In the Budget today, Rishi Sunak stood at the despatch box and said, “We will continue doing whatever it takes to support British people and businesses”. Yet his actual announcements fell far short of this title billing for the self-employed.
Our self-employed workforce is the hidden backbone of the British economy. They make up roughly 15% of our workforce and being pivotal to the UK’s fastest growing and innovative industries such as in science, engineering, healthcare, the arts, entertainment, the media and in the delivery of other important services across the country.
This year, the self-employed will contribute an estimated £125bn in turnover to the UK’s economic recovery. The contribution that self-employed workers make to our country and local economies is vital. From the way the government has acted over the last year, however, you’d often struggle to believe it.
Millions of self-employed workers across the country have slipped through the cracks of coronavirus financial schemes, left with little or no support. They have also faced damaging uncertainty, treated often as a second thought and made to wait until the very last minute to know what they’d be entitled to. These failures have decimated the self-employed sector and left millions of people struggling with no or minimal support for nearly a year.
As part of our inquiry into the future of self-employment with Prospect trade union and the FSB, we surveyed thousands of self-employed workers and found that 46% said they were less likely to continue in self-employment due to their experience in the pandemic, and half of self-employed workers lost 60-100% of their household income in 2020. In the Budget today, there were too many shortfalls that the government simply did not address to support those workers.
We are of course encouraged to see that the number of self-employed people able to access the SEISS will be increased, now including the newly self-employed and closing a major gap in coronavirus support schemes. This is a significant move, one that we have been calling for throughout the pandemic and we know will mean a huge sigh of relief for so many. But this is only a first step towards achieving parity for self-employed workers.
The fifth SEISS grant is flawed and will leave many of its claimants in financial hardship. This next “and final” grant will only run from May to July, leaving many self-employed workers two months short of support.
The fact also remains that the Chancellor failed to plug the gaps for thousands of other self-employed workers such as self-employed women who are being discriminated against in the SEISS. Whilst more workers are now included, many millions remain excluded.
Further action is also needed to prevent long-term structural damage to the self-employed. As part of our joint Inquiry, we’ve called for rights and protections for the self-employed to be on parity with the wider workforce and have urged the government to explore extending health and safety rights, sick pay and paid parental leave.
Changes also need to be made to Universal Credit and the pensions system so they work for the self-employed, and a new Commissioner for the Self-Employed in government should be appointed to coordinate all of these policy efforts. As we leave this pandemic, our government must start valuing our self-employed sector for the many contributions they make to our economy.
I would say to all of Britain’s self-employed workers that trade unions are not “also for the self-employed” – they are especially for the self-employed. Throughout the rest of the pandemic and into the recovery, as you fight for the support and rights you deserve, we’ll be by your side every step of the way.