IPPR has recently released a detailed and thought-provoking report. In Small Firms, Giant Leaps, Spencer Thompson considers the contribution small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have made to Britain’s economic recovery since the financial crisis and the role they could play over the coming years – specifically in getting more people back into work. Small Firms, Giant Leaps suggests some sensible reforms that this Government should take seriously, but it falls short of dealing with the real problem; a problem so much discussed and so obvious that its mere mention is liable to induce a collective yawn: too much complex regulation.
As the report makes clear, SMEs have contributed enormously to the labour market recovery since the financial crisis – 84% of jobs growth between the start of 2010 and the start of 2013 came from SMEs: “Overall employment rose by 1.5 million between the start of 2010 and the start of 2013. Of this, 1.2 million was in enterprises with 0–249 employees. Given that they only account for two-thirds of total employment, it is clear that SMEs are disproportionately driving the jobs recovery.”
The report suggests four policies for using SMEs to the end of creating “full employment” (defined as 80% of the workforce). I’ll first consider two through four.
The second recommendation is to retain and reform statutory sick pay recovery. Obviously, businesses are less likely to hire workers who have a higher risk of getting sick and not turning up to work, and this is more weighty burden for smaller businesses. Thompson suggests targeting current support towards individuals that face the greatest sickness-related hiring risks and only making this available to small firms (those with an annual NICs liability of less than £45,000). It is estimated that this reform would cost just over £20 million, which is good deal less than the £50 million currently spent on statutory sick pay recovery.
The third recommendation is to intermediate labour markets in welfare-to-work policy: “Providers under the next iteration of the Work Programme should be allowed and encouraged to act as a temporary employment agency for claimants in particular groups, securing short-term paid work placements with employers.” The fourth recommendation is for an occupational benefit insurance scheme for SMEs. Thompson calls on employer associations – such as the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce – to work with insurers to help SMEs club together to offer occupational sick, maternity and paternity pay to their employees.
The first recommendation is less convincing and gets us to the nub of the problem. Thompson calls for more business support for new employers and existing micro and small businesses. The problem is easily identified: “those not large enough to employ a dedicated HR professional and unable to afford the cost of external support have to navigate through an often complex system of employment law and labour market regulation.” The solution, according to Thompson, is to give up to £1,000 in support and services.
Rather than setting up yet another scheme to navigate the complex regulation, the Government should exempt small businesses from as much of the labyrinthine system of employment law and labour market regulations as is feasible. Since 2001, the Government has been committed to exempting microbusiness from upcoming “burdensome” new regulations. The logical conclusion is to exempt them from existing burdens too. For those who suggest that this can’t be done, just consider that in 2012 the Government exempted hundreds of thousands of low-risk workplaces from health and safety inspections.
Information is certainly important for SMEs – the chopping of Business Link and the various changes since then must have done significant harm – but by their own reckoning regulation is the key reason SMEs aren’t hiring more. As is shown in the Figure 2.1 (page 33) of the report (see below), when asked in an FSB poll about the barriers to taking on more staff, only 5% of SMEs said it was “not finding the appropriate information”, while 32% said it was a “fear of litigation/employment tribunals”, 30% “employment law/regulations”, 16% “other regulations”, and 14% “administrative burden”.
Some may suggest that SMEs fears are unfounded, but the 321,800 claims accepted by employment tribunals in 2011/12 suggest that the hesitancy is based on real and present dangers. One of the costs of regulations designed to protect the currently employed is that it restrict access to those on the margins of labour markets. If your goal is 80% employment, then, whether you like it or not, deregulation is the most powerful weapon in your armoury.