Larne social enterprise AEL fears losing out on job protection fund because of charitable status

The chief executive of Larne-based AEL has spoken out after the social enterprise looks set to lose out on a Covid-19 business hardship grant.

Thursday, 21st May 2020, 1:13 pm
David Hunter CEO of AEL.
David Hunter CEO of AEL.

Commenting on social media, David Hunter said: “Social enterprises are businesses employing 25,000 people locally.

“They must not be separated out because of their charitable purpose.

“Many employees are already significantly disadvantaged – these jobs need protection on a par with any other business. Something very wrong here.”

Social Enterprise NI commented: “The idea that social enterprises with charitable status can’t access Hardship Fund and being directed to Charity Fund shows no understanding of the contribution that social enterprises make to the Northern Ireland economy.”

Currently employees at the award-winning AEL are furloughed.

Charities or social enterprises with charitable status cannot apply to the NI Micro-business Hardship Fund.

East Antrim Ulster Unionist MLA John Stewart said he is “deeply frustrated” that sole traders and some social enterprises have missed out on every Covid-19 support scheme to date.

AEL, formerly known as Access Employment Limited, based at Pound Street, in the Co Antrim town, celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018 when it was named as Northern Ireland Social Enterprise of the Year.

The social enterprise provides people aged 16 to 60 years who have a learning disability, Asperger’s, autism or other disadvantage with training and employment opportunities.

In 2018, the company’s water bottling business, which trades under the name of Clearer Water, had a turnover of £200,000 in just two years.

The previous year, the AEL company had a turnover of £1.3m with annual savings to the public purse in benefits of £171,401.  It spent £85,000 in 19 Larne-based businesses.

Water is bottled at source in a manufacturing plant in Magheramorne. It is stocked by the prestigious five-star Fitzwilliam Hotel in Belfast, the MHL hotel group, four retail outlets in London and the National Trust.

Mr Stewart added: “I have to say that while I welcome this vital support for eligible business facing hardship, I am deeply frustrated that the Minister for the Economy has decided to exclude sole traders and partners as well as many businesses in the social enterprise sector.

“Sole traders and social enterprises play a vital role in our economy yet they have missed out on every support scheme to date.

“Many have been relying on this hardship scheme to act as a business lifeline until things return to normal. After believing they would meet the criteria at the weekend they are now discovering that they are ineligible.

“At Wednesday’s Economy Committee meeting I pressed the minister on this issue and urged her strongly to look at broadening the support measures to include those who have missed out.”

Mr Stewart was commenting on a fund which was announced for micro-business and social enterprises unable to access other regional and national Covid-19 support measures.

The Department for the Economy (DfE) will make up to £40m available through a fund, which is being administered by Invest Northern Ireland. It will offer emergency funding to businesses facing immediate cash flow difficulties due to the impact of Covid-19.

The funding is available to businesses unable to access the £10,000, £25,000 and Covid-19 Childcare Support grant schemes. The final amounts awarded will depend on the number of successful applications.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds said: “The Hardship Fund will provide much-needed support to micro-businesses which have so far been unable to access other regional and national coronavirus support measures.

“This new fund should mean that over 40,000 businesses in Northern Ireland will have been eligible to apply for support under the Northern Ireland Covid-19 grant schemes.”

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter.


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