From the top · 11 May 2016

Anna Soubry exclusive: Brexit would be disastrous for Britain’s vulnerable small firms

asoubry
Anna Soubry: “I’m interested in investing in other cities to give them the same hum and buzz as London

In an exclusive interview, the UK’s first small business minister spoke to Business Advice about Europe, local enterprise and the entrepreneurial renaissance underway in the East Midlands.

Do not be fooled, there would be no benefit whatsoever for the country’s small businesses if Britain decided to leave the EU on 23 June, and anyone that says so is misleading company owners and the public.

That’s the message from small business minister Anna Soubry, whom Business Advice met on a visit to Winbro – a Loughborough-based advanced component manufacturer for the gas and aerospace sectors. On 9 May, the company was unveiled as winner of the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise, recognising exceptional achievement through innovation.

In an exclusive interview, Soubry warned of a terrible economic downturn should Britain vote to leave – one that would be most disastrous for vulnerable smaller firms while it impacted the economy as a whole.

“All the surveys and polling on Brexit so far suggests it’ll be tight as to which way the vote goes, but it’s a very small proportion of the country’s business owners that have voted,” she told Business Advice. “The vast majority of small business owners I speak to want to stay in, and in order to get people voting on 23 June, these voices need to be heard.”

Named as one of 30 key Small Business Decision Makers by Business Advice last year, Soubry has become one of the most influential figures for the UK’s small business community, and is the only government minister whose primary responsibilities lie with preparing ground for small ventures to flourish.

Elected in May 2015, her first year in office has been focussed on tackling late payments – arguably the most problematic issue rearing its head for Britain’s small businesses in 2016. UK firms with fewer than 250 staff were owed a total of £64.7bn in unpaid invoices last year, and Soubry has so far been charged with reversing that trend.

The Enterprise Act received royal assent on 4 May, and Soubry now hopes for a speedy yet thorough recruitment process to find a suitable candidate for the newly-created role of small business commissioner, who’ll take over as the key government figure cracking the whip on tardy businesses in an effort to change “late-payment culture”.

By her account, the appointment could be the most important small business decision this government will take. “The commissioner will have to command the respect of big business leaders as well as champion the small ones,” said Soubry. “It’s got to be someone that, when a CEO’s phone rings, they think ‘I need to take that call’”.

Alongside the search has been Soubry’s work to encourage the country’s network of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) to chose at least one member to boards who has an eye towards the interests of small and micro business owners.

Despite the initial success of the LEP network Soubry perceives, she acknowledged that the interests of small business owners aren’t equally or universally represented by the partnerships.

“It’s important that micro businesses in particular are central to the work of LEPs,” she explained to Business Advice. “Micros are an incredibly important part of supply chains, but LEPs in certain towns aren’t in a place to help the smallest firms. We know that some won’t, but all LEPs should include someone who’ll place small firms above big business every time.”

The tactic could be most crucial for the East Midlands, the region currently seen by Soubry as the most exciting in terms of enterprise and innovation, and one she hopes government will make its next focus. “No one area of the country is more important than any other in terms of its entrepreneurial potential – it’s important to remember that,” she added.

“London is our most important city and I want to celebrate its success, but I’m interested in investing in other cities to give them the same hum and buzz. The Northern Powerhouse is drawing investor attention to the north, and now we should be looking on to the East Midlands, where cities like Leicester are experiencing a business renaissance.”

Working closely with bodies like the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), Soubry re-confirmed to Business Advice a pledge to share the voice of small firm owners up and down the country in parliament. With the EU referendum fast-approaching, Soubry’s promise could make all the difference to the safeguarding of a prosperous future for Britain’s small and micro companies.

Is the government’s Northern Powerhouse vision finally becoming a reality? Read our expert’s view.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.

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