Self-employed workers in our creative industries are facing a financial catastrophe and Rishi Sunak must act now
Rishi Sunak unveiled a fresh round of economic help alongside Boris Johnson
Nothing short of a temporary basic income is going to give this substantial part of the creative workforce what it needs to get through this crisis, says the Shadow Culture Secretary
On Thursday Gordon Brown said that if you are going to ask people to say at home you need to tell them how to feed themselves. On Friday the Chancellor started that job with an unprecedented package for PAYE employees.
But imagine listening to those proposals as one of the UK’s five million self-employed workers and freelancers who, in many cases, have seen their diaries empty nearly overnight, with guaranteed work and exciting projects in the pipeline all gone.
If the Government thinks £95 in Statutory Sick Pay per week will be enough for freelance and self-employed workers to pay bills and keep food on the table then I don't know what planet they're living on.
While the Government has done right by businesses and employees in their announcement on Friday, it’s sadly a job half-done. It's time now to value freelancers, to put them on an equal footing with employed workers and provide them with genuine financial relief too.
I understand the anxieties people are experiencing - and I particularly worry that this crisis could see an entire generation of working-class talent driven out of our creative industries. There are five million self-employed people in the UK, who make up 15% of the overall workforce. This is too large a group to be ignored. They make up a substantial part of the UK creative industries.
Groups such as IPSE (Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed) and the Creative Industries Federation, as well as trade union GMB have called on the Government to properly support freelancers and the self-employed through the crisis. And they are completely right to do so.
Nothing short of a temporary basic income is going to give this substantial part of the workforce what it needs to get through this crisis. This week, the Chancellor can do the right thing and make that a reality.
The Government proposed some measures in the Budget to support freelancers, but these will be nowhere near enough and fail at a basic level to understand the way the freelancers operate. Measures to cancel tax bills are simply kicking the can of financial catastrophe down the road. Payments are deferred - but people will have no choice but to spend money today to pay bills, and then still be faced with a tax bill next year in 2021. That’s no solution at all.
Earlier this month, I put out a call for evidence of how freelancers and self-employed workers in the creative and cultural sectors have been affected by the pandemic. I was shocked by the response. Thousands and thousands of replies, all with the same story: work in the diary for the months ahead, cancelled overnight with no compensation or impact minimisation.
So many workers in the creative industries now face an uncertain future, homelessness and debt. Having to choose between paying their tax bill or paying the landlord. Putting their house on the market or moving back in with parents. Taking their children out of the childcare they love, recalibrating the family dynamic where one person must now take up the role of stay at home parent.
As a freelancer in the creative industries myself for over thirty years before becoming an MP, I know the already precarious nature of freelance work in the creative industries. The feast and famine nature of work was a constant: how December and January are always poor months but how things pick up in February onwards. How you live on next-to-nothing sometimes, eating into your tax savings hoping there will be another job around the corner soon.
Yet with sports fixtures cancelled, Netflix suspending all production, commercial campaigns canned, Disney and Amazon delaying film openings, tours cancelled, theatres closing and production of new work shelved till the summer – this crisis is going nowhere anytime soon. This situation is far more urgent and terrifying than any seasonal lull – it represents an existential threat to the creative industries and decimates the livelihoods of its precarious workforce.
By far the biggest impact is on couples who both work in the creative industries. Couples with children, or with one partner on parental leave, are especially affected, as the other parent will have no access to statutory parental leave or pay. Many single parents and women have not accrued enough weeks at work to get statutory maternity allowance – what happens to them?
Labour voices have been dialling up the volume. The Government’s current position toward the self-employed cannot hold if it truly understands the seriousness of the situation for these five million people. Stephen Barclay claimed last week that it was too difficult to manage any self-employment subsidy. I disagree – HMRC has much of the infrastructure and details in its scope already. This is a case of political will and recognising the contribution of self-employed workers.
This coming week, the Chancellor must consider the introduction of a temporary minimum income for freelancers and the self-employed, cancel the payment on accounts for tax purposes, and reallocate budget reserved for the 2022 Festival of Britain to a targeted relief fund.
Our creative industries are a light in the darkness. We owe it to all of those workers in this industry to ensure that they survive and can flourish once more when COVID-19 is history. The Chancellor must urgently intervene to help the self-employed and safeguard the creative future of our nation.
Tracy Brabin MP is the Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport