there is a piece of common wisdom: customers want their printing to be fast, cheap and good, but you can only have two of those things without compromising on the third.

A fast, cheap conciliation service to resolve late payments without going to court sounds lovely, but as the concerns expressed above seem to indicate, businesses are already expecting the SBC to have little actual power to enforce any kind of action.

Remove this capability and you're left with a go-between whose mediation skills alone are unlikely to be enough to force the big firms to pay any sooner than they would choose to do so anyway.

On top of this, we would ask the question of whether this is a Late Payment Tsar for the UK, or just for England?

Devolution is still high on the agenda, but as far as most businesses are concerned, the UK is still a common market - nobody is treating Hadrian's Wall or Offa's Dyke as the limit of their marketplace.

But we live at a time when powers are being handed back to both Scotland and Wales, raising the question of how the SBC might engage in cross-border transactions - further compounding the question of whether the plans would work at all.

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