A manifesto for the small business commissioner

Over two years ago the government started searching for a new champion for small businesses under the guise of a small business commissioner

A manifesto for the small business commissioner

At the time, the then small business minister, Anna Soubry, said the commissioner would act as “a powerful representative for small business interests and tackle the imbalance of bargaining power between small suppliers and large customers, and encourage them to get around the table and sort out disputes at a fraction of the cost of going to court.”

It is fair to say that this government, and preceding governments, have form when it comes to appointing champions and tsars as figureheads to drive change. We’ve had a families champion, a drugs tsar, a social mobility tsar and even a fuel poverty tsar. At one point, a decade or so ago, we apparently had more than 1,000 tsars in place, excluding any that might remain in mother Russia.

The man chosen to be the small business commissioner is Paul Uppal, a former Conservative MP for Wolverhampton south west. His broad mission is a pledge to drive a culture change within Britain’s supply chains.

He has been a small business owner himself in the real estate sector, and will lead an independent office within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The duties of this office, we are told, are to provide information and advice to owners of small firms regarding various matters including business disputes.

The commissioner’s specific priority, again according to the government media team, will be leading the attack on late payments from large firms to smaller suppliers. The most recent research has put the total figure of invoices unpaid to small firms in Britain at £45bn.

Uppal has said: “Running your own business can be a very lonely experience and my priority will be ensuring small firms feel supported, as well as helping to create an overall impression that business isn’t necessarily cut throat.

“In fact, successful businesses are built on integrity, entrepreneurial spirit and trusting relationships and I want to highlight that Britain can be the best place in the world for new entrepreneurs to establish and grow their own businesses.”

There is everything to welcome in Uppal’s appointment and I wish him every success. We have already spoken at length, and I hope over time to be able to share even more with him about what we’ve learned from our experience. We’ve seen major successes and the commissioner should be vocal in helping to publicise these and encourage more businesses to make the commitments set out in the Prompt Payment Code. It is also vital, in my opinion, that the commissioner’s activity collaborates with the code and that the two complement each other.

Certainly, Uppal does not come into the role empty handed – quite the opposite in fact. He will have a range of different tools at his disposal. As well as the Prompt Payment Code, administered by the CICM on behalf of the BEIS, there is also the existing late payment legislation, the duty to report requirements for large companies, and the first tranches of data uploaded.

There are also various alternative dispute remedies, and a rising number of best practice examples from larger companies leading the way on a more responsible approach to supply chain relationships.

But, what I hope most of all is that the new commissioner does not try and reinvent what is already there. As a champion of small business, he could do worse than be the champion of existing tools, and look to maximize those tools at his disposal through further investment and enhanced communication. It is entirely correct that poor practice is identified and rooted out, but it is similarly important that best practice is recognised and celebrated.