Entertainment unions BECTU and Equity are calling on the chancellor to “urgently revise” his newly-announced financial plan so that it provides better support for creative freelances, arguing he is failing to give them the help they need.
Labour MPs Ed Miliband and Tracy Brabin, the shadow culture secretary, have also claimed Rishi Sunak’s plan neglects the self-employed, with Brabin describing it as a “job half done”.
Their sentiments were echoed by Caroline Norbury, chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation and Creative England, who claimed the government had “failed to stand by freelances and self-employed workers” in Sunak’s historic announcement.
Today (March 20), Sunak unveiled an “unprecedented” package of financial measures to help the British economy weather closures and loss of income amid the outbreak, offering to pay 80% of wages for employees unable to work if their employer cannot afford to.
He also addressed the challenges being faced by self-employed workers, promising to suspend the minimum income floor to allow all freelances to access Universal Credit at a rate equivalent to statutory sick pay for employees.
Other measures included deferring the next income tax self-assessment payments until January 2021.
The government has been under increasing pressure this week to bolster its support for freelance workers in theatre and the creative industries, with unions, politicians and sector organisations warning that the self-employed are particularly vulnerable.
BECTU, Equity and the Musicians’ Union, made a joint call to the government to provide an income guarantee for freelances, while others, such as Brabin, have suggested a “temporary universal basic income”.
Following Sunak’s announcement, Philippa Childs, head of BECTU, described it as a “devastating blow to freelance and self-employed workers who needed much more support than they are being given”.
“These workers are looking to the chancellor in desperation for a vital lifeline and he has badly let them down, despite his grand promise to do ‘whatever it takes’.
“It is clear the chancellor simply doesn’t understand the hardship these workers are in – telling them to simply claim universal credit while other workers have their incomes protected is cruel and unfair,” she said, adding: “He must urgently revise his income support plan to include these workers and not force them onto the welfare system.”
A BECTU survey found that more than 70% of freelance workers are worried they will not be able to pay bills because of the outbreak.
Childs did welcome the delay in the self-assessment deadline, something BECTU has been campaigning for.
Equity’s general secretary Christine Payne said its members had been “badly let down” by government, and disputed Sunak’s claim that “any employer” would be eligible for his income protection fund.
“Not in our sector,” she said, adding: “Suspension of the Universal Credit minimum income floor and tax deferrals are a drop in the ocean compared to the losses experienced by our members and fall far short of the support available to workers elsewhere in the economy.
“We will fight on to put the case for our members who have provided billions in revenue for the UK but are not being protected in their hour of need.”
Norbury continued: “The chancellor’s announcement tonight that the government will pay wages up to 80% for businesses will be very much welcomed by the UK’s creative businesses, many of whom have had to shut their doors overnight. However, this creates a worrying inequity between those who now have their income secured and the UK’s five million self-employed workers and freelancers who are left despondent.
” The £94.25 per week offered in universal credit does not come anywhere near to compensating them for their income loss, nor is it close to the amount they can reasonably be expected to live off.”
Meanwhile, Brabin, who earlier this week warned that the arts could lose a generation of working-class talent if freelances were not better supported through the coronavirus crisis, responded by tweeting: “Some welcome #COVID19 measures – VAT deferral and wages scheme will help employees & community venues. But #freelancers can’t live on £95 p/w [of universal credit] and without relief for them it’s a job half done. I know how anxious people are and will continue to press government to provide the support they need.”
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband suggested the chancellor’s announcement was “very welcome”, but only for employed workers.
“I am afraid it appears inadequate for the millions of self-employed, gig economy workers,” he said.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.