In a worrying development the Government has sacked Paul Uppal, the Small Business Commissioner, over what it called a “conflict of interest”.
Even more worryingly, the only news outlet to report on the development was The Times, on October 12.
It reports that “the business department felt his involvement in establishing a bank redress scheme was a conflict of interest”.
So far, apart from the report in The Times, there has been a deafening silence on this development.
Mr Uppal’s role as a mediator of payment disputes between small and large companies was established in 2016.
His dismissal came just a few days after the Government had announced that Mr Uppal’s role was to be expanded to having a seat on the Compliance Board of the Prompt Payment Code, which it was intending also to strengthen.
The Government said: “Fiona Dickie, the Deputy Pubs Code Adjudicator, will provide oversight in the Small Business Commissioner role until early November, pending the appointment of an interim commissioner.
“An open recruitment campaign to appoint a new Small Business Commissioner will get started immediately.”
Has the Small Business Commissioner been too successful?
It was announced in December 2018 that in the first year of the Commissioner’s existence unpaid invoices worth £2.1 million to small businesses across the UK have been recovered. Subsequently that amount had reached £3.5 million.
Mr Uppal also began the practice of naming and shaming those large businesses that were failing to meet the terms of the Prompt Payment Code and of actually removing some of them from its lists.
They included Holland & Barrett, Jordans & Ryvita, BHP Billiton, DHL and GKN, G4S, Bupa Insurance and Zurich Insurance.
Clearly, there is a need for government intervention on behalf of SMEs when payments are withheld by larger customers.
A study by FinTech firm Previse shows that small suppliers are paid an average of 30 days later than the largest firms. And a separate survey by Hitachi Capital Business Finance found the proportion of SMEs that were taking legal action chasing late payments from clients had grown from 31% to 40% over the past year with more than 60% of SMEs affected by late payments.
IPSE (Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employment) Deputy Director of Policy, Andy Chamberlain, said: ““Late payment is still the scourge of the self-employed. In fact, IPSE research has found the average freelancer spends 20 days a year chasing clients who have failed to pay them on time.”
Mike Cherry, the chairman of the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses), said: “We’ve made some genuine progress on the late payments front since the Small Business Commissioner first took office back in 2017…. This is a disappointing development, one that will put the brakes on our efforts to date.
He added: “The appointment process needs to be efficient and thorough .. We can’t delay further action to tackle this crisis, especially in such an uncertain climate.”
Notwithstanding that we are in the run-up to a General Election, when all Government business is suspended there are a number of questions in need of answers on this situation and on the future of both the Small Business Commissioner and the Late Payment Code.
So, the question I would ask is has the Government been successfully lobbied by some large corporates to roll back this initiative. Was it becoming too successful?
Why was Mr Uppal sacked and was it really his involvement in establishing a bank redress scheme that was claimed to be a conflict of interest?
Have UK’s SMEs been consigned to limbo?