16 April 2020
Business Support Measures During (COVID-19) Outbreak - 6th Update
(Key updates include: revised eligibility and preparing your application for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, an announcement of a deadline of 20 May 2020 for the Small Business Grant Scheme and information on calculating trading profits for the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme)
The Society appreciates that in these uncertain times, there will be significant financial and other pressures on our members as businesses serving the community. It is a worrying and uncertain time for business owners, staff and the wider community. Solicitors’ firms not only serve the public through representing their clients, they also inject support for other businesses within the local community. This must be recognised in any support packages coming from Government.
The UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive have announced a range of measures to mitigate against these unprecedented circumstances. Some of these are being accessed already, whilst others are ‘going live’ soon. This is a very fast-moving picture and it is important members are aware of and follow the Government guidance to gain access to crucial funding. It is important that members can access this funding support as soon as practicable through workable channels, in order to mitigate the shock to the economy and solicitors’ practices as key pillars of that economy. The application processes are key, and some further information is provided, including in relation to staffing costs under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme which opens for applications on Monday 20 April.
This Information Notice builds on our earlier notices signposting some of the initiatives which have been announced to support businesses through this period, including support in paying salaries, rates relief, tax deferral, loans and other key measures aimed at supporting businesses through cash flow shocks. The Society will continue to provide guidance to members throughout the current situation and to impress upon the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive the importance of business support and financial relief for solicitors’ firms as small and medium-sized businesses.
Business Support Measures Announced by the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Executive
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
Under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the UK Government has indicated that employers whose operations have been severely affected by COVID-19 and who cannot maintain their current workforce, can furlough employees and apply to access grant funding from HMRC to pay 80% of the monthly wage costs of employees. (Members should refer to the guidance provided below).
This is up to a limit of £2,500 per employee, plus the associated Employer National Insurance contributions and minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions on the 80% figure.
The scheme is open to all UK employers that had created and started a PAYE payroll scheme on or before 19 March 2020 (formerly 28 February, however eligible employees have been increased with the new date). Payments under this scheme will be made via BACS. Employers may top up the salary to 100% if they choose to do so.
Furloughed employees must have been on your PAYE payroll on or before 19 March 2020, and can be on any type of contract, including full-time employees, part-time employees, employees on agency contracts and employees on flexible or zero-hour contracts. The scheme also covers employees who were made redundant since 28 February 2020, if they are rehired by their employer including those re-employed after 19 March. The Government has continued to update its guidance on an ongoing basis for the scheme in terms of eligible workers and members should review the newest version of the guidance carefully (link below).
This scheme has been backdated to take effect for wage packets from 1 March and will be in place for an initial period of three months. The Government has acknowledged that this period may be extended, depending on the future trajectory of the crisis, so this should be factored into business planning.
The broad outline of the scheme is as follows:
Ø Employers need to designate affected employees as “furloughed workers” and employees should be informed. A change in employee status remains subject to the principles of employment law and the contractual position of the employer (including any scope for negotiation). A direction from Treasury to HMRC indicates that this arrangement must be agreed in writing to cease all work (email may be used). A link to the Treasury’s Direction is included below. During the period in which they are furloughed, the Government advises employees must not carry out any work for an employer to ensure they qualify for the scheme. This includes providing services or generating revenue. While on furlough, the employee’s wage will be subject to the usual income tax and other deductions.
Ø An online portal is in the final stages of its development within HMRC through which the affected employees’ details should be submitted, with applications opening on 20 April 2020. HMRC has confirmed in guidance the processing time of 6 working days after submission of claims for payments to issue. HMRC guidance on what employers will need to have ready is included below. This includes registering for a Government Gateway ID to apply online.
Ø Members should review updated guidance from Treasury and HMRC carefully when making their applications under the scheme. Accessing this scheme quickly once the portal is available will therefore be very important in terms of immediate cash flow. The availability of the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme may be a form of bridge financing to consider if there is an immediate need (see below).
Further detailed information on the scheme can be found here:
Guidance on Accessing the Scheme and its Purpose
Treasury Direction on Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
HMRC Guidance on applications
HMRC ‘Getting Ready’ Guidance with Information Employers will need in Applying for the Grant
Deferral of VAT
The UK Government has now said that businesses have the option to defer business payments for VAT for the period 20 March 2020 through to 30 June 2020. This is an automatic offer and you do not need to inform HMRC you are deferring your payment. Any liabilities accumulating during the deferral period will be afforded until the end of the 2020/2021 tax year to make payment. You will still need to submit your VAT returns to HMRC on time and VAT refunds and reclaims will continue to operate as normal. The Government advice is If you normally pay by Direct Debit and wish to defer you should contact your bank to cancel your Direct Debit as soon as you can, or you can cancel online if you’re registered for online banking.
