Help for the self-employed during Covid

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this important debate, which affects so many of our constituents. The job retention and self-employment income support schemes have provided a lifeline for many, and they have undoubtedly provided a degree of security for those who were eligible. But there’s the rub: far too many people have been ruled ineligible.

Today’s debate takes place just as the six-month period that the self-employment scheme was intended to cover draws to a close. I intend to make the case that the scheme should be continued where it is needed and, crucially, that it should be extended and backdated for all those people who have been unfairly left without support over the last six months through absolutely no fault of their own, and who have endured intense hardship as a result.

Many cannot pay their bills. They are losing their homes, they are drowning in debt and they need our support. Today’s debate is a sorely needed opportunity to set out how the self-employment scheme has fallen short. It has fallen short by failing to recognise the reality of what self-employment looks like in Britain today—by failing to understand that self-employment is significant across the breadth and depth of our economy. The self-employed are beauticians and barristers; charity and construction workers; dentists and decorators; many in marketing, events, arts and hospitality, and many more. This is a chance for us to explain loudly and clearly why self-employed people need justice and why they need support as we go forward.

As it stands, as I am sure all hon. Members know—although, frankly, I am less sure that Treasury Ministers know—the Government scheme penalises a wide range of people. They include those who combine self-employment with pay-as-you-earn work, or PAYE freelancers. They include new start-ups and the recently self-employed. They include women who have taken time out for maternity leave and childcare. They include anyone earning over £50,000. They include those earning less than 50% of their income from self-employment. They include limited company directors who take their income in the form of dividends.

There have been endless requests for the Treasury to meet MPs and those affected by the scheme’s failings to discuss those gaps. Frankly, the exchange between the Chancellor and Tracy Brabin during Treasury oral questions earlier this week underscored how urgently such a meeting is needed. I am not sure whether the Chancellor just does not understand his own scheme or whether he was deliberately being economical with the truth, but when he asserted that the only group of people excluded from the self-employment scheme is those earning more than £50,000, and that their average median salary is apparently £200,000, I did not know whether to laugh or cry. He is completely and utterly wrong. He does not understand his own policy, and we urge him again to meet us so that we can set out the problem.

At this point, I would like to pay tribute to the brilliant campaigns, including ExcludedUK, ForgottenPAYE, ForgottenLtd and many others, and individuals such as Amanda Evans and Ellie Phillips who have helped the self-employed find such a powerful and united voice. I also thank the various hon. Members from right across the House who joined me, campaigners and the money saving expert Martin Lewis at the end of July to symbolically deliver petitions to the Treasury. They were signed by more than 348,000 people and demanded that the gaps in the scheme be urgently closed.

Those campaigns and many individuals have sent copious correspondence to the Chancellor, detailing the various groups of people who are not eligible for income support. His refusal to honestly engage with those suffering as a result of his policies is frankly shameful. The Treasury has met all requests for dialogue with either deafening silence or meaningless stock responses. I am sorry, but that is not good enough.

It is not good enough for my Brighton constituent who was working full time with the BBC as a PAYE freelancer, so he is ineligible for either furlough or self-employment support and, having come relatively recently from Ireland especially to take on the role at the BBC, he is not eligible for universal credit either. He says that how he has been treated during this crisis has financially ruined him. It is not good enough for Deniz Turan, a sole trader who has gone, in her own words, from being a successful businesswoman to being homeless and feeling suicidal every day in the blink of an eye, simply because she was a start-up who took her income in dividend payments. And it is not good enough for Mark, another small limited company director, who says that the strain of getting no income support on his marriage, his household, his mental health, his physical health and his finances is literally unbearable.

The self-employed have been failed by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, and it is not just me making that argument. As hon. Members will know, an all-party parliamentary group has recently been formed. I pay tribute to Jamie Stone for setting up the APPG, which represents those who have not been protected by the various Government packages. It is I think one of the fastest growing APPGs in parliamentary history. It currently has around 260 MPs from all sides of the House, including 79 from the Government Benches, while 15 Conservative MPs added their names to the application for this debate to take place.

Back in June, the Treasury Committee published a unanimous report called “Gaps in support” as part of the inquiry into the economic impact of coronavirus. It found that hundreds of thousands of self-employed people are suffering hardship because of features like the disqualification of anyone who started a business in the last year. The Select Committee made some clear practical recommendations for change. I agree with the Chair of the Committee, Mel Stride, that urgently enacting those recommendations and helping those who have fallen through the gaps is the only way for the Government to, as he puts it, fairly and

“completely fulfil its promise to do whatever it takes”.

Sadly, the Government’s response to the “Gaps in support” report was predictable: they made excuses and cited obstacles, when what we need is action. So let me say just a little more about some of those who are falling through the gaps. I mentioned small limited companies whose directors take all or part of their income in dividends. I want to stress that that is common practice; there is nothing suspicious about doing that—it is what people do when they are starting up small businesses, and they plough that money back into those businesses in the early days …

Just a first step will be for the Government to acknowledge that there is a problem. Instead of sticking their fingers in their ears and going, “La, la, la”, they need to accept there is a problem here, and I am sure if we all got around the table we could find a way through this.

