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SEISS and Me: One Members Experience of Covid-19 Scheme Inequality

Member and orchestral, theatre and chamber musician Louise Braithwaite discusses her experience of claiming the SEISS grant and the inequalities contained by the Government’s Covid schemes.

Published: 28 August 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM
Photograph of a smiling woman, holding her reed instrument and looking through a detached part of it with one eye.
I’m grateful for what I’ve been awarded through SEISS but conflicted by the inequalities of the Government’s Covid schemes. Photo credit: Jessica Raphael Photography

I’m relieved to have been able to claim my second SEISS grant. In total I’ve now been awarded government support worth two months’ wages. Which is a lot more than many musicians have.

One positive for self-employed people is that we are allowed to continue doing what work we can. I acquired some home recording equipment so that I could keep doing some work.

I’ve received emergency support from Orchestra of the Swan’s Player Fund, and percentage cancellation fees from some of the organisations I was due to work with this summer. My thanks go to the donors and organisations who’ve made support available, especially when it became apparent that help from government was going to be a long time coming.

I’m grateful for what I’ve been awarded through SEISS but conflicted by the inequalities of the Government’s Covid schemes and its inability to respond to their flaws.

Falling through the cracks in the Government’s support schemes

Many musicians have received nothing. People operating as limited companies, paid by dividend and earning over £50k (not a lot if you’re living in London with dependents) don’t qualify. Newly self-employed people, including recent graduates, don’t qualify. People whose self-employment represents 49% or less of their total income receive nothing for that. If the remainder of your work comes from short term PAYE contracts, or zero hours work, you may not qualify for furlough either.

The MU has been vociferous, positive about solutions, and proactive in drawing the government’s attention to the gaps in the scheme since it was first announced.

Like many other members, I fell into the cracks of the schemes. Initially, I thought the problems affecting people in our industry would be addressed when they were pointed out. How wrong I was.

Almost half my income was ignored in the calculation of support

Back in 2016-2019 I had some PAYE income from teaching and managing a programme in a school. I was gradually reducing those hours because my performance income was on a gentle rise. By last Autumn, my PAYE was only 3.5 hours per week in term time.

In January this year I took the plunge after 25 years of teaching in schools and left contracted work behind. It was a calculated risk, reflecting my desire to undertake more creative work, coinciding with a long-awaited window in my caring responsibilities. For me, that was absolutely the right decision. It still is.

My self-employment is live concert and theatre performance, school workshops, dementia sessions with hospitals and care homes, and some private teaching.

When the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme was announced, a nerve-shredding week after the furlough scheme, I was on just the right side of the percentages to qualify. But it was a very close call. My award was a fraction of that which an employee on the same wage would receive.

I found that for two of the averaging years, almost half my income was going to be ignored in the calculation of support. Former PAYE income was disregarded. Total income didn’t count in my situation. You don’t get furlough from PAYE work you don’t have any more.

In the last tax year (ignored) I was 80% self-employed. This year (ignored) I am 100% self-employed. My accounts were up to date, accurate and submitted on time. My total income has had a slight upward trend with the increase in self-employment since 2016.

The SEISS scheme can’t cope with blended employment, short term contracts or zero hours working. These employment styles have grown under this Government but its financial rescue package failed to address them adequately.

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry (I cried)

Despite my best efforts to stay positive (by tying on my trainers and running round the district), the very real concerns about how I would get by has led to anxiety and depression. I’ve received help from my GP and financial assistance from my family. They’re not wealthy. I’ve been financially independent since 1991. We even managed after disability led to the loss of my partner’s wage.

I got angry. Anger isn’t helpful on its own, so I’ve written regularly and politely to my Conservative MP about SEISS, about the way the industry works and the help it could need, about the disadvantages faced by people who have to shield, about eyesight testing in Durham, and about those who had been excluded from help. She stopped replying.

An accountant friend sympathised and suggested that any scheme would miss people out by accident because individual circumstances can’t all be taken into account. When I told her that 38% of MU members and possibly three million people nationally were excluded from support, she was horrified. In the avalanche of world-beating rhetoric, she’d had no idea of the extent of exclusion.

I don’t qualify for Universal Credit or Council Tax Benefit yet. Like many of us, I have some money set aside for tax bills, any lean times, and for reinvesting in my business. I’d been saving to buy a new instrument. This is falling.

If you cohabit, UC is means tested against your own and your partner’s income and savings. Savings for tax are included with personal savings. My partner receives disability benefit and a small NHS pension which he took early. This took us over the threshold for help.

I wrote regularly to my MP who initially made polite noises. It took two months to get a reply from HM Treasury. HMT sent a generic letter suggesting I claim Universal Credit. Which I’m not eligible for.

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. I cried. Then I spoke to my GP. If you’ve felt or feel the way I have, please tell someone.

Employment status inequalities

There are a range of employment status inequalities that I’ve really struggled with.

People in employment and in receipt of furlough have been treated very differently to the self-employed. They’ve been assessed on their current salary. They haven’t been means tested. Those between employments and not added to a payroll by a certain date have been excluded from help too.

Which brings me to thinking about systemic exclusion and discrimination. What might be some of the reasons why you chose to maintain PAYE employment, with its relative financial securities, even though you may have preferred not to?

  • Adoption leave
  • Maternity and paternity
  • Caring responsibilities
  • Disability
  • Illness
  • Single parenthood
  • High housing costs
  • Qualifying for a mortgage
  • Rent or mortgage payments
  • A partner or dependent in insecure employment

My husband and daughter both have disabilities, some serious. During the last three years my caring responsibilities have reduced. I started to think about myself again. About what I really wanted to do creatively. I don’t know how long this window will last, so I took the chance. Which is how I found myself falling into the cracks in the scheme.

We still have to consider, irrespective of government advice, the risks to my husband of me seeking alternative work outside home. So far we’ve been able to put it off. I took the difficult decision to sell two of my professional instruments. This buys some time.

If I’d had a SEISS award equivalent to an employed person, this wouldn’t have been necessary and I would have had a lot less stress over the last few months.

I still write to my MP. And I look forward to the day when ‘normal’ live music and the warmth of live audiences become possible again. And I remember everyone who is at risk, exposed to Coronavirus, overworked and exhausted, to provide our health care and essential supplies.

As Louise puts it, “If you’ve felt or feel the way I have, please tell someone.” We’ve got a list of links and resources for those concerned about the strain Covid-19 is putting on their own mental health, or the mental health of someone you care about.

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