Conservative member hits out over furlough rejection

Ben Lord opened the Rambling Rose Coffee House in Ixworth at the end of February. Picture: GREGG BR

Ben Lord opened the Rambling Rose Coffee House in Ixworth at the end of February. Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

A Conservative member and councillor is outraged that his furlough application was unsuccessful, even though he claims to know health secretary Matt Hancock personally.

Ben Lord, the chairman of Ixworth council, started a coffee shop and bistro with his family on February 29 but was forced to close by the coronavirus lockdown without having made a submission to PAYE – making his business ineligible for the furlough scheme.

Mr Lord said that when the furlough scheme was introduced he expected to be able to claim 80% of his employees wages back.

He said: “On April 20 I went online to begin the process, only for the system to say that we were unable to claim.

“I eventually spoke to them on the Friday of that week. I was told that because we hadn’t made any PAYE submissions before March 19, we didn’t qualify.

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“I protested to this and said: ‘This can’t possibly be fair or correct. We’re a brand new business, all of this is outside our control and we were never going to be in a position to qualify for your eligibility criteria which, incidentally, was never made clear when the scheme was announced’.”

Mr Lord, who is an independent member of Ixworth council, was then asked to write a letter of complaint to HMRC.

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“And I said: ‘What good is that going to do? My staff have been furloughed for five weeks, they’re expecting to be accepted by this scheme and, even if we weren’t in a pandemic, your rate of complaints went up from 80,000 in 2018 to 140,000 in 2019. So what confidence can you give me that I am going to get a quick and robust answer?’. At which point the phone was put down on me.”

“I then escalated it to Matt Hancock who is my MP. I know Matt personally, so I thought: ‘Lets get Matt on the case’.

“His team said they would go into bat for us with HMRC and the Treasury.”

A source close to West Suffolk MP Mr Hancock insisted that all constituents receive equal amounts of help, whether they were known to the health minister or not.

“It took nine and a half weeks to get a response out of HMRC,” Mr Lord added. “The response was simply a copy and paste from their website as to what the eligibility criteria is.”

Mr Lord said he had lost three members of staff and strain had been put on his business as a result of this decision.

“If it wasn’t for the fact that my parents own the building we’re based in, the business would have collapsed because we wouldn’t have been able to pay our rent,” he said.

Mr Lord said his business, which employed 10 people at the start of lockdown, was also not eligible for bounce back loans business loans because it did not have prior year accounts in order to make a loan application.

“We’ve absolutely been left high and dry by this government,” he said.

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“I am completely sympathetic to the fact that we’re in unprecedented times and I recognise not everybody is going to get to get help, but it does rather feel that as a brand new business creating local employment in this area, we have been precluded from something we were entitled to through unknown detail that was not made clear from the outset.”

Commenting on the case a spokesman for HMRC said the details of the scheme had been “publicised and in the guidance – and indeed well-covered in the media – right from day one”.

“HMRC operates the scheme according to the rules which are decided by the Treasury.

“The requirement for an RTI [real time information] PAYE submission to have been made has been a requirement for eligibility since the scheme was announced.

“It was actually extended by the Treasury from the original cut-off of February 28 to bring more people in.

“I’m afraid if someone isn’t eligible according to the scheme rules then there isn’t anything HMRC can do, we can only implement the scheme as it’s written.”

• We are happy to correct an earlier version of this story which said Mr Lord was a Conservative councillor. He is in fact an independent councillor but a Conservative party member.