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40,000 SMALL BUSINESSES HELPED BY OMBUDSMAN

Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman 3 mins read

The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman has reached the milestone of helping 40,000 small businesses seeking assistance with a dispute.

Ombudsman Bruce Billson said this was a significant moment for the agency.

“Our mission is to make Australia the best place to start, grow and transform a small business and while we can’t guarantee every business will succeed, we strive to make sure no one fails because they didn’t get help when they wanted it,” Mr Billson said.

The number one type of dispute facing small businesses relates to being paid and it accounts for almost two out of five cases. There has also been a sharp rise in small businesses seeking help in digital disputes and with digital platform providers and in cases relating to the construction industry.

“We are proud that we have helped more than 40,000 small businesses resolve disputes with other businesses or government agencies, outside of the costly legal system,” Mr Billson said.

“We strive to help small businesses get back to business as fast as possible and pleasingly nearly two-thirds of the cases that come to us are helped quickly by our call centre or assistance team providing useful information.

“We also provide access to mental health support and tools to help people start and grow a business, and make better business decisions. We also offer a Tax Concierge Service for small businesses who have a dispute with the Tax Office.”

The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman was created in 2016. Mr Billson paid tribute to the work of the inaugural Ombudsman Kate Carnell, who he succeeded in 2021.

In its seven years of operating, the ASBFEO has handled 40,510 cases, most of which involve disputes small businesses have with other businesses or Australian Government agencies. Some 27,854 small businesses were helped quickly by providing information to resolve their concerns.

Some cases take longer to resolve and the ASBFEO Assistance Team have provided more intense one-to-one assistance for 12,656 cases. This has included arranging alternative dispute resolution. Some cases are referred to other government agencies in line with ASBFEO’s legislation that says it is not to duplicate the functions of other government agencies.

The latest data, published in the ASBFEO Quarterly Report, reveals 26% of cases relate to digital services.

“The number of cases involving digital services and platform providers is double the proportion we received just two years ago,” Mr Billson said.

“I have been vocal in our concern about the rising number of problems small and family businesses are encountering with digital platform providers, particularly the nightmare in restoring an account that has been shut down after being hacked.

“Some people have built their entire businesses on social media and digital platforms and having someone else access and control their account is devastating for their business and their reputation. They watch the financial and emotional damage occur in real time with no ability to stop it.

“One of the absurdities of the current situation is after being locked out of your account, you need to access your account to make a complaint. It’s the ultimate run around.

“It is crucial that clear, appropriate, and standardised procedures be put in place to enable a timely resolution for small business disputes with digital platforms.

“We have been active in directly seeking resolutions for small and family businesses. When we contact the digital platforms, most have engaged constructively and have provided us with a direct contact to enable these disputes to be escalated and regularly leads to satisfactory outcomes.

“However, they are not always consistent and the need for a government body to step in to resolve every small business dispute is not the answer,” he said.

Mr Billson said there had also been a doubling over two years in the proportion of cases relating to the construction industry which now accounts for just over one in 10 of the calls for assistance.

“This coincides with the rising number of insolvencies in the construction sector,” he said.

“In one example, a family enterprise that subcontracts in the construction industry contacted us because they had not been paid and this was affecting their ability to pay their own subcontractors. As a result of these difficulties, a family member working in the business also suffered mental health problems. They were grateful for our guidance to resolve their issues.”

Mr Billson said the main type of dispute continues to be about payments which accounts for 38%, up from 30% two years ago.

There has also been a rise in the proportion of disputes about contracts but an easing in calls about franchise disputes, which is the third area of most concern for small and family businesses.

“It’s worth highlighting that we are encountering more instances where we are dealing with the substantive matter as well as providing support and resources regarding mental health,” Mr Billson said.

Small and family businesses with a dispute can find more information on the ASBFEO website - www.asbfeo.gov.au – which also includes resources, check lists, tools, more information about the Tax Concierge Service and the Quarterly Report.

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