New South Wales flood recovery minister, Steph Cooke, has apologised for delays in getting relief money into flood-affected communities, while announcing changes to make it easier for small businesses to access grants.
The government has been criticised after Service NSW data revealed just 2,445 of the 15,335 applications for small business grants had been approved, with 6,500 rejected and another 5,000 held up while the government seeks more information from the applicant.
The Guardian on Tuesday documented the frustrations of small business owners in Lismore unhappy with the speed of the rollout and the criteria applied to the grants.
Speaking on 2GB radio on Tuesday, Cooke lamented that “nothing goes perfectly” when a government tries to get $3bn in funding out the door, noting widespread fraud concern had slowed efforts.
She revealed changes to the requirements for sole traders, who she said accounted for about half of the almost 6,500 businesses that had been rejected.
“There is now a requirement for less paperwork, which is going to put money into the hands of those sole traders more quickly,” she said.
“When problems emerge, like we have discovered with sole traders, that’s when we look to find that fix as quickly as we possibly can.”
Sole traders have always been eligible for the grants, but have required additional documentation to other small businesses. With the changes they will now be able to seek initial approval by submitting a statutory declaration instead.
Lismore state MP, Labor’s Janelle Saffin, lashed the government over the complex processes being foised upon “traumatised” residents.
“It’s no good for the government to say ‘we’re with you’ and then you don’t get the grant. They’ve just got to make sure it changes,” she said.
“It’s a plea really, to the NSW government – get your act together, get the grants out, spend the money, open the chequebooks, we need it now. We need flexibility and we need compassion.”
Saffin said she also supported land swaps and relocation of some parts of the badly affected north and south Lismore to higher ground, as was put forward by the Lismore council as part of a discussion paper exploring options for the town’s future.
“I am supporting it. For now, it’s the government, state and federal, that have to support it,” Saffin said.
“Next time the premier comes or the prime minister, whoever comes, open the chequebook so that we can look at those longer term options.”
Opposition emergency services spokesperson Jihad Dib described the grants rollout as a “shemozzle” and called on the state government to assist people in putting applications in so the rejection rates were lower.
“Individual case management is so incredibly important,” he said.
“It’s also incredibly important to make sure that we provide the support that’s required to an individual that maybe doesn’t necessarily fit within the parameters of a box.”
Cooke said the government was working “around the clock” to speed things up while ensuring applications were thoroughly checked.
“I apologise to people who haven’t received money as quickly as they would like,” Cooke said.
“We’re doing everything that we possibly can across the whole of government.
“We have an obligation to make sure that we’ve got checks and balances in place when we’re assessing people’s applications because we know fraud is a huge issue.”
Service NSW data also revealed that just 1,346 of the 9,570 applications for rental relief had been approved so far. More than half had been deemed ineligible and declined.
Cooke said there were “complexities” in the scheme.
“We are working through with both individuals and the families to find the best possible solution for their medium-to-long-term housing needs,” she said.
“In order to take up the rental support scheme, you’ve got to have a place to move into. We’ve had a huge shortage of accommodation and other types of accommodation in the northern rivers.”