Written evidence submitted by Equity





Equity evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Call for evidence on the Impact of Covid-19 on DCMS sectors


  1. Equity is a trade union representing over 48,000 actors and creative workers including directors, designers, choreographers, dancers, singers, entertainers, comedians, stage management and audio artists. Our members welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to the Committee and would be grateful for any further opportunity to present oral evidence in due course.


What has been the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the sector?


  1. The majority of our members have had all or most of their work cancelled as a consequence of Covid-19. Theatres, live entertainment venues, film and TV productions across the UK have shut down and it is currently not known for how long these and many other workplaces will be closed or how many will re-open.


  1. In response, Equity has concluded a number of sectoral negotiations in order to protect our members who were contracted across the live arts and media at the time of shutdown and we are now engaged in a range of initiatives and working groups across the industry in order to prepare for the period after lockdown eases.


  1. The immediate impact of Covid-19 on our members has been to dramatically increase the number of those who are out of work and who cannot supplement their income through alternative employment in allied fields such as teaching in drama schools, outreach and community work.


  1. In terms of data on impact, Equity's Workers Inquiry was recently launched to identify the current state of play for members who predominantly work in the live performance sectors and to assess priorities for change during the recovery period. Initial survey data from 2,765 respondents (75% performers, 25% other creative workers) reveals that:



How effectively has the support provided by DCMS, other Government departments and arms-length bodies addressed the sector’s needs?


  1. The support package which has been most applicable to our members is the Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) and to a lesser extent the Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). A number of our members have also been able to apply for the grant schemes announced by Arts Council England, Arts Council Wales, Creative Scotland and Arts Council Northern Ireland, depending on eligibility however 53% of respondents to Equity’s survey did not know that support was available from the Arts Councils.


  1. The gaps in the existing SEISS have been well documented by Equity and other organisations representing creative workers and the wider self-employed workforce. Only 53% of Equity members have had help from the Self Employed Income Support Scheme despite the vast majority of our members being self-employed and freelance workers who cannot access the CJRS. A selection of case studies from Equity members who fall through the gaps in SEISS is appended to this submission.


  1. Changes which had been proposed by Equity in order to address gaps included:


  1. For those who fall through the gaps of the existing support packages, Universal Credit is the only remaining option. 22% of our members have applied for Universal Credit, however 29% of members report that are not eligible to make a claim because of a range of issues including having savings.


  1. In terms of the interaction between social security payments including Universal Credit and the SEISS, the following are also required:


  1. For those who have been found to be eligible, a further extension of the SEISS post August or the urgent development of alternative financial support will be necessary. Live entertainment workplaces, including theatres, pubs, clubs, holiday resorts and other live entertainment venues will either not survive lockdown or will not be able to adequately meet the demands of social distancing for audiences in a way that facilitates a viable business model under current public funding and/or commercial constraints.



What will the likely long-term impacts of Covid-19 be on the sector, and what support is needed to deal with those?


  1. The duration of lockdown will vary hugely across the sectors where our members work – a small amount of audio work is continuing safely at the moment, film and TV productions may be viable in the short term but the return of live entertainment and theatre performances could be delayed until 2021 because they are largely incompatible with social distancing.


  1. Currently nearly half of Equity members - 46% - have not felt that the industry conversations regarding the reopening and future of theatre are aimed at them. Equity has just this week joined the DCMS Entertainment and Events Working Group and is committed to contributing to a credible recovery plan which can meet the needs of the workforce. Across all sectors of the entertainment industry – film, television, audio, music, life performance and many others - it is essential that unions are consulted on plans to reopen in order to ensure that health, safety and welfare and other established workplace standards are not compromised in the understandable enthusiasm to return to work.


  1. The most common responses to Equity’s survey questions regarding what needs to be in place before a return to work is possible are: hand sanitiser, risk assessments, venues to be deep cleaned & temperature screenings for audiences & workers. 59% of our members feel confident raising their own health & safety concerns but just 24% currently feel they know enough about their rights and responsibilities re: health and safety. 47% report that they would be comfortable working away from home, but 37% would rather work locally.


