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Fightback begins against payment double standards

Tom Fitzpatrick

One of the problems caused by Brexit preparations during the past two years has been getting civil servants and ministers to discuss anything else.

This came up at a meeting I attended 18 months ago. One industry CEO said the problem was that when the industry tried to discuss anything non-Brexit with the government, they didn’t really want to know.

Don’t expect things to get better any time soon. How large businesses in particular are supposed to make investment plans based on the UK economy in the next 12 months is beyond me.

Departing the EU is a monumental thing, so it’s understandable in some ways that all routes point to Brexit. 

But the government also can’t be seen to be taking its eye off the ball when it comes to improving the relationship between big business and the general public.

That’s why it has led initiatives including forcing companies to reveal their gender pay gaps and payment details in the last year.

There has been grumbling behind the scenes at the administrative burden placed on companies, but forcing greater transparency on both counts is a good thing.

Which is why it sticks in the craw for large contractors that Whitehall is waving the flag on fair payment, when plenty of them would argue that the government – and public sector clients generally – should also take a look in the mirror.

Some of these contractors are now making this point publicly.

When Ray O’Rourke tells the government to play its part on fair payment, including “settling its own accounts promptly”, it marks a rare public intervention from someone who generally abhors being in the news.

Mark Reynolds continued the theme today, telling CN he wanted to see more transparency on client payment terms, including naming bad payers publicly.

This represents a huge departure from the traditional industry mantra that ‘thou shalt not criticise the industry’s biggest client, or any client for that matter’.

It is also entirely justified.

I’ll inevitably be told it’s an attempt to divert attention from their own payment terms, but Mr O’Rourke admitted to CN his company needed to improve on this front – proving the value of making performance public.

Which is why it will be interesting to start comparing the performance of major clients in the industry with their prime contractors, something I believe Build UK is looking at doing.

Tier ones are generally loathe to bite the hand that feeds them. But as lenders show signs of decreasing their involvement in the sector, PFI gets another kicking from a Treasury that privately wants to use it, and Brexit negotiations continue to plod along, you get the sense the UK’s biggest contractors have had enough.

Are tier ones starting the fightback?

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