Equity writes open letter to protest exclusion from Operational Stakeholder Engagement Forum at DWP

Dear Secretary of State,

RE: DWP Operational Stakeholder Engagement Forum

I am writing to you as the General Secretary of Equity, the leading union for performers and creatives in the entertainment industry. We represent over 47,000 actors, dancers, singers, comedians, stage management, theatre directors and designers and a range of other professionals within the entertainment industry the vast majority of whom are self-employed. During the COVID-19 pandemic many of these members have had to have recourse for the first time to the social security system and, in particular, many of them have claimed universal credit. Our latest survey figures suggest that as many as one in four of them have claimed universal credit.

On 16th September last year, I wrote to your colleague Will Quince, the Minister for Welfare Delivery, to advocate the continued suspension of the minimum income floor and the other provisions of Regulation 2 of The Universal Credit (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020 SI 2020 No.371. We were concerned that our members would continue to be able to seek work opportunities in our sector as it gradually emerged from the enforced cessation of trade and that work coaches would continue to demonstrate the ‘light touch’ approach that had been applied since the measures were introduced. In the same letter, I made clear that our tax and welfare team was happy to meet with the Minister’s officials to discuss the position if that was thought helpful.

On 12th October last year I was sent a response by Robert Watling, the Head of the Ministerial Correspondence Team which gave no specific assurances but did state that work coaches would continue to support claimants by ‘tailoring commitments to include easements where appropriate’. There was no response to the invitation to discuss the impact of the MIF further with our team.

I subsequently replied on 26th October 2020 to the Minister’s office once again expressing my disappointment that there was no interest in opening a dialogue with us on these vitally important issues for our members. At this point I asked about the Operational Stakeholder Engagement Forum (OSEF). We understood that the Forum was closed to new members and that there was no space for further participants. I explained the nature of our tax and welfare unit and the detailed advice it seeks to give our members on social security issues relevant to creative workers. We knew that there had been a significant surge in universal credit claims and that as many as one in four of our members have made a claim for Universal Credit since March 2020 (at the time of writing that proportion will have grown considerably).

In the letter I further explained that the vast majority of our members are self-employed and itinerant in their work patterns giving rise to many non-standard queries. We thought it would be of value to the DWP to have input from our specialist team on the Forum. We therefore asked that we be included in OSEF or that an alternative mechanism be established for us to have effective liaison with DWP officials.

I then received a further response from Robert Watling dated 11th November 2020. This reply confirmed the extension of the (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations which we greatly welcomed. However, we were very disappointed to read that there was no space for us on the Forum although our details would be retained should one become available.

As it was very difficult to ascertain who was on the Forum we put in a Freedom of Information Act request which revealed that there were currently 51 organisations represented none of which so far as we could see specifically represented a self-employed group of workers.

As an organisation providing specialist advice on social security issues we note your comments in the House of Commons on 8th March this year when you said:

'I encourage people who were on legacy benefits to get an independent assessment and that is available through a number of organisations, indeed online calculators as well, in order to make that assessment … I think it is really important that MPs encourage their constituents to consider the ways they could be financially better off, rather than waiting for the government to go through quite an arduous process during the next few years.'

As one of the organisations providing this type of advice, specifically to the self-employed, we think it important for us to have a voice in stakeholder forums precisely so we can feed into the discussion the urgent issues that our members are experiencing as UC claimants, and that we are experiencing as welfare benefit advisers in relation to UC operations. This would in our view be of benefit to both the workers in our sector and to the DWP itself. In the interim, raising these issues via other routes is causing considerable delay.  For example, on 26th October 2020 we raised urgent questions in relation to the changing treatment of the self-employed in UC as a result of Covid-19. We did not receive a response until 16th February 2021.  

We also understand that working with stakeholders has been and continues to be a key part of the DWP’s strategy – hence the comment in 2019 by Neil Couling, Universal Credit SRO:

 ‘Stakeholder engagement has been and continues to be a vital part of the work we are doing on Universal Credit’ – Neil Couling (190611-Neil-Couling-to-Chair-Universal-Credit-SRO-move-to-UC-pilot.pdf (parliament.uk))

As a union we are doing everything possible to support the recovery of our workforce from the devastating impact of COVID-19. The Secretary of State will be very aware of the huge contribution made to the economy by the creative industries: UK’s Creative Industries contributes almost £13 million to the UK economy every hour - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

As a union we are keen to further the links we have with government and governmental agencies as this can only be for the benefit of the industry as a whole. We have pursued this approach successfully with HMRC. For example, in 2016, we worked with HMRC to produce guidance for the assessment of entertainers in relation to the strengthened self-employment test in Working Tax Credits.  More recently, in September last year, after three years of discussions with HMRC and other organisations in our sector, we were able to agree a new tax guidance for the entertainment sector. We would like to build up the same constructive relationship with the DWP but this will be made very difficult for us if we are excluded from meaningful engagement. We would therefore ask that you do what you can to see if space could be made for us on the OSEF Forum and we would repeat our offer for our Tax and Welfare Team to meet with DWP officials to discuss our current issues with Universal Credit and how to maximise its effectiveness for our members.

Yours sincerely, 

Paul W Fleming
General Secretary, Equity