In a year of dramatic reshuffles at the highest level of government, few roles have been left untouched. At the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, there have been two new Small Business Ministers in the past 12 months alone.
Appointed on July 19, 2018 following the resignation of Andrew Griffiths, Kelly Tolhurst has a lot on her plate. From overseeing one-man bands to corporate governance rules for FTSE 100 companies, the MP for Rochester and Strood has responsibility for a wide range of issues. In November she took the reins for overseeing the enforcement of the pubs code and pubs code adjudicator, taking over from Richard Harrington.
With a ministerial portfolio fit to burst, the former Assistant Government Whip recently announced new measures to support businesses, including a commitment to end the unfair treatment meted out to small businesses by late payments for products and services. As most small businesses will attest, this has been an ongoing problem for some considerable time.
“We are absolutely committed to creating a fair and just business environment and ensuring Britain is one of the best places in Europe to start and run a small business,” says Tolhurst. “There are 5.7 million small businesses in the UK, with 1,000 starting up every day. Nearly a quarter of all UK businesses say that late payments are a threat to their survival, so tackling this issue represents a huge opportunity for economic growth. In fact, research from the Federation of Small Businesses suggests sorting out late payments could add £2.5 billion to the UK economy and keep an extra 50,000 businesses open each year.
“Over the past five years the amount owed to businesses in late payments has halved, but we will go further to make sure all of our small businesses are treated fairly. We want to encourage as many people as possible to respond to the consultation.”
She is referring to the open consultation on ‘Creating a responsible payment culture: a call for evidence on tackling late payment’. What comes of this remains to be seen but it is to be hoped that it’s a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, there are problems such as cybercrime, pensions fraud and fake lotteries to deal with.
Communities against scams
Tolhurst says: “We recognise the rising problem of scams, and ensuring markets work fairly and effectively for consumers is central to our modern Industrial Strategy and I’m proud to say the UK’s consumer protection regime is among the strongest in the world. National Trading Standards do vital work in protecting consumers from scammers, dangerous goods and shoddy services. Recently I was pleased to meet some of the National Trading Standards Scams Team and people they had helped. I would like to congratulate the team for the success of their Friends Against Scams initiative and re-confirm my support for the initiative which aims to protect and prevent people from becoming victims by empowering communities to take a stand against scams.”
As for the Government’s Industrial Strategy, what measures within this are important to her as Small Business Minister? “The aim of our modern Industrial Strategy is to boost the UK’s productivity by backing businesses to create good jobs and increase the earning power of people throughout the UK with investment in skills, industries and infrastructure. We are doing this in a variety of ways including strengthening the foundations of productivity – the fundamentals that support a skilled, innovative, geographically balanced economy. Simultaneously we are building long-term strategic partnerships with businesses through sector deals between government and industry and taking on the grand challenges that face our economy and society.”
The daughter of a boat-builder, Rochester-born Tolhurst ran a marine survey business with her father before being elected to parliament in the May 2015 General Election. Prior to that, she was a local councillor. During her time in Westminster, she has served on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, the European Scrutiny Committee, and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee.
Tolhurst voted to remain in the European Union, so how does she think Brexit will affect trading standards and the work that officers do? “We are focused on ensuring UK regulators continue to have access to the information they need to identify and take action on unsafe products. While data exchange across the EU about unsafe products is still subject to negotiations, we are developing our own product safety database to exchange data between UK enforcement authorities. The Government wants a positive future relationship with the EU that encompasses both economic and security cooperation. As a responsible government we are preparing for all potential outcomes, including the unlikely scenario in which no mutually satisfactory agreement can be reached.”
Prioritising public safety
In the meantime, there are pressing matters at hand, not least the challenges facing trading standards. According to the CTSI Workforce Survey 2017, there has been a fall of at least 50% in trading standards officers in the past seven years. Many are concerned that these cuts put the public at risk.
Tolhurst says: “The Government recognises the challenges faced by trading standards officers and our first responsibility is to ensure the safety of the British public. We recognise the expertise and professionalism of trading standards officers around the country who do valuable work with businesses to ensure products are safe and appropriate action is taken if not.
“Through the Office for Product Safety and Standards, which was launched in January 2018, we are enhancing the role of local authority trading standards through greater co-ordination and leadership, ensuring the public receives greater protection than ever before.”
Looking ahead, trading standards officers have their work cut out, particularly when squeezed budgets are taken into account. When it comes to enforcement, it can vary from region to region.
“Although we work closely together, trading standards officers work to local priorities which are determined by local needs. Ultimately, these are set by local authorities. Through the Office for Product Safety and Standards we are providing national capacity to ensure they are adequately supported with access to scientific and technical expertise and that national product safety incidents are led by a national body.”