Lorely Burt: ‘Lib Dems would bring in NI holiday for some small employers’

Lorely Burt, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Women and Small Business, talks to Small Business about the policies the party would like to see.

Liberal Democrat spokesperson Lorely Burt is almost as seasoned in business as she is in politics.

She co-founded WeConnect, a networking agency for women in business, as well as owning both Ace Creative Enterprises and Kudos Group in the 80s and 90s.  

After the 2010 General Election, she went on to hold parliamentary positions in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Burt tells us what small business policies the Liberal Democrats would enact concerning some of the most troublesome areas facing entrepreneurs right now.

Late payments

Policy proposals:

  • Companies awarded government contract required to sign up to Prompt Payment Code
  • Warnings and penalties for violating the code
  • Amend Public Contract Regulations 2015

We would ensure that anyone who was awarded a government contract of any kind would be required to sign up to the Prompt Payment Code. That’s not enough in itself so we’d make sure that it’s enforced. If someone contravenes the code, they get a warning and then they would be barred from tendering for any government contract for a set time if they violate the code multiple times.

I’m sure the Small Business Commissioner would be absolutely delighted to enforce it, but I haven’t asked him. I haven’t thought that far ahead! The point about it would be payment be subject to public scrutiny so the wrongdoers would be named and shamed.

On top of that we’d like to amend Public Contract Regulations 2015. There is a commitment that government payments would be made within 30 days, but this isn’t happening. The last public contract figure I saw said that 52pc were not paid within that 30-day period.

Cash flow in the supply chain

Policy proposals:

  • Require government contracts to have project bank accounts

Another big issue that the Carillions of this world were demonstrating is how second tier and third tier suppliers can be used by the first tier contractors.

We would stop all that by requiring government contracts to have project bank accounts. This is where the funding for projects is held in a separate and independent bank account. The administrator pays the amount of money owed according to the contract details and that way you don’t get Carillions using their supply chain to solve their credit situation. Then the Tier 1, 2 and 3 suppliers would all be treated equally.

Support and incentives for small businesses

Policy proposals:

  • Start-up allowance
  • Reviewing business rates system
  • Small businesses have priority for relief on business rates
  • Site value rating on high street
  • Simplify government contract finder
  • National Insurance holiday for companies who hire marginalised groups
  • Incubators to help tech start-ups

The Lib Dems would extend the British Business Bank’s activities so they can cover small businesses. We need to make sure that these organisations will treat small businesses as importantly as large ones.

Things like start-up allowances and reviewing business rates system are on our agenda too – small businesses would get priority for business rate tax relief. The high street is a more complex area. A ratings system would help a lot because instead of going on the volume of the property, you’d go on the volume of the land. It’s called a site value rating and it’s been a precious icon of the Lib Dems for a long time.

The government want to make securing their contracts easier. However, the contract finder is still a complex thing. We’d simplify it and slim it down.

We would also propose a National Insurance holiday for companies which take on hard to place and marginalised groups like veterans. It’s within the government’s remit to level that playing field.

As for the digital economy, we’re keen to have more incubators to help small business tech start-ups.

Skills gap and apprentices

Policy proposals:

  • Exempt small businesses from making contribution to Apprenticeship Levy
  • Introduce more workers’ rights such as having a worker on every company board
  • Transaction tax for buying and selling business shares

Skills is another major issue for small businesses. Just look at the Apprenticeship Levy – from not having to pay anything at all, businesses are now being required to pay 10pc. Plus, it’s been restructured so now apprentices have to spend two days a week off the job in training. The take-up of the scheme, I’m afraid to say, has been minimal.

It’s even worse for small businesses – they used to have apprentices free and now they’re being made to pay when everything else is tough and tight. They think: ‘Why should we make the time and energy to train these youngsters up when they may not stay with us anyway?’

What we would do is absolve small businesses from having to make a contribution. The thing is people need lifelong learning and so we want workers to have a lifelong learning account which they could use for their own self-development. It’d be created after they gain qualifications or after the age of 21.

Workers generally feel they’re out of touch with their workplace and we have all sorts of policy ideas to solve that. For example, we would have a worker on every company board.

We’d also reward shareholders who stay with their companies. It’s amazing that a single share can change hands several times a second because of the technological way that shares are moved around. That doesn’t make an investment in the company itself; it doesn’t foster that feeling of ownership and wanting that organisation to do well. It’s not good enough.

If you had a transaction tax, for example, it’d encourage shareholders to be more careful. Every time a transaction is made, a miniscule amount is charged in tax. We want to see business investment for the longer term.

The Liberal Democrats’ business manifesto will be published in the autumn.

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Anna Jordan

Anna is Senior Reporter, covering topics affecting SMEs such as grant funding, managing employees and the day-to-day running of a business.

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