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How can the State aid rules be applied in light of the coronavirus outbreak?

The coronavirus outbreak has seen State support being given to businesses on an unprecedented scale.

This issue is likely to be increasingly relevant as Governments seek to protect and stimulate their economies as they emerge from lockdown.

How have the rules been relaxed in the context of the crisis and what facets of the existing law can be used for the State to provide support to undertakings?

Related FAQs

Can apprentices be furloughed?

The government has stated that the scheme will apply to apprentices and that they can continue to train whilst they are furloughed. However you must pay at least the Apprenticeship Minimum Wage, National Living Wage or National Minimum Wage for all periods of training during furlough leave, taking into account the rate increases from 1 April 2020 and the increases which will take effect from 1 April 2021. This means that you will be responsible for any shortfall in the amount claimed under the scheme and the appropriate minimum wage.

We recommend that you get in touch to discuss any queries on furloughing apprentices.

What are the special considerations for DB schemes?
  • Before any agreed reduction in wages, actual changes to earning patterns (loss of overtime, for example) may impact the pensionable salary as defined under the scheme rules, with knock-on effects to a number of benefit calculations, such as death in service benefits.
  • Contractual changes to member salaries may adversely impact accrued benefits as the final salary figure may be reduced to a greater or lesser extent depending on the duration of furlough and the severity of any reductions in wage, and hence reductions may be difficult to agree with staff.
  • Reducing employer contributions will be subject to a number of the same considerations applicable to a DC scheme listed above. There will also be a need to change the rules and interact with the trustees, although it may be possible to override the rules with a direct contractual agreement with members.
  • Reducing employee contributions will also depend on the scheme rules, particularly as to whether there are any discretionary powers to suspend contributions, or pensionable service.
  • The rules will need to be considered for any unexpected consequences of furlough: depending on the wording of the rules, furlough may or may not be considered a leave of absence and may or may not have the effect of terminating pensionable service. This could have far-reaching consequences.
  • In particular, if the workforce’s pensionable service is inadvertently terminated as opposed to suspended in accordance with any relevant rule, this could trigger a statutory employer debt on an employer participating in a multi-employer scheme, if pensionable service continues for employees of other employers. This sort of issue is unlikely to be spotted until after the event, and therefore difficult to untangle. However, an employer should be able to take advantage of the “period of grace” provisions by notifying the trustees of its intention to re-admit employees to pensionable service within the next 12 months.
  • Clearly the impact of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme on DB schemes is complex and legal advice should be sought before any changes are considered.
What technology is being used by the COP for remote hearings?

Interestingly, there is currently no ‘single’ technology to be used by the judiciary within the protocol. The court and parties must choose from a selection of possible IT platforms or audio/telephone hearing (further details available in the guidance e.g. Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, Zoom etc.) The particular platform must be agreed at the outset of each case and then specified in the case management order. The guidance issued also sets out the basic principles which apply when conducting remote hearings.

What is the current guidance relating to Private Finance Initiatives and PF2 Projects in light of coronavirus?

On 2 April 2020, the Government issued guidance relating to Private Finance Initiatives and PF2 Projects. The guidance, which is to be enforced with immediate effect (currently due to stay in place until 30 June 2020), is one of several guidance notes issued to date.

A link to the guidance is set out below:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/877804/2020_04_01_PFI_and_COVID19_final.docx.pdf

Key messages to contracting authorities

  • PFI contractors should very much consider themselves as being part of the public sector response to the current pandemic
  • Covid-19 is not regarded as, and is not to be classified as a force majeure event
  • PFI contractors must ensure that contingency plans are up to date and have been reviewed and discussed with contracting authorities to enable the continuity of full services to respond to the pandemic and maintain vital public services
  • Contracting authorities should work closely with PFI contractors to use all available options to maintain public services during the emergency period
  • Local arrangements should be made where PFI contractors can’t deliver the agreed requirements and performance standards
  • “Best efforts” should be made by all parties for the continuation of service provision
Do I need to do anything extra to safeguard my employee’s mental health during the Covid-19 outbreak?

Homeworking can cause work-related stress and affect people’s mental health and being away from managers and colleagues could make it difficult to get proper supervision and support.

Encourage your employees to keep in touch. Put procedures in place so you can keep in direct contact with home workers and can recognise signs of stress as early as possible. Use group chat and video chat tools imaginatively.

Have an emergency point of contact and share this so people know how to get help if they need it.

People are much more anxious than usual and may be less productive as a result – recognise this and try to be patient.