In April this year I reported on the scepticism with which SMEs had greeted the appointment of a Small Business Commissioner to help SMEs to deal with larger businesses’ late and unfair payment practices.
Paul Uppal was appointed in December 2017 and ran his own small business for 20 years. In interviews since, he has reportedly said he hoped the problem can be solved by “cultural change rather than legislation”.
But in any case, Mr Uppal’s powers are limited to taking information from SMEs, investigating and helping them through a complaints procedure. Changing behaviour and holding to account larger business and especially public bodies this is not.
He said he will name and shame persistent late payers. I don’t think he has offenders quaking in their boots! Indeed, given the practices they condone in their firms, or turn a blind eye to, I don’t believe ‘shame’ is something executives worry about. The new badge of honour is having the hide of a rhinoceros.
Mr Uppal’s appointment was the second of two measures introduced by the Government to tackle the problem of late payment.
Previously, from April 2017, it introduced a legal requirement on large businesses to report via a publicly available Government website on a half-yearly basis on their payment practices, policies and performance for financial years beginning on or after 6 April 2017. Failure to report or reporting misleading information has been made a criminal offence punishable by a fine.
The legislation covers businesses above a threshold of:
* £36 million annual turnover
* £18 million balance sheet total
* 250 employees
By December 2017 only 29% of larger businesses that had reported had paid invoices within 30 days on average.
So much for the shaming strategy.
Stronger penalties on late payment are needed
The calls for tougher action are growing stronger.
A report by YouGov has revealed that legislation that would force payment of bills within 45 days is strongly supported by 61% of British companies with fewer than 250 staff.
The FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) has estimated that 50,000 SMEs each year close because of late payments and that public bodies are among the worst offenders, with 89% of suppliers to government reporting that they had been paid late.
From my work with SME owners, I am well aware that waiting for up to 120 days for payment by a larger customer can play havoc with your cash flow and can push you into insolvency if you aren’t brutal with agreeing and enforcing appropriate terms for payment of your invoices.
It is a difficult balance to strike, payment terms versus your relationship with important customers. Managing the relationship involves making sure that your terms are followed. You can be sure they will demand theirs.
While tougher regulation might enforce a maximum time for paying invoices, together with meaningful penalties for failure to comply, I would argue that you need to establish payment terms up front and then make sure they are observed.