‘You have not been forgotten’, said Rishi Sunak when he announced a set of measures designed to safeguard self-employed workers’ income during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kind-sounding words, but ultimately untrue. Many workers had been forgotten. But the reason for their reason for exclusion was buried in the small print.
Here is how it is meant to work. Self-employed workers, much like permanent employees, are eligible to receive 80% of their usual monthly earnings through a direct cash grant, up to a maximum of £2500. This would be reasonable if it were universally applied.
But many self-employed workers are excluded, because the entitlement is calculated on the basis of recent tax returns. This leaves out those who became self-employed after 6 April 2019 (when the 2018-2019 tax year ended). Since they have no tax return to show HMRC, they get nothing.
This is puzzling. How can a person be deemed less deserving of necessary financial support just because they went freelance later? Sunak’s only response was to say, ‘There’s nothing we can do’. He cited increased complexity and a heightened risk of fraud as his reasons.
Should we conclude that the Conservative party is more interested in avoiding administrative difficulty than providing an equitable settlement for self-employed people?
Other rules in the scheme exclude yet more workers. For example, the requirement that over 50% of previous income came from a freelance resource. Again, this excludes many who are currently full-time freelance on the grounds that they were previously not. Would it be too cynical to suggest that the newly freelance are likely to be younger – and therefore less likely to vote Tory?
We can speculate about motives. But here’s a more constructive discussion: is it truly necessary to divide self-employed workers into the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’? Surely, in a time of national crisis, the government could make better use of its resources than creating bureaucratic box-checking exercises. The case for a universal basic income has never been stronger. Yet these calls have been roundly dismissed. The government would prefer for people to fall into poverty than risk a few ‘undeserving’ claimants.
Sunak says that the scheme will cover 95% of the UK’s self-employed. Even if that is accurate, it still leaves 5% – that’s 250,000 people. Their only recourse will be to the already-creaking Universal Credit system. For those over 25 and single, that amounts to £410 per month. The average rent in the UK is £959.
I work for a company that employs both full-time employees and freelancers. Many full-timers have been furloughed. The freelancers will simply get less work. The government, it is assumed, will look after them.
All of the UK’s self-employed deserve to have their income secured. The government’s regulations around who receives this support aren’t just awkward red tape – they are actively exclusionary. The mainstream media will not hold them to account, so the responsibility now sits with us. We need to amplify messages that expose these deceptions, and ultimately demand better of the politicians who are supposed to be steering us through this crisis.
by Will Bindloss, Member, Finsbury Park