Freelancers Make Theatre Work is run by a small voluntary group of freelancers. The group is not fixed but fluid and welcomes participants who are willing to give time. Where possible, a different member of the team writes each newsletter.

Universal Credit and the rise in National Insurance

Part 1 - Paul Carey Jones

“They are awful liars here: as soon as they don’t want anything they clear off to the country. One of my lady pupils has already left for the country, leaving nine lessons unpaid.”

Frédéric Chopin was writing to a friend about his troubles settling in London in 1848, his landlord having doubled their agreed rent on arrival. The British attitude to a career in the performing arts as being a rich kid’s hobby, with remuneration an optional and occasional extra, goes back a long way.

The UK Government’s impending cut to Universal Credit and rise in National Insurance are both causes for understandable worry for anyone who cares about a just and fair tax and welfare system. But what’s the direct impact on the more specific concerns of Freelancers Make Theatre Work? 

Last week also saw the Creative Industries Policy Evidence Centre publish their report on Social Mobility in the Creative Economy. It’s worth taking the time to work through the whole thing, which is available online here; much of it makes uncomfortable (although frequently unsurprising) reading, shining a light on many areas of our industry where the exclusionary barriers are deeply entrenched.

Some of those elements are so hard-wired into the psyche of the performing arts, so frequently shrugged off as just part and precarious parcel of the business, that it’s often hard to notice them at all on a day-to-day basis. Financial support received from family and friends during or after training; having access to urban centres, favours of free travel and accommodation in London and elsewhere; the advantages afforded by contacts and networking, when it comes to unearthing opportunities and providing references; the need for those without financial back-up to work second and third jobs, draining their energy and focus: all long-standing givens in the industry. And all bricks in the wall which stands between the industry and the communities it supposedly exists to reflect and serve.

The PEC report also hits hard on how socio-economic barriers to careers in the arts overlap with other areas of systemic exclusion: ethnicity, gender, disability. In my own corner of the industry, addicted as we are to carbon-intensive responses to any challenge, we frequently take the shortcut of flying in what is hoped will read as diversity from elsewhere in the world, patting ourselves on the back for having demonstrated our enlightened attitude, before moving on to tomorrow’s headline issues. At the same time we regularly ignore the more laborious, longer-term investment work of engaging with the diverse resource of talent on our own doorstep. Sometimes you have to wonder what we’re afraid of: what’s the worst that could happen if we meaningfully opened the doors of our concert halls and opera houses to all those who live just outside?

The appetite which we’re told existed in post-war Britain for a genuinely egalitarian approach to the arts is in danger of fading as the generation who drove it, who demanded it and refused to take no for an answer, leaves us. Just as we saw with Brexit, the performative jingoistic populism of those who “remember” a simulacrum of World War II is in stark contrast to the attitude of those who were actually there, and genuinely recall first-hand what they - and I mean they, not we - fought, suffered and sacrificed for.

The barrier facing those from less-privileged backgrounds who might seek a career in the creative industries is real. Each brick in it might not amount to an insurmountable obstacle in itself, but put together they add up to a formidable wall. 

The Government talks a good game on “levelling-up”, yet in practice its every new move siphons money and opportunity from those who can least afford it. At the same time, our industry claims to be desperate to embrace diversity, yet slashes freelancers’ wages on the pretext of hard times - as if it’s not those same freelancers who have already borne the greatest financial brunt of the pandemic. Ours is an industry that also provides few mitigations for the soul-destroyingly complex interaction of the tax system and the fluctuation of freelance payments for those who rely on benefits.

What small steps can we as individuals take to open a door, or even just a small window, to those who face this wall? 

Deep down, is 21st-Century Britain actually fairly comfortable with the idea that the performing arts should be just a rich kid’s hobby? On pessimistic days, I have a horrible feeling I know what the answer is. Perhaps we’re often too scared even to ask the question.

But let’s not pretend that there isn’t another choice available, for a short while longer at least. The wall between the industry and its grassroots gets bigger every day. But we could choose to smash those bricks. We could choose to tear down that wall.

Part 2 -Emma Jayne Park

I’m tired and my heart hurts.  

It’s a relief to be in company with someone who can form these thoughts cohesively whilst I only have the energy to rage in meetings with those I trust enough to see my full humanity.

In the Venn diagram of my life I witness the conversation around NI and Universal Credit overlap with yet more evidence illustrating the massive f*cking class issue in the performing arts.  And the key source of my anger isn't the class issue itself.  I’ve learned enough to be unsurprised by this, and I’ve hardened enough to accept that change will never come quickly enough for me.

I am burning inside at the lack of people visibly connecting these issues, the lack of concern and the lack of relationship our industry has to actual reality - the lived reality of the majority of the population, or ‘the great unwashed’ as I once witnessed a high profile director jovially refer to the working classes as.

Whilst I cannot deny that the activism of so many over the past year on behalf of freelancers has been powerful, I fear the now and the future.  The return to people dealing with their own pockets of industrial challenge without recognising the experience of those who haven’t had the luxury of connecting with the issues because they are consumed with survival, consumed with bureaucratic systems not built to serve them in a political system designed to confuse, as a method of avoiding meaningful change.

No number of Pay What You Can schemes will remove the need for Universal Credit topping up wages - we literally live in a country where wages have to be topped up by the state.

No number of mentorship schemes will create job security in an under resourced industry - we literally work in an industry where people can over work to the point of burn out and still not maintain consistent employment.

No number of research studies will make this industry safe for people - we literally work in an industry that means people will say yes to abusive environments to be able to build social capital.

I don’t say this with hopelessness, I say this because this dose of reality reminds me of what we could choose to do - create a society in which everyone can safely opt into the work we love and fight for.  We have to start connecting the dots, seeing the patterns and stating them loudly for all to hear until we can pre-empt the piss poor decisions designed to maintain the status quo.  

After all, almost all of us are much closer to needing to access Universal Credit than we are to a £50k + high profile salaried role from which we can eternally fail upwards.  Fighting this fight is creating a safety net for all, ignoring it betrays any of the ideals we’ve heard on repeat since ‘Covid exposed’ the inequity of our industry. 

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