  1. It is also crucial that creative unions are satisfied that insurance cover is available on every production, particularly in the film and television sector, and that no performers are left behind because of their age, gender, underlying health issues, ethnicity, disability or economic status.


  1. Collectively bargained agreements must continue to be the bedrock for the engagement of all performers on the resumption of production across DCMS sectors. Engagers must honour the right of trade unions to engage with their members directly and allowance must be made to enable to consult and inform members about recovery arrangements.



What lessons can be learnt from how DCMS, arms-length bodies and the sector have dealt with Covid-19?


  1. Because of the delicate funding balance of many artforms – from West End shows to fringe theatre – a further financial rescue package may be necessary beyond what has already been committed by the Arts Councils/Creative Scotland. Equity’s current policy calls for a most increase in overall Government spending on the arts from 0.3% to 0.5% of GDP. If we don’t commit funding, we risk losing a vast array of skills, the UK’s future attractiveness as a tourist destination in the coming years and the grassroots/development section of the industry which is the bedrock of the success of some of the ‘higher end’ content we produce – for example, Fleabag was an Edinburgh Fringe show just a few years ago.


  1. The crisis has also highlighted that there is very little understanding of the reality of life as a self-employed, freelance or atypical worker, despite these structures of work becoming more common across the economy. As the original gig economy, the entertainment sector exhibits many of the practices that are emerging in other sectors, particularly in those areas where union negotiated terms and conditions have less coverage. These areas are marked by short term engagements, lack of clarity on contracts, ignorance and/or avoidance of statutory rights and entitlements such as holiday pay and the National Minimum Wage (NMW).


  1. We must ensure that all workers in the entertainment industry are treated fairly, are in safe workplaces and can earn a sustainable living from their profession. In order to achieve this we need a framework of employment rights and protections and social security support that recognise the value of these workers. A vital first step would be to issue official guidance for engagers in DCMS sectors, published on gov.uk which clarifies the status of creatives as workers who are entitled to the NMW.


How might the sector evolve after Covid-19, and how can DCMS support such innovation to deal with future challenges?


  1. The forthcoming Class Ceiling report from the Performers Alliance APPG makes that point that: “a population in lockdown turns to music, books and film to enrich souls, entertain and educate children. We consume our essential items while those that produced them face an unstable future…Once lockdown is over, we will praise technology for helping us work when we can and stay in touch with loved ones. But we ought not to forget what we owe to those whose work we turn to at times of distress. We must not allow them to fall into poverty as a result of the crisis for this will only worsen social mobility for creatives.”


  1. 55% of Equity members recently surveyed have expressed concerns about the increased use of remote access technology. Across our membership groups – performers, stage management, directors, designers, dancers and others – Equity has been working hard to ensure that content used by digital services, particularly live performance work that has been made available during the crisis by streaming and other means, attracts appropriate remuneration and that the principle of payment for use is properly recognised.


  1. The crisis has highlighted to audiences the value of public service broadcasting and the BBC’s output in particular, from children’s/schools content through to radio. This does not mean that the BBC should be beyond critique or reform and there are serious and legitimate questions that remain about future sustainable funding that can support good, accessible, decently paid creative jobs as well as content that delivers for all audiences.


  1. The entertainment industry must continue to set and meet targets for the equal representation of women, LGBT+, BAME and disabled creative workers across all art forms. Recovery from the crisis must not be used as a cover for a dilution of these targets. Currently only 8% of lead roles on TV are played by actors of African-Caribbean, south Asian, east Asian or Middle Eastern heritage (Equity research released in April 2020) and less than 1% of NPO funding goes to women’s theatre, 1.5% to D/deaf and disabled companies and just under 2% to BAME Theatre (Sphinx Theatre research 2019).