The vast majority of those small limited companies do not have commercial premises either, so they do not qualify for business grants. Nor do they see taking on large debts in such an uncertain business landscape as a realistic option. Furlough has been a Catch-22 for company directors: unpredictable cash flow means their salaries are low, so the scheme does not cover living expenses, yet if they furlough they are not allowed to work on saving the businesses that are in question.

The scheme has also routinely excluded carers and parent. As part of its inquiry into the impact of covid-19 on maternity and parental leave, the Petitions Committee heard evidence from the brilliant campaigning group, Pregnant Then Screwed. It was told that, because the self-employed scheme fails to properly accommodate women who incur a loss of earnings when taking time off for maternity leave, the gender pay gap among the self-employed, which is already at 43%, will increase, as will the likelihood of women’s businesses failing due to a lack of financial support.

The Petitions Committee urged the Government to amend the scheme to take into account periods of maternity and paternal leave to ensure fairness and equality, yet, once again, Ministers have deliberately looked the other way. That phrase “whatever it takes” apparently does not stretch to ending discrimination against self-employed women. Nor do they care very much about freelancers, especially those on short-term PAYE contracts, as is now common practice because of HMRC requirements. They are caught between a rock and a hard place: denied access to the job retention scheme and the chance to be furloughed, yet often not earning enough from self-employment to qualify for the self-employed scheme.

In some sectors of our economy, freelance working is especially common. In my own Brighton constituency, for example, a number of people work in the arts. Three in four jobs in the arts across the country are freelance. They are the people who make the plays, the musicals and live experiences that are a part of the fabric of British life. We do not always see what they do, but they are invaluable, yet one in three of the skills base in theatre, for example, have missed out on any Government support since March, with disabled people, people of colour and early career workers disproportionately affected. Young people are also over-represented compared with other sectors of the economy. Therefore, rather than recovery, we see a sector that is facing total collapse.

Failure adequately to support the cultural, creative and events industries has put at risk 16,000 jobs across Brighton and Hove and £1.5 billion in turnover. My inbox, like, I am sure, the inboxes of many other hon. Members, is full of emails from constituents forced to abandon long-standing careers in the arts because there is no income support for them as freelancers.

Many working in media and journalism are similarly struggling, as the National Union of Journalists has evidenced, with its members routinely treated as employees for tax purposes, yet not eligible for furlough and not afforded the same protections and rights as staff when it comes to employment law.

Another group of people hard hit is those who choose to combine self-employment with PAYE income. I have a number of constituents in that situation, often as a result of being midway through making the transition to running their own company and being wholly self-employed.

None of this is inevitable. All of it is the result of a conscious choice by the Government to abandon anywhere between 3 million and 6 million self-employed people and freelancers. As the current self-employed scheme winds down, now is the time to change tack and do the right thing by these people. The details of a more inclusive scheme have been set out by the campaign groups and by the Treasury Committee. The ForgottenLtd group published a rescue package. Backed by the Federation of Small Businesses and other business groups, it sent it to the Treasury over a month ago, and it is still waiting for a response.

I appreciate how much other people need and want to speak, so let me quickly, in my last few minutes, outline three things that can be done. First, we can retrospectively expand the self-employed scheme. Bring those people who have been excluded from it into its ambit and make it fair by retrospectively starting it from 1 March to give it parity with the furlough scheme.

Secondly, as well as looking back, we need to look forward, so the Government should immediately extend the duration to the many sectors where the self-employed are a significant part of the workforce and which will not be back to anything like normal for some time to come. Thirdly, the Government should be looking at ways of keeping pace with the changing shape of the economy, balancing public health and economic priorities with the likelihood of more local lockdowns, for example. Part of the answer to that is a basic income scheme. The self-employed and job retention schemes do not work in tandem with the welfare system and therefore do not approach anything like a proper safety net. Many people have not been able to claim universal credit. Some have received no support whatever and the consequences are devastating, so much so that ExcludedUK has been working with the Samaritans on creating a dedicated helpline called Mind the Gap for those experiencing mental health problems.

There is a simple and effective way to start to put things right and a universal basic income delivered via a welfare system that lifts everybody up would be a key cornerstone of that.

In conclusion, on Tuesday the Chancellor said he had

“not hesitated to act in creative and effective ways to support jobs and employment,”—[Official Report, 15 September 2020;

Vol. 680, c. 160]— and promised he would continue to do so. The self-employed and freelancers rightly want that creativity to apply to them as well. The Treasury has demonstrated time and again that it does not understand self-employment, so at the very least those of us standing up for the excluded are asking this again today: please will the Minister go back to the Treasury team and ask them to meet us so that at the very least they can understand what is at stake here? The stakes could not be higher: people’s businesses are being destroyed and their lives are being destroyed. That is not right and that is why so many Members want to speak in this debate.

 

 

 

 

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