S.O.S: Save Our Self-Employed

S.O.S: Save Our Self-Employed

Chancellor Sunak yesterday missed the opportunity to provide genuine security and support for self-employed workers across the UK. After leaving them in limbo for days, we welcome the chancellor’s attempts to find a solution to the anxiety faced by millions. However creating more conditionality, complexity and a waiting period until June, does nothing other than reinforce existing uncertainty. The economic crisis looming on the periphery of Covid-19 will require money being put in the hands of all people, providing security and a stimulus to drive recovery from the impending economic decline. The case for a Basic Income is growing by the day, not just to support people through the health crisis, but to recover from the oncoming economic storm. 

Luke Brotherdale Smith, Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland

So this evening Rishi Sunak finally announced measures to support the self-employed during this period of uncertainty and partial economic shutdown.

You might have noticed things aren’t what you may describe as normal just now. With the lockdown announced by Boris Johnson a few days ago, businesses and workers that hadn’t already called it a day, were ordered to isolate in their homes to halt the spread of Covid-19. Except it isn’t that simple. For many workers who work pay-check to pay-check, the option of self-isolation for the supposed good of the country isn’t disregarded out of a lack of patriotism and British bulldog spirit, but because they can’t afford to.

The loss of work and income that have resulted from the Covid-19 crisis have plunged millions of people into economic insecurity. Sunak, the second-coming himself, brought in some welcome measures to help businesses and certain salaried workers through this period. However for those who had already lost their jobs it was too late and for the self-employed it was a bit of a slap in the face, they were totally ignored.

Now this isn’t just a small handful of people, in 2019 there were around 5 million self-employed workers in the UK, with this figure inevitably having grown within the last 12 months. And rather than ‘self-employed’ only covering the eccentric entrepreneur who invented the spork, ‘self-employed’ is an umbrella term which can cover artists, journalists, carers, painters and yes your eccentric inventors. So as you can imagine, when the Rishi and Boris double act seemingly forgot them with their first batch of policy announcements, a large section of workforce were left feeling incredibly vulnerable (not for the last time either).

I think its important to add the lived experience and give voice to people living through this anxiety filled time, and understand how the loss of work due to Covid-19 has affected them. A Guardian article recently interviewed self-employed workers and the difficulties they’ve faced. Magician Jim Campbell spoke about the panic he’s felt after not having any work for 10 days, with £95 a week an insulting amount of money to live securely on – and thats before he got onto the complexity of Universal Credit. Similarly Helen Denny, freelance facilitator and founder of Not9to5, spoke about all her upcoming work being cancelled, and having no idea where her next pay-check is coming from. Lastly, Laura Hughes a supply teacher working for an agency has also faced great uncertainty, with schools closing down and an absence of government support for non-salaried workers such as herself. The finical pressures and anxieties caused by this crisis aren’t abstract, this is people’s lives and well-being.

But alas, here we are a few days later, Sunak has returned with an announcement for the 15% (at least) of the workforce left in limbo for the best part of a week.

So comrade Rishi proudly acclaimed all ideology had been abandoned in ensuring the correct measures are being implemented to provide people with the support they need. The big solution being a grant which the self-employed can apply for, which will pay 80% of the average earnings from the last 3 years (upto £2500 a month). **Fanfare plays**

Now don’t get me wrong, as written in our first article on Covid-19 (plug) it’s important we welcome movement in the right direction, rather than aimlessly complaining its not enough. So credit where credit is due. These are significant and fairly timely investments. But these measures smacked of a government terrified of letting go of current welfare systems and structures borne out of a neoliberal and market bound ideology.

So all these words, but what are the issues with the measures? Mainly the complexity, the conditionality and the cunctation (means act of delaying – felt committed to the alliteration). The self-employed are to ‘apply’ for a ‘grant’ – and this immediately throws up issues. In order to qualify for the grant, you need to be able to produce your tax-return for the previous year – what if you’ve only just built a start-up and therefore haven’t got returns from last year? Too bad says Rishi, apparently they can’t ensure everyone is covered by the measures (boy have we got a solution). Similarly, the qualifications are only for those earning under £50k, but do these people not also need financial support? Last year’s tax returns may suggest they’re living the life of milk and honey, but with the sudden economic collapse, previously economic secure folk may well be in need of support.

So to simplify, in a time of crisis and worry, and despite socialist Sunak’s claims of abandoning ideology, the government’s response is typically steeped in conditionality, with boxes to tick and hoops to jump through, in order to prove your worthiness of money to keep you alive. Sounds pretty questionable and it is. After decades of our welfare system forcing people in the most vulnerable and insecure positions to prove their desperation to meet conditions for support, the government are still clinging to the ideology of deserving and undeserving, conditionality and complexity.

Surely in a time of such uncertainty and anxiety, unconditional and universal support will not only provide the self-employed with the financial and emotional security necessary, but will also simplify government systems, stripping the bureaucracy involved in conditionality and instead providing blanket support for all. People will inevitably fall through the cracks of these half-arsed measurers, as they always do when conditionality is involved. We demand and deserve more from the Chancellor, and we will continue to push for it.

And thats before we get onto the real shitshow of the announcements, the fact that for this magical grant the self-employed are going to have to wait until June. Yes really, June! So Boris has channeled his inner Lord Kitchener, telling the nation ‘Your Country Needs You to stay at home and not work and exercise only once and wash your hands and stuff’ and in doing so has cut off people’s access income. Of course nationwide self isolation is absolutely the appropriate public health response. But our country is not fit for dealing with this kind of crisis. The social infrastructure has been decimated and was already at breaking point. It is absolutely not able to cope with a crisis that impacts anyone but those we’ve already left behind. It is unacceptable that the middle class, self-employed have been failed in this way. But we must remember we ask hundreds of thousands of people to live on £94 a week Universal Credit payments every week. If the government aren’t going to provide people with the financial security to survive during this period of lockdown and economic shutdown (and they’re not), people will either fall into total deprivation, or be forced to carry on working.

How many self-employed people who worked today out of the desperate need for money, won’t work tomorrow due to the chancellor’s measures? These interventions aren’t enough to safeguard people’s financial or physical health.

Right now, the only financial support for the people who have lost their income is Universal Credit. Yeah thats right, a welfare policy filled to the brim with conditionality, forcing the most vulnerable into depths of despair and anxiety to prove their worthiness for support. And here it is, the safety net for millions until June and beyond. Universal Credit, true to its failed history, has crashed and burned under the increased strain, with queues of over 100,000 people waiting for the financial support they desperately need. It simply cannot be relied upon to provide the support to millions.

The UK clearly needs a fit for purpose delivery mechanism for crises like this. And, as we begin to emerge from this crisis, a universal Basic Income will provide the essential economic stimulus required to lift businesses out of recession and catalyse an economic recovery. More than this, as our NHS staggers through this crisis following its kneecapping at the hands of austerity, a new fit for purpose social security system is going to be imperative to reduce the pressure. A welfare system no longer built around cutting costs or conditionality, but focussed on providing people with security, protecting their mental and physical health has to be to the goal. Nothing less than a Basic Income will provide financial security, a subsiding of anxiety and an insurance that nobody falls through the cracks. Rather than clinging onto an ideology of conditionality and proving deservedness, we are calling on the government to put people first, put money in their hands now and implement an emergency Basic Income, to protect our NHS and save lives…

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