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Arts ‘at risk’ as government fails freelances

Imelda Staunton at the launch of the Creative Industries Federation's report. Photo: Tom Nelson Imelda Staunton at the launch of the Creative Industries Federation's report. Photo: Tom Nelson
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The future of the creative industries will be put at risk if self-employed workers are not better protected by government, a new report has warned.

Produced by the Creative Industries Federation, the report also uncovered an extensive culture of unpaid work among freelance staff such as actors, directors and designers. Two out of three survey respondents said they had done unpaid work in the past year, and 80% of those said that unpaid work was normal for them.

It comes as demands are made on the government to transform the support it gives to self-employed workers, which despite being the “backbone” of the creative industries have historically been “ignored or poorly served” by government policy, the Creative Industries Federation has claimed.

Nearly half (47%) of the creative industries’ workforce is made up of freelances, the report claims, which is three times that of the UK workforce as a whole.

The study pooled evidence from 700 freelances and about 50 organisations that use them, with individuals reporting that they felt “invisible” and were not being consulted on issues that could affect them.

Particular problems highlighted by performing arts freelances included not being able to access affordable and appropriate workspace, a lack of understanding by employers around the impact of late payments and few opportunities to learn about areas such as pensions, insurance and holiday pay.

The report’s author, Eliza Easton, who is deputy head of research and policy at the federation, said self-employed workers represented an opportunity for government to support its fastest-growing sectors, but were also at risk if not properly protected.

“If half the creative workforce is made up of self-employed people, then if you don’t understand what those people need in order to thrive, you put the future of the entire sector at risk. Freelances are not represented in most parts of government skills policy… It’s not really good enough if [government does] want this to continue to be the fastest-growing sector of the economy.”

The federation’s recommendations for government include:

  • Backing a virtual hub to signpost existing advice, support and peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities
  • Protecting creative workspace from development by making sure it cannot be changed to residential property without planning permission
  • Piloting new ways of providing social security for freelances – short-term relief grants or community support underwritten by government
  • Providing extra support during the transition to quarterly tax returns
  • Making self-employment part of an individual minister’s brief in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Easton added that the research had highlighted other challenges that need addressing, such as the prevalence of unpaid work. 65% of respondents said they had undertaken unpaid work in the past year, with 80% of those saying it was normal practice for them.

She said: “Industry too has a responsibility to this workforce and our survey respondents highlighted that there has been poor business practice in some parts of the creative industries. “It’s not even that those people are doing unpaid work once, it’s that they feel like it has to be part of their working life.”

A recent report by UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre claimed unpaid routes into the theatre industry are “rife” and on the rise.

The Creative Freelancers report has been backed by actors including Olivier award-winner Imelda Staunton, who spoke at the launch of the report at the National Theatre and called on government to better understand and recognise the creative freelance workforce.

She said: “I [have] worked for 40 years as a freelance. I’m afraid that’s what this business is. We have no choice. It’s not like I chose to be a creative freelance, but that’s how this business works.”

It would be made easier for individuals “if people are supported, have workspaces they can work in, not live in terrible places and that they can afford to work”, Staunton said.

She added: “The government, with this report, will be able to understand what this profession – what the creative industries – is about, and what it needs to be the very best it can be. I hope the government takes this report home and reads it very carefully.”

Her comments were echoed by actor and director Samuel West, who said the way that actors and other freelances are treated across the industry “varies enormously”.

“I have enjoyed an interesting and varied career, but no actor or director has the security of employment that many people take for granted. As this report suggests, there are many areas where quite simple changes would make a huge difference to enabling freelances to do their work – and do it well.”

As part of the research, the National Theatre undertook an audit of its freelance workforce for the first time. This revealed that in an average 12-month period it uses 2,900 freelances – such as actors, directors, designers and offstage staff – compared with about 600 permanent staff.

NT executive director Lisa Burger described freelances as “the lifeblood of our creative output”.

Responding to the report, creative industries minister Matt Hancock said it was a “valuable explanation of the way freelances work and the huge contribution they make to the UK’s creative industries”.

“The report will make an important contribution to our understanding of the creative industries labour market and we will ensure these recommendations are considered as part of our ongoing work on the industrial strategy and early sector deal for the creative industries,” he said.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy did not wish to comment.

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