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23 July 2019

The View from the Chair, Tina McKenzie - July 2019

Small firms deserve fair pay and fair play

Late payments have been in the news recently as 18 large companies were removed from the Government’s Prompt Payment Code after they were found to take longer than 60 days to pay their suppliers. This second wave of suspensions follows the previous suspension of 17 companies in April, showing that this matter is starting to be treated with the seriousness it deserves. Late payments to small firms, either from larger companies or government bodies, can have a devastating impact on businesses in the supply chain, causing severe cash flow issues, and forcing 50,000 UK firms out of business each year.

FSB has consistently campaigned on late payments issues, both here in Northern Ireland and across the UK. Following years of FSB campaigning, the UK government is introducing a swathe of new powers for the Small Business Commissioner to tackle late payments, including the capacity to fine or introduce binding payment plans for the worst payers. Company Boards will now be held accountable for payment performance to small businesses, with measures forcing Audit Committees to report payment practices in company annual reports.

Locally, FSB has focused on late payments and we are currently examining a number of cases of supply chain mistreatment by larger firms, which we have referred to the Small Business Commissioner to investigate. We have also monitored the performance of Northern Ireland’s 11 councils at paying their suppliers, and disappointingly not all are up to scratch. Councils should be standard bearers of best practice in this regard as late payment only disadvantages businesses who provide a service and create employment in the local community. We will be publishing new data on the prompt payment performance of Councils in the autumn.

While frustration over late payments is something which we hear regularly from members, mistreatment at the hands of a financial institution is also a frequent cause for concern, so FSB NI has worked with the Financial Ombudsman to complement that work of the Small Business Commissioner. The Financial Ombudsman is an independent, free-to-use body established by the UK Parliament which investigates complaints between financial businesses and their customers. In the last financial year it received only 61 complaints from Northern Ireland businesses. While this could be interpreted as businesses having little to complain about, the reality appears to be that too many firms are not contacting the relevant authorities when they have been clearly mistreated.

FSB has been working with the Financial Ombudsman to try to raise awareness of their service, to ensure that more small businesses do not suffer in silence and encouraging them to make a complaint when they feel they have been wronged. The Ombudsman has recently expanded its service and can now assist businesses with up to 50 employees with less than £6.5 million turnover, providing the source of the complaint occurred after 1 April 2019. For complaints which originate prior to this date the Ombudsman can still assist micro enterprises with fewer than ten employees.

It is vital that business owners use every avenue open to them seek help and guidance. Too often small firms feel like the ‘little guy’ when they come up against mistreatment by government, larger businesses or financial institutions. The role of FSB is to provide a voice for our smaller businesses, who consistently punch above their weight by employing more people in Northern Ireland than all larger businesses and the entire public sector combined. Given their importance to the local economy, it is vital that they are treated fairly, and when they are mistreated that those responsible face sanctions. It is not too much to ask for fair pay and fair play for those who provide a service, create jobs and opportunities in the cities, towns and villages in which we live.