SUPPORTING SELF-EMPLOYED WILL BE ‘INCREDIBLY COMPLICATED’, CHANCELLOR RISHI SUNAK ADMITS
The government is under growing pressure to financially support non-contracted workers and entrepreneurs, who face a potentially devastating loss of income in light of the coronavirus crisis.
Mr Sunak told MPs that intensive work was under way in Whitehall to design such a system but, he acknowledged, it is an “incredibly complicated” task.
He told the Commons on Tuesday: “There are genuine practical and principled reasons why it is incredibly complicated to design an analogous scheme to the one that we have for employed workers.
“But, rest assured that we absolutely understand the situation that many self-employed people face at the moment as a result of what’s happening and are determined to find a way to support them.
“We just need to be confident that can be done in a way that is deliverable and is fair to the vast majority of the British workforce.”
The chancellor added that ministers are “in dialogue with all the key stakeholder groups”.
Unite union boss Len McCluskey said: “The millions of self-employed and insecure workers across the country will dread being sent home because it means that they will have no wage.
“The Government must work with trade unions to define the tougher isolation rules because we understand the reality of the workplace.”
He added: “Without swift clarity for millions of insecure and uncertain workers about whether they can be at work or not, and without removing the agonising choice between health and hardship, then the positive measures announced by the Chancellor last week will be overshadowed and public health efforts will be severely compromised.
“Confused messages and lack of financial support are at odds with the urgency of this health emergency.
“Workers need clear direction and protection from Government now.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell offered to do a shift in the Treasury to "find a solution" to help the self-employed.
He told the Commons: “No-one’s looking for a row over this, we’re looking for a solution.”
“We know how complicated it is, but we’ve got to find a solution quickly, I would urge the Government to at least set a deadline now, that we can go back to our members and say by the end of this week there will be a proposal brought forward.”
He explained that many of his constituents, including "plumbers, hairdressers and freelance artists" had contacted him "in desperate straits."
“There isn’t a member of the House, I don’t think, who hasn’t received representations," he continued.
"We’re just looking for something that we can go back with them today to give them some assurance."
“If we can go back and say ‘you will get the equivalent, the 80 per cent or whatever to what was offered on Friday to other workers’, I think it would lift people’s spirits that something is on the way.
“As I say, we don’t want a row over this, we want to work with the Government, in fact Anneliese (Dodds) and I will come and do a shift if the Treasury wants, but we just want a solution. Might come up with slightly different solutions, but we need it quickly and we need it effectively as soon as possible.”
Responding, chief secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay joked: “Whilst his offer to come into the Treasury may contravene some of the social distancing requirements of late, I do appreciate the spirit in which he made that point.”
Earlier, Rachel Reeves, Labour chairwoman of the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, said she had written to Business Secretary Alok Sharma calling for ministers to extend the income protection scheme to cover the self-employed and to increase the rate of statutory sick pay.
She said: “The Chancellor’s package last week to support businesses and employees was welcome.
“But with self-employed and freelancers still not covered by support – even as many of their businesses are now subject to lockdown – there is a worrying gap in the Government’s strategy to protect these livelihoods which urgently needs to be put right.”
Raising the issue in the Commons, Labour MP Wes Streeting (Ilford North) said: “One newspaper is already reporting that the Chancellor is going to implement an income protection scheme for the self-employed and make an announcement within the next 24 hours.
“I must say, I got from the Chancellor’s earlier reply a slightly longer timescale when he was talking about the end of April.
“Coming back to this point of reassurance, can he (Mr Sunak) give us some real reassurance now to those anxious self-employed people across the country that an announcement will be made very shortly?”
Outlining the capacity of HMRC and the DWP to deliver brand new schemes Mr Sunak responded: “What I can tell (Mr Streeting) is we would hope to have something to say very shortly.
“In terms of something being implemented, that will take longer.”
He added: “In terms of saying what we are planning to do, that can be something that hopefully we can do relatively shortly.
“Implementation will take a longer timeframe for the very clear delivery challenges that this scheme would pose.”