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ITVs Mrs Biggs shows that late business payments led to Great Train Robbery

Today's small and medium-sized businesses are owed £33.6 billion in unpaid bills.

Here's a scenario from the first episode of the drama series Mrs Biggs, recently broadcast on ITV. Ronnie Biggs has done time for robbery and has now rejected a life of crime to go on the straight and narrow. He is his own boss, making a decent living doing manual work in houses and gardens - but he doesn't have the four hundred pounds he needs for a deposit on a house. The reason for his shortage of funds? His customers are not paying him on time.

So, he turns to his old friend Bruce for help - who eventually persuades Ronnie to turn his back on an honest life and consider the houses he could buy if he helps Bruce to rob a train. The rest is history.

If the events depicted in Mrs Biggs are true, the biggest heist in British history may never have happened if Ronnie Biggs' debtors had paid him on time - or, at least, Biggs wouldn't have been involved.

Well, skip forward nearly half a century and late payments are still a major problem for Britain's business owners. According to research by BACS, the organisation behind Direct Debit, the UK's small and medium-sized businesses are owed an all-time high of £33.6 billion in unpaid bills. The main contributors are large companies, who owe nearly half the late payment debt. Their buying power often means that they are in no particular hurry to give smaller suppliers the money they owe them.

Cash flow inevitably takes a hit when customers owe you money. A pre-Great Train Robbery Ronnie Biggs is not the only businessman who would testify that a healthy flow of cash can be crucial to your survival. It allows you to pay creditors and expenses, keep your interest payments down and plough money back into the business. It can also help you maintain a high credit score, which not only gives you more chance of finance from the bank but also gives you access to improved rates on certain fixed costs like business energy. This, in turn, could add thousands of pounds to your bottom line every year.

The government recognises that late payments are a major problem for businesses and is taking measures to improve the situation through the Prompt Payment Code (PCC). This is a voluntary code of practice that is championed by a number of business groups such as the British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses.

Businesses of any size can sign up for the PCC and demonstrate that they are a reliable debtor, because signatories undertake to pay suppliers in a time scale agreed at the outset of a contract. You can check to see if a business has signed the code at the PPC website - and if they have, you can gently remind them of that fact if you are waiting for a payment from them. What's more, if you sign the code yourself you can demonstrate your commitment to good practice - and legitimately ask the businesses who buy from you to do the same.