Late payment of invoices may be a nuisance to big businesses - but to smaller enterprises it can be crippling or even fatal, explains Anthea McIntyre

Written by Anthea McIntyre on 19 February 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

British ECR group MEP backs call for ‘culture change’ to cut out supply-chain bullying and prioritise prompt payment.

Anthea McIntyre | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual


Last month I was privileged to participate in a breakfast debate staged for the European Parliament's Intergroup on Small and Medium-sized Enterprises.

It was hosted by the UK's Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) to tackle a thorny topic - late payments from big companies to small ones.

I was wearing two hats. I am the British Conservative Party spokesman on employment - and I also have 25 years experience of running a small business.


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I was therefore able to bring some personal insight to the discussion about what it is like to be on the wrong end of this problem.

Late settlement of invoices may be a nuisance to big business - but to smaller enterprises it can be crippling or even fatal.

I know only too well that larger companies can be blind to the problems of small and micro businesses. Sometimes they seem not to know or not to care that we have neither the cash resources to wait for payment, nor the human resources to chase late payers.

That is why I back the FSB's call for a culture change across bigger companies to cut out supply-chain bullying and prioritise prompt payment.

"I know only too well that larger companies can be blind to the problems of small and micro businesses. Sometimes they seem not to know or not to care that we have neither the cash resources to wait for payment, nor the human resources to chase late payers"

There are some hard-hitting statistics to back up the argument. FSB research published in November 2016 found that 30per cent of payments to small businesses were typically made late. The problem persists despite the provisions of the EU's Late Payment Directive, adopted in 2011 with an implementation deadline of 16 March 2013.

When it evaluated the Directive under the Regulatory Fitness and Performance (REFIT) programme the European Commission found that the business-to-business element of the Directive was failing to prevent late payments, especially to SMEs.

The Commission is rumoured to be considering a formal review this year, potentially leading to new legislation.

What is certain is that late payments have serious real life consequences for small businesses and the self-employed, with 37 per cent running into cash-flow difficulties, 30 per cent having to resort to overdraft facilities, and 20 per cent citing a slowdown in profit growth.

Shamefully, late payments are estimated to result in 50,000 business deaths each year.

The FSB, while highlighting the severity of the problem, says more legislation at the European level may not be the answer.

"Late payments have serious real life consequences for small businesses and the self-employed, with 37 per cent running into cash-flow difficulties, 30 per cent having to resort to overdraft facilities, and 20 per cent citing a slowdown in profit growth"

It believes the answer is to foster a positive culture of prompt payment. This can be achieved through a mix of domestic legislation, with the EU coordinating the sharing of best practice.

In the UK, the FSB pushed for the appointment of a Small Business Commissioner, who is now in place, with the power to name and shame those who pay late. I am also pleased that new legislation is being introduced which will give business groups the power to challenge late payments on behalf of their members.

The new rules, which come into force at the end of this month, will allow trade bodies to seek High Court injunctions if contractors are paid late either by state departments or private companies. That will mean businesses do not have to pursue individual actions.

The EU has a role in sharing and pushing for the adoption of such practice in all the Member States. The result could be a boost worth billions of euros to the European economy. Estimates suggest that the UK economy would receive a boost of £2.5bn if contractors were paid on time.

We have to realise that in many small businesses, in addition to doing their day job, the entrepreneur is also the accounts manager, HR manager, health and safety officer and credit controller.

The working week is spent finding new customers and delivering goods and services. The admin - including checking who has settled their invoice - has to wait until evenings and weekends, in what is laughably called spare time!

Bigger concerns need to step up and make sure they look after their smaller suppliers instead of driving them to despair by dawdling over payment.

About the author

Anthea McIntyre (ECR, UK) is a member of Parliament's employment and social affairs committee

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