Appendix A

Case studies – falling through the gaps of SEISS


New entrants/graduates:

“I graduated drama school last year, and as a result I have limited tax returns upon which I can draw in order to get a fair Self Employment Government Grant. I have been granted £724, based on the freelance tutoring work I did throughout my 2 year degree at LAMDA. This grant barely covers my rent in London for one month, let alone three.

Since graduating last July I have worked consistently in radio and theatre; however, my 2019/20 tax return obviously counts for nothing. I have heard that Equity are trying to help its members who feel strongly that the 2019/20 tax return should be taken into consideration when the grant is calculated.

Many recent graduates like me are being allowed to fall through the cracks under this government's decision-making. It is rapidly becoming apparent that theatres will be some of the last places to be reopened when lockdown ends. It is thus extremely important that supporting young arts-industry freelancers becomes one of this government's top priorities.”


PAYE/SE split:

"Having first worked self employed in 2013 I have filed a tax return every year since 13-14. The figures in this are rough estimates as I don’t have my filed returns to hand.

16-17 the vast majority of my earnings were from a PAYE job. My self employed turnover was less than a grand but I still filed a return that year as I felt it was always the right thing to do to declare all my earnings, even when it wasn’t legally required.

17-18 was much the same.

18-19 I lived mostly on savings as I took a lot of unpaid work and started working with a voice coach. The majority of my earnings that year came from self employment but my profit will have been roughly around the £700 mark.

I worked out that based on how this is described on the HMRC website the best I could hope for from this policy is roughly a £160 grant for my profit in 18-19.

However. The year just ended I have been working exclusively self employed and once expenses are deducted I’m expecting to look at a profit of around £12,000 for the year. If 19-20 was taken in to account then I would be looking at a grant around the £2,400 mark, which is much nearer the amount of revenue I will be losing over 3 months (although still well below as work had been picking up).

That the government is both ignoring supplemental PAYE earnings in their calculations, and the current tax year (considering the most recent figures they are looking at is from 11+months ago) strikes me as scandalous. It seems to me that their biggest priority is not giving money to a handful of people who don’t need it rather than giving money to the tens of thousands who are still being left out by this policy."


“I have found I am not eligible for the SEISS and was advised to contact you. I have however already made an appeal last week. I have also submitted my 19/20 tax return.

According to my calculations I earned £69 more through my PAYE job than I did through Self Employment means ​and will get nothing.”


“My case is very borderline. Over the three years used for the calculation PAYE/Self-employed profits are split 55%/45%. That is only just less than half self-employed. In fact, if you took the past two years, or did a calculation based on 2016/17, 2018/19 and 2019/20 I would qualify, with more than 50% of my profit coming from self-employed earnings. The calculation is skewed by particularly low self-employed income in 2015/2016, the least relevant year to my current situation. If I hadn't worked quite so hard that year to compensate for the lack of self-employed income I would qualify!


Also essential expenses such as agent commission (without which I would not get the acting jobs that I get) and subsistence push the profits from self-employed income below the PAYE earnings. Also, in a scheme that offered more incremental levels of support, I would qualify for something.”


“Due to the funds only being allocated according to money earned in 18/19 I will not receive the funds I need in order to pay my bills. During 18/19 I was largely working under PAYE however in 19/20 I was able to take the leap and work fully self employed. As government is only using tax returns up to 18/19 to work out eligibility this has now unfortunately left me without pay. I am also in the "at risk" category due to underlying health problems with my lungs and cannot apply for work as a key worker. I have been able to access universal credit and while I am grateful for this it will not cover all my standard living bills.”


