TAITMAIL Free the freelancers

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The Comprehensive Spending Review isn’t comprehensive and it doesn’t spend: it’s selective and it only promises to do things, mostly cut. One word is particularly missing from Rishi Sunak’s statement this week: freelance.


Freelancers are the backbone of the creative industries. There are around 300,000 of them, almost half the cultural workforce (70% in the performing arts), and they are our musicians, choreographers, actors, writers, translators, producers, editors, stagehands, educators, composers, directors, designers, artists, craft makers and curators. They are in every cranny of the most successful new industry in the country, yet because of their status they are not entitled to furloughing, job retention or self-employed income support, and many of them have had to find other work – the Musicians Union reckons that a third of its members is no longer practising musicians as a result of Covid. 
 
The Treasury has had the freelancers’ case put to it in a crescendo, from a nudge in the spring to yelling in its ear before this review, and it still hasn’t got the message. Arts Council England has and in March it announced a £20m fund for freelancers of £2,500 each. It was spent up by April 16, and others had to have a turn at the fast-emptying emergency reservoir.
 
“Over the last couple of months, a small number of freelancers were able to find employment once again, as venues across the country found creative ways to re-open” said Sam Mendes as he relaunched his aid fund for freelance theatre workers when the new lockdown was announced. “This has now been thrown back into chaos, and once again our freelance community is plunged into uncertainty and financial hardship.”
 
The spending review is not a Budget, it’s an estimate. In recent years it has been a triennial event, casting forward a manageable three years, but this is for only one year because of the unpredictability of economic influences, and future  planning doesn’t figure much in it. This spending review, said Rishi Sunak, was about jobs in the face of the rise in employment to 2.6m in the next six months, but there was no mention of the self-employed that have already fallen between the safety slats over the last nine months. 
 
There’s nothing malicious about this lacuna. When Dominic Cummings was in charge at No 10 you could easily believe that there was, but Sunak has shown that he gets the importance of the creative industries with the famous £1.57bn Culture Rescue Fund, almost all spent now. Several of the arts organisations that received cash from the fund wrote their freelances into their “lifeline” budgets, and that was accepted by the holders of the purse strings, but with the National Living Wage due to go up to £8.91 next year arts organisations are going to find it impossible to maintain their vital freelance workforces without more help. 
 
The Festival UK 2022, announced last week, is deliberately constructed to make full use of freelance talent and fortunately for Martin Green who is creating it he has his £120m grant and presumably can get on with using it undisturbed. .
 
But the problem is that freelance workers don’t fall comfortably into any other system but the arts. They’re too fluid, they’re often on zero hours contracts, too difficult to pin down, too used to ignoring official communications. They are a grey area and money people like to deal in black and white.
 
Sunak has written local authorities more firmly into some plans than before, so that his £4bn (and another £800m for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) Levelling Up Fund announced on Wednesday – denounced by Labour as being yet another option for Tory cronyism – is for poorer councils to apply to for up £20m with whatever community scheme they have, including but not especially arts and heritage projects. And the clue to the arts being unlikely to figure prominently lies in the fact that the fund will be managed jointly by the Treasury, the Department for Transport and the Ministry for Local Government and Communities.
 
There needs to be a pragmatic, apolitical, approach to our freelance problem that involves both politicians and the arts industry, and there is a suggestion on the table, in the form of a brief letter to Sunak from Prospect, the union that represents freelancers, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed and the Creative Industries Federation.
 
The letter proposes to play the game the bureaucratic way that could dovetail nicely in the modus operandi of culture-minded bean counters. They suggest a freelance commissioner working to a future workforce commission. The commission would be like the Creative Industries Council, jointly chaired by two secretaries of state and bringing together representatives of freelancers and entrepreneurs and the organisations that use them. The commissioner’s job would be proactive working across government and cultural organisations, and cutting through red tape. These four bodies with their four distinct interests are are putting themselves forward to set the commission up.
 
The logic is simple, as the CIF’s CEO Caroline Norbury puts it in her blog this week: “As the 21st century progresses, the global workforce is set to look more and more like the creative industries. There will be a higher proportion of freelancers, more home-working, a more flexible workstream and an embracing of all things digital. However, what this health pandemic has uncovered is a social pandemic; an apartheid between those on freelance contracts and those on payroll; between those businesses that are supported by public funds and those that operate in the commercial marketplace. And this social pandemic punishes those that we’re about to need most of all: entrepreneurs...  We need to rethink the way that government interacts with, and supports, freelance workers”.
 
It’s a bit amorphous, and whoever gets the job may retreat into long-term research like the culture commissioner Neil Mendoza, but it’s positive, presumably non-government funded, and will have the crack of the arts industry’s whip behind them. As ministers have grown out of the habit of saying, we should talk.

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