On February 10th the House of Commons Treasury Committee published the latest report of their inquiry into the economic impact of coronavirus. Their June 2020 report focused on the gaps in support for workers and highlighted “freelancers and those on short-term contracts” as one of 4 groups at risk of being “unlikely to be eligible for either of the Government's two principal income support schemes” - the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). Their latest publication reiterates the fact that “there are a large number of freelancers who continue to miss out on support”.
Freelancers are some of the more likely workers to have “fallen through the gaps'' of Government’s support. As a result, there have been numerous calls for the government to better protect freelancers throughout the pandemic. Excluded UK was created to advocate for what is estimated to be 3 million taxpayers – 10% of the UK workforce - who have been unable to fully access the government’s support schemes, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Gaps in Support, with an extraordinary cross-party membership of over 260 parliamentarians, has kept actively asking the government to help those that need it. The issue of the economic vulnerability of the self-employed is well known, and while efforts to help them are welcome, more needs to be done to identify the differences between different kinds of freelancers and sectors. Failing to address the needs of freelancers of all types risks ending up with a “one-size-fits-all” solution, which could in turn create a new set of problems going forward. A good example of this can be found in the post-freedom of movement immigration system which is based on the understanding that the vast majority of skilled workers needing entry to the UK will be in full time employment with a salary of over £30,000, or will only need to enter the country for up to thirty days. For an industry that relies heavily on a self-employed workforce and high-value skills that are not always reflected in salaries this has already raised a number of serious issues.
Avoiding a “one-size-fits-all” approach is especially important when it comes to the creative industries - where 32.3% of the workforce is self-employed compared with 15.6% of the UK as a whole, according to the latest Employment Estimates from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Closed venues, cancelled events and the suspension of exhibitions, plays and productions resulted in massive job and financial insecurity and freelance contracts and projects disappearing overnight.
The evidence shows that parts of the creative workforce have been amongst the worst affected by the COVID-19 crisis. The initial findings from a collaborative research project between the Centre for Cultural Value, the PEC and The Audience Agency into the impacts of COVID-19 on the cultural sector and implications for policy highlight the existence of a crisis, with a loss of 55,000 jobs (equal to 30%) in music, performing and visual arts, a collapse in working hours (in the wider creative sector) and higher than average numbers of people leaving creative occupations.
More research is being done by the PEC, the Centre for Cultural Value and a number of organisations across the UK to fully understand the short-, medium- and long-term impacts of the pandemic on creative freelancers. Further work will be needed to help policymakers fully understand the unique ecology of the creative industries, which by their very nature function on the basis of “a mix of project-based production systems, outsourcing, temporary organisational forms and configuring events, (collaborative) networks of freelancers and volunteers and portfolio working”, as noted in a PEC-commissioned report on Creative Freelancers and lessons from COVID-19.
As well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also introduced support measures, particularly for those working in the creative industries For example, the Individuals Emergency Resilience Programme, which offered through the NI Arts Council and targeted at “those working in the creative economy including freelancers, musicians, DJs, actors, artists and craft workers.” Support from Westminster, in contrast, has been mainly targeted at institutions instead of individuals, and while programmes such as the Arts Council Emergency fund for individuals and the generous and unprecedented Culture Recovery Fund have been broadly welcome, some have indicated a need to provide further dedicated help and support for staff, performers and creatives in the short, medium and long term. As one of the witnesses to the select committee inquiry into the economic impact of coronavirus. put it: “You cannot put on a show in the West End or any town or city and you cannot have a live music performance without relying on those self-employed and freelance staff. How we support those people so that, when venues do reopen, they are in a position to go back to work is really important”.
It is vitally important that the government provides targeted support for freelancers. Not only for when venues in the UK do finally reopen over the next few months - as per the Prime Minister’s recently introduced roadmap out of lockdown - but for the long-term health of the creative sector. A recent report by the EU Parliamenton cultural and creative industries in post COVID-19 Europe highlights the dangers of a “professional brain drain”, as creative professionals migrate to non-creative jobs. Moreover, research from the PEC has added to the evidence that diversity among the sector is being severely affected by the pandemic. Further, there is already enough data to “suggests we should be especially worried about younger workers”, with almost 30% of creative workers under the age of 25 leaving creative occupations after lockdown, a much higher proportion than older groups.
Post-pandemic recovery won’t be possible unless the Government and policymakers fully understand that in order to help this crucial part of the economy build back better and in a way that is sustainable in the long term, there needs to be a carefully considered plan and set of measures, based on solid evidence and research. A“one-size-fits-all” approach does not only risk not working, but could even jeopardise the entire sector going forward, as in the already mentioned case of post- freedom of movement immigration policy.