"We need to rethink the way that government interacts with, and supports, freelance workers" - a blog from Chief Executive Caroline Norbury

November 20, 2020

For many in the creative industries, December is looking rather different from usual this year. The Christmas season, normally a time of pantomimes, of blockbuster cinema, of winter fashion and bustling high streets, has all but dried up – and with that, the income stream of many in the creative sector. Government support schemes continue to be a vital lifeline to many. However, we know that there are still some – too many – who find themselves ineligible, left with £95 a week in Universal Credit - or less than £80 a week if they’re unfortunate enough to be under 25.  

The National Audit Office estimates that there are almost 3 million of these people “falling through the gaps”, unable to either be furloughed or claim self employment income support. We know that many of these are in the creative sector. Many are recent graduates: the ‘newly self employed’.  Many work in the film & TV industry where for insurance purposes, employers prefer to contract freelancers who are operating as limited companies. Many normally take on a mix of self-employed and PAYE contracts, using agility and determination to build a portfolio of work that is very common in the creative industries. I don’t believe that the government has intentionally excluded these people. It’s not that Rishi Sunak has a secret grudge against graduates or lighting engineers. However, what has become apparent is that these types of livelihoods just don’t fit with the mechanisms that government uses to interact with the country’s workforce. And, as we look to the future in next week’s Spending Review, this urgently needs addressing.  

As the 21st century progresses, the global workforce is set to look more and more like the creative industries. There will be a higher proportion of freelancers, more home-working, a more flexible workstream and an embracing of all things digital. However, what this health pandemic has uncovered is a social pandemic; an apartheid between those on freelance contracts and those on payroll; between those businesses that are supported by public funds and those that operate in the commercial marketplace. And this social pandemic punishes those that we’re about to need most of all: entrepreneurs.  

If we want to embrace entrepreneurialism, then a sticking plaster approach of payroll and self-employed support schemes can’t be the only answer.  Instead, we need a full, comprehensive root and branch review of what the workforce of the 21st century needs in order to be resilient. That’s why this week, we have joined forces with the Federation of Small Businesses, Prospect and Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed to write to the Chancellor calling for the establishment of a Freelance Commissioner and Future Workforce Commission, so that we can really get under the skin of how we build more resilience into this workforce. And this is just the start of what’s needed.  

We need to rethink the way that government interacts with, and supports, freelance workers. We need a system that ensures parity between the self-employed and those on payroll. This doesn’t just mean financial, and not just when there’s a pandemic. Freelancers need business support; they need access to training and skills; they need better care when they’re sick and they need to get paid on time.  We should be looking at European examples such as France’s “intermittents du spectacle” whereby workers benefit from a special unemployment insurance scheme, which sees the state pay a monthly stipend providing they work 507 hours over a 12-month period. Instead of accepting that government support cannot cover everyone, we should be examining why this is; what makes these people excluded; why have we chosen to reward some ways of working over others; particularly when those being excluded look a lot like the workforce of the future.  

To rebuild our country, we need to create the best possible climate to encourage great ideas to thrive. And for that to happen, we need a rethink.  We need to rethink how we treat freelancers and how we support entrepreneurs. We need to rethink the ways that we work, and how we not only rebuild our country, but how we remake it for the better.  

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