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U.K. Broadcasters Pressure Government for Freelancer Pay as Decision Looms

U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi
ANDREW PARSONS/DOWNING STREET HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The leaders of broadcasters BBC, Channel 4 and ITV have united to apply pressure on the U.K. government for expansive economic measures for the self-employed — a highly anticipated directive due Thursday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed during his daily press briefing Wednesday that Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer would reveal these measures on Thursday, saying a package for the self-employed has been “put together at incredible speed,” given the complexity of the situation.

BBC director general Tony Hall, ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall, Channel 4 chief executive Alex Mahon, ViacomCBS president for U.K. and Australia Maria Kyriacou and S4C chief executive Owen Evans sent a letter to Sunak on Wednesday asking him to “support the critically important freelance community of the U.K. creatives industries.”

The industry heavyweights reminded Sunak that the creative industries now contribute more than £100 billion ($118 billion) to the U.K. economy and that 50% of workers in the sector are freelancers.

“The very nature of the freelance community is that they do not have a single anchor employer; they work for the industry as a whole across TV and film, which makes them particularly vulnerable in current circumstances and therefore worthy of government support,” the letter said.

“We are willing to engage with the government to help you identify a package of measures that would provide a level of income protection and access to statutory sick pay for the freelance community in our industry as a matter of urgency.”

This is the latest salvo of pressure on the U.K. government after demands by industry unions. Around 9,000 members of union Bectu have written to their members of parliament after being left jobless by an industry that has largely shut down.

“These numbers show how desperate freelancers are at the moment. Their productions, venues and working lives were turned upside down close to two weeks ago and they are still waiting for government to act,” Bectu head Philippa Childs said Wednesday.

The U.K. government has been widely criticised for hitherto looking after the welfare of only payroll employees.

Last week, payroll workers were guaranteed 80% of their salaries up to $2,930 per month, with no upper limit set on the funds, a far cry from the maximum $578 per month available under the Universal Credit scheme for the self-employed. The only concessions that the self-employed were given were access to an amount equalling that of payroll employees’ statutory sick pay, as well as a tax deferment.

“Bectu is willing to engage and provide the insight that is desperately needed so that these people can also access up to 80% of their salary,” Childs said. “This could be calculated by looking at their income over the past three years but more important than the precise mechanism is that it happens now.”

On Tuesday, Sunak said at the House of Commons: “There are genuine practical and principle reasons why it is incredibly complicated to design an analogous scheme to the one that we have for employed workers. We can absolutely understand the situation that many self-employed people face at the moment as a result of what’s happening and we are determined to find a way to support them. We need to be confident that it is done in a way that is deliverable and is fair to the vast majority of the British work force.”

Sunak highlighted that while some self-employed individuals’ incomes have been “enormously impacted” by the pandemic’s economic shutdown, there are “also millions of people who are self-employed whose incomes may not have been impacted and, indeed, might be increasing.”

“The ability of the government to distinguish between those people, based on tax returns that are over a year and a half out of date, poses some very significant challenges in terms of fairness and affordability,” he said.

Last week, Sunak also revealed a £330-billion ($390-billion) package that included government loans packages and cash grants of $30,000 per small business. The coronavirus business interruption scheme was made interest-free for 12 months, and a further $8.1 billion in welfare schemes were also promised.

Adding to the pressure, a U.K. department for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) committee led by member of parliament Julian Knight wrote to culture secretary Oliver Dowden on Monday asking for emergency funding for cultural organizations amid closures and uncertainty for sporting events affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re looking at an extremely urgent situation for people across a number of sectors affected by the coronavirus outbreak whether in our cultural organisations, charities, tourism or sport,” Knight said.