The Forum at the party conferences 2014

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This year’s party conference season is likely to receive plenty of attention from the political commentators as they pick over the set pieces that define the conferences. The Forum’s Head of Policy Alex Jackman looks forward to the upcoming circuit and outlines the key things we hope to see when it comes to small business policies.

It may seem like a day doesn’t go by that politics is not in the headlines, particularly this summer which has seen the Scottish referendum dominating the news. However, it can feel even more apparent in party conference season as politicians, the media, and lobbyists descend on the nation’s key cities to rally their grass roots support and debate issues that will inform their policy positions.

This year’s conferences are particularly important as we count down to the 2015 General Election. While the main focus will undoubtedly be on the leader’s set pieces, business groups like the Forum will also be keeping a close eye on any hints as to policy commitments for small businesses.

Along with the other business bodies, a number of key issues are high on our wish lists of wants to feature in the party manifestos. These include:

Commitments to reducing the costs of doing business

This could include a variety of measures such as continued commitment to reducing the red tape burden, tax simplification, and reform of the existing business rates system. In previous years the Labour Party has announced price freezes on energy bills and business rates, paid for by cancelling the proposed cut in the main rate of Corporation Tax.

We also like to see politicians take seriously a pledge to deregulate, with the focus being on regulating less often when it comes to employment law. We also want to see less political pressure applied to the Low Pay Commission in its independent consideration of National Minimum Wage rates.

Support to increase business confidence and encourage long term investment

The economic recovery may be continuing to gather momentum, however, the most recent SME Finance Monitor highlighted our ongoing concern that distrust of the banking sector is continuing to affect the growth plans of some small businesses and the pace of the recovery. More needs to be done to increase competition in the SME banking sector which will put increasing pressure on current lenders to review their lending criteria in order to attract SMEs who are continuing to rule out the banks when it comes to growth investment.

Chief among policies we would like to see to encourage competition is a commitment to shared bank branches and better use of inter-bank agreements to allow customers to use a branch of any bank to carry out their activities.

We’d also like to see more done to tackle late payment which, alongside access to finance, remains a major problem in managing cash flow and impacts on investment. With Mars UK the latest company to introduce supply chain finance whilst extending payment terms, we think the government needs to look carefully at why and how companies are using supply chain finance.

Do more to encourage small businesses to consider export growth

If we are to meet the ambitious plans to double UK exports by 2020, small businesses will have a crucial role to play, support will be needed in a range of areas including reduced bureaucracy and potential incentives, perhaps tax breaks along the lines of research and development credits.

Small businesses remain cautiously optimistic and we will be looking to clear indications on how the main players will be looking to capitalise on the recovery to encourage sustainable growth.
We also want to see what concrete proposals are being set out alongside the sweeping gestures in the keynote speeches of the conference hall, and will be making your views clear at our meetings with senior politicians.

As with last year, we are holding joint events alongside the other key business organisations at all three conferences, presenting a unified case to ensure that small businesses get the help need from a future government.