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Millions of small business owners and the self-employed will be forced into penury unless the government gets cash into their hands within the next days. The warning comes from a growing number of City financiers and business leaders who fear that most SMEs are marooned in no-man’s land because of the coronavirus emergency.
They say that many companies have no idea how to access the loans being proposed by the government’s emergency rescue package.
Simultaneously, many of the big high street banks are finding it difficult to get the loans that are being lodged by businesses processed fast enough to allow SME bosses to save their companies.
Stephen Hazell-Smith, one of the founders of AIM, London’s small companies stock market and a serial investor, said: “The government is offering helicopter money, which is the right thing to do. But the problem is they have no idea how to fly the helicopter.”
“This needs to be changed immediately otherwise thousands of businesses will go bust which is totally unnecessary as the money is available. We need a better way of getting cash delivered.”
There is a third problem. Hazell-Smith, who is also chairman of Nextfin, a crowdfunding peer-to-peer aggregator, said he is hearing via his network that many medium and big businesses plan to use the 80% subsidy being offered by government to close their doors and lay off workers.
Yet the Chancellor vowed to pay 80 per cent of salary for staff who are kept on by their employer, covering wages of up to £2,500 a month, precisely to prevent companies from having to sack employees.
Hazell-Smith added: “The point of offering the subsidy to companies was that they could keep on staff. That is not what I am hearing. For example, jobbing builders are no longer able to access supplies from some of the bigger firms like Travis Perkins and that restricts their ability to work.”
The chief executive of one company, employing 120 people in the utilities sector, told me he has been in contact with three high street banks which all said that loan applications would take weeks to process. He said: “This is going to be too late for many companies.”
While the government has said financial support will be backdated to March 1, businesses fear that even if they get the loans through, the money will not be flowing until the end of April.
There are even greater fears for the fate of the country’s five million freelancers and self-employed, a group of workers which the government shamefully missed out on helping in last week’s historic rescue plan.
Under pressure from cross-party politicians and industry leaders, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is understood to be close to announcing a similar package to that offered to companies for their staff. An amendment to the Coronavirus Bill was lodged yesterday in parliament, requesting that the Government “top up” self-employed workers’ earnings to the lower of 80% of their net monthly earnings averaged over three years, or £2,917.
Although Sunak, and other cabinet members want to increase the financial support for the self-employed, ministers are said to be worried that trying to work out how to pay people is horribly complex and could take too much time.
They are right, and trying to take the average pay for a self-employed person over the last three years could take weeks to prepare. And is it to be checked by HMRC first? And how long will that take?
There’s no time to do this fact-checking. That can come later once – and when – this emergency has been resolved.
By far the better option must be to give out a fixed cash grant to each of the self-employed per month – irrespective of previous income -running for the next few months. The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, together with the Creative Industries Federation, the Design Council and Enterprise Nation, are asking for a Temporary Income Protection Fund to support the self-employed during the Coronavirus crisis.
The government must respond quickly, and imaginatively. This is no small sector: just the creative industries in the UK generate over £111bn for the economy and one in three workers in the creative industries is self-employed.
There are not going to be many films or plays or music being commissioned over the next few months. What we should be sure about is that these creative freelancers – along with bricklayers, electricians and plumbers – have enough to live on each month until the crisis is over.