NUJ claims ’misplaced fear of fraud’ put above support packages

The government has been accused of “putting the misplaced fear of possible fraud above providing support”, as a report finds one-quarter of freelancers have missed out on help.

The NUJ lambasted the government after it emerged that around 23% of self-employed workers, many thousands of whom work in the TV industry, had fallen between the cracks of the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (JRS) and Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS).

The damning figure is contained in today’s Implementing Employment Support Schemes in Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic analysis from the National Audit Office (NAO), which focused on take-up and fraud.

While the schemes, which paid out 80% of a person’s monthly wage up to £2,500 per month, were “largely successful in protecting jobs through the lockdown period”, a “combination of policy decision and constraints in the tax system” meant that around 3m people fell between the cracks, according to the NAO.

Around half (1.4m) of those 3m were ineligible as less than 50% of their income was earned from self-employment.

Another 700,000 run limited companies and pay themselves via dividends and 400,000 were short-term workers engaged via PAYE, the latter of which is common for TV’s freelance community.

The report noted the schemes had been open to fraud, with some employees forcing their staff to work during furlough and others not passing on payments in full.

For the newly-forged Job Support Scheme, HMRC will negate this by publishing the name of employers claiming from the scheme.

“The government has put the misplaced fear of possible fraud above providing support for everyone fairly,” said NUJ national freelance organiser Pamela Morton.

“We just do not accept that HMRC did not have the data, or that there was the risk of fraud. HMRC would have had the information about the many individuals who are paid via PAYE yet are not employees. There was no need for this cliff edge.”

Plight of freelancers

The plight of freelancers was well documented during the summer, with lobbying groups including the Forgotten Freelancers springing up and an All Party Parliamentary Group formed to address the issue.

Super-indies re-hired freelancers engaged via PAYE to help them access the furlough scheme but a survey over the summer found that 10% of the TV industry’s freelance workforce had already left or was actively seeking to exit the sector.

The SEISS supported around 2.6m people, with another 9.6m picking up furlough money from the JRS.

The furlough schemes had paid out more than £50bn by the end of September.