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Coronavirus: State grants punish people for success, says Belfast businessman

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Peter McCloskey at work before the introduction of lockdown

Peter McCloskey at work before the introduction of lockdown

Peter McCloskey at work before the introduction of lockdown

A Belfast businessman has said the jobs of his 40 staff are at risk because he does not qualify for grant support despite years of investment in the area.

Peter McCloskey, who with his family owns barber shops, cafes and restaurants across the city, said he had faced many challenges before coronavirus, but this was among the worst.

"When I first opened a restaurant we went through two years of serious roadworks which could have put our lights out at any time, but I was able to keep it going," he explained.

"Now it feels like I'm being penalised after putting so much money into the economy."

Mr McCloskey was told he did not qualify for support because he owns too many premises - a decision the businessman believes was unfair.

"I have invested very heavily in Belfast, paying tens of thousands of pounds in PAYE, wages, and VAT," he said.

"I'm not alone. Many businesspeople have invested heavily and are slipping through the cracks in the legislation."

Mr McCloskey hit out at what he described as the rushed guidelines around the Government's grant support schemes, under which businesses with multiple branches have been told they are eligible for one grant only.

He said that because his businesses were separate legal entities, he should receive a grant for each one - a position backed by Pete Boyle, the owner of the Argento chain of jewellers, who feels the rules are unfair when compared to the regime in others parts of the UK.

"I'm trying to help my staff as much as I can, but the furlough money from the Government has been slow coming through and that does put you under a bit of pressure," Mr McCloskey told this newspaper.

"It's all well and good saying the help is there, but it takes a while delivering it.

"The £10,000 grant would have helped us pay the rent as we don't have any income, but then there was the caveat that if you have three or more businesses, it doesn't apply." He also claimed that Land & Property Services, which administers the grant schemes and is part of the Department of Finance, had informed him that his businesses would be treated as separate legal entities, only for the Department for the Economy to tell him otherwise.

The businessman was told to consider court action, but he ultimately decided against it because "that takes for ever".

Instead he decided to try and stay busy by keeping open his coffee shop on the Belmont Road, which his daughter runs, for collections and deliveries. He has also been donating pizzas to health workers.

"We want to still be here when all of this is over and it's nice when people realise that you're part of the community, but it's hard to do it without some kind of government support," Mr McCloskey said.

The Department for the Economy did not comment on the businessman's specific circumstances, but a spokesperson accepted that many companies were struggling with the consequences of lockdown.

"The department recognises the ongoing impact of the pandemic on businesses," they said.

"One of the conditions of both the £10,000 and £25,000 support schemes is that businesses with multiple premises meeting the net annual value criteria and other eligibility criteria will only be eligible to receive one grant from the schemes.

"There is a limit to the funding available for this scheme and a decision was taken to restrict eligible businesses with multiple premises to one payment so that support could be offered to all potentially eligible businesses.

"A £40million hardship fund is also being developed, aimed at microbusinesses which have not been able to avail of the existing support schemes and which require financial support due to the impact of Covid-19."

In other correspondence regarding the case, the department said: "Businesses with more than three sites are excluded from small business rate relief and are hence ineligible for the scheme."

East Belfast DUP MP Gavin Robinson said Mr McCloskey should be entitled to help.

"I'm more than happy to support Peter, who is not only a renowned businessman but is well-respected," he added.

"His range of businesses have served our community so well. Ultimately, if his businesses are eligible, which I believe they are, then he should be entitled to the grants."

Belfast Telegraph