Economy Minister faces grilling over exclusion of sole traders from new £40m hardship fund

Economy Minister Diane Dodds.
Economy Minister Diane Dodds.

EXTENDING the new coronavirus hardship fund to include sole traders and other businesses who are currently ineligible, would cost hundreds of millions of pounds, the Economy Minister has said.

Diane Dodds made the statement as she faced a grilling from MLAs on the Economy Committee at Stormont on Wednesday.

The Minister faced a series of questions over the exclusion of certain businesses from Stormont’s new £40m hardship fund for micro businesses.

Initially presented as a scheme for those who had fallen outside the qualifying criteria for previous grant schemes, applications for the fund opened at 6pm last night, just hours ahead of the deadline for two grant schemes offering £10,000 and £25,000.

Ms Dodds stated that 21,172 businesses have received the smaller grant to date, with 2,065 in receipt of the larger payment.

The new fund is primarily aimed at businesses and some social enterprises with one to nine employees.

Guidance from the Department for the Economy published late last Friday initially raised hopes from sole traders that they could also benefit from the fund.

However subsequent guidance published on the official NI Business Info website confirmed that businesses where the sole employee is the owner or company director would be excluded.

Ms Dodds accepted that the wording of the criteria released on Friday has been “quite bad”.

An online eligibility checker was later launched on Monday by Invest NI, which is administering the scheme.

However, the Economy Minister told MLAs that the cash is simply not available to support every business in need.

“If we were to take all of the business in Northern Ireland who are not eligible for the hardship fund and provide £10k to those businesses, that would cost another £890m.

“If we were to provide £10k to registered businesses with 0 or 1 employees, we would be looking for another £350m.

“I think you can see the scale of the need out there. What we have done is try to prioritize from where we are.”

Addressing the issue of sole traders, she added: “Many people who are sole traders can access self-employed support. Many people who are sole traders have access to the £10k grant… It’s not a homogenous group.

“It’s used as a phrase, but there are many categories within that. There are sole traders who legally identify themselves legally as sole traders, who employ people, who can actually access the hardship fund.”

While some social enterprises can apply, those with charitable status cannot. Ms Dodds said a £15m fund for charities announced by Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey could offer some help to social enterprises in that category.

The Economy Minister also told the committee that the Health and Safety Executive had received 771 complaints about workplaces between April 1 and May 19.

She said a further 309 complaints were passed onto councils, who she said had appropriate responsibility.

There had been 52 site visits in the past two weeks, she added: “Some have required follow up visits and some have been resolved.”