The Government’s flagship initiative for helping small businesses when they face unpaid invoices has been dealt something of a PR blow - by the man they appointed to lead the scheme.
Speaking to The Times, Small Business Commissioner Paul Uppal, who ran a construction business for 20 years before becoming a Conservative MP, insisted he understood from experience “the real anguish” not being paid on time creates for SME owners.
However, asked if he would ever have considered turning to a government body such as the one he now heads up, Uppal admitted he probably would not have done - preferring instead to sort out issues himself.
Uppal was asked to explain why, since being appointed in October 2017, his office had made so little headway in tackling non-payments. After eight months in post, he had managed to to resolve just four cases involving unpaid invoices.
“The problem we have got is people putting their heads above the parapet and pursuing it,” he said. “Am I entirely surprised by that? The cynic in me says no because I know what it’s like.
“If I go back to when I ran a small business, would I have had the impetus to approach a government body? If I’m candid with you, no, I probably wouldn’t. I would try and sort it out myself.”
Tackling late payment ‘abuse’
Uppal’s words do not exactly inspire confidence in a government initiative that faced criticism even before he started in post. Despite years of tough rhetoric on ending the so-called “late payment culture” which leaves UK small businesses an estimated £26bn out of pocket, the government has so far shown a distinct lack of willing to entertain any kind of robust enforcement action.
The establishment of the Small Business Commissioner’s office, which by and large is intended to be an information resource for small businesses when faced with payment disputes, followed the creation of a Prompt Payment Code - a voluntary scheme backed up with no statutory power.
Uppal’s admission that, as a former small business owner, he could understand why SMEs would be reluctant to turn to a government body when faced with payment disputes, further stokes criticism that the government is failing to put the needs of small businesses front and centre its policies.
The need for tough action that delivers real results is only further underlined by Uppal’s own unambiguous views on the issue.
“Some of the contractual stuff I’ve heard going on is worse than bullying; it’s abuse,” he told The Times. “For many small businesses, it’s a dream to get a deal to supply a large company. Often, it’s the beginning of a nightmare.”