Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001
40. Who is responsible for helping SMEs to export?
Is it the Small Business Service or British Trade International?
(Mr Waller) It is Trade Partners UK, which is the
international trade brand of British Trade International. The
Business Links employ people to promote exports under contract
with and funded by Trade Partners UK. Just extending it slightly,
essentially any Business Link will have three core contracts.
A core contract with the SBS to provide the overall service, a
contract with Trade Partners UK to provide the export and international
trade side, and a core contract with the local Learning and Skills
Council to provide workforce development, IiP and so on. Those
three contracts will effectively come together as the core contracts
for each of them and I think over time will be trying to coincide
everything so we have a single approach. We may end up with a
single contract, I do not know. We are not there at the moment.
41. Is the Small Business Service still the
sole gateway for the local market reports? Are they still charged?
(Mr Waller) I would not know.
(Mr Irwin) You mean the reports which the old overseas
trade people used to do?
(Mr Irwin) We will have to find out because that would
be a TPUK responsibility.
43. The payroll service went to the Inland Revenue.
If someone wants to have advice about the payroll service, do
they track down the Inland Revenue and speak to them about it
or is there a role for the Small Business Service in this? What
is going to happen?
(Mr Irwin) I think there is a role for our advisers
to be able to assist a business or potential business with every
aspect of managing and growing a business. If an adviser cannot
give someone specific advice on how to run their own payroll,
they should be able to bring in someone who can. We are not responsible
for running a payroll service on behalf of small businesses, although
I recognise payroll does impose particular burdens and we are
currently exploring with others ways in which we could lighten
44. Do you have any ideas to share with us yet?
(Mr Irwin) They are at a very early stage but we have
been talking to application service providers and to writers of
software about ways in which we can automate more of the process.
45. How does the Small Business Service fit
(Mr Irwin) Complicatedly, I think! We are responsible
for the Business Link network which only operates in England.
Some of the national programmes are UK-wide programmes but we
are still responsible for them in totothings like Inside
UK Enterprise, the benchmarking index. Some programmes, like the
Small Firms Loan Guarantee and SMART are also national programmes
and are managed in slightly different ways in Scotland from the
way they are in England. SMART is managed in a slightly different
way as a national programme. In relation to our role in relation
to regulation, we have a national remit although we are trying
to work very closely with all three of the devolved administrations
but particularly with the Scots because they tend to have slightly
different regulations or the same regulation in different types
of areas. I am going very shortly to meet Wendy Alexander and
go to her Better Regulation Committee. So we are trying to work
closely with them.
46. Will you have a role for helping to formulate
RDAs' regional strategies? You were talking about the Small Business
Service as the voice of business.
(Mr Irwin) We have followed on from the RDAs, and
the RDAs were just about to publish their regional economic development
strategies by the time we came into existence, so we did not have
any role to help them the first time round. I would be very surprised
though if Business Link contractors locally were not involved
in helping RDAs with their strategy in the same way I was in my
previous incarnation running an enterprise agency in the North
47. Will it be more formal than that or will
it be like before and be like the curate's egg?
(Mr Irwin) I think the process before was pretty formal
because there was a great desire by the RDAs to ensure everyone
was involved. We would be keen to ensure that a view from the
business support network is fed back into the RDAs. I do not think
that is something we would wait for a strategy on to feed in.
I would like to think we will be encouraging both our regional
managers and indeed the chief executives and chairs from individual
Business Links to be feeding that back in on a regular basis,
which is why I am keen, as I said earlier, we get a Business Link
involved in the sub-regional partnerships because that is a very
important part of the process.
(Mr Waller) Every RDA I visited in a sense boasted
to me just how widespread their consultation was on the Regional
Economic Strategies. I do not think anyone can say they do not
seek views on them. It is their decision in the end what is in
the strategy but there is plenty of opportunity to comment. Probably
we will join in that at national level as well and talk to them
48. Mr Irwin, you said in passing earlier that
you were not a civil servant, that you came from an entrepreneurial
background, what is your impression of the RDAs? We visited some
of them and they are still at the stage of being stuffed with
civil servants. Some of us last week visited Scottish Enterprise
and they have been in existence for 25 years, they have shaken
out a few of the civil servants, they have attracted people in,
there has been a bit of a turnover, folk who have worked for them
have gone back to private business and come back in again. Do
you feel the Regional Development Agencies are fast enough on
their feet in business terms, or do you think they still have
the plodding tread of a civil servant?
(Mr Irwin) I am not sure it is fair for me to comment
on the RDAs.
49. You have been working alongside them for
(Mr Irwin) Sure. I see the RDAs as being very much
there to develop strategy for a region. I see the Business Link
network being there very much to deliver a range of services directly
to small businesses. Of course the RDAs have a role to ensure
everyone is coming together, everyone is happy with the strategy
but also that the strategy is right for the region. When a major
problem blows up, from what I have seen of the RDAs, they have
been pretty good at responding to those specific needs.
