The release of the Government’s Finance (COVID-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021 (“the Bill”) on 24 June 2021 is an important step in providing clarity and support for businesses as they re-open and resume normal trading following COVID-19 restrictions.
The Bill provides a legal footing to the new and extended measures announced in the Government’s Economic Recovery Plan on 1 June 2021, which outlines a pathway for businesses emerging from what is hoped to be the worst of the pandemic. Overall, the measures provided for in this Bill, including an extension of existing schemes and the introduction of an additional new business support scheme, will be welcomed by those across affected sectors.
One of the most positive measures arising from the Bill is the introduction of the new Business Resumption Support Scheme (BRSS), which offers relief to businesses that have experienced a significant reduction in turnover as a result of public health restrictions. Trading businesses whose turnover during the period 1 September 2020 to 31 August 2021 is reduced by 75% compared with 2019 will be eligible for the scheme, which will be implemented in September 2021.
The BRSS will not be restricted by location, rate paying or physical premises. Qualifying businesses will be able to apply to Revenue for a cash payment under the scheme, which will be treated as an “Advance Credit for Trading Expenses” (ACTE), capped at €15,000. Eligible businesses must make a claim between 1 September 2021 and 30 November 2021. Whilst the ACTE will not be considered taxable income upon receipt, it will reduce the trading tax deduction allowable by an amount equivalent to the ACTE.
This relief is a welcome addition for vulnerable but viable businesses. However, it should be noted that based on the definition of new relevant business activity, it appears that the relief is only available where a business commenced to trade prior to 26 August 2020.
The Bill confirmed the extension of the Tax Debt Warehousing Scheme previously outlined in the Economic Recovery Plan, which is reassuring for businesses concerned about the management of cash flow upon re-opening. The scheme is now extended until the end of 2021, with an interest free period for 2022, which means that businesses will not have to pay warehoused tax liabilities until 1 January 2023 with a reduced interest rate of 3% applying for a certain period thereafter. The Bill also provides for overpayments of the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) to be included in the scheme.
The COVID Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS), available to eligible businesses that carry out a business activity that is impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, has now been extended to 30 September 2021. This extension will give certainty to businesses still directly affected by existing restrictions. In order to qualify for the scheme, a business must have been required to prohibit or considerably restrict customers from accessing their business premises due to public health guidelines.
The Bill also provides for enhanced restart week payments under the CRSS for businesses re-opening after a period of restrictions, to incentivise them to exit the scheme and to assist them with the costs of recommencing economic activity. Eligible businesses that open on or after 2 June 2021 will be able to claim an enhanced restart payment of three weeks at double rate of payment as they exit the scheme, subject to a maximum of €30,000. This will allow businesses to restock and resume operations in a safe manner.
The Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) continues to be a key Government support for many businesses and has now been extended to 31 December 2021. The current payments rates have also been extended to 30 September 2021. This is encouraging for claimants of the scheme who are currently planning for the months ahead.
For those businesses seeking to avail of the EWSS extension, they will need to be able to demonstrate a 30% decline in turnover/ customer orders for all of 2021, as compared to all for 2019. This means that businesses that experience an increased in turnover / customer orders in the second half of 2021 may no longer meet the eligibility criteria to claim EWSS. No decisions have yet been taken regarding the future of the EWSS beyond Quarter 4 of 2021 but it is hoped that support will be continued where needed for industries most affected, such as tourism and hospitality.
The continued extension of the 9% VAT rate for tourism and hospitality to 31 August 2022 recognises the ongoing challenges facing the sector, which is among those most deeply impacted by lockdowns imposed during the pandemic. The VAT rate initially decreased from 13.5% to 9% for the period from 1 November 2020 to 31 December 2021 and the extension will be well-received by businesses providing eligible services.
The Bill gives effect to a financial resolution relating to stamp duty arising on the bulk purchase of certain residential property, while also implementing a number of amendments to the financial resolution’s provisions. These sections introduce a 10% rate of stamp duty on the acquisition, on or after 20 May 2021, of certain types of residential units where an aggregate of 10 or more such units is acquired during a rolling 12-month period. The Bill now includes an exemption from the 10% rate of charge where residential units are acquired and immediately leased to a housing authority for the provision of social housing.
While uncertainty remains in relation to public health and whether restrictions will be reimposed in future, the measures in this Bill will provide businesses with clarity and certainty on their situation in the early months of resumed trading activity. However, the scale of the challenge facing the economy as it re-opens should not be underestimated; therefore, this year’s Budget will need to be creative with offering short-term supports for Irish businesses while also setting out a plan for collecting more revenues in the longer term. Areas for focus in the upcoming Budget should include private enterprises, targeted sectors such as hospitality and tourism, remote working and other measures to support employers grow employment, scale and expand abroad.