More calls for help for arts freelancers who ‘face using food banks’

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Musicians protest outside Parliament in Westminster, London

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The government has been urged to do more to help performers and other arts freelancers as venues are shut again during lockdowns in England and Wales.

Labour MP Chris Elmore told the House of Commons there were “growing numbers of freelancers, musicians, performance artists who are excluded” from support.

Theatre workers face “adding to the queues at food banks”, another MP said.

Arts minister Caroline Dinenage said the government was “working very hard” to help freelancers access support.

She said Arts Council England had allocated £119m for individuals, on top of the £1.57bn available to venues in England through the government’s Culture Recovery Fund.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden acknowledged that a third of freelancers in all walks of life had not been able to access the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, which the government confirmed on Thursday would be extended to cover 80% of average trading profits.

“I understand the many challenges faced by freelancers and I hear about it every day,” Mr Dowden said. “It is the case that across the economy 66% of freelancers are able to benefit from the Treasury scheme, which

has been increased again by the chancellor.”

‘Exodus of talent’

Responding to Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement, Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, said she was “delighted” but that “expanding the eligibility criteria remains essential for preventing an exodus of highly skilled talent from our world-leading arts sector”.

The Musicians’ Union said the extension of SEISS was “fantastic news for many of our members”, but added that it was “time to close the gaps in support” that it said 38% of musicians had fallen through.

The Equity performers’ union has said 40% of members were ineligible for SEISS, and warned last week that “the trickle of lost talent will become a flood”.

Speaking in the House of Commons earlier on Thursday, Labour MP Ruth Cadbury said she had been contacted by West End performers, make-up artists, instrumentalists and others who had been struggling to survive on benefits after being ineligible for other support.

“Here in west London, Universal Credit barely [covers] or fails to cover the cost of rent, meaning they now face going through lockdown with no additional support and adding to the queues at food banks,” she said.

Mr Elmore said: “There are growing numbers of freelancers, musicians, performance artists who are excluded from getting any support from government… and there are growing numbers of organisations calling for support specifically for musicians.”

Freelancers ‘will benefit’

In response, Ms Dinenage said: “Our world-beating cultural and creative industries are absolutely nothing without the people who work in them, and we’re working very hard to help freelancers in those sectors to access support, particularly if they don’t qualify for the SEISS.

“Arts Council England has made £119m available to individuals, £23m of that has already been distributed and about £96m is still available to apply for.”

She added that the Culture Recovery Fund would “benefit freelancers because it does enable organisations to be assisted to reopen, and to restart performances, maybe in a digital or live stream capacity”.

The National Audit Office reported last month that up to 2.9 million people had fallen through the cracks of the furlough and SEISS schemes.

Also in October, the charity Help Musicians published the results of a survey saying more than half of musicians were not earning anything at all from music, and that four in five were worried about being able to pay their household bills.

Before the latest lockdown, 22% of businesses in the arts, entertainment and recreation industry had temporarily closed or paused trading – more than in any other sector; and the industry had the highest proportion of its workforce on furlough, at 27%, according to the Office For National Statistics.

Meanwhile on Thursday, singer Van Morrison launched The Lockdown Financial Hardship Fund for musicians, and started a petition calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to provide a timeline for live music to resume.

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