Jersey business owners 'left feeling like petty criminals’

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A SELF-EMPLOYED Islander has said she and other small-business owners were left ‘feeling like petty criminals’ after the Treasury threatened legal action over alleged over-payments of Covid-related financial support.

Natalie Mayer added she was ‘pleased and relieved’ that a complaint she made against the department had been upheld by the States’ official complaints board.

Ms Mayer made the formal complaint after being told by the Treasury last January that she had wrongly claimed for co-funded payroll support, a scheme the past government introduced to help businesses survive through the pandemic.

While praising the speed and effectiveness of the scheme, the States of Jersey Complaints Board concluded this week that the treatment that Ms Mayer and others in a similar position had received ‘had been contrary to the generally accepted principles of natural justice’.

In response, Ms Mayer said: ‘The surprise reclaims, which were the responsibility of the previous government, had a huge effect on the peace and mental wellbeing of many individuals who run small businesses and I wanted to speak up for them, as much as myself.

‘We were left feeling like petty criminals at a time when we were quietly trying to rebuild our livelihoods following the shock of our business closures during the lockdowns.

‘It appeared to be difficult, for those in office whose income was not affected by the pandemic, to understand the perspective of those whose businesses were shut down and had their income taken away.’

The board not only found that the government’s co-funded payroll scheme was poorly communicated but also that it should have been better ‘road-tested’ before it was introduced, and the Treasury had used the threat of legal action too soon when it assessed that someone had been overpaid.

Like thousands of businesses and individuals, Ms Mayer applied in 2020 for co-funded payroll support, which provided support of up to 90% of total income up to a maximum of £2,500.

However, it was not clear what ‘monthly gross income’ meant for sole traders.

Ms Mayer’s case

Having read the guidance carefully, Ms Mayer spoke with others in a similar position and rang the helpline to check that she was claiming the correct amount.

The board concluded that she ‘had taken all possible steps to seek clarity’ on the matter.

However, in January 2022, she was told by the Treasury that there was a discrepancy in her submission for the Co-Funded Payroll Scheme and she had wrongly claimed in relation to turnover instead of earnings.

Ms Mayer – along with several other sole traders – argued that the guidelines and advice had not been clear, which had led to them making claims in good faith, only later to be pursued for monies owed, through the Treasury’s debt recovery system, with threats of legal action against those in default of repayment.

In upholding her complaint, board chair Geoffrey Crill concluded: ‘The Covid pandemic was an unprecedented event and the introduction of the CFPS was a bold and brave initiative by government, which provided invaluable and speedy support to many Islanders and small businesses.

‘The Treasury and Exchequer made it clear that applications would be checked retrospectively and that, where any overpayment was found to have been made, they would seek to recover the amount. However, the key element of this case was communication.’

He added: ‘Those involved in establishing the CFPS should take considerable and justifiable pride in the speedy and effective support that the scheme provided.

‘However, the department had used the term “turnover” in determining an applicant’s eligibility for assistance under the scheme, while using the term “gross income” in order to calculate the level of support.

‘The department did not take adequate steps to ensure that the distinction was understood by all applicants and the helpline simply referred applicants back to the guidance. The threat of legal proceedings should have only been introduced as a last resort if the people involved failed to engage with the department.’


The board concluded that future schemes should be better ‘road-tested’ by ‘as wide a range of intended beneficiaries as is practicable in the circumstances’.

It added: ‘The board is also concerned that, as soon as an overpayment had been identified, its recovery was put into the department’s debt recovery system, with threats of legal action in default of repayment.

‘Given that in the vast majority of cases – and certainly in the case of this complainant – any overpayment was the result of genuine mistake or misunderstanding, this was insensitive, excessive and deeply distressing for people who were suffering considerable financial hardship even with the benefit of the assistance provided under the scheme.

‘The board recommends that the threat of legal proceedings should have only been introduced as a last resort following a complete failure by the alleged overpayment to engage with the department.’

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