HC Deb 19 December 1984 vol 70 cc289-90
17. Mr. Neil Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what specific steps Her Majesty's Government take to faciltate the access of small firms to Government contracts.

Mr. Trippier

For lower value contracts firms need no longer go through the Department's approval procedures before winning orders. The threshold was initially set at £2,000 two years ago and has since been raised to £10,000. Above that level, non-approved firms can tender for contracts which are not urgent, subject to being approved afterwards if they are successful. Departments have been asked to rotate invitations to tender among firms on their approved lists so that more firms get an opportunity to bid. For firms seeking approval we have standardised the financial and general information that Departments require.

Mr. Hamilton

I am sure that the House will welcome that encouraging news, but what proportion of Government procurement contracts go to small firms? Is my hon. Friend satisfied with that figure?

Mr. Trippier

Records are not kept at the moment of the details of which business goes to small firms, but we have asked the Ministry of Defence to supply information, through a survey that it is currently conducting, as to how much of its procurement business goes to firms employing fewer than 200 people. The findings of that survey will, of course, be of great interest to us.

Mr. Ashdown

Does the Minister accept that such records should be kept for all industries? Does he agree that the size and power of the Government's procurement system makes it the most potent weapon available to the Government for assisting small industries? Surely it is even more powerful than the Government's much-vaunted 103 measures put together. When will he take more strenuous action to use the Government's procurement system to assist small industries more effectively?

Mr. Trippier

The hon. Gentleman is being uncharitable to the Government. We have done a great deal in the past five years to improve access for small firms to Government procurement contracts. In my answer to the supplementary question of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) I referred to another initiative that we have taken. I appreciate that it is important and valuable that we adopt such an approach, and that is why we are doing something about it.

Sir Dudley Smith

Will my hon. Friend ensure—I am sure that he will—that when small firms deservedly win contracts with Government Departments the Departments settle their accounts on time? Is he aware that it is becoming a common complaint that small firms are not having their accounts settled by large firms as quickly as they should be?

Mr. Trippier

My hon. Friend is right. I take every available opportunity to try to get the message across that large firms should pay the bills of small firms on time wherever possible. I accept that there are a number of laggards. If my hon. Friend is aware of any examples of Government Departments not paying the bills of small firms on time, I shall be grateful if he will let me have the evidence, whereupon I shall investigate the matter.

Mr. Williams

If this basic information is not available, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that it is available in future?

Mr. Trippier

It seems that the right hon. Gentleman did not hear my reply to an earlier supplementary question. I said that we were taking the initiative of asking — [Interruption.] That is a good example. There is much business there that is available for small firms. Having taken the initiative, it will be interesting to compare how much public procurement business goes to small firms in Britain as against that going to similar firms in the United States.