Backing the little ones

It’s a sad fact of life, but we’re all short of time. If you run a small
business, time is extremely short – something Whitehall doesn’t seem to

This makes it all the more important that business support schemes and advice
should be easy to understand and access.

Unfortunately, the current system of government support is the exact
opposite. In the past nine years, approximately 3,000 separate schemes have
developed, costing £2.6bn a year.

Complexity isn’t the only problem. The quality of advice offered is variable,
at best. This is because the state support that is available, is presided over
by civil servants. As the majority of those who read this column will be
professional business advisers, I am sure you find a sense of irony in risk
averse public servants ‘advising’ businesses on how to be entrepreneurial.

Indeed, the government’s own small business service chief executive
Martin Wyn Griffith summed up the current state of affairs by admitting we have
an ‘incredibly complex’, ‘inaccessible’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘ineffective’ system
of state support.

The service, once the centrepiece of government’s enterprise policy, is now
being heavily pruned.

When I talk to small businesses they tell me there is a need to go back to
square one and ask the fundamental questions: When should government intervene?
When should it leave the market to work?
What can government schemes do that the market won’t? Who is best able to help
small businesses grow?

It’s these kinds of questions that have led me to set up a small business
task force. Led by independent business people, its role is to learn from the
experts and to challenge the conventional Whitehall view.

Led by Doug Richard, a serial entrepreneur, the task force is going to
establish a set of core principles on which a future Conservative government
could reform the whole system: to make it respond to business needs, not
political whims; to make it provide advisers who’ve done it themselves and who
understand the market.

And we want to put a much stronger emphasis on business sectors, not
political regions. Six years ago, the chancellor announced that, by 2005, the UK
would be the ‘best place in the world to start and grow a business’. We need a
new direction in supporting businesses and not more tinkering.

Mark Prisk MP is shadow minister for business and enterprise

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