Sunak’s lifeline for small businesses is welcome but insufficient


The writer is national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses

The worst UK recession since records began. Up to 1m job losses forecast by the end of the year. Speculation about negative interest rates.

The macro analysis of the UK’s economic predicament is stark and deserving of attention. There is always a danger, however, that an excessive focus on the big picture causes us to lose sight of human realities.

At the Federation of Small Businesses, we hear personal accounts every day of what coronavirus means on the ground. There about 5.8m small businesses in the UK, representing 99.3 per cent of the country’s private sector firms.

Consider an events specialist who recently came to us for help. An expert in tech conference facilitation, who often travelled to Las Vegas, he took the brave step of striking out on his own a few years back after decades of working in larger companies. Until this year, things were going well.

Now he’s trying to keep his head above water. Amid talk of a world-beating test and trace system and vaccine development, he took on a sizeable emergency loan over the summer, hoping it would see him through to the new year. By then, he and his clients hoped, a limited number of events would be back on, with distancing, masks and sanitisers par for the course.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s talk this week of significant restrictions for another six months will have put paid to a lot of that optimism. Thankfully, only 48 hours on from Mr Johnson’s address, chancellor Rishi Sunak stepped in, rightly abandoning plans for a longer-term budget in favour of more immediate action.

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Firms have now been given more time and space to get back on their feet. Tax payment deferrals can be spread out for longer. A new “pay as you grow” approach to emergency loans will mean a more lenient approach to repayments. Successors to the job retention and self-employment income support schemes will be launched from November.

Will it be enough for our conference consultant? Certainly, he’ll be feeling better about his ability to service his bounceback loan. But his case exposes a gaping hole in the government’s approach. Where a firm is involved in an industry where enforced closures are still the norm, the support available is very limited.

We have swaths of event organisers, venues and night-time economy bulwarks left in the lurch. Even funding at the council level for those caught by local lockdowns is off-limits. The new Job Support Scheme is only for those where staff are still able to work.

Equally, freelancers who have set themselves up as company directors are entitled to no meaningful income support at all. Many earn modest sums and have paid corporation and dividend taxes for years. The newly self-employed, who don’t have rafts of tax returns at their disposal, have also been left out in the cold.

Mr Sunak’s intervention was vital and urgently needed. But we’ll need to see much more — further evolution of support mechanisms, guided by macro information and experiences on the ground.

That said, it’s clear that lessons are being learnt. Consider also the lighting specialists who run a small shop outside Birmingham. Their store is both a successful enterprise and a community hub, providing respite and a place to catch up for local retirees.

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The introduction of the ability to furlough on a flexible basis was a game-changer for the owners. They care deeply for their staff and want to keep all of them on their books.

Many of their regulars were, naturally, cautious about returning after the store was reopened in the summer. That’s starting to change, but reduced opening hours and numbers of staff on the shop floor have been imposed. The only way to maintain headcount is flexible furlough.

The new Job Support Scheme incorporates this need for flexibility. Fortunately, we have a guarantee that small firms won’t have to wade through reams of paperwork in order to use it.

The fates of small high-street outlets like this one will be defined by the strength of trade in the run-up to Christmas. That will, of course, depend in large part on our increased capacity to fight this terrible virus and install the test and trace system we were promised months ago. Businesses understand that safety has to come first.

But their futures will also hinge on greater business support development. An outdated business rates system, high employment costs and the exclusion of too many from flagship measures continue to weigh massively on the small business community.

Creating the right mechanisms to bring an economy through a recession is no mean challenge. But by drawing on quantitative, real-time data and qualitative, human realities, it can be done. With winter approaching, it needs to be.



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