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February 5, 2013 - Bill Esterson's Westminster Diary

Bill Esterson

Across Formby, Crosby, Maghull and Aintree, I meet people who run their own businesses or work in small businesses. And the story is often the same. Times are tough and it is really difficult at the moment because of the economy. There are also people who have had to close their businesses because of the lack of trade. 

I admire anyone who is running a small business because they have to work really hard to make a success and no one is going to run their business for them. 

But listening to small business owners, there are some things that government can do to help. 

First the banks are not lending to the smallest businesses. The banks cut their lending to small businesses by £18.5 billion last year alone. That is a lot of support that is no longer available and without the banks where else do most small businesses go for the money for a new van or car or to make sure there is enough cash to pay wages when customers are late paying their bills. 

Friends, family and other investors may not have the money needed or be willing to invest in small businesses. And it can take years to get funding from the Regional Growth Fund or from other schemes which might be available and even then you have to know where to find investors if you want to grow your business. 

Then there is late payment by big businesses. Small businesses are often reluctant to chase payment too hard with their bigger customers in case they go somewhere else for their business. Many big businesses are delaying payment to help their own cash flow but the small businesses are suffering as a result. 

And it’s not just in the private sector. Sometimes this happens with the NHS or with councils as well  because government cuts are making life especially difficult for them. When I ran my own business I approached a number of business advisers for support and guidance. 

It struck me that most of them had limited business experience of their own and I hear the same story from people I meet in business in my constituency. There is often a lack of credibility when it comes to business advisers. 

The best advisers are those running their own businesses or who have run their own businesses, so I would like to see more mentoring of businesses by those who have learned the lessons over many years. It should be possible to co-ordinate such a scheme and to let business people know that good advice is available.

The government has made a great deal of fuss about the so-called record number of apprenticeships. I have heard some worrying stories about the lack of real training on some of these schemes and for small businesses it can be really difficult to take on an apprentice because someone needs to work with them and support them and that takes either the business owner or a key member of staff away from vital parts of the business. 

Small businesses should be able to take on apprentices but they need help such as that available at Liverpool Community College who work with young people to develop the skills needed so that apprentices are able to contribute to their employers when they start work.

Not all businesses can benefit from mentoring or apprenticeships but the more who can be helped to grow, the better for business, for jobs and for growth.

We need to learn from Germany and from the United States where their local banks get to know their small business owners personally. The strong relationships mean that the banks understand much better who to lend to rather than relying on a computer who says ‘no’ in an office miles away. 

Small businesses are crucial to creating the jobs and growth we need to recover from the global financial crisis. 

The government should be doing more to help. Labour has suggested a temporary cut in VAT and removing National Insurance for businesses employing fewer than 10 people. So far the government has refused to listen. It is about time they did.

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