Festus Akinbusoye was the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for the West Ham constituency at the 2015 General Election. He runs his own business.
Britain leads the pack of just six OECD nations to have created more business start-ups since the 2007 financial crisis. The USA, Germany and Italy are well behind in this regard. Furthermore, according to the EU’s data from 2013/14, Britain is also ahead of its nearest economic competitors in businesses created while ranking second behind Malta in the number of high-growth enterprises formed.
More recently at the start of 2017, a record 5.7 million privately-run businesses were registered in the United Kingdom, with SMEs accounting for about 99 per cent of these, while employing just over 16 million people, or 60 per cent of all those employed in the UK private sector. Though the majority of this record number of businesses have only the owner as employee, the number employing staff has increased by three per cent since 2016, or 41,000.
These are premier league figures in the EU and OECD: Napoleon had a point in referring to Britain as a nation of shopkeepers or merchants, if these accounts are to be believed. Rightly or wrongly, the evidence suggest that we are an innovative, enterprising and industrious nation with much to be proud of – even today.
However, I wonder if there isn’t more we can do in turbo-charging the vehicle of British entrepreneurship as we drive across the Brexit bridge which should connect us with the rest of the world. To do this, we have to make the environment and conditions under which small businesses operate much better than it currently is.
For example, as some banks provide free banking for business start-ups over some months. Could there be a scheme whereby such business have free access to tax, employment, health and safety, insurance and export advice?
While I admit that the idea of freebies is not a very conservative thing at times, I also believe that, for such a vital contributor to our economic output, it surely pays to help them start on the right footing. Given that fewer businesses are surviving beyond their first year of trading now than they did in 2011 and that, over a five year period, nearly 60 per cent of these would have ceased trading for various reasons, such support at this embryonic stage is crucial.
I am delighted to see that a Vice-Chairman for business engagement was appointed at the recent cabinet reshuffle, and I hope Andrew Jones will use this opportunity to better connect the Conservative Party with small businesses and entrepreneurs. Furthermore, I hope such an engagement will be a two-way process, whereby the pressing needs of SMEs make it to the top of government’s agenda. In essence, as a party, we can do much better in my view, in being seen as the party of small businesses, not big multi-nationals.
The ongoing Carillion episode illustrates some of the issues facing SMEs. While I accept it is a huge ask to grant a £1 billion contract to a small construction company made up of a ‘man and van’, I am also aware that not all government contracts are of this size. Additionally, we can look to make the process of bidding for government contracts much easier and less costly. I bumped into a security company director at an industry exhibition recently who had worked with the Home Office for years. He raised the issue of some government security contracts being so marginal that paying just above the National Living Wage would instantly turn the contract into a “loss maker”. He turned down the offer to bid for this work, but guess what – another company did and won no doubt!
I will declare an interest at this point, given that I have been running a business since I left university, and first ventured down this path as a fearless teenager. I may well have employed more than a thousand staff since that time. Nevertheless, I consider myself one of the lucky ones, as I know several friends and one-time competitors who have shut down shop because of higher payroll costs and, in particular, issues with banks or clients that have ridiculous payment terms such as a 120-day invoice turnaround time. When lucky, they got paid on time but often, late payments were the norm. In every single one of these cases, the client was a large multi-national company. Eventually, something had to give after bank charges started to pile up thus, robbing these businesses of the essential lifeblood – cash flow.
Can we do more to tackle some of these issues in a major way as a party? Absolutely.
At the local Association level, we can do more in engaging small business owners and budding entrepreneurs through knowledge sharing forums, mentoring and guidance, closer interaction with councillors, MPs and even government ministers that are in a listening mode, rather than just approaching them for fundraisers.
Yes! We are a nation of merchants, entrepreneurs, innovators and shopkeepers. It is vitally worth it to ensure we retain these epithets, and proudly so too.