It’s nearly 8 months since the Chancellor Rishi Sunak first announced the furlough scheme, and around 7 months since he launched the self-employed income support scheme (SEISS).
These schemes have provided important help to workers in the UK, many of whom have had their employment hit by the pandemic and Government restrictions. But since March, around 3 million working people have not been eligible for any Government help at all, through no fault of their own. This is because of the particular eligibility criteria of the SEISS, and has been devastating for the livelihoods and mental health of many.
In the early days of the pandemic, the gaps in support could be attributed to hasty policy making. Like many of my Labour colleagues, I contacted the Treasury several times and spoke in Parliament to highlight local cases of people missing out unfairly – like the newly self-employed; those who work via a series of short-term PAYE contracts; those who operate through limited companies; who pay themselves through dividends; or who have portfolio work through both direct employment and self-employment. Time and time again, we have urged the Government to fix these early mistakes to ensure that financial help could reach those who need it.
The grassroots campaign groups Excluded UK, Forgotten Limited and Forgotten PAYE were quickly formed, followed by a cross-party Parliamentary Group on Gaps in Support of which I’m a member. These groups have continually pressed the Government and clearly demonstrated the range of problems with the current scheme for the self-employed.
The Government knows the problems now, and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s failure to act is not a mistake, it’s a choice. As a justification, Ministers have said that those affected can get by on the UK’s paltry social security offering. Even if that were adequate, many self-employed people can’t claim support from social security if they have savings to cover things like tax liabilities or sick pay, and for other reasons.
The Chancellor has changed his mind on economic support and outlined a new approach to Parliament seven times since March, so there have been plenty of opportunities to put things right – but not once has he chosen to deliver justice for the excluded self-employed.
And as it stands, following the recent U-turn and the new announcement on extending furlough and SEISS, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says provision remains ‘wasteful and badly targeted for the self-employed’ and the Institute of Directors confirms that ‘many self-employed continue to be left out in the cold’.
Labour’s shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds has been challenging Rishi Sunak regularly on this, and I was pleased that Labour Leader Keir Starmer was able to raise it directly with the Prime Minister in Parliament this week. You can read a full transcript of their exchange here.
Predictably, Johnson dodged the question and appeared not to take the issue seriously. But as the free school meals campaign has shown, with enough pressure the Government can be forced to do what’s right. So it’s vital that we keep pushing the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to act.