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Covid-19: Performing Arts Freelance Workers

Volume 810: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the proportion of (1) the Cultural Recovery Fund, and (2) any other emergency support for the performing arts provided during the COVID-19 pandemic, that has directly benefited workers in that sector who are freelance.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I draw the House’s attention to my interests as listed in the register.

My Lords, around 40% of awards made so far from the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund have gone to non-building-based organisations. Arts Council England has also provided over £47 million of awards to individuals through non-CRF funds. The Government have supported the self- employed in the performing arts through the Self-employment Income Support Scheme. As of 31 December, 60,000 self-employed people in the sector have claimed for phase 3 of the scheme, 76,000 received support in phase 1 and 72,000 in phase 2.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her detailed Answer and wish her a very happy birthday. It is undoubtedly true that significant help has gone to organisations from the CRF, but organisations can help freelancers only by employing them. Recent research from Freelancers Make Theatre Work shows that performing arts organisations ordinarily expect to spend nearly 40% of their turnover on employing freelancers. This has not been possible for nearly a year and there is no early prospect of work resuming. One-third of freelancers in the sector have received no government support since the pandemic began and I can tell from personal experience how desperate they have become. Do the Government now have plans to broaden the eligibility criteria for the Self-employment Income Support Scheme and/or to enable remaining CRF funds to be used to provide more targeted, direct support to freelancers?

I thank the noble Baroness for her kind wishes. In relation to her question, she is right that the work of freelancers is totally tied up with the ability of cultural institutions to begin to perform again, something that we are all very much looking forward to. The Treasury is looking at phase 4 of the Self-employment Income Support Scheme and will be announcing the terms of that in the Budget early next month. In the meantime, we have held back £400 million from the Culture Recovery Fund as a contingency to make sure that we are able to support organisations and the freelancers they employ, so that we can begin to enjoy our performing arts again when it is safe to do so.

My Lords, what has the regional distribution of money paid out from the Culture Recovery Fund been? How much has been in London and the south-east and how much in the rest of the country?

I start by wishing the noble Baroness a happy birthday as well, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, if she is listening—it is a busy day. I will have to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, with the exact distribution in England. In the devolved Administrations, £33 million has been given to Northern Ireland, £97 million to Scotland and £59 million to Wales.

My Lords, I draw attention to my entries in the Register of Lords’ Interests. I also wish absolutely everybody a happy birthday, particularly the Minister, who has achieved so much at such a young age. I wonder whether she has had a chance to look at the Institute for Fiscal Studies report, which suggests that for about 5% of the cost of the furlough scheme we could fill the gaps left for some freelancers who are not eligible under SEISS. It is about £5 billion, which in pre-Covid days was a lot of money, but in Covid days it is just 5%. Could she give me the Government’s view on that report? Will she, along with her colleagues, meet trade bodies such as the Creative Industries Federation which are doing so much work engaging with freelancers and looking for solutions?

I am of course happy to agree to meet any of the trade bodies that my noble friend suggests. Colleagues in the department are considering this report and working very closely with HMRC, the Treasury and the freelance community to understand take-up of the Self-employment Income Support Scheme and how that can best operate in future.

I too wish all the noble Baronesses a happy birthday, of course. I would like to pick up on the question of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey. At the moment under SEISS, those freelancers who have gaps in their self-assessment tax returns during the last three years due to maternity leave, paternity leave or caring responsibilities have received lower grants. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government plan to adapt the scheme to incorporate a declaration for those freelancers so that these gaps can be covered?

I reassure the noble Viscount that all these options will be considered, but we remain of the view that the support that we are offering the cultural sector through the Culture Recovery Fund, combined with following public health advice so that we can reopen our cultural venues as quickly as possible, is the best route for re-employing freelancers.

All the people to whom we are giving birthday wishes—which I join in doing—are women. I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that women freelancers working in the arts, who constitute a very high proportion, suffer badly for two reasons. Last year, pay gap enforcement was suspended, and many women reduced their working hours to care for children who were home for school. This renders them not qualified for the Self-employment Income Support Scheme. Will the Government adjust their provision to include targeted support for women freelancers working in the arts?

As I said to other noble Lords, we are considering all the elements in detail and all the barriers to taking up the support offered. A further announcement on this will be made by the Treasury in the Budget.

Happy birthday to all as well, and for once I suspect that the noble Baronesses wish they were a bit older so that they could get the jab. Last week we saw British talent triumph in the nominations for the Golden Globes. We cannot risk losing this vibrant sector, which contributes so much to our economy and world standing, but that is what we are heading towards. As my honourable friend Jamie Stone has repeatedly highlighted in his campaign “Gaps in Support”, so many of those facing this plight are from the creative industries. Does the Minister recognise that there should be more targeted financial help for this group? Can she say what exactly the Government are doing about this?

I feel as though I should have birthday cake on the Dispatch Box. Of course our understanding and our approach needs to evolve as our understanding of the pandemic and its impact evolves. We have aimed to tackle this from all directions by supporting our institutions with a major funding package, having a very broad job support and self-employed support scheme, and giving targeted support to individuals—particularly from the Arts Council, which has distributed £47 million in England alone.

Diversity of the performing arts is important. What is the linkage with self-employed freelancers, so that both Government and these individuals can keep abreast of what exactly is happening and raise matters of concern?

The Government are making every effort to co-ordinate with the sector and hear from it directly about the impacts. I shall give my noble friend two examples: we have established steering groups for both indoor venues and outdoor events and festivals, and are working closely with a number of sector bodies across music and the arts. If there are particular groups that he thinks we should be listening to more, I invite him to get in touch.

My Lords, I am beginning to wish I had brought some freelancers along to sing “Happy Birthday”, rather than ask a question. However, given that the spring Budget is fast approaching, will DCMS Ministers now lobby the Chancellor to admit the mistakes of the past and accept and correct the injustice of excluding so many of our hard-working freelancers in the cultural industries from the Government’s Covid-19 support schemes? I also urge them to take advantage of the fact that we are entering the new tax year.

I cannot accept the noble Lord’s criticism of the Government’s action, which has been speedy, generous, broad and effective. Of course we keep it under review, but it is unparalleled in its generosity.

My Lords, with all the birthday wishes, in which I join, we have run out of time, so I apologise to the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, Lord Foster of Bath and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, that there was not time to take their questions.