By Ellie Phillips
We are now 10 weeks into a national crisis. 10 weeks. Imagine 10 weeks without a penny of income or financial support from the government, after having worked and paid tax for your entire adult life.
On Wednesday 13th May, many self-employed workers breathed a huge sigh of relief as they finally accessed backdated Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) grants of up to £2,500 per month to help them through the coronavirus crisis.
But weeks on, 3 million self-employed taxpayers, including PAYE Freelancers, are still being excluded from the same support from the government.
I have been a freelance presenter and journalist for over 7 years. I’ve always submitted tax returns on time (thanks to much needed help from my accountant) and subsequently paid whatever was due. I’m not a limited company, and I most definitely earn under £50k.
For the past two years, I’ve consistently worked extremely irregular shifts for one company which pays me weekly via PAYE, taxing me at source (their decision) while I invoice for the work I do elsewhere, paying the appropriate tax at the end of the year.
The company which pays me via PAYE provides me with over 50% of my income but has no legal obligation provide me with work because I’m not an employee: I have no employee rights such as sick pay or maternity leave.
It’s important to note that it was very much my decision to be freelance in order to be able to have a diverse work life within the media, and something which they’ve always fully supported.
On March 23rd , the UK went into full-scale lockdown in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus.
Overnight, work dried up: events and programmes I was due to host were immediately cancelled, and my usual freelance shifts all but stopped being offered, in order to reduce expenditure “in the current climate.”
“Don’t panic. You’ll be eligible for the self-employed income support scheme grant,” I reassured myself.
Logging on to the HMRC online checker, I was confused and felt a sudden pang of anxiety jolt through my body when, in Little Britain style, I was told: “Computer says no.”
I wasn’t eligible for SEISS. Why? Simply because I’m a Pay As You Earn (PAYE) freelancer. Let me explain…
Like hundreds of thousands of other freelancers, more than 50% of my income is taxed at source (PAYE), making me ineligible for the SEISS grant.
Cannot be furloughed
At the same time, I’m not an employee of any company, so I cannot be furloughed.
I’m not alone. PAYE freelancers prop up innumerable industries, taking unappealing overnight shifts, last-minute requests to cover when help is needed and working on national holidays – all for minimal pay.
The minute we went into lockdown, many businesses reigned in their freelance spending overnight in a bid to cut costs; cancelled short-term contracts, reduced work being offered to non-employees, relying instead on core staff members to take on excess workload, if needed.
Freelancers were the first to lose work and will be the last to regain it. We were the “quick and easy sacrifice” for companies to make, and for no justifiable reason the government has chosen to discriminate against those of us who are taxed at source.
The issue lies in a section of the SEISS eligibility criteria, which insists:
‘You must earn under £50,000 via an invoice system’
‘You cannot earn over 50% of your income from PAYE’.
But what about those freelancers who are paid by PAYE, and are taxed at source?
A survey by the Women in Film and TV group showed 67% of freelancers in the industry had been unable to access any financial support from the Government amid the COVID-19 crisis.*
Broadcasting union Bectu found that half of those working in the creative industries have had to borrow money during the COVID-19 crisis to survive, and 45% of sole traders aren’t able to access SEISS.**
Groups on Twitter such as @ExcludedUK, @ForgottenPAYE and @BBCFreelancers formed to raise awareness and lobby MPs to push to extend the current financial support systems so that no one is left behind.
A Change.org petition titled: “Allow PAYE Freelancers to receive the UK government’s COVID-19 self employed grant,” currently has almost 7,000 signatures.***
And still, for 10 long weeks nothing from Rishi Sunak.
On April 27, an early day motion to The House Of Commons on the matter was ignored.
On May 18, the shadow DCMS secretary wrote to Rishi Sunak urging him to address the matter. She was ignored.
On May 15, the shadow cultural industries minister raised the issue in Parliament. Result? ‘The Treasury did not commit to any action.’
Days later the government’s DCMS Minister concluded: “We continue to speak with HM Treasury colleagues to ensure that the full spectrum of government support reaches the UK’s world-leading media and Creative Industries.”
I’ve seen overwhelming amounts of distress and heartbreak, with fellow PAYE freelancers forced to rely on foodbanks, overdrafts and savings, or turning to a partner in a bid to survive.
Many are wracked with anxiety and some genuinely fear homelessness, unable to pay rent.
Freelancers are some of the most talented individuals in creative arts, media, IT, broadcasting and beyond, but are also predominantly the most financially vulnerable workers across all industries.
My heart goes out to limited company bosses, the newly self-employed, those who earn over 50k and new starters in dire straits who are also being ignored by the government.
But, PAYE freelancers are not limited companies. We earn under 50k. We’ve submitted tax returns for many years and HMRC have our records. Extending SEISS to include us would not be complicated to solve.
We are hardworking taxpayers but have been left to rot by the government, just because we’re taxed at source.
When Rishi Sunak said: “the self-employed across the UK will have money in their pockets to help them through these challenging times,” he forgot to add that those taxed at source would be excluded.
I am one of the hundreds of thousands of forgotten freelancers who have been left with no work and no financial support from the government, despite being tax-paying citizens. So much for leaving no one behind. We most certainly are not “all in this together.”