I am compiling the concerns of constituents and putting them forward to specific ministers. Many people working for charities and in the culture sector have contacted me with problems accessing the COVID-19 support packages. My letter to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is below:
The Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Department for Digital, Culture Media & Sport
100 Parliament Street
9 April 2020
Dear Secretary of State
Re: COVID-19 responses and the impact on cultural industries and on charities
I hope you are well.
I am writing to you about the gaps in the current system of emergency COVID-19 support for jobs and businesses and how these gaps are affecting the cultural and charity sectors in my constituency Bristol West.
Many people in the culture sector are routinely employed on a series of short-term fixed-length PAYE contracts. Many people in Bristol West work in this sector and have contacted me to tell me that if they came to the end of a contract before 28th February and their next contract was cancelled – as most were – they are therefore not eligible for the Job Retention Scheme. Others have explained to me that even if they were eligible, the company they were contracted with has decided not to make use of the JRS for them.
Others who are self-employed are falling between the two schemes if their income comes from a mixture of PAYE and self-employment. They can demonstrate their history of self-employment, but if, for example, they are currently on a fixed term contract,, they are falling between the schemes.
Others who were on PAYE until recently and have since gone self-employed or set up as a Limited Company have also found that they are not eligible. Moreover, they are not in a position to take up the business support if they are only a one-person operation.
These problems affect a huge part of our economy as I am sure you are well aware, but in Bristol West there is a particularly high dependence on the cultural sector. This therefore has an impact on other local businesses as people in the cultural sector have less money to spend overall.
People in the cultural sector in Bristol West know very well that we will all have to make sacrifices for the greater good in this national crisis. They are not asking for special favours. They can demonstrate their history of employment and self-employment. They would just like to be put on an equal footing with the people who are rightly benefitting from the JRS and SEISS.
Request 1: Please can you create scheme to support freelancers and others who have a demonstrable history of employment but do not fit into the JRS or SEISS schemes, giving them the equivalent level of support?
I was pleased to see the £750 million package for the charity sector announced by the Chancellor yesterday, which will go a long way towards allaying the concerns of many of my constituents. However, I have been contacted by many local and national charities based in Bristol West who are concerned about the urgent need for clarity about who will and who will not be eligible and what other support there might be for those who are not.
For example, there are many charities in my constituency which may not be perceived as carrying out frontline services in the current effort against COVID-19, but still doing extremely important work which we would like to continue.
These include, for example, community-based health charities supporting people with HIV/AIDS or helping older people with dementia, or charities which directly support people living with and beyond cancer or those which maintain the green spaces that are so crucial for our wellbeing right now. These and others are needed more than ever but on every level the charity sector is experiencing a daily diminishing pot of reserves and almost all ability to pursue the normal fundraising routes such as charity shops, fundraising events and sponsorship has been lost.
These charities have adapted to a decrease in state funding over the last ten years, widened their income base and their fundraising activities but most of their fundraising is being badly hit by the crisis and this is resulting in a risk to the services they provide and the jobs in their organisations.
The income from fundraising events such as the Bristol 10k (something I was due to run myself, in aid of a local charity) is inevitably going to drop as the events are rightly cancelled. I’m continuing with my fundraising for them and doing the training as part of my daily exercise routine (with social distancing) but already I can see that the generous British people are having to cut back on their expenses with reduced incomes.
Several local charity workers have contacted me to tell me that they cannot benefit from the JRS and continue to work, as the current rules mean that staff cannot be put on furlough and then volunteer for the same charity. I understand the logic for requiring this for a private business but not for a charity. However, when charities are in such a difficult financial situation, this may be the only way they can continue to carry out their important work.
Even for charities which rely mostly on grant income, like Bristol Refugee Rights in my constituency, are worried about the long-term impacts of income when they won’t have been able to raise as much other money as they hoped. They expect grant funders to have less funds available; to be diverting funds to focus on the crisis; and for it to be more challenging to tell the story of the benefits of their work when so much is unknown, particularly making it a struggle to gather evidence of the impact of their work. Charities like theirs are being expected to use grant funds now, to respond to the crisis, rather than seek to save money for later in the year.
Request 2: What will be the criteria for deciding whether charities are carrying out ‘front line’ work, and how will funds be allocated?
Request 3: When will these grants be allocated?
Request 4: Can you consider amending the JRS guidance so that charities can furlough staff and allow them to volunteer for the same charity?
Secretary of State, this is not a political point or an attack. I welcome the efforts the Chancellor and you have put in already and the understanding you have shown of the need for support for people’s livelihoods.
I’m asking you to put in the support we need to keep the cultural and charitable sectors afloat, as they are sectors which do not fit particularly well into the previously-announced schemes for employed and self-employed people.
If you think it would be helpful for me to discuss this with your officials or PPS, do let me know.
Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West