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Small business tsar Paul Uppal aiming to level the playing field

By Pete Madeley | Wolverhampton | Business | Published:

A short walk from New Street station, in the shadow of the Iron Man statue, lies the West Midlands very own little piece of Westminster.

Paul Uppal is the Government's Small Business Commissioner

The imposing Victoria Square House is the home of Government bodies' the Gambling Commission, the National Lottery Commission and the Post Office.

And the latest arm of the civil service to move in is being run by a well known face to anyone familiar with the West Midlands political scene.

Paul Uppal, the former Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, was unsuccessful in his most recent parliamentary bid last June.

But as the Government's new Small Business Commissioner, he has embarked on a mission that he says is very close to his heart.

"I want to be the champion for small businesses across the country," he told me, as we made our way through the labyrinth-like interior of his new offices.

"Having run my own company for over 20 years, I know how difficult it can be for SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) to succeed. I want to help level the playing field."

Carillion collapsed with debts of around £1.5bn

Mr Uppal is working with a 10-strong team and an annual budget of £1.4 million. His main remit is to end the culture of late payments that he says is destroying small businesses and helping larger firms maintain the upper hand.

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Effectively, he is the go-to-guy for firms who want to take action if they are paid late, potentially saving thousands of businesses from going bust and delivering a £2.5 billion annual boost to the economy.

"We need a cultural change," he said.

"Too many firms are holding onto money rather than making payments, and the effects on businesses that aren't paid – and the wider economy – can be disastrous."

Under typical UK payment terms invoices must be paid within 30 days of receipt.

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If they are not fines can be imposed, but rarely are, meaning, as Mr Uppal, puts it, may firms end up 'taking the hit' and suffering in silence.

"We are here to speak up on their behalf and do the things they may not be sure how to do," he said.

"At times it may well be simple things such as making sure invoices are sent out on time, or chasing payments. But it can make a huge difference to their future operations."

According to Mr Uppal, big business has held sway in Britain for too long, and the nation's fixation on huge conglomerates has been to its detriment.

It is a point that he says has been hammered home by the collapse of Carillion, the construction giant based in his old constituency that went into liquidation last month with a debt pile of around £1.5bn.

The business held hundreds of public sector contracts but farmed them out to subcontractors, thousands of which are now dealing with the consequences of Carillion's failings.

Mr Uppal sits on the Carillion taskforce and pushed for assurances that companies caught up in the fallout get paid by liquidator Pwc.

He says he has been approached by companies that are struggling as a direct result of the Carillion collapse.

"This has affected so many businesses across a number of different industries," he said, citing an example of one firm he has dealt with that has not been paid since July.

Mr Uppal said that one of the key problems was that because Carillion extended payment terms up to 120 days, the company's troubles remained hidden for an undue period of time.

"There has got to be some lessons learned here. The Government has got to make sure that when contracts are put out to tender that small businesses are getting a fair crack of the whip.

"Small businesses often don't have the set up to bid for these contracts. Companies like Carillion have a whole set up devoted to it, meaning they can operate as a middle man, getting the work then siphoning it down.

"You could almost ask, was Carillion a construction company or was it a cash flow business?

"One of the legacies from all of this should be that the Government can cut out the middle man and go directly to small businesses."

Although the Small Business Commission is very much a nationwide body, Mr Uppal says the West Midlands can be considered a priority area.

A study by the Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking Business in 2016 found that small businesses were owed more than £500 billion in late payments, around 14 per cent of which was tied up in the West Midlands.

"We have a fantastic skills base, and all the ingredients are here for businesses to thrive and prosper," Mr Uppal said.

"We can help push that forward. The old adage about London being the centre of everything is changing."

www.smallbusinesscommissioner.gov.uk

Pete Madeley

By Pete Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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