"I have been a self-employed actor for more than 40 years, always submitting tax return on time and paying my tax and NI. Like many actors I supplement the often income with teaching. I have done quite a bit at Falmouth University who insist on PAYE despite zero hours contract with no future work guaranteed. Over past 2/3 years have worked many more hours acting than teaching but contracts have been low paid and overheads high as work was away from home, so profit shows as less that my PAYE work. Last year's low paid work was about to pay off as the production transferred. On 20th April this year I would have started 23 weeks West End contract at £750 per week plus 13 weeks £175 expenses allowance. I have not had teaching work since May 2019. I have applied for Universal Credit but have little bits of work in a home studio which makes UC very complicated and am unlikely to receive much help. I am self-employed, not employed. No furlough is possible as I do not have an empoyer and my current contract has been cancelled due to Covid 19. I feel unfairly treated by the current criteria.”


“I am a self-employed singer, and my husband is also a self-employed singer.  Our work has both been badly effected by the Coronavirus situation and therefore facing a future of cancelled contracts and no income.  We were comforted to hear in March that the government had put a plan together to support self-employed workers.  My husband and I thought we would be eligible for this scheme. 

However, in May, we found out we were not eligible for the scheme.  My husband's profits were too high, just above the £50,000 limit.  I was told by HMRC that I was not eligible because the PAYE contracts from my Opera job in 18/19 were more than my self -employed earnings.  These PAYE contracts were for 3 difference short contracts( and never given the choice of a different kind of contract) during that year and to me, never changed my status as a self-employed artist.  So I was surprised to learn that I am not eligible. HMRC suggested I get in contact with two arts organisations where I teach on a zero hour contract, in case they would furlough me on the Job retention scheme.  So far, I have not heard back from either organisation.  As Equity knows, my expenses are high as a working singer.  I have to invest money constantly into my business, to travel and audition to get work, to maintain work and to at times subsidies my work. So my Self-employed profits are sometimes half of my income or earnings.

So we are in a precarious situation. As of yesterday, all of my husband's international and national singing work for the rest of this year has all been cancelled, along with my work also.  Most of our cancelled contracts claimed force majeur and therefore not paid out any money to us.  We have signed up for Universal Credit, which covers us for food and basics but it is a far amount of income away from what we need to stay on top of our bills.  We will be going deeper in debt by using our bank overdrafts each month, even with a mortgage holiday and cutting our bills to just necessities.

Our industry and work will be the last thing to return to normal.”


£50k profit limit:

My average profits over the three years ending April 2019 were £66,138 and my annual profit for the year ending April 2019 was £52,772. I work in television and the audio industry and was on a UK theatre tour that stopped 8 weeks early with zero compensation in March. There has been, and will continue to be, zero work and therefore income for me for quite some time.


“My earnings for the first two years (2016-18) took me over the 50K cap, but these don’t reflect my standard earnings. There is a decline over my three years with 2018-19 putting me just under the cap. My return for 2019-20 would show another decline again, if this was taken into account.

As a consistent tax payer, and at times an elevated tax-payer, I am incredibly frustrated that despite having paid into the system fairly, I am entitled to no support. I also have savings that put me above the threshold for universal credit. I have been left feeling abandoned, and with talks that theatre potentially cannot safely resume until next year, this is a terrifying prospect.

I work on a long running West End show and have been left, as with so many others in what has come to feel like a hopeless situation. I know you are all working incredibly hard on our behalves, and for this we are so grateful. I know I would plead for the 50K cap to be lifted for eligibility, even if we were entitled to the 2,500 limit, that would be a life saver right now. Or even if anyone in theatre/long-tern restricted industries that look to be out of work for a greatly increased period of time started to receive financial support from June for example, once those individuals have been identified, then that would ease this situation greatly.

I also have a separate concern to address if possible. I am now 14 weeks pregnant. I would have been entitled to maternity leave through my show having worked for them for nearly 13 years but now I am expecting that support to have gone. Again, this only adds to my concerns for the future. I’m sure things aren’t clear right now but I was wondering if you could provide me with any advice on my maternity rights moving forwards. I am due in November. I have not informed my company yet as I wanted to get some advice first.”