Not content with her interview on BBC Radio Four's PM programme earlier on today, our CEO Alison Grieve trundled on down to the TV studios to get herself on first name terms with the Shadow Business Secretary. Ooh!
Jon Sopel: There's mixed news tonight for thousands of British companies and the millions of people who work for them. New figures show that while UK banks are ahead of schedule for overall lending to business, they've fallen a billion pounds short of their target for small- and medium-sized firms under an agreement with the Treasury, called Project Merlin. Alison Grieve runs a business in Scotland called Safetray, and struggled to get her bank to lend her company money when she first approached them earlier this year. She joins us now from our studio in Edinburgh.
JS: Thanks very much for joining us. So, how is your business going?
Alison Grieve: Well, our business is going very well now. We were able to get a small overdraft from the bank, and even just a small amount did go an exceptionally long way in supporting our exports. We were able to go to a trade show in Chicago, and at that show we made substantial sales, which then allowed us to ship the machine that makes our product back from where we were manufacturing in the Far East. We set up manufacturing in the UK, which is great for the economy here.
JS: Do you thank Project Merlin for that, or is it just good relations with your local bank manager?
AG: I think that Project Merlin has gone some way to put pressure on the banks to lend to small- and medium-sized businesses; there's still a lot more that could be done. My company is one of many that's on a high-growth pipeline and I know that very few of them have managed to receive any bank funding whatsoever. Actually, our company decided to go down the angel investor route, selling a share of our company in return for funds.
JS: What more would you like to see being done now, if you could wave a magic wand?
AG: I think it's about the banks recognising the different types of start-up businesses. There are some that are very much lifestyle businesses, and could have steady growth along a long period of time. But there are others, like a Facebook, for instance, which was an exceptionally high-growth company and one of the most resounding success stories of the last 100 years, commercially-speaking. They wouldn't have received funding at an early stage, because of the way banks value early-stage companies, as opposed to the way an investment angel would.
JS: Alison Grieve, very good to talk to you, thank you for being with us on BBC News. Let's speak now to the Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, who is in our Westminster studio. A very good evening to you, thanks for being with us. I know if you could wave a magic wand, you'd change the government and you'd be in power yourself, but short of that, what do you think the government could, should be doing?
Chukka Umunna: Well, it's interesting hearing Alison speaking there, and I'm pleased that at least her business is doing well, that's fantastic news. There is a problem, though, with the way the finance sector is serving business today. I think part of the reason that we're not getting money out of the door to SME's in particular in this country, is that one of the things that's holding them back from going and approaching banks for finance is the economic outlook. Vince Cable, when he took over the department I shadow, the Business department, said that it was supposed to be the Department for Economic Growth. The simple fact is that since he took over we haven't had enough growth in our economy, because of the too-far, too-fast deficit reduction strategy that his government is imposing. That's one part of it. The other part is actually just the general culture, Alison touched on it there, of our banking system. The banks say, "We don't lend, because there's not enough demand." But at the same time we see people running small businesses using their own personal finance, credit cards or overdrafts to finance their businesses, which to me would demonstrate that there is a demand there. But there's a problem, A. with the money getting out of the door, and B. with the actual culture - does a bank have a local relationship manager, does it actually bother to get to know the business, or does it put the business on the phone to somebody in some remote location who doesn't really understand the context of the business?
JS: But Alison was also saying there that the banks had helped and it was largely thanks to Project Merlin.
CU: Well, no, she didn't say that it was largely thanks to Project Merlin.
JS: She was very supportive of it. She said it had helped.
CU: No, Jon, you're slightly misinterpreting her words there, because she said she thinks it has helped put some pressure on the banks. The point is it hasn't put enough pressure. We've got stakes in two of the largest banks, and the government needs to use its influence, through UK Financial Investments, which holds and runs our stakes in those banks, to make sure they get the money out of the door. But as I said, the other part of the equation is to get growth back into the economy, get demand back into the economy, to give companies and businesses the confidence to go out and get finance to expand. The problem is that they just don't have that confidence at the moment.