Late Payment Battle Lines Drawn, Reports Telegraph

The Daily and Sunday Telegraph have launched a series of articles reporting on late payments - and on the battle lines being drawn by those affected by and involved in settling overdue invoices.

In a Daily Telegraph report, for instance, Steve Sutherland - owner of architectural glazing specialist Dortech - is described as "putting his tin hat on" amid fears of a backlash from customers after he called time on a 13-year relationship with construction brand Balfour Beatty.

The move slashed Dortech's turnover by 40% but, with some payments being delayed by 200 days or more, and others reduced retrospectively by the customer to less than the initial agreed value, it's easy to see why Mr Sutherland took action.

Indeed, the Daily Telegraph adds that he has since "been greeted with plaudits" for taking action against the late-paying construction giant.

Going to war

If Mr Sutherland's story sounds like a David vs. Goliath scenario, then there's good news for small businesses, as the might of the UK government is now on their side too.

Business and enterprise minister Michael Fallon told the Sunday Telegraph: "Large companies are sitting on an awful lot of cash at the moment and it is simply not fair if they don't pay their suppliers or subcontractors on time."

His comments come after Mr Fallon became aware of businesses operating on 180 to 200-day payment terms, leaving their suppliers to wait six months or more for payment.

Many businesses have also told the publication that their customers have increased these payment terms even further since the onset of the economic turbulence - something Mr Fallon is now looking to combat.

Pay or pain

Historically, many firms choose not to pursue late payments aggressively due to reputational fears - which seems particularly unfair on those who have supplied goods or services in good faith, only to have the client fail to pay.

But Mr Fallon claims that, in February 2013, he will publish a list of all remaining FTSE 350 firms who have not yet signed up to the voluntary Prompt Payment Code.

The Code is celebrating its fifth anniversary, but many firms still have not subscribed to it - and 54 of those who have only did so after October 2012, when Mr Fallon wrote to them.

With more than £36 billion now owed in overdue payments, according to figures from BACS, the tide of popular opinion may finally be turning in favour of companies who pursue their non-paying customers to the fullest extent of the law.

SCF - the dodgy-dealing defector

While Mr Fallon was urging business leaders to pay more promptly in October 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron was announcing a new scheme that seemingly sanctions payments that are slow, if not actually late.

The Supply Chain Finance Scheme, or SCF for short, allows big businesses to write to their suppliers' banks, promising to pay their invoices at some point in the future.

If the supplier is running short on funds, they can then borrow from the bank against the value of these promissory notes.

Yet again, it seemingly holds suppliers responsible - and financially liable - for their customers delaying payment, and any fees relating to accessing finance through the SCF scheme must be met by the supplier, not by their non-paying clients.

It remains to be seen which approach will win in the war between late payment and prompter settlement of invoices - but with allies like the SCF, who needs enemies??

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