Chairman: A former member of this place, Alan
Clarke, writing on the First World War Army said they fought like
lions but were led by donkeys. I am not going to ask you to go
down that road but sometimes the great strategists fight yesterday's
battles rather than tomorrow's ones because they do not know anything
about what is happening. Anyway, I will not put that in your mind
50. Can I ask you to illustrate what happens
in practice with a specific example? The Government has recently
announced a policy in relation to foot-and-mouth that it would
be possible for businesses, particularly small businesses, to
apply for a temporary reduction in their rateable value. That
was given to the Valuation Office Agency. Although the Government
is a bit coy about giving me the exact figures, it seems something
like 100,000 businesses have already made applications. We know
that there are already 600,000 rating valuation appeals outstanding
from the revaluation in 2000 and prior to the foot-and-mouth crisis
the Government was saying that the latest of those appeals would
not be dealt with until the year 2003-04. There is a lot of concern
here because obviously if people are in a crisis situation they
are seeking temporary revaluations downwards. I wondered if you
could let us know exactly what your involvement has been in the
discussions with the Valuation Office Agency in relation to the
timescale for dealing with these appeals and the priority that
is to be given to the smallest businesses in that appeal process.
(Mr Irwin) Certainly I have not, and I do not think
any of my staff have, talked directly to valuation officers. What
we have done is we have given details and information to all of
our Business Link operators so they in turn, when they are working
with their clients, can show their clients exactly where to go,
know what it is the Government has promised, not just in terms
of rateable valuations but in terms of Inland Revenue and Customs
being rather more generous than is typically the case, and also
that the banks have agreed to give loan breaks or indeed the small
firms loan guarantee. What we have also been encouraging is that
whenever anyone comes up against what is apparently a brick wall
they are to let me personally know and I have undertaken I will
take that up with the bank or the Inland Revenue or the Valuation
Office. So far, before you ask the next question, I have not yet
had anyone who has felt the need to come to me to ask for our
51. What you are saying is that you have been
passing on information but that is a very different function from
the function set out as being your main purpose, which was to
provide a strong voice for small firms at the heart of government.
In answer to a Parliamentary Question which I put down, I was
told by the Treasury that the Valuation Office Agency were urgently
discussing with you, the SBS, amongst others, how to prioritise
and implement this difficulty of all these people who have applied
for temporary rating reductions. I am just dismayed to hear you
say that even now, some six or eight weeks after this initiative
was announced by the Government, you have still not had any direct,
head-to-head discussions with the Valuation Office Agency as to
how this is going to get implemented in practice. There are about
100,000 small businesses out there who are thinking they are going
to get instant results, but on the basis of the resources available
at the moment they may be waiting until 2004 before they get a
determination of their appeal. Is this not an area where you should
really be being proactive on behalf of these small businesses?
They are engaged in entrepreneurial activity, obviously realising
the risks, but they found the risk resulting from the foot-and-mouth
crisis was one they could not possibly guard against.
(Mr Irwin) Certainly we would be there to be the strong
voice of small business, you are absolutely right. Interestingly,
however, I have been talking to businesses in some of the foot
and mouth areas. They have not raised this as a major issue.
52. Yet 100,000 have appealed. They obviously
think it is important.
(Mr Irwin) Yes, they have appealed, and they are hoping,
as we do, that it is going to go through on appeal. If the appeals
do not go through quickly, then they will be coming and shouting,
and we in turn will be shouting on their behalf.
53. First, it is the only positive piece of
evidence that the Government has offered to small businesses in
the tourist sector hit by foot and mouth, other than deferring
or rearranging corporation tax or VAT. The only area where a small
business can have some reduction in their overheads to help their
cashflow is by some reduction in their business rates, therefore
this is actually quite a key issue for them, is it not?
(Mr Irwin) Yes, I accept that. If the valuation is
not going through quickly, then it will be a difficulty.
54. I do not want to trespass on Mr Chope's
question, but I think what we are trying to get a feel of is to
what extent are the Small Business Service champions of small
businesses, or to what extent are you just an information service
on behalf of the Government and agencies of the Government?
(Mr Irwin) I would actually argue that we have been
very effective as a strong voice as part of Government. We have
been communicating views, particularly when Ministers have been
putting forward proposals for new regulations, for example. On
some occasions, Ministers have decided not to regulate or they
may have decided to regulate in a different way. When Ministers
do want to regulate, then we want to ensure that they are doing
it in such a way that it minimises the burden, and again they
have been listening to that. We encouraged the Government that
they should ensure that where there were changes to the regulations
then there should be a reasonable consultation period, and the
Government agreed that there should be a minimum consultation
period. We have argued with the Government that where new regulations
are being introduced, there should be a minimum of 12 weeks between
new regulations being agreed and actually being enforced. We are
also saying that businesses should have an opportunity to look
at the implications for their business where it is necessary to
put in place new procedures. In January we published "Think
Small First" where practically every department has agreed
to sign up to a framework that encourages them to think about
the implications for small businesses whenever they are thinking
about regulation, whenever they are thinking about additional
schemes to support small businesses. If you look at one or two
of the issues that have been in the papers recentlythe
proposal for a supplementary rate, for examplebusinesses
were not terribly happy about that, which is probably an understatement.
