Equity has lobbied the highest levels of government since this crisis began. We have been fighting for your livelihoods at every stage and our focus has now turned to influencing the recovery plans
From the earliest stages of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, Equity has lobbied the highest levels of government to highlight its impact on our members. In our initial response to the crisis we had two key priorities: a financial rescue package for the creative industries, and an income guarantee in the form of a temporary Universal Basic Income for our members.
Our campaigning in these first weeks included a mass lobby of MPs by members, meetings with the Shadow Culture Secretary, Mayor of London and Deputy Mayor for Culture, working closely with the Creative Industries Federation, TUC and other creative unions and professional associations, engagement with the Arts Councils/Creative Scotland, DCMS and the Treasury as well as briefing members of our parliamentary group – the Performers Alliance APPG – so that they could relay our concerns in parliamentary questions and debates.
Following the announcement of the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) on 20 March, Equity reacted strongly – we called for immediate action to enable freelance and self-employed workers to receive the same support and protection as employees in secure jobs, through broadening the criteria for the JRS and creating a separate support package for the self-employed. Equity published an open letter to the Chancellor and this was followed up with a petition attracting 30,000 signatures in a matter of days.
Together with the Federation of Entertainment Unions (FEU) Equity called for an income guarantee for the UK’s 5 million freelance and self-employed workers for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak. Huge numbers of Equity members wrote to and emailed their MPs and contacted the Chancellor directly, appealing for immediate help.
As a result of this period of intense lobbying, Equity played a major role in securing the introduction of the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS). While Equity welcomed the introduction of the SEISS, and the lifeline it provided to those of our members it covered, the union was aware from the beginning that it did not fit the needs of all our membership. As the full details of the scheme were released, it became apparent that many people would fall through gaps in its eligibility criteria.
Those let down by the scheme included those with recent gaps in their earnings because of parental leave or caring responsibilities, workers doing a mixture of PAYE work and self-employed work who fall below the 50% self-employment threshold, new graduates and entrants into the industry and those with profits in excess of £50k.
Equity began to lobby for changes to the SEISS and again our members stepped up impressively. In recent weeks members have contacted hundreds of MPs from all political parties, taken part in surveys and provided case studies for use as evidence in submissions the Treasury, DCMS and four separate Select Committee Inquiries.
In April, Equity published another joint letter from the FEU, calling on the Government to improve support for our 120,000 collective members during the coronavirus crisis. The letter underlined the gaps in the JRS and the SEISS and asked for seven solutions to be adopted to enable as many creative workers as possible to survive this period of crisis and help the industry to retain their talent and skills.
In partnership with BECTU and other creative unions, Equity launched a joint campaign called #NoCreativeLeftBehind to keep up pressure on the Government to ensure that freelancers and the self-employed are not forgotten or left behind during this pandemic. The campaign urged Equity members to participate on social media, producing a video and an ongoing call to action for members to post pictures of themselves and demonstrate the level of concern across the breadth of the creative industries for those who are not eligible for financial support.
Later in April, Equity welcomed the Scottish Government’s commitment of a £34 million hardship fund, as part of an overall extra £100 million package, providing grants of £2,000 to newly self-employed workers who currently fall through the gaps of the Government’s Self Employed Income Support Scheme. The Union called for the scheme to be extended to England, Wales and Northern Ireland; this was followed up with an open letter from representatives of Equity’s Young Members Committee.
Equity President Maureen Beattie said: “The Scottish Government’s decision to provide this hardship fund recognises the contribution of self-employed workers to the economy and the need to retain their skills at this time of crisis. Too many young people and new entrants risk losing their livelihoods in the coming months and it is essential that we give them much needed financial security”.
In May, Christine Payne took part in a call with the Chancellor, relaying our concerns about gaps in the SEISS and drew attention to Southampton Nuffield Theatres falling into administration. This was followed with an open letter from Christine to Chancellor Rishi Sunak, repeating our call for an extension of the JRS and SEISS, action to address the gaps in eligibility for the schemes and for the creation of a hardship fund for those who continue to fall through those gaps.
Christine said: “The closure of Nuffield Southampton Theatres is a reflection of the enormous pressure the entertainment industry, and live performance in particular, is under. I made the point to the Chancellor that we will be one of the last industries to return to any kind of normal and if he wants us to survive this crisis we will need long term support. But the union simply cannot wait for an exit plan to appear, we need to make one. As a consequence, Equity is working on recovery plans and we will be contacting members soon to get their input into
how we bring this industry back from the brink.”
Nearly three months into the crisis, our lobbying has not let up and our focus now includes influencing recovery plans being developed by the DCMS Cultural Renewal Taskforce and its various working groups. We have also not lost sight of the need to keep up the pressure on Brexit, equalities issues and the future of the BBC.
What has become clear through this crisis is that despite huge growth in the creative industries and its workforce in the last ten years, the financial reality of life as a freelance or self-employed creative worker is little understood by policy-makers.
Explaining the value of our members’ work to society and the economy and fighting for improvements to employment and social security rights has to remain our priority.
It is also likely we will be fighting for the survival of some sections of the entertainment industry over the coming months. The challenges presented by social distancing are insurmountable for many arts organisations, variety venues and theatres and it is inevitable that they will need additional funding to make it through to 2021 when they have a better of chance of being able to re-open safely.
At a time when the Government has demonstrated a willingness to introduce significant measures and the Chancellor has signalled an intention to invest in the recovery, Equity needs to seize the opportunity to propose far-reaching solutions that can not only safeguard the industry, but also continue our work to ensure that our members’ working lives are understood, valued, respected and properly rewarded.
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