MICHAEL HESELTINE, the Deputy Prime Minister, yesterday faced a mounting barrage of criticism over private comments he made last week which endorsed the late payment of bills by businessmen.
Leaders of small businesses roundly denounced Mr Heseltine's remarks, while John Prescott, his Labour opposite number, accused him of backing behaviour that "wrecks people's lives". But Mr Heseltine, far from retracting, elaborated his comments and seemed to put himself at odds with a Government Bill, introduced only last Friday, to discourage late payment in the building industry.
Mr Heseltine made his comments in a speech responding to questions at a dinner at the St Stephens Club in Westminster on Monday night. As a small businessman himself, he said, he had been "quite skilful at stringing along the creditors". Late payment, he said, was part of the culture of British business. Mr Heseltine was standing in for John Major, who had 'flu.
Up to pounds 20bn is owed to UK companies, many of which suffer cash-flow crises, planning difficulties and, in extreme cases, financial ruin. The Government is consulting on whether companies should be entitled to interest on unpaid invoices, and on Friday John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, spoke out against late payment.
Mr Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, who will raise the issue in the Commons, demanded an apology from Mr Heseltine whose comment was a "shocking state of affairs": "This may be good business practice for some but it is at the expense of bankruptcies. There are many examples of thousands of people being put out of work because of a cynical decision by a bigger company which has said 'We will wait on this debt until the creditor has gone out of business'."
Stephen Alambritis, of the Federation of Small Businesses, representing 85,000 firms, said: "We're aghast and surprised by these remarks. It's a business tip that is immoral basically. It's bad commercial practice."
Ian Peters, head of …