The proposal that is now on the table is that we should have instead
a US-style business improvement district that will lead to the
improvement of businesses. That is being looked at now, and that
is down to my officials making the case to do something in a different
sort of way.
55. Following on from that, are there any other
examples you can give us of where the SBS has actually succeeded
in cutting red tape for small businesses in the last year?
(Mr Irwin) Yes, we have one interesting example which
is the construction industry best practice consortium. They came
to us and said they thought the way in which construction industry
certification works is too complicated, and they came with a number
of recommendations. We put them to the Inland Revenue and to the
Treasury and they have accepted them. We have been trying to influence
in areas like the regulatory investigation powersRIPwhere
we were able to temper some of the initial thoughts of what the
regulation ought to be. In my discussions with businesses, on
the whole, whilst regulation is important to them, it is not usually
the first of their prioritiesin fact, it usually comes
out about fifth or sixth. What is always interesting when you
talk to businesses is they recognise that there always has to
be regulation to protect communities, to protect employees, to
protect the environment, whatever it is. Their concern is where
the balance comes between the burden that regulation imposes on
the one hand and not having a regulation at all on the other.
I was interviewed recently by a journalist from The Times.
She said that even the FSB thinks that we are beginning to make
a difference in that area.
56. The Daily Telegraph reports that
in a submission to the DTI's `full pint' consultation, the SBS
said that proposals were `unnecessary' and that `the cost will
be enormous . . . and will fall on the consumer.' Can you tell
us your views about this? Will you make it your practice in future
to make the SBS views on such matters as public as possible, in
the interests of transparency?
(Mr Irwin) There are some things, clearly, where it
is helpful to have a debate in public. There are some debates
it is not terribly helpful to have in public.
57. In what sense? Helpful to whom? Helpful
to the Prime Minister, or helpful to the Opposition, or helpful
to the people or to the small businesses?
(Mr Irwin) If, for example, a Minister has an idea
for a new regulation which has not reached the public domain,
if we say, "Business will not like this if this goes ahead",
and the Minister then says, "Okay, I'll accept that"
and decides not to do it, then I personally think it is rather
unfair to the Minister, but actually it is also rather unfair
to business, because business ends up picking up the wrong message;
they pick up a message about a new regulation they know nothing
about and they question us about it. If, on the other hand, there
is a public debate about a proposed new regulation, then I think
it is reasonable that it is open to all. If you want me to answer
the specific question on the head on beer, our concern was that
at the moment the industry standard is that there should be 95
per cent of a full pint in the measure and that is what beer is
priced at. So that if there is 100 per cent rather than 95 per
cent, then the price of a pint will actually go up, let alone
the extra metering that will be required and the extra glasses.
Since you mention the article in the Daily Telegraph, you
may also be interested to know that we set some of our beer drinkers
to go out specifically to get a view about this, before we came
to our conclusions.
58. I think that is an excellent example of
how you could be a champion of small business against regulations.
If the Government insist on going ahead with this proposal, will
you be equally outspoken in condemning any decision they come
to, or will you feel yourself compromised because you are, in
a sense, an arm of the state?
(Mr Irwin) I think I have already been outspoken.
Clearly, a decision like that ultimately is a decision for Ministers.
All I can do is ask Ministers to listen to small business through
me. That is actually a reasonable compromise. There are lots of
other ways in which business can shout if they do not like the
decisions that Ministers take.
(Mr Waller) Also if a Minister has made a decision,
our job is not necessarily ended, because we want to talk to the
officials who are responsible for the detail, to make that as
burden-free as possible. I think honestly one of the dangers here
that we have to watch as an organisation is that we do not spend
all our time on, as it were, the big public debate about what
can be a relatively small regulation, and actually focus on some
of the many regulations which are already in place, many of which
are already administratively in place, and concentrate on some
of those, because I think those are some of the areas where the
biggest benefits for our customers can be achieved.
59. So what is the distinction of responsibility
between your service and the Better Regulation Task Force in this
(Mr Irwin) Clearly there is some overlap. The Better
Regulation Task Force has a responsibility for all regulations.
We are interested in regulations that are to do particularly with
small and medium sized businesses. So we aim to work very closely
with the Regulatory Investigation Unit when we are doing our work.
We are also increasingly getting Ministers coming to us to ask
for our view. It is not a question of us going out and saying,
"What do you think you're doing with this?" Increasingly,
Ministers are coming to us and saying, "We would like to
know what the small business view is on this particular area."
So if we take one area, for example, which is in relation to disability
discrimination, there were two different timetables, one for disability
discrimination in relation basically to anyone who might come
onto the premises of a business, and one with a different timetable
for employees. One had a 2004 timetable, and one had a 2006 timetable.
The Minister came to ask our view on whether we thought it would
be possible to bring the two together, the obvious reason being
that it would be more sensible to keep them together. I was very
keen that we should do some focus groups. We did some focus groups.
We got a view from small business on that, and in fact we found
that small business was quite relaxed about bringing forward the
later timetable. The more we can do that, then the more comfortable
I believe Ministers will be about coming to ask for our help.