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Covid-19: Arts Sector

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking (1) to support freelance workers in the arts sector during the COVID-19 pandemic, and (2) to ensure a return to live performances in that sector as soon as possible.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interest as chairman of the Royal College of Music.

My Lords, the Government recognise the significant challenge that the current pandemic poses to our arts sector and to the many individuals, including freelances, working across it. We are working very hard to help freelancers in those sectors access support, including through the self-employment income support scheme and funding from Arts Council England.

My Lords, the Covid emergency has been a catastrophe for music and other parts of the creative economy, and in particular for the freelancers who make up 72% of those working in the performing and visual arts. Nearly four in five of them earn less than £30,000 per year and many are having to rely on universal credit. Can my noble friend tell us what steps are being taken to ensure that the support that the Government are giving to music and the arts, including the £165 million recently announced, will directly benefit freelancers, and when will freelancers have the security of a revised road map to return to live performances once restrictions are eased?

The Government recognise the impact of the pandemic on this group, which my noble friend has spoken of so clearly, and on our wider and very brilliant arts and creative sector. Our focus is on keeping venues going financially and getting them open. We estimate that 12.5% of the business costs of culture recovery fund recipients will go to freelancers, artists and casual events staff. Of course, not all the fund is yet committed and we are keeping all options under review. In relation to the second part of the noble Lord’s question, we absolutely understand the importance of a reopening date for planning. My honourable friend the Minister for Culture recently met the organisers of a number of festivals, including Edinburgh and the Isle of Wight, and as soon as we can announce more on that, we will.

My Lords, will the Minister please comment on what is being done to support the huge supply chain of talent, materials and suppliers for live events and performances? As the Minister is doubtless aware, there are decades of expertise within these sectors, which also support film production, television and festivals—everything from catering to lighting, scenery, special effects, equipment hire, publicity and venue hire. These are all in danger of being wiped out and will be extremely difficult to re-establish if businesses and freelancers are not supported at this stage.

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. The figures that I just gave to my noble friend Lord Black in relation to culture recovery fund recipients do not include the supply chain, where we think significant numbers of contracted employees will also benefit. We are very aware of these issues and share the right reverend Prelate’s concerns.

My Lords, freelance workers in the arts sector have been among the worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, with all booked engagements simply cancelled with no remuneration. While the third grant to unemployed arts workers was indeed provided at the end of November, individuals who managed to finance themselves during the first grant and so did not need the grant at that time are unfortunately ineligible for third grants. Will the Government please install their eligibility? The recent measures mean that there will be no live performances in the London area, and the Greater London area theatres do not have the financial resources to put on live performances and will need help when government rules permit live performances.

The Government share my noble friend’s sadness at the impact of the recent decisions on London theatres but, obviously, that decision was taken on public health grounds. Under the new tiers that came into force recently, live performances are permitted in Covid-secure indoor venues in tiers 1 and 2. In relation to those self-employed people who did not access finance in the first two phases, they are not necessarily excluded from the third grant if their business has been badly impacted by Covid-19.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, talked about the 100,000 freelancers in the creative industry who fall outside the SEISS. I am especially concerned about new graduates who have been recruited into these industries. Those in last year’s intake to the industries were not covered and they have now been joined by another year’s intake who are similarly not covered. Do the Government have any specific plans to help these people?

I can reassure the noble Viscount that we are looking in detail, with HMRC and the Treasury, at a range of reasons why self-employed people may be ineligible. That work is under way and I am assuming that graduates form part of it.

My Lords, I refer the House to my interests in the register. Has the noble Baroness had time to read the most recent report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, Employment and COVID-19? It has some pretty trenchant things to say about the Government’s treatment of freelancers. In one example, it says that the Government have not taken action “to better target” the SEISS

at those most affected by the pandemic, despite having had months to reform the scheme.”

Reference to the culture recovery fund will not quite do, as important as that is. Highly skilled freelancers are leaving the arts now and, as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, has just said, newly trained young people who hope to come in—especially those from under- represented backgrounds—are thinking again, such is the vulnerability of the sector. These are the performers, technicians, craftspeople and also the teachers of the future. How can the Government justify this waste of talent?

The Government have not been wasting their time. We have announced the largest support package for the cultural sector of £1.5 billion, which we think will sustain the cultural ecosystem, allow venues to reopen and protect jobs. However, as I said to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, we are working closely to understand where there are barriers to freelancers accessing support.

My Lords, the allocation last week of more from the culture recovery fund was received with relief by many venues, but performing arts production is not a tap that you can just turn on and off. The news yesterday that London is going into tier 3, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Flight, has caused great anxiety. Can the Minister confirm that cultural venues will be eligible to receive tier 3 local restrictions support grant compensation?

My understanding is that that is the case, but I will write and confirm to the noble Baroness if that is incorrect.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my relevant entries in the register of interests. My noble friend will be familiar with the individuals emergency resilience programme set up by the Northern Ireland Executive for those working in the creative industries, including freelancers, and the self-employed hardship fund established by the Scottish Government. These are very targeted funds, so what similar or additional plans have been put in place in England and Wales in response to London’s tier 3 reclassification this week, specifically to assist individual artists or freelancers in this targeted way?

The announcement on the London decision happened only yesterday, so I hope that my noble friend will give us a moment to work that through. However, Arts Council England has made over £26 million in awards to over 8,200 individuals through non-CRF funds this year, including £17.1 million through the emergency response fund for individuals.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh says, the current schemes have clearly not worked to support freelancers. Will the Minister please accept that and has she read the Museum Freelance report, which says that fewer than half its respondents have even been able to access government income, let alone survive over this period? What is she going to do about it?

We would accept that some freelancers have either believed that they are not eligible for these schemes or are not eligible. But we have announced considerable funding, and £378 million was claimed by freelancers in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector under phases 1 and 2 of the scheme.

With the Covid-19 rules changing almost on a weekly basis, many music and culture venues which took the Government at their word and tried to reopen in a socially distanced way between lockdowns have now found themselves having to refund tickets already sold because of a reduction in the audience numbers allowed, even before going into tier 3. What specific plans do the Government have to help venues in this position, for example in the form of an indemnity scheme so that they are able to insure against this kind of eventuality?

The Government recognise the tremendous efforts that many venues have gone to and we have a venues steering group, which is working through a number of these issues. We are looking at options around insurance and indemnity and are very happy to have conversations with the Treasury about this, but we need evidence that that is the only barrier to reopening.