Support for Self-employed and Freelance Workers

Published date : 17 September, 2020
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), as other Members have, on securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for enabling it.

The hon. Member was absolutely spot on: the self-employment income support scheme must be extended in time, it must be extended in scope, and it must be made retrospective. We have heard throughout the debate how upwards of 3 million people across the UK, including several hundred thousand people in Scotland, have found themselves excluded from the support that the Government have offered, and I add my own commendation to ForgottenUK, ExcludedUK and the Excluded UK APPG for the work they have done in highlighting those instances.

The excluded range far and wide in their scope. They include the self-employed seasonal workers who fall outside the scheme. They include freelancers, and directors of small businesses remunerated by dividends. They include, in many cases, the newly self-employed—and of course let us not forget those who, because of the hard cut-off date of 19 March, missed out entirely on any support through the job retention scheme.

The hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) made a point about the exclusion of the newly self-employed. It is possible to support those in that situation. The Scottish Government did precisely that, using their own resources to fill the gaps. That additional response included £100 million to help the newly self-employed and £10 million to help support those in the events sector who were not able to access any other kinds of support.

Time prevents me from going much further on that, but the Scottish Government certainly flexed their budgets as best they could to spend beyond the allocations that came through the Treasury and Barnett. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) said eloquently, the Scottish Government lack the financial powers to extend support much beyond that, but it is not good enough to say, as the Minister did in response to the previous debate, “You’ve got tax powers; off you go and use them,” when the Chancellor prefers, quite rightly, to expand borrowing rather than increase income taxes to achieve that outcome.

The real harm here is the damage of exclusion—not just the immediate hardship, devastating as that is for those affected, but the effect it will have in hampering the economic recovery. I represent a constituency in the north-east of Scotland that has one of the highest start-up rates for businesses in the UK, let alone Scotland. It is no exaggeration to say that those small businesses—those enterprises; those risk takers—are absolutely the backbone of our economy. They include the start-ups, the spin-outs, the home enterprises, the lifestyle businesses, those who are working from home supporting the oil and gas and engineering sectors, the creative businesses, those who organise events, those involved in tourism, the musicians—in short, the creators, the innovators, the entrepreneurs: folk who roll up their sleeves, get their faces dirty and in many cases, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) said, put their homes on the line to do what they do. Those are the people who will drive the recovery. Hammering their finances and their ability to do all that they do best will not just impoverish them; in the long run, it will impoverish us all.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) said that providing support for the self-employed was complicated and that the Treasury had responded with alacrity. That much is true, but let me repeat the plea for the universal basic income. Surely it would have been better just to give everyone something than to try to cut red tape sideways or do as the Chancellor is often wont to do and obsess about the wrong details, leaving so many people excluded from support.

Many hon. Members have given eloquent personal testaments from their constituents to describe the gaps. We have heard about how pernicious the gender gaps in particular are. I acknowledge that the job retention scheme and the self-employed support scheme were fine as far as they went. I have welcomed and supported them; we have been bipartisan about that. The trouble is, although they are fine as far as they go, we know that they do not go nearly far enough. My plea to those on the Treasury Bench is: acknowledge the gaps and the hurt they have caused the people who have been excluded; please agree to meet those who have been affected; and commit to doing, to quote the Chancellor, “whatever it takes” to help put that right now and for the future.

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