More information on this can be found here:
Income Tax for the Self-Employed
For those who are self-employed, income tax assessments due on 31 July 2020 may now be deferred until 31 January 2021. The Government has now indicated this is optional, will be applied to the self-employed automatically and does not involve an application process. No penalties or interest for late payment will be charged during the deferral period.
For more information, see here:
HMRC ‘Time to Pay’ Service
Employers in financial difficulties and with outstanding tax liabilities may enquire if they are eligible to receive support with their tax payments. These applications are assessed on a case by case basis to reflect individual circumstances. It may be worth making contact to enquire about eligibility, including information about payment by instalment and relief from penalties. There is a dedicated COVID-19 helpline which has been established to provide advice and support on these issues.
HMRC’s coronavirus helpline can be reached on 0800 024 1222. The Government also lists a contact number at 0800 0159 559.
For more information, see the following:
Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS)
On 26 March, the Government announced a scheme which allows self-employed individuals or members of partnerships to claim a taxable grant worth 80% of your trading profits up to a maximum of £2,500 per month for the next 3 months. This is calculated as average profits across the tax years 2016-2017, 2017-2018, 2018-2019 (where applicable). To be eligible, your self-employed trading profits must also be less than £50,000 and more than half of your income must come from self-employment.
The Government has said the scheme will be operational no later than the beginning of June. HMRC has provided further information on how it will calculate total income and trading profits for the purposes of the scheme- a link to the appropriate guidance is included below. Further information on eligibility and the operation of this scheme can be found here:
HMRC’s Calculation for the Scheme
Small Business Grant Scheme (Deadline of 20 May to apply for a grant)
All small businesses who are entitled to benefit through the Small Business Rates Relief Scheme (those with a Net Annual Value for rates of £15,000 or less), are being provided with an immediate grant of £10,000 to relieve financial pressures (this is separate from the scheme for retail, leisure and hospitality businesses). The scheme is being administered by the Department for the Economy and Invest NI, working with Land and Property Services. The Scheme is open and a significant number of payments have been made (around half of eligible businesses have been paid as of 10 April 2020).
The grants are being paid using the rating list to make direct payments to bank accounts. The Department for the Economy has indicated that businesses will be able to benefit even if their valuation has changed under Reval2020- businesses will be able to choose the figure either before or after revaluation to establish eligibility. An online web portal has been set up to allow businesses to provide these details if they have not already done so.
Although the grant scheme is targeted at around 30 000 business, LPS only held bank details for just under 7000 of those businesses at the time of launching the scheme. Members to whom this scheme would apply should take swift action to ensure they can access this payment as soon as practicable. The Department for the Economy has announced that this scheme will close on Wednesday 20 May, so it is important members who feel they are eligible register as soon as possible before this date to receive the grant.
The link to the web portal for registration can be found below:
There is also a telephone number for enquiries on the scheme:
Tel: 0300 200 7809.
Members can also monitor announcements from a range of sources regularly to learn more about the practicalities of accessing this grant funding:
Immediate Rates Relief
The Northern Ireland Executive has announced that it will be bringing forward a package of proposals to provide financial relief for businesses. Finance Minister Conor Murphy MLA has said there will be a three month ‘rates holiday’ in which businesses will pay zero rates for April, May and June 2020. The effect of this is a 25% reduction in the annual rates bill for small businesses. Rates bills due to be issued in April will be now be deferred until June and members should be aware of the option to make payment through monthly instalments from June 2020 to March 2021 to aid cash flow.
The Minister for the Economy proposed on 15 April that this rates holiday should be extended, although no decision has been made on this by the Executive to date.
Reduction in the Regional Rate
The Finance Minister announced in the Budget on 31 March 2020 a further reduction of 12.5% in the regional business rate. With the REval2020 taken into account, this is roughly an 18% reduction in the rate. During plenary in the Assembly, the Minister indicated that further business support interventions in this area may be necessary if the pandemic is prolonged. Members should monitor the Department of Finance and Department for the Economy for any further announcements.
Small Business Rate Relief Scheme
In addition, members should be aware that the Small Business Rate Relief scheme remains in operation for 2020/2021. This applies a tapered range of discounts automatically to your rates bill if the Net Annual Value of your property is £15,000 or less. Land and Property Services have a helpful guide for applicants here, which includes a contact number, which may be useful if members believe they have not received the appropriate relief (note the important link to the Small Business Grant Scheme). LPS has recently reviewed the rates which will apply from April 2020.
