Written by Athena Stevens
Edited by Paule Constable
Transcribed with contributions by Sally Beck Wippman
This feels like a big week for freelancers and the country alike. A lot of information has been released to the public and if you’re confused or concerned about what it means, you are not alone. For this week’s newsletter we’ve decided to focus on the chancellors budget and how it affects both freelancers and the theatre industry as a whole.
As part of the freelance community we recognise the importance of the government's budget as it sets out its priorities in the upcoming months. Our industry, according to TUC, has been the most affected industry within the workforce, and it is difficult to come up with a word other than 'devastation' to describe what has happened to theatre and the performing arts over the past year. While we welcome the fact that support schemes such as SEISS and furlough will continue through September 2021, the budget raises several concerns with respect to the freelancers who have fallen through the cracks repeatedly during this difficult time. It is equally important to note that the term 'freelancer' does not occur once within the 106-page budget document, thus reminding us again that the government remains unaware as to the estimated 200,000 freelance artists that act as the motor and generator for the creative performing arts industries.
With this in mind, the following is a breakdown of the Spring 2021 budget as it directly affects theatre and performing arts freelancers now. This summary is by no means meant to be comprehensive of the entire budget, and if anyone should seek to read this document in its entirety, it can be found here
- Roadmap Contingency: The government continues to focus on a permanent reopening of services including mass gatherings and an end to restrictions that are due to happen in June 2021. Throughout the budget documents, there is no provision as to what may happen if the roadmap, set out to lift restrictions, does not occur according to plan. Furthermore, there is what we consider to be a brash assumption that theatre and performing arts will be able to function as normal as soon as restrictions are lifted without needing to consider any precautions as a result of the past year. While the government applauds itself for ensuring that financial support will continue well past the end of lockdown, there is no provision as to what may happen should lockdown not go according to plan as is the historic trend.
- Payment to DCMS: The government has allocated £400 million to DCMS, with £90 million toward museums, £10 million to immediate community projects, and £300 million to top up the Cultural Recovery Fund. No clarity has been provided on what this 'top up' will entail, and there has been no guarantee that anything will be specifically allocated toward the freelance work force. We believe this addition to the Cultural Recovery Fund, if not allocated toward freelancers in any meaningful way, is highly over-subsidised, while at the same time disregarding 70% of the workforce.
- Furlough: Furlough for employed and salaried workers within the performing arts industry (as well as all industries) will continue to September 2021, with the employer expected to contribute a "minimal amount" during the months of July, August and September. What this translates to is that performing arts institutions and other employers within the industry will be expected to pay 10% of a furloughed employee's 80% payment during the month of July, and 20% during August and September. The same is true for employees currently being supported by the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
- We are equally disconcerted that no mention of government-supported insurance for performance arts and event organisations have been provided within this budget. Insurance is and will remain a major hurdle in reopening life arts as the complexities of Covid19 and its after effects still threaten to shut down production with little to no notice. Few producers will be willing to risk a production that is not insured under these conditions. Furthermore, a lack of insurance is a particular risk to the freelancer as it offers even less of a guarantee that their next fee instalment be paid in the event of sudden shutdown.
If the government is serious about reopening the performing arts they must provide some sort of system to reduce the risk to performing arts companies, artists, buildings and the insurer themselves.
- SEISS: The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme will have a fourth and fifth grant provided by the government. The fourth grant will cover the three months of February to April, 2021, but disconcertingly can only be claimed from late April. Furthermore, self-employed individuals must have filed a 2019-2020 Self Assessment tax return by midnight on 2 March 2021 in order to be eligible for this support. In theory, this means that 600,000 individuals across the UK and all industries may be newly eligible for SEISS because they only have a single year of self-employment (2019-2020) on their tax return.
However, this only facilitates eligibility for 6% of the 65,000 freelancers in the performing arts sector who were excluded from the original SEISS. Those 6% had lost out on benefits for the specific reason of 2019-2020 being their first year as self-employed within the industry.
The problem of 'slipping through the cracks' remains for over 61,000 people in our sector who will remain ineligible for any form of government help/ This is deeply concerning.
Of further concern is that the 6% will have still lost out on the first three SEISS payments. We understand the Chancellor's hesitancy to backdate benefits. However, with only a year (or less) of self-employed income under one's belt, potentially precarious savings in the bank account, and the fact that the government took a year to recognise the work that occurred prior to the pandemic, is an equation for financial disaster for any new freelancer working in the industry, regardless of how conservative a freelancer might be in their personal budgeting.
It is also worth noting that the newly added 5th grant remains capped at £7,500, but the period that it is meant to cover is five months, rather than four. Thus, payments are actually dropping by 20% for all scheme recipients.
Finally, Freelancers Make Theatre Work will continue to focus on the lack of provision for all the excluded freelancers. For those earning over £50,000, or those with too much in their savings account to qualify for government assistance, or those whose work portfolio is too complex, or for various other reasons, too many freelancers have still fallen through the cracks. To leave these individuals with absolutely no support, simply because they may perhaps have worked a brilliant West End job in a recent tax cycle is just as disconcerting as leaving someone with no support who has only been working for a year.
- Universal Credit: During this time, many individuals have been forced to go onto Universal Credit, should they be 'fortunate' enough to meet the other criteria, such as a lack of financial savings, a specific immigration status, and so forth. We support the fact that the government is extending the temporary £20 increase per week to the Universal Credit standard allowance for a further six months throughout all of Britain.. However, we also know that realistically, this is not nearly enough for those that have received no additional government support and still have very reasonable costs such as mortgages, rent payments and groceries. One wonders precisely how much our politicians think one is able to purchase on an additional £20 per week. We are equally in support of the commitment to maintain the higher Universal Credit surplus earning surcharge of £2,500, as opposed to the normal surcharge of £300. While the additional £2,200 is very welcome and nearly increases the amounts over sevenfold, freelance workers are currently being forced to decide whether they should take any work during this time and risk going even slightly above this threshold, or simply stay on Universal Credit, remaining dependent on the government.
