Andrew O’Brien is Director of External Affairs at Social Enterprise UK

It has been 72 days since the Prime Minister first announced the beginning of the Coronavirus Lockdown in the UK. As lockdown restrictions are starting to be eased all around the country, it is a good opportunity to take stock of what has happened to the sector during this and what comes next.

Whatever happens, we need to know how you are being affected. This helps us to understand what we need to do and what we need to raise with government, funders and other stakeholders. We are only as good as the data that we have. So please, take a moment to join our Social Enterprise Advisory Panel so that we can better help you during the coming months.

Fighting to get our fair share

When the lockdown emerged, the Chancellor promised that he would do “whatever it takes” to help the economy through this. Naturally, social enterprises assumed that they would be entitled to do the same support as other businesses and charities. Unfortunately, getting access to support has been more of a struggle than many of us had expected.

Commercial loans through the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans Scheme were too expensive for most social enterprises. The business grants were based on tax reliefs which excluded around 70% of social enterprises. On top of this grants that were being distributed by foundations were heavily concentrated on traditional charities, rather than social enterprises. Support programmes were not taking the needs of social enterprises on board.

Thanks to the data provided by social enterprises, we were able to begin immediately campaigning to get these schemes improved. Working with our partners we created #SaveOurSocents to raise the profile of our sector and get changes.

One policy at a time

Things have moved rapidly, and government has developed schemes to support businesses at pace. Once these schemes have been set up, it has been often been unwilling to adapt them without huge pressure.

Despite this, we have managed to get a number of clear changes of approach which have opened up funds to social enterprises that otherwise would not have existed.

  • Thanks to social enterprise campaigning, the £310m National Lottery Grant funds were opened up to social enterprises, not just charities, recognising our vital contribution to communities badly impacted by COVID-19.
  • Working with our members, we were able to get social enterprises delivering health services and struggling to get access to PPE put onto the NHS Supply Chain.
  • We supported efforts to give local councils more discretion over £617m of business grants so that they could support social enterprises contributing to local communities.
  • To get social enterprises access to suitable capital, we have helped get £150m of Dormant Account money unlocked to provide emergency loans and support for social enterprises and charities, including blended capital which was demanded by social enterprises. 

We managed to do this thanks to the over 1,000 social enterprise businesses which have signed up to our letter to the Chancellor; the efforts of Patron’s such as Baroness Glenys Thornton raising our concerns directly in Parliament and members raising concerns directly in the media and with politicians.

Thanks to this collective effort, thousands of social enterprises which otherwise would have got no support have now got the chance to get some help through this emergency.

What next?

We are entering a dangerous period as the government begins to unwind support for businesses and eases the lockdown. If schemes are withdrawn too quickly or support is not targeted at the most vulnerable, we could see social enterprises close unnecessarily and people lose jobs that may later struggle to get back into employment.

We have been campaigning hard on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – which is the most utilised government support scheme – to ensure that social enterprise employers are considered as changes are made. Last week’s announcement has raised concerns about the viability of some businesses and the jobs of workers. We are raising those concerns with the Treasury. We want to make sure that those that employ the most vulnerable workers are not abandoned. We have had some success getting national media interested in these workers, but there is much more to do.

Social enterprises need to start thinking about the recovery. Social enterprises have a huge role to play in rebuilding Britain after this massive economic shock. Not only are social enterprises job creating machines, but we are also working in the most deprived communities. Social enterprises are also more likely to be focused on sustainability and a green recovery. Whichever way you cut it, social enterprises are central to our future.

Over the coming weeks we want to work with members to get this point across to politicians, investors, funders and other stakeholders. To do this we need the best data that we can get on social enterprises and what they are doing around the country to help get communities back on their feet.

Please keep in touch. Keep campaigning. And if you have some time, join our Social Enterprise Advisory Panel so that we can help put social enterprises at the heart of the UK’s recovery from this crisis.