Hardship Rate Relief
Hardship rate relief is in place to help businesses recover from a temporary crisis caused by exceptional circumstances. However, the guidance on this suggests that it may not be granted where other compensation is available (in this case the business grants may make this inaccessible). This relates to those risks and impacts which produce a serious loss of business and could not have been foreseen. Guidance notes on this can be found here:
Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (‘CBILS’)- UK Government
The UK Government has launched the new temporary CBILS through the British Business Bank, in order to support businesses accessing bank lending and overdrafts during the crisis. The purpose of the scheme is to provide lending to viable UK businesses that would be turned down for a loan or other forms of debt finance due to inadequate security. Loan values under CBILS extends to a maximum upper limit of £5 million per applicant for a period of up to six years. The Government has said they will cover the interest payments on the loans for the first twelve months along with any lender’s fees for those accessing the scheme. The Government is issuing Business Interruption Payments to meet this commitment for successful applicants. The scheme is now open and the Chancellor has introduced changes to widen the access to the scheme to those smaller businesses that would have previously met the requirements for a commercial facility, but would not have been eligible for CBILS. This should significantly increase the number of businesses eligible for the scheme. The changes in summary are as follows:
- personal guarantees cannot be taken for any facilities below £250,000;
- personal guarantees may be required for facilities above £250,000 but will be capped at 20 per cent of the outstanding balance after business asset recoveries;
- insufficient security is no longer a condition to accessing the scheme, making more smaller businesses eligible to receive the business interruption payment.
The Government has asked that lenders should retrospectively apply these changes for any CBILS facilities offered since 23 March 2020.
The mechanism is a government commitment to lenders of a guarantee of 80% on each loan, with no charge for this guarantee to businesses or banks. It is important to note businesses remain responsible for repaying any loans; the guarantee is made to the lender. The final decision on eligibility rests with the accredited lenders. The dedicated page for information on the criteria and operation of the scheme can be found at:
Minister for the Economy Diane Dodds MLA has expressed the determination of her department to make the scheme business-friendly for NI businesses. Members interested in learning more should monitor Gov.uk, the British Business Bank and contact accredited lenders. A list of accredited lenders for the purposes of CBILS can be found here. This page can be filtered to identify Northern Ireland lenders who should be contacted for more information, by finance types and by loan values. There are now 28 accredited lenders listed for businesses in Northern Ireland (this has increased from 20 since the last notice). There may be other online funding sources also identified by the British Business Bank, more information is found here.
It will be important for members considering making an application for a CBILS loan to consider readying a cash flow impact analysis and detailing how cash flow issues will increase in severity, depending on the period over which the crisis extends. It may be worth modelling this impact in measurable time periods, e.g. three months, six months etc to support your application. This forms part of a wider business plan in terms of how to manage cash flow- other areas of enquiry might include asking lenders for repayment holidays on loans or asset purchases.
Members with an interest in loans and the Corporate Financing Facility for larger businesses can find information here:
For further information and FAQs for Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme:
Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme
The UK Government has included provision within the Coronavirus Act 2020 for HMRC to make regulations to allow qualifying NI SMEs to reclaim statutory sick pay (‘SSP’). The UK Government announced this would cover up to 2 weeks’ SSP per eligible employee who is off work due to COVID-19. The Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme will repay employers the current rate of SSP that they pay to current or former employees for periods of sickness starting on or after 13 March 2020. If you’re an employer who pays more than the current rate of SSP you can only claim the current rate amount. Legislation has also been passed which provides for self-isolation due to COVID-19 (as well as those who actually have the virus) to come within sick pay arrangements (see below, this expires after eight months- see here.). Employees do not have to give you a doctor’s fit note for you to make a claim.
The UK Government has announced the scheme will be open to employers with fewer than 250 employees and it is open to employers who started a PAYE payroll scheme on or before 28 February 2020. The scheme will come into operation on the day after the necessary regulations on the extension of SSP to self-isolators comes into force. Further clarity is awaited on the precise mechanics of the rebate scheme, including the online applications portal, for NI businesses.
The Government has confirmed that the scheme covers all types of employment contracts, including:
· full-time employees;
· part-time employees;
· employees on agency contracts;
· employees on flexible or zero-hour contracts.
The UK Government has updated its guidance on record keeping for the scheme and has indicated that employers must keep records of all the statutory sick payments that you want to claim from HMRC, including:
· the reason why an employee could not work
· details of each period when an employee could not work, including start and end dates
· details of the SSP qualifying days when an employee could not work
· National Insurance numbers of all employees who you have paid SSP to
The guidance states that employers will have to keep these records for at least 3 years following your claim.
Further information on this can be found here:
Protection from Forfeiture During the Relevant Period
Under the terms of the Coronavirus Act 2020, commercial tenants in Northern Ireland who cannot pay their rent because of COVID-19 will be protected from forfeiture (until 30 June).
The provisions of the Act mean no business will automatically forfeit their lease and be forced out of their premises if they miss a payment up until 30 June.
