The Minister Who's Making A Good Impression

Westminster’s strident voice is speaking up for small business. Jim Cassidy interviews the UK's first ever Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise Anna Soubry, who has a message for the self-employed

Those who know her well say she’s as bubbly as a bottle of Bollinger, funnier than Jennifer Saunders and could give Tracy Ullman a run for her money when it comes to impersonations.

Her party parodies of Ken Clarke, Margaret Thatcher and some other Westminster worthies, past and present, are legendary.

But when Anna Soubry, Minister of State for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise sits on the Conservative Front Bench she’s a force to be reckoned with and not averse to using that force to challenge those who would decry or question the UK’s 4.6 million small businesses.

Perhaps that’s why the Conservative MP for Broxtowe is the champion of many in this growing community, and has won praise from many IPSE members. The offices of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills on Victoria Street is a concrete and glass structure, as warm and pleasing to the eye as a three week old blancmange, a reminder of the sixties that sits like a border post between historic Westminster and the changing business world of 21st century UK.

Anna Soubry is well aware of the changing face of 21st century business. The self-employed sector is one of the fastest growing communities in the UK and in the eyes of many, Anna Soubry has emerged as a champion for some of the 4.6m who have decided to go it alone. 

What I wanted to know at the outset is why this formidable lady has such a fervent affinity with this sector?

“For many years I was self-employed. First as a freelance journalist, then a TV presenter and then as a criminal barrister. It certainly has its upside – I appreciated the freedom of being my own boss – but I’m aware there can be a downside too. 

“I want to make sure we do the right thing by the millions of self-employed and freelancers out there. That’s why I was delighted when Julie Deane OBE agreed to look into the issues that they are facing. It’s important we appreciate the importance of their work but we also need to recognise that there is a diverse range of self-employed people who face different challenges every day.”

IPSE have worked closely with Government to try and streamline and ensure much of the red tape that can tie small businesses in knots is done away with. Has enough been done to ensure the self-employed are helped when they launch their businesses?

“We made a lot of progress in the last Parliament on cutting red tape, with £10 billion worth of savings for business, but I know we can do even more. I think some of the hoops that people have to jump through to carry out simple tasks like opening a bank account need looking at. And I want to make sure that independent regulators really consider the impact they have on the self-employed. 

“There are measures in the Enterprise Bill to increase transparency with regulators and to include the impacts of their actions in the Government’s own deregulation target, which is £10 billion once again.”

You seem to have high hopes for the Enterprise Bill, which is progressing through both Houses as we speak, but how will it benefit the self-employed, the entrepreneurs, and the 1 in 7 people in employment who are choosing to start their own small businesses?

“I really believe the Enterprise Bill will strengthen the UK’s position as one of the best places in the world to start and grow a business, and this can only be a positive thing for the self-employed. The Bill will tackle issues that have historically hit them hard, like late payment and red tape. By extending the hugely successful Primary Authority scheme, more sole traders and small businesses will benefit from trusted advice on local regulations from a single source.”

One of the recent innovations has been the introduction of a Small Business Commissioner, an idea first advocated in the UK by IPSE. Is this the sort of advance that helps Government feel the pulse of this growing sector on issues like late payments, which is one of the real bones of contention amongst the self-employed?

“The Small Business Commissioner will be a great source of advice and information for people facing payment issues with their business customers. I know from talking to freelancers that late payment can be a big problem and I want to see a change in the whole culture of how businesses deal with their smaller suppliers. The Small Business Commissioner will have the influence to help bring about that culture change and will give people the tools they need to resolve disputes when they occur, or hopefully to avoid them altogether. 

I want to make sure we do the right thing by the millions of self-employed and freelancers out there

“I see the creation of the Small Business Commissioner as a real step forward that will make a real difference. He or she will be supported by measures to increase transparency of the payment practices and performance of large companies, once they come into force later this year. 

“In central Government we try to lead by example by paying at least 80% of our invoices within five days, with 30 day terms all the way down the public sector supply chain. But I have heard of some public sector bodies and contractors not playing by these rules. I want to make sure the Small Business Commissioner complements the Mystery Shopper service that looks at complaints on public sector procurement.

“We’re certainly not perfect but we’re trying to lead from the front. Quite frankly, some of the behaviour of large companies has been scandalous but we are starting to see big high street names, like Tesco, turn the corner and offer fairer terms to their smallest suppliers. 

Equally, does the Government initiative in asking Julie Deane to carry out an independent review of the self-employed show a genuine commitment to better understand the challenges faced by many who choose to work for themselves?

“Self-employed people are a resilient group but they do need support. Starting out on your own and growing a business can be tremendously rewarding and we are seeing more people than ever before taking this route. But it can also be risky and their contribution needs to be recognised; that’s why Julie’s review is so important. We hope it will provide more security and peace of mind for people wanting to work for themselves. 

In launching Julie Deane’s report the Prime Minister said that he was keen to explore what could be done, “to provide more security and peace of mind for people wanting to work for themselves.” That touched a chord with many in the self-employed sector where there can be many highs and some lows as they take the brave step to launch a business on their own. Is it a sentiment you echo?

“Taking the first steps into self-employment can be extremely daunting as many people invest a lot of their own money and time to achieve their dream. The risks taken are far greater than starting out in other kinds of employment and it is important this is acknowledged. The Government will continue to support, promote and celebrate the impact the self-employed have on our growing economy.

“We talk a lot about growing businesses and scaling up, and there is support out there for people who want that. The British Business Bank helps small businesses scale up, UK Trade and Investment is there to help them export, and we’re working to boost productivity throughout the economy so that everyone can benefit. But for the vast majority of self-employed people the most important thing that government can do is get out of their way and make life as easy as possible, so they can get on with doing what they do best.” 

More and more young people are deciding on the self-employed path as their career choice. IPSE has long advocated we should do more to encourage them and ensure they are better equipped for business when they leave colleges and universities. Is this something you would like to see developed?

“The impression that being self-employed is not a suitable career choice is wrong and needs to be changed. That’s why we have invested £20 million in the Careers and Enterprise Company to inspire young people in schools and help them develop the skills they need to start out on their own. 

“Helping to drive ambition is one thing but young people also need the skills to fulfil their potential. That’s why we are committed to creating three million apprenticeships and ensuring that larger companies invest in a skilled workforce. Young people should have access to the high quality training they need to excel, whichever path they choose. 

We are here to listen to you, you are the experts

“We are also helping young people turn their ambition into reality though our Start Up Loans programme, which has provided nearly £200 million of loans to more than 35,000 budding entrepreneurs, more than half of these to under 30s who want to start their own business.” 

For a Minister who was born in Lincoln, has been at Stirling University in the heart of Scotland, worked as a TV presenter in Aberdeen and represents a constituency in the heart of England, Anna Soubry, a mother of two daughters, really knows more than most about what makes Britain Great. But there was one final question for this rising political star:

As you know IPSE is the UK’s biggest organisation representing some of the 4.6 million self-employed, independent professionals and contractors. Our one-day policy conference in Westminster in April will be a mixture of politicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs and IPSE members. What would your message be to them and the wider self-employed community?

“I would say, keep doing what you’re doing and where we can support you we will. We know you face a variety of tough challenges but through organisations like IPSE you have a powerful voice. 

“We are here to listen to you, you are the experts!”


Article by Jim Cassidy