Proposal to strengthen sanctions for late payments culprits

late payments penalty?Some 18 months since the appointment of Small Business Commissioner Paul Uppal to tackle the problem of late payments to SME suppliers by larger companies it seems that the situation has barely improved.

In fact, according to research published in June by Purbeck Insurance Services late payment problems have actually got worse for 27% of SMEs with some 30% reporting worsening cash flow problems.

In the first quarter of this year Mr Uppal’s department has overseen the removal or suspension of some 17 companies that had signed up to the Prompt Payment Code (PPC) but failed to meet its standards.

The five removed altogether included BHP Billiton, DHL and GKN Plc. Signatories to the PPC pledge, among other things, agree to pay 95% of all supplier invoices within 60 days.

In its most recent completed case in May 2019 the Small Business Commissioner (SBC) was approached by a SME over the failure by G4S to pay it an invoice for £31,880.49 despite having contracted to do so within 60 days.

Although G4S claimed this was an isolated incident and the invoice was paid immediately it was contacted by the SBC, further investigation found persistent late payment of previous invoices over an 18-month period.

Now the Government’s small business minister Kelly Tolhurst has announced proposals to consult on strengthening Mr Uppal’s powers.

The proposals include making directors accountable for overseeing their payment practices, which would have to be detailed in their annual reports.

They also propose strengthening the powers of the small business commissioner to tackle late payments through imposing fines and introducing binding payment plans.

The proposals have been welcomed by Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses while the IoD (Institute of Directors) is reported in an article published by CityAM to have said  that they marked a significant step forward: “Forcing larger firms to report on their payment practices will ensure much greater scrutiny where standards fall short, and sunlight is often the best disinfectant,”

In another development, from September this year firms that do not pay 95% of subcontractors within 60 days risk being frozen out of public sector procurement. The new rules force companies to report their payment data every six months to a national database overseen by the business department. This will no doubt encourage whistle blowing by those who are not paid within the 60 day deadline.

It is clear that voluntary agreements by large companies as well as being named and shamed are not going to be sufficient to halt the scourge of late payment to SMEs but barring large companies from public sector contracts and moves to strengthen the SBC powers are to be welcomed as they may change the late payment culture that seems to be embedded.

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