Businesses and the Regions debate

Charles Walker calls on the banks to keep interest rates down for small businesses.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): By a process of elimination, I note that it is now my turn to speak.

I feel that the issue of small businesses warrants more than a topical debate lasting an hour and a half, and I do not think that it says a great deal for topical debates that this great amphitheatre of our democracy is so sparsely attended. I hope that the House will consider the future of topical debates, which are about as relevant to this place as a peanut is to a dinner party. They add so little to parliamentary life that the experiment has probably run its course. However, I have listened with great interest to the contributions of Members on both sides of the House. I particularly enjoyed those of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) and the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). Both made very thoughtful speeches.

Let me say gently to the Minister that, while we all accept that the credit crunch is a global problem, we must also accept that the problem with small businesses is that banks in this country are simply not lending them money; or, if they are lending them money, they are raising the interest rates at which the money is to be paid back. I have made that point twice before in the House, and I think that if it is worth making twice, it is probably worth making a third time.

All Members are probably aware that when interest rate periods end, banks are going back to their clients, the small businesses, and renegotiating the rates upwards, often to a significant extent—from, perhaps, 6 or 7 per cent. to 15 per cent. or more. That is putting huge stress on small businesses.

It would be churlish not to welcome the fact that the Chancellor is sitting down with the banks today to try to get them to ease their lending terms. But I am concerned that this is the third or fourth such meeting he has had with the banks, who do not seem to be taking seriously his treaties on the matter. This should be the banks’ last chance. If they do not improve their lending terms to small businesses after today’s meetings, next week the Chancellor should be a little more forceful with them. After all, their balance sheets are being shored up by taxpayers, many of whom own small businesses.

Small businesses encounter problems when creating jobs. A sole trader in my constituency makes a very good living helping people to create more storage space in their homes. As can be imagined, he is quite busy at the moment with people choosing not to move house and to do a conversion or to make use of the space they have instead. He told me that he would very much like to take on another person to work with him but he is put off by the increase in paperwork and the regulatory burden that that would create for him. That is a great sadness.

We talk about corporate social responsibility within small businesses; there is nothing more responsible than allowing small businesses to create employment opportunities. Most employment opportunities I believe—I could be wrong; if so, I am sorry for misleading the House—are still created by businesses employing fewer than 10 people. I would be truly grateful if the Government went away and thought about how they could help the very smallest businesses to create additional jobs.

Mr. Prisk
: It might help my hon. Friend and, indeed, the House if I said that it is my understanding that, over the past 10 years, the proportion of small businesses that employ people has fallen; now, seven out of 10 small businesses employ absolutely no one.

Mr. Walker
: If those figures are correct—I have no reason to believe that they are not—that is a great sadness. This House recognises that small businesses should be the engine room of the economy. If we have a healthy small business sector, we have a healthy, growing and expanding economy.

I conclude by making a plea to the Bank of England. If anyone at the Bank is watching proceedings here today, will they please take on board that small businesses need their interest rates reduced? We need to get interest rates down and to reduce the costs of borrowing and of capital. We need to give small businesses a fighting chance to have a prosperous future.

1.43 pm

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