- Apprenticeships: FMTW is equally concerned in regards to the development of further schemes and programmes attempting to provide new and sustainable job opportunities for both young people and apprentices. While the intent is no doubt admirable, programmes such as the Kickstart Scheme and even the government's new attempt to support young people across multiple employers is largely futile. Once again, it illustrates a lack of understanding from our government with regards to how self-employed individuals work. Our job takes the form of multiple gigs or projects that can often - for example, in the case of creative generators such as writers - not follow a standard timeline or timeframe.
Furthermore, it is also impossible to hire apprentices who may want to spend their time working with experienced technical professionals in the performing arts, such as lighting and sound designers, when no industry activity is going on. Due to the still precarious nature of coronavirus and the necessary precautions this elicits, even after the sector reopens, the nature of work within performing arts means that technical booths, backstage areas, dressing rooms, and so on - which already have limited space - will not be conducive to allowing an apprentice in to 'merely observe', let alone aid an experienced professional.
We are concerned that the government's initiative of £7 million to help employers in the UK to set up and expand "portable apprenticeships" for individuals who are seeking experience from multiple employers will only come with a high amount of bureaucratic red tape. Again, for an industry that has been completely shut down by the government at various points over the past year, professional administrators within the offices of theatres will be focused on getting productions going again in order to generate revenue. Any complication or difficulty to creating apprenticeships and ensuring that they follow the government's requirements, in addition to providing the actual benefit for the sector (that is largely still misunderstood), will no-doubt fall by the wayside and be seen as too cumbersome to partake in. The simple fact is that even for small theatre companies, a £2,000 payment to take on and educate new apprentices who are also financially struggling during this economic downturn is not enough incentive to pursue investing in younger theatre makers.
- A further frustration has been noticed by FMTW in the government's attempt to support businesses with Restart Grants. Across the country, there are a plethora of small theatre companies that are registered with Companies House and file their taxes yearly, consistently providing economic opportunities within our society. Such companies are classified as working in the 'leisure sector', particularly if they oversee a physical space that can be rented out to community members, performance groups, and other rehearsal activities. However, the Restart Grant of £18,000 is contingent on such companies having a "premise". While this grant is helpful for companies with rehearsal spaces, many (if not most) theatre companies in the UK work with a business model that does not include a premise or offices (the National Theatre of Scotland in its early stages was a great example of this). These companies are largely operated remotely. Not giving the entrepreneurs behind these numerous viable theatre companies a similar Restart Grant to invest in their own artists and activity, the government is missing out on a large opportunity to truly tie a rocket booster to the theatre industry. The £18,000 could be enough for an entire small production, either online or in local community centres, and could act as a lifeline to creative individuals who are financially savvy and able to make economic opportunities from their own innovations. Once again, the government is proving short-sighted and even ignorant of understanding how our sector functions. It feels important to also mention that many performing arts companies that did have their own premises and offices before the pandemic have had to give these up as a direct result of the pandemic, adding further insult to injury.
- Finally there is the issue of insurance. This doesn’t affect the freelance alone but the entire industry and our ability to get back to work. At present no private insurers will offer our producers and theatres any form of business interruption or cancellation insurance. This was also the case for the Film and TV industry but the government stepped in and, thanks to this intervention - they are back on their feet - employing thousands and creating content again. So while the government has extended the £500 million Film and TV Production Restart Scheme for six months to 31 December 2021 to continue to support the UK screen production industry, there is nothing similar for the performing arts. The Live sector is making a lot of noise about this but it affects us in the Performing Arts equally badly. It is so frustrating because in doing this they have acknowledged that lessening the risk of starting back to work generates security in a sector, but they are unable to shift this thinking and apply it to us.
Without a government backed scheme at a reasonable premium many large-scale and touring productions simply cannot commence or resume performances even once it is safe. And, most importantly, this insurance is required not just to mitigate the risk of another shutdown in the future, but to provide confidence to the sector to plan ahead and encourage investment. On the basis that the government’s roadmap is “cautious by irreversible”, they should have no hesitation to inject confidence back into the sector by providing insurance against a risk they have assessed as minimal.
Freelancers Make Theatre Work warmly welcomes the attempt by the government to continue the support that has been given across the UK during this time. We recognise that the government is being both bold and responsible in ensuring that protective schemes set up to mitigate the economic disaster of the Covid-19 pandemic last throughout lockdown and for an additional three months, ensuring that as many people as possible are able to get back on their feet and employed. We appreciate the foresight and commitment of the Chancellor to ensure public support is not simply cut off as soon as the pandemic ends. However, despite numerous attempts by ourselves and other people in the creative industries, the Spring 2021 budget continues to show a lack of understanding of how freelancers within the performing arts work and the support we need as productive members of the UK economy in ensuring our multi billion pound industry is able to get able to get back to work safely and effectively. If you find all of this frustrating then get in touch with your local MP and talk to them - use parts of this letter to make them aware and share your frustrations. It is how democracy works and it is vital that we use this mechanism.
It is, perhaps, telling that the budget includes a provision for a Zoo Animals Fund that specifically mentions support and care for animals, while not mentioning the word "freelancer" throughout its entire 106-page document.