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Lobbying During A Crisis

Following the Prime Minister’s statement on 16th March, theatres across the UK became the first workplaces to shut down. Closures of live entertainment venues, pubs, clubs, film and TV sets quickly ensued. It’s now clear that these workplaces will be some of the last to re-open – if indeed many of them survive the crisis. The office for National Statistics reported on 23rd April that 82% of firms surveyed in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector said they had temporarily ceased trading.

Equity’s immediate industrial response was to negotiate agreements to protect thousands of members who were contracted across theatre, TV and film at the time of shutdown, delivering payments to members to provide a degree of security for the first weeks and months of the crisis.

But of course tens of thousands of Equity members were not under contract at the onset of shutdown. And, in the absence of being able to gain work through the entertainment industry or in other sectors where they normally work to supplement their income, a very desperate picture began to emerge.

The union’s executive, the Equity Council, set out our lobbying priorities on 17th March and they were twofold: campaign for a temporary income guarantee for all creative workers and lobby Government for a rescue package for the entertainment industries.

Two months later these demands constitute in our view the most efficient, equitable and necessary solutions for our sector, but we have adapted and evolved our positions as the Government have announced their various packages of support – from mortgage holidays and business loans through to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and the Self Employed Income Guarantee Scheme (SEISS) – the latter two of course being the result of Herculean lobbying by the TUC, unions and workers.

The CJRS has so far prevented redundancies for hundreds of performers and stage managers working on a PAYE basis in the UK’s main opera and ballet companies but unfortunately it was not extended to many similar non PAYE workers in the West End, subsidised and commercial theatre. This was a real missed opportunity which could have provided relief and some degree of security for workers and producers alike.

The SEISS, which according to the Chancellor is open to 95% of self-employed workers, will help many of our members but also presents a number of barriers, not just for Equity members, but for a significant proportion of all creative workers represented by BECTU, the NUJ, the Musicians Union and the Writers Guild of Great Britain.

If you have a portfolio career, mixing PAYE and self-employment work - especially common for women, parents and carers in our industry, you may not meet the 50% self-employment income threshold to qualify. If you are a recent graduate or new entrant you won’t be eligible if you haven’t got a 2018-19 tax return on the HMRC system. If you have profits in excess of £50,000 you can’t get a grant, even if you’re the only earner in your household, living in the most expensive parts of the country, as creative workers tend to in order to access work and auditions. If you are in receipt of legacy benefits, making an application for Universal Credit while you wait for your SEISS grant will leave you, in most cases, worse off. If you have substantial expenses, or have had time off for maternity leave or illness in the last three years, your grant will be much reduced.

So the lobbying carries on to propose solutions and challenge the assumptions – one of the most erroneous being that the 5% of those ineligible for the SEISS earn on average £200,000. This certainly does not ring true for the majority of creative workers whose incomes are in the region of £10,000.

What’s clear 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 and fighting for improvements to their employment and social security rights has to remain our priority.

The campaigning and lobbying efforts of our members over the last eight weeks has kick started this effort. A huge number of our 48,000 members and activists have stepped up to every one of our multiple calls to action. They’ve spoken up, not just for themselves, but on behalf of others who will miss out on SEISS grants or have problems with Universal Credit claims. This has been matched by the efforts of a number of MPs including Equity member Tracy Brabin, who’ve taken the time to read our members’ stories and relayed their concerns to their colleagues, the Chancellor, DCMS, HMRC and anyone else who will listen or can help.

It is 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 and theatres and it is inevitable that they will need bailouts or additional funding to make it through to 2021 when they have a better chance of being able to re-open safely.