A new voice for small business has emerged from the fallout of the General Election.
Former TV journalist and trained barrister Anna Soubry, now a Nottinghamshire MP, was announced as Minister of State for Small Business in the Prime Minister’s post election Cabinet reshuffle.
The creation of a new ministerial post is a nod to strengthening voice of small business in the UK, not least through the likes of campaigns like Small Business Saturday, and the sponsorship of a consumer base with a growing propensity to favour independent businesses, in sentiment if not always in practice.
A call by The Journal to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills reveals little about the nuts and bolts that will make up this nascent ministerial role. With an in-tray undoubtedly overflowing, Whitehall politely declined our request for a chat with Ms Soubry. Nevertheless, plenty of North East-based small businesses have strong feelings on the directive for their woman at Number 10.
Paul Lancaster, the North East-based author of Small Business Marketing for Dummies and all-round friend at court for small businesses, campaigned for a minister for micro business — frustrated at the lack of representation for the smallest businesses which are often bundled together with SMEs with workforces of up to 250.
In February Mr Lancaster posed his idea to David Cameron in an interview for Director magazine, but was curiously rebuffed with the response: “I am the Government’s small and micro-business minister!” While not “micro” focussed in name, the new ministerial role will surely need to champion the sector’s causes.
On the back of the prime minister’s answer, Mr Lancaster said: “I think the coalition government has done some great things to support entrepreneurship. However, the feedback I hear every day at grassroots level is that the broad definition of SME means it’s impossible to introduce policy that works for both the smallest and biggest in that group.
“Recent problems caused by the complicated new ‘Vat Moss’ EU legislation are the perfect example. As such, I’d urge ministers to look more closely at this issue and make sure that micro business owners are front of mind.”
Weekend entrepreneur Tony Short might be classed as one of those micro businesses. A project manager in the digital sector by day, Mr Short has established a neat e-commerce business supplying stationery and planning tools for digital designers — using his time outside of work to export across Europe and the US.
He said he felt optimistic about Ms Soubry’s appointment and held hopes that she would provide a voice for small business at the table of export policy making.
While detail on the Minister’s new role may be scant, the Conservative election manifesto should provide some clues. Mr Cameron thanked “the entrepreneurs, to the techies, to the roof tillers, to the retailers, to the plumbers, to the builders” in his manifesto speech — a demonstration of the sheer scale of sectoral responsibility that Ms Soubry will have to balance.
It’s a challenge that resonates with Shaun Macintosh, the managing director of FS Design, a small product development consultancy based at Sunderland Business and Innovation Centre which helps people with product ideas. Mr Macintosh, who admits that he wasn’t even aware of the new ministerial post, said he welcomed the move in principle but would reserve judgement until more detail came to light.
He said: “Nine times out of 10 small business initiatives are waffle, but it’s hard to know how it will impact a business like mine without more detail.
“Part of the problem so far has been pots of support, particularly finance, which are useful, but always dry up quickly. I’ve had some people with really good ideas through my business, but they struggle to get them off the ground because the cost is significant. Sometimes funding will come off, but often you’re asked how many jobs will it create — and when you say three or four it’s not enough to meet the criteria.”
The Tory manifesto outlined a £1bn “Help to Grow” scheme, which is proposed to help fast growing businesses by government underwriting of loans from private lenders. It will be overseen by the British Business Bank — an institution which falls under the new Minister’s remit, according to BIS.
Tyneside-based franchisee Jayne Hart runs a small, independent human resources service which supplies firms who may not have the capacity for an in-house function, or those who need additional support. She too would like to see Ms Soubry tackle the availability of funding for those businesses starting out and those growing.
The proprietor of the HR Dept South Tyneside, Newcastle, Gateshead said: “Recognising Anna Soubry as small business minister with an actual seat in the cabinet is really excellent news for small businesses in the Region. Successive governments haven’t understood or addressed the issues for SMEs so I see this as a really positive step. Not to mention the fact that she is a woman.
“I’d like to see the Minister continue to address the skills shortage that is now impacting upon business by helping make further links between employers and education right from the early stages of a child starting school.
“She should also look at the availability of funding for small businesses that are both starting out and also growing, including, as a priority, tackling the unacceptable issues that SMEs encounter around late payments. I’d also like her to consider further ways to reduce the administrative burden that SMEs face on a day-to-day basis.”
Many of Ms Hart’s hopes are shared with the Federation of Small Business, which made a reduction in regulatory burdens the top of its demand list for the new government. From the North East, FSB regional chairman Ted Salmon, said he hoped Ms Soubry’s appointment would give the region’s small businesses a closer seat to the Cabinet table — highlighting their £25bn contribution to the economy and their 360,000 jobs.
He said: “It’s important that the Minister hears the real concerns of local businesses across the region. Our members tell us that they want this Government to focus on a number of key issues over the next five years. Members want to see the cost of doing business being reduced through tackling the regulatory burden that hampers too many, simplifying the tax system and reforming business rates. Small businesses also want to see this Government help them grow their business by improving broadband connectivity and helping improve the employability skills of young people.
“As a region over the past year we have seen the fastest growth in business creation, the fastest rate of employment growth and exports rise at double the national average. This is due to the fantastic small businesses we have in the region and the Minister must recognise this. We will be pressing the Minister for Small Business to tackle these issues and understand that the North East is the best region in the UK to start, grow and develop a business.”