Commissioner’s Update – October’s Occupations

Image shows 3 members of staff at work in a floristry store.

It really is true that time goes faster when you’re busy. October has passed in a flash and a complete blur. I am just thankful that we’re not back to full travelling mode or there would be no time to sleep.

October was the first month that the Office of the Small Business Commissioner was, in it’s 4-year history, without the person who set it all up and got it launched: our Head of Operations Suzanne Burke. They say you only know what you’ve lost when it’s gone. We knew what we were losing but that didn’t prepare us for the hole Suzanne’s departure left in the team. We thank you Suzanne for everything you did for the OSBC and wish you great success in your new role. HMRC is the winner.

We’ve started the process of finding a new Head of Operations, got ourselves some additional admin support and everyone is pulling out the stops. I am so proud of the team for stepping up to the plate and want to say a public thank you. I would be lost without any one of you.

On the engagement front, I met the Small Business Minister in person for the first time in October, and finally met the Secretary of State for Business at a real, live reception at the Institute of Directors. The highlight of that event, though, was meeting the hugely enterprising small businessman Sam Izard, who is currently writing a blog for us on payment problems in the freelance sector.

Sam works with creative freelancers and the payment problems they face are horrendous: paid when paid, pay when sold, pay when published. They can do reams of work without being paid for months, years and possibly never. Viscount Colville of Culross, a former journalist, is, like me, well acquainted with these payment methods. He spoke in a House of Lords debate on the issue. With the help of Matt Dowling at the Freelancers Club, we gave Viscount Colville useful insight and information for his speech.

I have been thinking a lot about net zero, ESG (environment, social and governance) and business support this month. At the end of the day everything comes down to getting paid quickly. If small firms don’t get paid for work done, without waiting 60 / 90 / 120 / even 360 days in some cases, they can’t afford to address their role in reducing carbon emissions. It probably isn’t as costly as many small firms think, but they’re worried, and when you spend a quarter of your working week chasing payments there’s no time to get a grip on some of the big issues facing you.

We need big firms to understand the impact their payment practices have on small suppliers, particularly on mental health. So I’m thinking about the governance in ESG. Non-executive directors and chairs on company boards need to ask: how long do we take to pay our small suppliers? The casework team and I talked to the CFO of a big online retailer last week about this, because we’d had complaints. He was very frank about the firm’s financial situation, has responded well to our demands for action, and we now have a direct point of contact. Being realistic we expect more complaints before things get better, but we are on their case to make sure small suppliers get paid for orders placed. Anything else is theft. The board must take responsibility.

And how do we get better at providing the right support to small firms at the right time? Net zero is a case in point. There’s great information available but many don’t know where to look, where to start on tackling the issues, or what questions to ask. If small businesses have embraced digital technology, they have a better chance of getting the right help. If they haven’t, the government’s Help to Grow Digital scheme may be the answer. That’s next month’s obsession.

No matter what issue a small business faces, being paid quickly gives it a better chance of tackling it.

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