By Alex Evans, Editorial Director, National Business Awards

Who better to ask the new Minister of State for the Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills about what the government is going to do to create a more benign environment for UK plc than its best business leaders and ambassadors?

The National Business Awards invited a select group of former finalists, winners and judges from different sectors and regions to pose a range of questions to Mark Prisk on issues affecting all businesses.

Peter Simmonds, MD of DotDigital and last year’s winner of the Business Link Growth Strategy of the Year 2009 asked Mr Prisk what changes he would like to see to the tax system to encourage more investment in SMEs.

“Structural relief is currently a significant feature of the Government’s tax system for SMEs providing a complementary role to the Government's Venture Capital fund interventions and leveraging in a high proportion of private sector investments,” added Prisk. “In terms of facilitating more equity investment in SMEs, our partner organisation, Capital for Enterprise Limited, supports both existing programmes and actively seeks new opportunities that increase the provision of capital for early stage SMEs in the UK, including equity funding.”

Prisk also highlighted a new Enterprise Capital Fund that will provide an extra £37.5 million in equity finance, and a Growth Capital Fund currently being set up to provide funding of between £2 million and £10 million for SMEs with strong growth potential. Part of the Rowlands Review, it is being headed up by Chris Rowlands, a former partner at private equity firm 3i.

Duncan Cheatle, founder of The Supper Club and a judge on the panel for Entrepreneur of the Year 2010, observed that most successful entrepreneurs think government should ‘get out of the way' of growing businesses rather than intervene; but asked how it could balance this hands-off approach with the help needed by smaller businesses.

“One of the ways we can help small businesses is to make sure there is less red tape and less regulation, giving them an opportunity to expand,” said Prisk. “We have already committed to introducing a ‘One-in, One-out’ rule, sunset clauses on regulations, a new Cabinet Reducing Regulation Committee and an immediate review of all inherited regulation in the pipeline.”

Also a judge on the Entrepreneur of the Year panel, former Apprentice contestant Claire Young said that apprenticeships are a win-win solution but have an image problem. “Businesses get much needed resource and young people gain skills and a foot on the ladder, but they are still perceived as a poor relation to A Levels and University. What plans have you got to address this?”

Responding to this, Prisk said: “We want there to be a clear route from gaining a level three qualification such as an Apprenticeship, or other type of vocational learning which can be an access route into university, alongside A Levels. In May we announced that we were redirecting £150 million of funding from the Train to Gain programme to provide 50,000 Apprenticeship places. These new places will predominantly be aimed at SMEs and we are looking at ways to support small businesses to take on Apprentices. Group Training Associations already provide a vital service to small businesses in helping them to train their staff and ensure skills needs are being met.”

As businesses embrace opportunities to learn through networking, Warren Bennett, Co-founder of A Suit That Fits.com and a finalist in the Regus Small to Medium Sized Business of the Year Award 2008 asked if government had any plans to provide a new platform for entrepreneurs.

“I agree that is important for businesses and entrepreneurs to network and share thoughts and ideas, and I am aware that there are many websites and organisations offering this type of service,” concluded Prisk. “Clearly, much of the current provision comes from the private sector, and BIS officials are currently looking at areas in which the Government might add value to this kind of interaction.”

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