Why ditching Help to Grow: Digital will hurt the UK’s SMEs

aat comment

AAT believes the Government is wrong to close Help to Grow and asks: does it have a better idea?

Amid the chaotic pre-Christmas rush of strikes and snow, it was easy to miss the UK government’s quiet announcement of its decision to scrap its own Help to Grow: Digital scheme.

Citing a lack of interest among the community it was designed to help, BEIS says the scheme will be wound down early in 2023. It’s a decision that will have both short- and long-term repercussions for the UK’s millions of SMEs– none of them good.

The aims behind Help to Grow: Digital

First, some background: Help to Grow: Digital was originally devised as a programme for small and medium-sized businesses to access free, impartial online support about how digital technology can boost their business’s performance. It is one of two Help to Grow schemes (the other focuses on Management)

Under the terms of the scheme, eligible businesses were supposed to be able to access a discount of up to 50% towards the costs of buying approved software (including accountancy software), worth up to £5,000.

We have been active supporters of the Help to Grow agenda and felt that its digital iteration was absolutely critical. The principle behind the scheme, we felt, was right in that its aim was to offer a user-friendly and potentially effective way of equipping small businesses in particular with vital support to digitise their systems and processes. We did, however, have significant concerns about the way that the scheme was structured in practice.

When we sought to capture views on the scheme at the meeting of our Digital Advisory Panel in January 2022, the Panel membership at that time was mixed in terms of awareness of the scheme, with some actively involved in it and others having not heard of it at all.

Shortcomings in implementation

We had a number of concerns from the off, and we organised and sent a joint letter to the Small Business Minister outlining these concerns in February 2022.

First, the eligibility criteria were too restrictive resulting in approximately 90% of small businesses being excluded, the software product range too narrow, and the range of costs that the available funding was allowed to cover needed to be increased; consequently there was a genuine concern that the scheme would be seriously undersubscribed among the very constituency it was designed to support.

Another key concern we had was around the scheme’s promotion among the business community. We reiterated this concern when the Government eventually announced changes to the scheme on 25 July 2022 , if Help to Grow: Digital wasn’t sufficiently promoted, then it was always likely to run the risk of falling flat.

AAT weighs in

It’s our role to provide constructive critical engagement. As AAT CEO Sarah Beale said in January, “We would very much like to see this scheme succeed… However, without prompt government intervention, the scheme may prove to be another missed opportunity and frankly underdeliver, despite good intentions and ambition.”

So, almost a year later and here we are: the lack of promotional resource, combined with only giving the scheme four months to pick up since the changes to the eligibility requirements were announced have ended in a predictable failure. Our fear that it would be undersubscribed, and the government would scrap it has come to pass.

In announcing the winding up of the scheme, the Government says Help to Grow: Digital fell short of its stated goal of ‘up to 100,000’ small businesses signing up.

The seeds of this failure were sown early on.

Government mistakes

The Government didn’t take the opportunity to engage with those that could have helped to design the scheme, including professional bodies, the likes of the FSB and small businesses themselves. There was, for us, a real sense that the scheme was first designed and only then a strategy to promote and apply it developed, rather than being clear on the problem and then developing a solution to address it properly.

It could have been so different: a look north of the border shows that it is possible to design a scheme for SMEs that garners healthy engagement and take up seen through the success of the Digital Boost national digital upskilling programme. Scotland’s success in helping its SMEs prepare for a digital future demonstrates not only that government can deliver effective schemes, but also that there exists a strong pent-up demand for this kind of support.


There’s no hiding our disappointment in this outcome. While the UK has an outstanding digital heritage and infrastructure, much more needs to be done to extend that to smaller and growing businesses. While no government scheme can help to address such a big issue all on its own, a well-designed and targeted scheme can make enormous impact. It’s a shame that Help to Grow: Digital got so little help to grow from those designing and promoting it.

Adam Harper is AAT's Director of Professional Standards & Policy..

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