There is the option for the Department of Finance to extend this period (more than once if required) by way of regulations.
The Government advise this is not a rental holiday. All commercial tenants will remain liable for the rent. Commercial tenants are protected from eviction if they are unable to pay rent.
More information can be found here:
Professional Indemnity Insurance
The Society has contacted the brokers about the impact of COVID-19 on professional indemnity insurance premium payment arrangements and what options might be available to firms in these unprecedented circumstances. We have been advised by our insurance brokers that Premium Credit will engage with clients individually on the possibility of deferring some instalments. Firms seeking to avail of this facility should contact Premium Credit directly (or other relevant business):
Phone Number: 0330 123 9717
Business Interruption Insurance
It is important to contact your provider, however the vast majority of business interruption insurance policies that firms may have taken out will likely not include cover for losses caused by a pandemic. These policies typically insure against damage to property. However, there may be clauses in some policies which may cover COVID-19, given that the Government has taken steps to list it as a “notifiable disease”.
Incorporated Practices- Guidance from Companies House on filing of Accounts and Contact Point
3 Month Extension
As of 25 March 2020, businesses will be able to apply for a 3-month extension on filing their accounts. All companies who apply for an extension as a result of COVID-19 will automatically be granted the extension without needing to provide evidence.
Further information can be found here – https://www.gov.uk/government/news/companies-to-receive-3-month-extension-period-to-file-accounts-during-covid-19
Temporary Closure of Companies House Contact Centre
Companies House has made the decision to temporarily close their Contact Centre until further notice. From 25 March, any queries should be directed to your Customer Care Manager or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Appealing a Late Filing Penalty Online and Payment Options for Late Filing Penalties
When a company files after the accounts filing deadline, a late filing penalty will be automatically applied. The Registrar has put in place extended measures to help companies who have been issued with late filing notices, but is not able to prevent a notice being issued. COVID 19 will be treated as an exceptional circumstance, but a company will still need to formally appeal against the late filing notice in order for the appeal to be considered. Companies House note appeals will be treated on a case by case basis and the Registrar cannot guarantee all appeals will be upheld.
Appeals for late filing penalties can now be made online – https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/appeal-a-penalty/
If a late filing penalty occurred on or after 30 March 2020, you may be able to pay your late filing penalty online – a link to the online service will be found on the penalty notice. If the Penalty occurred before 30 March 2020, there are multiple penalties, a part paid penalty or a penalty under an instalment plan, payment should be made by BACS instead. Further information can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/late-filing-penalties/late-filing-penalties
Suspension of Document Ordering Services
Due to the impact of Covid-19, Companies House are currently unable to offer the document ordering service for older documents not shown on the filing history of Companies House Direct or DVD-ROM/Archived documents/Hard Files orders.
Repurchase of Shares (SH03) and Schemes of Arrangement
HMRC has introduced an electronic service to temporarily replace their usual Stamp Duty process. Your SH03 form is normally sent to HMRC for stamping if the purchase is above the duty payable threshold. You’ll still need to send your form to HMRC - they will issue your company with a letter instead of stamping the form. Companies House will accept and register an unstamped SH03 form if it’s accompanied by the letter from HMRC confirming that the correct duty has been paid. Companies House will also accept and register court orders sanctioning Schemes of Arrangement which are accompanied either by the letter from HMRC confirming that the correct duty has been paid, or a letter from HMRC confirming that no duty is payable.
You can find out more about Schemes of Arrangement at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/stamp-duty-and-stamp-duty-reserve-tax-transfer-schemes-of-arrangement
Restricting the Disclosure of Information – Online Applications.
Due to the impact of COVID-19, Companies House has suspended all paper applications covering sections 243, 790ZF and 790ZG of the Companies Act 2006. To help Companies House protect your details as quickly as possible, you must apply online to protect your details from being disclosed on the Companies House public register. For more information, see our guidance on restricting the disclosure of your information
Electronic Filing and Payment Update
Most of Companies House’s documents can be filed electronically using existing online services. If you need to file a document on this list, Companies House advise to use their online services to help them process your information as quickly as possible.
For the small number of filings that do not currently have an online service – Companies House is urgently working on a service to upload your documents and make a payment where necessary. This will only be available for documents that do not already have an online service. Companies House has indicated they will update you as soon as this solution is available.
Companies House has committed to keep businesses informed through regular emails, as well as via updates to their web-site, as to any other changes to their services and their ability to provide them in the current circumstances. However, if their members have any other queries they would like answered in the interim, please contact your Customer Care Manager directly via email.
The Society will continue to update members with information regarding business support measures in the course of the current crisis, as more detail on their operation and impact for NI business becomes clear. The Society will continue to monitor the situation and update members as required.
David A. Lavery CB