PM to shame late payers

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Companies that fail to pay their bills on time will be publicly humiliated by the Government, John Major threatened yesterday in a move sure to embarrass his deputy, Michael Heseltine.

Last month Mr Heseltine admitted "stringing along creditors in order to keep his own businesses afloat". But yesterday Mr Major described the practice as "the great bugbear" of Britain's small firms.

In an article in the Daily Mail published today, the Prime Minister clashes with Mr Heseltine and warns: "We're going to look again at making companies publish not just their payment policy but also whether they live up to it. We'll publish league tables and set tough targets to bring the weakest performers up to scratch."

At any one time, pounds 128bn is owed to small businesses. A recent survey showed that small firms had to wait an average 77 days to be paid.

Mr Major is addressing a conference of small business today where he will announce the crackdown on the worst firms and introduce a prompter payment regime in government departments. Mr Heseltine caused controversy when he admitted being a late payer. Later, he said: "If I hadn't delayed, I'd have gone bust. And none of [his creditors] would have been paid."

In his article Mr Major also speaks of "hacking back" legislation he feels hampers small businesses. A leaked letter last week from Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, to Mr Heseltine indicated this could include abolition of employment rights for workers in small firms.