Brexit support fund: limited time to apply

SMEs can now apply for the Government’s Brexit support grants to help them adjust to the new trading environment with the EU. How useful are they?

The SME Brexit Support offers £2,000 to UK SMEs who employ up to 500 staff and who have an annual turnover of up to £100m. They must also trade between Great Britain and either the EU or Ireland.

A total of £20m has been allocated for the SME Brexit Support Fund, which will close on 30 June 2021 or earlier, once funding has been claimed.

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The grants are ringfenced in two areas: professional, practical advice and support. Professional advice obtained with grant money can help with:

  • Meeting the latest trading regulations
  • Fulfilling safety and security declaration requirements
  • Meeting customs, excise and import VAT rules.

Training can cover:

  • How to complete customs declarations
  • Managing customs processes and customs software and systems
  • Issues relating to import and exports including VAT, excise duties and rules of origin.

But given the limited time to apply for the SME Brexit Support Fund (just over three months) and the grant amount itself, how popular has the scheme been so far and what do accountants and their clients think of what’s being offered?

There’s been more interest in the latest grant – there’s still a need for education and advice

Alison Horner, indirect tax partner, MHA

We provide support for clients who want to submit a grant application and we’re also an approved provider of customs training for businesses. We provided grant funding support in the previous rounds (in August 2020 and Q4 2020) too and have had about 30-50 clients apply for this round. We have seen an increase in interest in the new grant funding, so it’s clear there is still a need for education and advice even four months after the UK left the transition period.

However, we are seeing longer delays between application and approval this time around because the scheme has widened to include professional advice. Previously, it focused on very specific customs training, and the process was more cumbersome, as it required details of each individual employee on the training. Now though the funding is a fixed amount per company.  

Overall, the process has been working, and clients have successfully received their funding and their training.

Next steps: When speaking to clients, we recommend either a Brexit implementation review or customs training to help them cope with applying all the changes so they are able to deal with imports and exports from both a VAT and Customs point of view. However, there is such demand that it’s likely to run out soon. Clients need to make their applications as soon as they can.

Verdict: There’s been an increase in interest in new grant funding so there’s still a clear need for education and advice four months post-Brexit transition.

It’s not worth the hassle of applying. Free advice – not free money – would have worked better

Andrew Oury, partner, Oury Clark and chartered accountant and tax advisor

We have let our clients know about the grant, but none so far have claimed it. The feeling seems to be that the amount granted – £2k for help with import and export costs – isn’t really worth the hassle of applying. It’s a nice offer but probably more for the optics than anything else.

Our clients have complex problems around VAT between the UK and Europe and not many of them knew about the grant or currently understand how they might use it. Free advice would perhaps be a better plan than free money to then get advice. 

Knowledge of VAT and customs issues is very poor right now, despite robust official guidance. I’d like to see heavy investment into training up logistics companies’ staff on these issues. This where the majority of questions and issues are first arising.

Next steps: The GLA (Greater London Authority) have been running workshops on Brexit and import/export costs and we at Oury Clark have been providing time and leadership on – we have more coming up and it’s what most of our advice is centred on at the moment.

Verdict: The grants aren’t worth the hassle of applying. It would have been better to offer free advice rather than free money.

Some will benefit, but many clients have ‘Covid grant fatigue’

Lisa Dickson, founder, Caseron Cloud Accounting

We haven’t had much interest from clients about the grant because the majority of our clients are service-based, online businesses or they don’t export the products they produce.

The eligibility criteria is also quite strict: businesses must import or export goods between the UK and EU or between Britain and Northern Ireland. They must be a small business with a turnover under 1m and employing less than 500 people. And they must need the training for their own import or export decorations for their own goods. The grant isn’t available for agents who sell those services, just businesses who ship their own goods across borders. 

And of our clients who do export goods to the EU, they’ve actually outsourced the customs and excise role to specialist export agencies, so they pay someone else to manage that challenge for them. Sure, it might cost a little bit more, but that cost is built into their margins.

For many eligible small businesses who do trade with the EU and manage the export process themselves, I think the funding will be of tremendous value. Sadly, not many businesses are even aware of it.

We are seeing a lot of ‘Covid grant fatigue’ among our clients, where so much information and misinformation is out there: clients don’t really read third party emails, newsletters,  or HMRC updates – so they’ll literally just forward to us and ask – ‘is this relevant to me or not?’ Sometimes, it’s a very short answer! 

Next steps:  We try to provide them with enough information so they can quickly assess whether it’s right for their business or not – and if we think it might be an option – we jump on a call to discuss options. 

Verdict: It will be of value to some eligible businesses, but most clients are experiencing Covid grant fatigue and won’t even be aware of it.

David Nunn is Content Manager at AAT.

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