SME champ aims high

In November 2016 when the then CEO of Adept Telecom Ian Fishwick was appointed to represent the comms industry as part of the Cabinet Office SME Panel he guaranteed ‘a voice at the top table’. Now, he is aiming higher.

The SME Panel is a group of business leaders from different industries drawn together to advise the Government on how to make it easier for SMEs to win public sector business. And on 6th December last year Panel members entered 10 Downing Street to meet Frank Petitgas, Rishi Sunak’s Special Advisor on Business Policy. “A few months ago the Prime Minister set up a new Business Advisory Council,” noted Fishwick.

“Many of us were frustrated that it just contained CEOs of FTSE-100 companies. I asked whether he would consider one of the SME Panel joining the Business Advisory Council as small and medium sized businesses employ 50 per cent of the workforce, and we want our voice heard at the top table. Gaining access to the man who set up the Business Advisory Council is great. But let’s see what happens.”

Fingers crossed. But what is more certain is that Government spend with SMEs is now at the highest level since records began, pointed out Fishwick. He noted that SME central Government procurement spend figures are published annually, and the latest set of results show that £21 billion went to SMEs during 2021-2022, an increase of £1.7 billion on the previous year. “Nine central Government departments are now spending over 33 per cent of their money with SMEs, compared to just three in 2017-2018,” commented Fishwick. “Every central Government department now has a SME Champion who ensures they have a clear SME plan showing how they intend to increase spend with small and medium-sized businesses.”

Put simply, we nag constantly for improvements and ensure the Government does not lose interest

During the last year the Cabinet Office SME Panel has made significant contributions and catalysed important changes, such as gaining Royal Assent for the new Procurement Act which will likely come into force in Autumn this year. “There is a new duty on contracting authorities to understand the barriers SMEs face and consider how to remove them,” added Fishwick. “Our role is to provide feedback on the actions Government is taking to remove procurement barriers and increase spend with SMEs. Put simply, we nag constantly for improvements and ensure the Government does not lose interest.”

Sharpening focus
The SME Panel played a key role in giving this new Act a SME focus, which was sharpened in October last year when ministers held a round table to discuss ways to further help small firms. “A good example of the progress we have made is around issues relating to insurance,” explained Fishwick. “Until now, all bidders had to show they held the required insurance cover before they were allowed to submit a bid. Given there can only normally be one winner of a tender this meant that many losing bidders had to take out unnecessary and expensive insurance policies.

“This cost of bidding, with no guarantee of winning any work, caused many smaller suppliers to shy away from Government bids as they were too costly and risky. This has now been fixed and you will only need to agree that you will take out the required insurance cover if you win the tender.”

Fishwick noted that SME Panel members continue to play a key role in the review of supplier facing learning and development products for the new procurement regime. This includes the recent launch of the Knowledge Drop which sets out changes to existing procurement regulations and the steps SMEs can take to prepare for the new Act which is expected to be implemented in October this year. At the same time, Fishwick expects a new Tell Me Once system to be introduced. “No longer will a supplier have to submit the same information every time they respond to a tender,” he added. “Documents such as statutory accounts, insurance certificates and carbon reduction plans will only need to be updated annually and will be held on a central web portal.”

Fishwick also highlighted that in the last Autumn Statement the Chancellor announced a new condition that any company bidding for large Government contracts should pay their own invoices within an average of 55 days, or risk being excluded. “Prompt payment has been a top priority for the SME Panel as cash flow is critical for any small business,” added Fishwick. “These new rules have been incorporated in a new Procurement Policy Notice  – PPN 10/23.”

Aside from making progress on higher profile issues such as procurement, the SME Panel also does much work in the background. For example, reviewing and suggesting SME-friendly changes to standard Government terms and conditions. “Sometimes when you are dealing with Government it feels like you are trying to change the direction of an oil tanker,” commented Fishwick. “But if you look at the changes that have been made during the past five years it all seems very worthwhile.”

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