On Thursday December 2 2020, I logged into yet another Zoom call wearing two hats – the hat of a local Swindon-based journalist and the hat of a member of Forgotten Ltd, the campaign group set up to support company owners of small businesses who have received no personal help with their salaries during Covid19.
I was one of multiple journalists on that call, along with Gina Broadhurst my colleague from Forgotten Ltd and also representatives of an aligned campaigned group Excluded UK, representing a cross section of those also left out of support. You may have heard of us. We number around three million, we employ around 7.5 million – we are tiny voices on our own yet as a collective we are loud. Not supporting us will have impacts for years to come.
Also on that call were a number of well known and recognised elected politicians – members of M9, a collaboration of the UK’s metro mayors, both Tory and Labour. They were there to listen.
As a result of that meeting, I decided it was impossible for me to be impartial on this matter because I’m personally affected by it, so a blog was the best way to talk about some of the things shared during that 90 minute meeting.
One of the first things was the sheer oddity of seeing people like Steve Rotheram, Mayor of Liverpool City Region, Andy Street, Mayor of West Midlands, Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of North of Tyne, Dan Jarvis, Mayor of Sheffield City Region, Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London and Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol in my own living room as the Christmas lights flickered behind me, and our dog Jess sat at my feet and I wore an orange fleece on a cold, rainy Swindon evening. I reflected on how it really summed up so much of our communication now.
The second thing was the fact that the West of England Mayor Tom Bowles was not there – perhaps he couldn’t make it – however he’s not responded to any correspondence from Forgotten Ltd. Perhaps he’s forgotten us. Thank goodness Marvin Rees was there, a familiar face representing a city struggling in Tier 3, a city where micro businesses are falling over. Every single day.
My one question that evening was more of a plea – did the mayors realise that there are forgotten and excluded across the South West who have been largely met with deafening silence from our politicians, in spite of letters and engagement? Many of us ‘down south’ feel we are one of those annoying, chronic problems that politicians bat away because they just don’t know how to deal with us.
With so much support from mayors in the Midlands and the North, and with them being far more vocal on these matters, it can feel that those who live in the South West are invisible. I spoke up for Swindon and my business friends in the town who have had no support with their own salaries, who have taken out loans from the government to keep going only for them to be eaten up quickly to cover normal business running costs – some of these business owners have no hope of recovery any time soon.
Six business owners shared their personal stories and one was Chloe Savage from Bristol and her situation was heart-breaking. Running a successful business in bespoke and heritage embroidery based in the affluent area of Clifton, Chloe and her team have worked with museums across the land, on major film projects including the Harry Potter franchise and also with the National Trust.
Within 24 hours of lockdown in March, two years’ worth of booked work disappeared. As a director of a limited company she could furlough herself (as we all could) but under the law couldn’t work on her business other than basic admin and, that furlough money would mean around £500 a month to pay her personal bills. Most business owners will not do this because it almost guarantees business failure or flatlines a business so greatly that the steep curve of recovery would not make it financially viable. That means for most, no food on the table for the foreseeable future.
She took out a loan and that was eaten up when her landlord put up the rent of the offices and she had to buy herself out of a tenancy. A perfect storm of circumstances has put Chloe in a position where her business is out of business for many months The impact on her mental health and that of her family was laid out for all to see.
What gets forgotten in this whole mess is that the Chloes of England are the small wealth creators who are successful in their own area of business yet they are not personally wealthy – they are not millionaires. They work hard, often have a decent standard of living and the various normal bills that go with that, yet they aren’t sat on wads of cash. They certainly don’t have enough in the bank to sustain a business and their own personal expenses with no income for nine months so far.
What they feel is the utter injustice of watching other areas of business getting support – sometimes when they don’t need it. Some business owners also cannot just ‘pivot’ and change what they do.
Personally, I have been able to do that and have made up some of the ground I lost back in late March, early April. It’s been exhausting, scary, challenging and sometimes exciting, I’m not going to lie. It’s brought forth opportunities I could not have foreseen – however I attended this meeting because there are multiple small businesses who are not in that fortunate position.
The mayors who attended did come up with some suggestions which they have now pledged to put to government. These included:
- Asking the Chancellor to use the money coming back from big names like Tesco who have received business rates relief as a matter of course when, in fact, they’ve boomed during 2020. Tesco has voluntarily given that money back and it’s over £500m. That could be used to support the excluded and forgotten in business.
- Asking within their own communities, those big businesses like Tesco to do the same to boost that pot to support smaller businesses who are vital to economic recovery too.
- Asking HMRC to put tax recovery on hold – with no threats of interest payments – to those businesses where owners have not received any or adequate support.
- Supporting Forgotten Ltd with its fully costed proposal for DISS (Directors Income Support Scheme) which mirrors the same scheme for the self-employed where they get up to 80 per cent of their salary paid and they can keep on working.
It remains to be seen if these efforts bear any fruit – yet for me as a member of Forgotten Ltd it was heartening to see ‘big names’ listening and feeling the pain being felt by millions of people. Good people, passionate about their businesses, employing small teams or even just themselves, making money in their own communities, offering great value and service, being brought to their knees by a government which is refusing to acknowledge them.
I cannot stress how massive the fall-out will be when a large minority feel of little value, feel they’ve been labelled as ‘tax dodgers’ as ‘vulnerable to fraud’ as ‘unviable’. Most SME owners go out on their own due to passion and ignoring that will have huge consequences in terms of job losses, welfare claims, mental health issues and, perhaps, who they vote for in the future. Those MPs in marginal seats who have been silent on this matter should, perhaps, be worried.
The irony of this is that when this Covid19 bill has to be paid back – and it will – it will be this sector which will bear the brunt undoubtedly. It would be a fallacy to assume that VAT, corporation tax, dividend tax, personal tax will remain unchanged two or three years down the line. What will happen if millions of business owners who have been left behind are asked to pay higher taxes to cover the cost of support they’ve not received?