by Philip Ross
The Labour Small Business Forum is a network of Labour members and supporters who work for themselves or in a small business. We recently held a fringe at Labour party conference with a simple goal: to not just to talk round the issues but highlight some practical proposals for the party for small business, proposed by small business.
We had the best SME line up at conference with around 50 people attending. After my introduction in which I stressed the importance of modernising the way we work and supporting emerging firms and freelance working, John Walker the national chairman of the Federation of Small Business picked up on comments about IR35.
This regulation, which means freelancers who work for one client are treated as an employee for tax purposes, despite not having the same rights as an employee, has long been an issue for contractors.
John agreed that it was a complicated and unwieldy tax that has not been resolved and was a bar for going into business. He went on to reiterate the familiar problems that small businesses have with getting hold of finance from the banks. Confidence in financial institutions is a problem and he made reference to the mis-selling of interest rate swaps to many of his members.
As a policy call he suggested that it was hard for small firms to initially grow and take on people and backed an NI holiday for firms that did this, in line with the party’s policy.
He was followed by Dr Jo Twist of the UKIE (the trade association for the UK’s games industry), her points neatly dovetailed with his as she talked about the phenomena of crowd-funding which was a way that investors could lend to companies directly using the internet as a platform and thereby circumnavigating the banks.
Jo explained how in the USA they have passed the Jobs Act which makes it easier for this sort of lending to take place. She said the FSA needs to make similar allowances in the UK and she had discussed this recently with Harriet Harman at a round table session.
The other issue for their members and the growing number of small micro-firms that start in the games industry was technical and she noted that they have lobbied successfully to reintroduce coding into the curriculum at school. So people will not only know how to use programmes like Word but could write them too.
Her policy call was to offer to collaborate with Labour in delivering a technical baccalaureate that met the needs of modern ICT businesses.
Following on the theme of innovation was Richard Little from the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association (PPMA). Richard, whose manufacturing success comes in part from design and development, talked about the need for Britain to celebrate its status as a nation of inventors and innovators, rather than being embarrassed by it.
He suggested also a scheme whereby people could sign over unwanted patents to the state as an endowment and also for government to make it easy to take advantage of new inventions. We would know we were successful, he said, when we started putting up statues to inventors again.
Emily Thomas, who had been a special advisor at the Treasury and the DTi talked about the difficulties in setting employee owned business and the amount of bureaucracy that is in involved. She noted that only 14-15% of entrepreneurs are women and we need to do something to improve this. She went on to say women are often suited to business as it can offer flexibility.
Her suggestion was that government, which spends billions of pounds each year on procurement, needs to do more to ensure that more of these contracts go to small firms.
Shadow minister Toby Perkins MP, who had run his own firm before entering parliament acknowledged the concerns raised by the other speakers and was interested in the points raised by Richard Little on patents.
He pledged that Labour would support Vince Cable’s plans for a British Investment bank, though he suspected that the coalition may not complete delivery of it but Labour would finish it off when re-elected. He noted the importance of skills and the technical baccalaureate and welcomed Jo Twist’s discussions about crowd-funding. He noted too the diversity of ownership but the need to encourage and support more entrepreneurs (as he had been himself).
The meeting was rounded off with a number of questions from the audience whose number now included Chris Leslie MP, shadow financial secretary, who came to listen and seemed also pleased at the enthusiasm and passion that the meeting was showing for small business and Labour.
Philip Ross is a businessman and founded the Labour Small Business Forum. To join go to www.labour-small-business-forum.org.uk or contact Philip Ross firstname.lastname@example.org