What steps can the Government take to ensure its support packages are most effective for charities?

The Government has provided a comprehensive stimulus package to help the UK economy deal with the Covid-19 emergency. Most businesses, workers and the self-employed are being supported while social distancing measures prevent them from generating an income. The clarification that charities are also eligible to make use of many of these measures is welcome. However, most measures that have been introduced include design features that restrict the extent to which charities can access financial support.

A briefing prepared jointly by the Charity Tax Group, Charity Finance Group and NCVO identifies the key challenges for the voluntary sector with the existing package of COVID-19 support measures, alongside some proposed solutions. If implemented, these changes would enable voluntary organisations to make better use of these schemes, ensuring they achieve their stated aim. This briefing was sent to officials at HM Treasury, HMRC, DCMS and BEIS with proposals relating to the Job Retention Scheme, Business loans, Grant Funds and tax payment deferrals. There’s already been some progress on Small Business Grant Funds and CBILS, but we will continue to make the case for charities.

Charity sector COVID-19 support measures

Addressing these issues will be particularly important for supporting those organisations that are ineligible to apply for any of the £750m charity support package announced by Government last month.

Coronavirus job retention scheme

Charities that are on the frontline helping communities during COVID-19 need to be mobilised, not mothballed. Yet many are facing a perverse incentive to furlough staff at a time when supporting the most vulnerable in society is needed more than ever. Meanwhile, staff that have been furloughed are not permitted to volunteer for their own charity. This means that people with skills to volunteer in roles that can directly support with covid-19 are unable to undertake these vital tasks.

The scheme is not available for charities receiving public funding that covers staff costs. This is obviously to prevent double-funding but can cause difficulties for charities whose funding comes from a number of sources, or whose staff are partially funded by public money.

To make the scheme work better for charities, we’ve asked the Government to:

  • relax the volunteering rules to enable charity workers with specific skills that can help respond to the crisis to be redeployed within their charity as a volunteer
  • enable not-for-profit groups that cannot furlough staff but which have suffered a reduction greater than 30% of income to qualify for payment under the scheme
  • allow furloughed employees to check in one day a week so organisations can be prepared for when operations restart. This will also be helpful where there is a need to maintain properties and do securing checks
  • provide more clarity on ‘public funding’ criteria, particularly where staff that are partially funded by the public sector are concerned.

More information on the Job Retention Scheme can be found here.

Coronavirus business interruption loan scheme (CBILS)

Since CBILS was launched, we’ve been urging the Government to remove the eligibility requirement that an organisation generate more than 50% of its turnover from trading, as it would prohibit the majority of charities from applying under the scheme.

Last week the Government responded by removing the 50% trading requirement, potentially opening the scheme up to thousands more charities (a similar requirement also applies to the Bounce Back loans).

While a welcome development, feedback from charities that have applied to the scheme is that even if they meet all the eligibility criteria, they have still been refused finance from accredited lenders under the scheme. Even private sector organisations – for which the scheme was designed – have been refused loans by lenders, with take-up to date falling well below the Government’s initial expectations.

Another challenge for charities is that their financial models may preclude them from taking on debt finance at such a precarious time. And even if it is possible, not many charities will have an appetite to take on liabilities.

To make the scheme work better for charities, we’ve asked the Government to:

  • underwrite 100% of loans, as has been done with the bounce back loans scheme for small businesses (we are still waiting to hear whether this scheme is open to charities)
  • cap interest rates for charities when the initial 12-month interest free period is over
  • publish separate guidance for charities on whether loans are a suitable method of finance, and if they are eligible to use the scheme.

Further information on all the business loans available can be found here.

Small business grant fund

One of the key changes we have been urging Government to make is to allow charities to apply for a small business grant of up to £10,000.  For organisations unable to take advantage of the other schemes on offer, or the Government’s £750m support package, accessing this support is particularly important at a time when cashflow their primary concern. The full proposal by CTG, supported by sector partners, can be read here.

The Government has since announced that an additional £617 million of grant funding will be made available for distribution by Local Authorities. The Government will confirm the exact amount for each local authority next week. This additional fund is aimed at small businesses with ongoing fixed property-related costs. Local Authorities are being asked to prioritise businesses in shared spaces, regular market traders, small charity properties that would meet the criteria for Small Business Rates Relief, and bed and breakfasts that pay council tax rather than business rates. But local authorities may choose to make payments to other businesses based on local economic need. The allocation of funding will be at the discretion of local authorities. Businesses must be small, under 50 employees, and they must also be able to demonstrate that they have seen a significant drop of income due to Coronavirus restriction measures. There will be three levels of grant payments. The maximum will be £25,000. There will also be grants of £10,000. Local Authorities will have discretion to make payments of any amount under £10,000. It will be for councils to adapt this approach to local circumstances.

While this funding is at the discretion of local authorities, this is a welcome announcement for small charities that should ensure some are able to access funding that has unattainable to date. Charities are encouraged to contact their Local Authorities ASAP to demonstrate their need for this funding.

Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund

Although the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund benefits certain types of charities, such as charity shops, art galleries theatres, museums, sports clubs and several others, this is a relatively small part of the overall charity sector.

The practical value of the scheme will also be limited because the Government considers it to subject to European Union state aid rules which restrict payments to €800,000 (roughly £700,000) per undertaking. While this may sound like a lot, it will restrict charities reliant on income from a larger retail network, because the scheme may only benefit up to 30 outlets despite them having hundreds of shops in some cases.

To make the scheme work better for charities, we’ve asked the Government to:

  • reconsider whether the retail, hospitality and leisure grant fund should be regarded as state aid, on the basis that the beneficiaries of the funding are unlikely to distort competition between traders in European Union member states. This would not only benefit charities but would also support struggling high streets. CTG was also a signatory to a letter to the Business Secretary from leading charity retailers
  • expand the definition of eligible retail, hospitality and leisure properties to include community buildings that are required to close during the lockdown such as community centres.

Additional information on the Retail Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund can be found here.

PAYE and NICs deferral

It is possible for charities to request a deferral of payments of Pay As You Earn (PAYE) and National Insurance contributions (NICs), if they are encountering difficulties in making payments due to COVID-19. However, deferred payments incur an interest rate of 2.6% from HMRC. This creates additional financial challenges for organisations already struggling with cashflow.

To make the scheme work better for charities, we’ve asked the Government to:

  • automatically grant all businesses and charities the option of deferring PAYE and NICs payments and remove the interest payable to bring it in line with the VAT deferral.

Conclusion

The Government’s stimulus package to help the UK economy deal with the covid-19 emergency has provided a vital lifeline for many businesses and workers while social distancing measures prevent them from generating an income. However, much of this support was designed with the private sector in mind, meaning charities have been unable to take advantage of the support on offer.

While government is listening by responding positively to some of our calls for reform, significant financial hurdles remain, both now and looking forward to the country’s post-covid-19 recovery effort.

Along with our sector partners, we will continue to push government for further support in the coming weeks. In the meantime, keep a regular eye on CTG’s COVID-19 Information Hub to keep track of developments.

NCVO has also published a blog, summarising this joint project.

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