Some small businesses ‘falling through coronavirus safety net’

Some small businesses in Northern Ireland are falling through coronavirus safety nets established by Stormont and Westminster, one representative has said.

Hairdressers who share premises with beauticians and van-based tradesmen like plumbers and electricians with no commercial properties are struggling to access a fair share of official reliefs, the Federation of Small Businesses said.

Stormont’s powersharing administration has said it was aware of the wide range of businesses facing financial difficulties and was considering how to close gaps in support.

Roger Pollen, head of external affairs at the FSB, said: “The overarching concern is that there have been two safety nets put in place by Westminster and Stormont and there are lots of overlapping holes.

“We are finding out the people who have fallen through both safety nets.

“There was a hasty scramble for action which was welcome but not terribly well-targeted.”

One man who runs a road surfacing company but does not have a business address which makes him quickly identifiable on Stormont’s records is paying a self-employed colleague £200 a week out of his own pocket because he is worried about his mental health, Mr Pollen said.

He said one size does not fit all and firms not on the non-domestic rates register could miss out.

“The risk is that it is only the loudest organisations that will get assistance and you could have softly-spoken sectors in need badly squeezed.”

If Stormont ministers are going to take action they need to do it “quickly”, he said, adding: “Delay is inexcusable.

“If they say they want to do it they have to find a way of getting on and doing that as a matter of priority.

“Here we are not being as quick as we could and not as generous as we could.

“There is no point in the state looking after all of its pennies whenever a lot of businesses have gone under.”

Two main grants are available from Stormont: one worth £10,000 for small businesses and one for £25,000 for the hospitality, tourism and retail sectors.

Mr Pollen said one firm, a yacht chartering business primarily working in the Adriatic but owned in Northern Ireland, was “invisible” because its assets were overseas.

They are the sort of online firms Northern Ireland needs, earning money overseas, but they risk losing out on coronavirus relief, he added.

Separate UK-wide schemes cover furloughed workers and the self-employed.

A spokesman for the Department for the Economy said it was aware of the range of businesses facing financial difficulties.

“Alongside the various national schemes, the department has put in place the Northern Ireland equivalents of the grant schemes announced in England by the Chancellor – and we have recently extended the £10,000 grant scheme in Northern Ireland to also cover small manufacturers.

“Over and above this we are looking at what more might be done to close some of those remaining gaps in support.”

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