Complaints about financial grants for small business
What is the case?
We have received more than 550 complaints about financial grants to support small business during the pandemic. These grants are managed by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions.
Given the large number of complaints, the Ombudsman has decided to investigate to see if the Department has made errors. We may also be able to assist the Department in improving its practices and procedures for receiving and managing applications for grants.
Background about the grants
In March the Premier announced the establishment of a $500 million dollar Business Support Fund for the hospitality, tourism, accommodation, arts and entertainment and retail sectors. The fund was part of an economic survival package to support businesses and jobs affected by the restrictions in place to manage the coronavirus pandemic.
Applications were open within days of the announcement and applicants had to apply through an online form on the Business Victoria website. The Department told us there were more than 94,000 applications and 77,900 grants were paid to businesses.
In May the Premier announced that the Business Support Fund would be extended to include businesses enrolled in the Job Keeper scheme. Applicants who had already applied and were unsuccessful were to receive an invitation to apply for the expanded grant.
The form was updated so businesses in both the initial (March) and expanded (May) categories could apply. The grant closed in June.
What are the complaints about?
The complaints we have received include:
- Delays in providing outcomes.
- Poor communication with applicants about the status of their application. Status updates were provided via email. In some instances, applicants say they did not receive the email.
- Some applicants who were unsuccessful for a grant say they did not get an invitation to apply for the expanded fund.
- Some applicants received incorrect information from the Department’s call centre.
- Applications can only be done online. This makes it difficult for business owners with limited computer skills.
We have raised a number of the complaints with the Department. We have asked that it fix errors and contact applicants to discuss their situations.
Some of the specific complaints which we have sought to have fixed include:
- Applications which were unsuccessful because the applicant made a mistake in their application. For example, they did not enter their full business name.
- Applications that the Department assessed with incorrect information. For example, one of the eligibility criteria is that the business payroll be less than $650,000 per year. In some cases, Business Victoria relied on incorrect or out of date information from the State Revenue office to rule out applicants.
- Failure to provide applicants with an invitation into the expanded grant, if they applied before the expansion of the categories.
There are some complaints we are not able to fix. These include applications where:
- Applicants do not meet the eligibility criteria. The eligibility criteria were set by a Government Minister/s. We do not have the powers to look into such decisions.
- The business name was not registered with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) or another relevant regulator, at 16 March 2020.
Besides raising individual cases, we have asked the Department to take measures to reduce delays and improve communication with applicants.
The Department has responded to complaints raised by the Ombudsman and taken several measures including:
- re-forming an escalation team which can review individual outcomes, when requested
- bringing in specialised staff who are able to make phone calls to applicants. It said it was now averaging 20 phone calls each day.
- developing a clear process for reviewing complaints and ensuring that all applicants are treated with procedural fairness.
It has agreed to provide outcomes within 14 days to applicants whose complaints we refer to them, from 19 August 2020 onwards.
After the Stage 4 lockdown, another two grants were announced:
- The Business Support Expansion Fund. The grant is $10,000 for businesses in the Stage 4 lockdown areas (Melbourne and Mitchell Shire). It is $5,000 for businesses in other areas of Victoria. The grant closed on 14 September 2020.
- The third round Business Support Fund. The grant is $10,000, $15,000 or $20,000 depending on the business size. This grant opened on 18 September 2020.