The amount owed to UK SMEs in late payments had allegedly risen to £50bn in early January according to research by digital banking platform Tide as reported by CityAM.
It has calculated that the average UK SME is chasing five outstanding invoices at once, wasting an hour and a half every day.
Data from Pay UK, which runs the Bacs Direct Credit and Direct Debit payment services, later in the month revealed that late payments had reached a four-year high last year at £23bn.
Tide’s new £50bn total was considerably higher than Pay UK’s total of £23bn owed to SMEs and I cannot reconcile the two figures. The Tide research was conducted by Atomik Research among 1,002 SME decision makers from the UK and, it appears, judging by a footnote to the Tide report, that its £50bn figure may have been estimated on the basis of a total of 5.9 million SMEs, as calculated by The Department for Business .
However, the situation puts immense pressure on SMEs, with some having had to resort to overdrafts, cutting their own salaries and personal loans to pay bills because their own are being paid late. This is highlighted by Paul Horlock, chief executive of Pay.UK who has said that for the first time their research has revealed the human cost in stress and anxiety to SME owners.
Rashmi Dube of legal practice Legatus Law and former director of TMA UK wrote in the Yorkshire Post that a third of payments to the SME sector are late, leaving 37% with cashflow difficulties, 30% forced into an overdraft and 20% suffering a slowdown in profits, with considerable knock-on effects to employees as well as business owners.
In an attempt to ensure the Government promises to strengthen the regime tackling late payments, the Labour peer, Lord Mendelsohn, introduced a private members bill in the Lords, aims to bring in fines for persistent late payers, shorten the deadline by which clients must pay suppliers from 60 to 30 days and force all companies with more than 250 staff to comply with the Prompt Payment Code.
Although Private Members’ Bills from the Lords are not generally debated in the Commons the move serves as a reminder to the Government of promises it has made.
Prior to the December election a wider package of reforms had been promised, including improved resources and increased powers, a tougher Prompt Payment Code and Audit Committees’ oversight of payment practices.
One of these promises has at least been kept in part, with the appointment of Philip King as interim Small Business Commissioner following the sacking of Paul Uppal last November over an alleged conflict of interest and pending the appointment of a permanent replacement.
Mr King, who was previously chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Credit Management (CICM), which was responsible for running the Prompt Payment Code, is transferring the administration of the Code to his new office, fulfilling the commitment made by government in June last year to bring late payments measures under one umbrella. This is a useful measure as the CICM was focused on training income and mainly funded by large companies. Following the move, we can expect to see the naming and shaming of those large companies who withhold payment to their suppliers, many of them SMEs.
Meanwhile In February, another 11 large businesses have been suspended from the Prompt Payment Code for failing to pay suppliers on time. They include BAE Systems (Operations) Limited, Leonardo MW Limited, and Smiths Detection.
However, for many SMEs the wait, in my view, for tougher and more effective powers with real bite beyond the current regime of naming and shaming has been far too long. How many have been forced to give up the unequal struggle in the meantime and fallen into insolvency?