Government proposals for a Small Business Service, which have been clarified by secretary of state Stephen Byers, are welcome - as far as they go. But the SBS may not have the strength to take on government big hitters. Small business needs a robust and articulate voice in Westminster, but the SBS may be too unfocused and lacking in clout to measure up. ACCA endorses the concept, but it must have a powerful voice. The SBS framework proposes bundling three roles: small business' friend in Whitehall; deregulation watchdog; and manager of widened SME support. The proposals raise basic questions. As a single agency with one CEO, will the SBS be able to cope with the responsibilities entrusted to it? In its present form, it will discover that meeting standards of excellence across the board is near impossible. Expectations of the SBS could be dashed. There are other questions. How will standards be raised and a comprehensive service provided when little money will be available? Will local initiatives be swept aside in the new structure? Why have obvious activities, such as the Better Regulation Taskforce, been left outside the Small Business Service? Will the Enterprise Council give SMEs influence over the direction of this organisation; if not, how credible will the SBS be? What will happen when the SBS' aspirations for higher national standards of business support clashes with Regional Development Agencies? The DTI should recognise that government initiatives promise much and deliver little. This is the dynamic part of our economy, but consultation papers offer no direction for the SME sector or how to set and measure performance targets. If we start from first principles, we should set up an independent small business commission to give coherent expression to the sector and deal with SME regulation. It would be like the Audit Commission and answerable to a small business select committee. It would scrutinise small- business policy, give annual reports and oblige regulators to compensate owner-managers where government policy has made them tax collectors and administrators. It would have an independent voice for small business in the press. A separate agency would manage support services, avoiding the conflict of interest from being the voice of small business and running government services. The government's proposals may be well intentioned, but the present structure is in danger of making little impact on the most pressing issues. - David Harvey is secretary to ACCA's Small Business Committee.
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