An Ombudsman investigation has found the Victorian government may have unfairly rejected grant applications worth $10,000 from more than 12,000 businesses.
Delivered by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, the Business Support Fund was part of a $500 million package for businesses affected by the state’s prolonged COVID-19 restrictions.
However, following the roll out of the grant scheme, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass established an investigation, after receiving 627 complaints from businesses about the application process.
The final report, published on Tuesday, found that businesses’ applications were rejected for honest mistakes.
The seven-month investigation found more than 127 businesses were denied grants for not providing JobKeeper details in time, 44 businesses were denied grants due to typing mistakes, and 92 business owners didn’t receive emails notifying them that their applications had been returned to ‘draft’ status due to insufficient information.
In her report, Glass noted that the scheme fell short of being more effective because it was “established and scaled at speed”.
“The Department had nine days to implement the program, with no opportunity to test its design or delivery,” she wrote.
To its credit, Glass said, the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions engaged with the Ombudsman’s office throughout the investigation, helping to resolve more than 1,100 complaints.
“Many people received their grants while the investigation was ongoing,” she commented.
One complaint into a family-owned early learning centre’s application found that the business owner had called the department’s contact centre to find out the outcome of his grant application.
The business owner was told he would hear back in a few weeks. Four months after lodging the application, he learnt the grant was rejected because the application did not include the correct information. The Department said it invited the business by email to apply for a different grant. The applicant, however, says he never received any email.
Another investigation found that a restaurant owner’s grant was rejected because he applied using the name CurryHut, rather than the name Curry Hut Group, which was his registered business name.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Paul Guerra, chief executive of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said a lot of grants were handed out in a short period of time, and in the scheme of things the government “did a pretty good job”.
“But there’s no question that there were complaints, as the Ombudsman found,” he said.
“The good news is that the Victorian government is prepared to accept those findings and reinvestigate all of those businesses that missed out.”
As a result of the Ombudsman’s probe, more than 12,000 businesses will be able to reapply for the grants, meaning that up to $120 million could be paid to businesses if they meet the eligibility criteria.