UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has demanded that ITN News delete a Tweet which he said, ‘falsely suggested I thought people in arts should retrain and find other jobs.’
However, his claim that the Tweet was false was nuanced. While not specifically singling out performance artists, he admitted, ‘I can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job they were doing at the beginning of this crisis… That’s why we’ve put a lot of resource into trying to create new opportunities.’
When asked by ITN whether some of what he called the UK’s ‘fabulous musicians and artists and actors’ should get another job, the Chancellor said that while there was still work in the creative sector, there was a need to adapt.
In his response to ITN News retraction of the Tweet he said, ‘I’m grateful they have now deleted that tweet. I care deeply about the arts which is why our £1.57 billion culture package is one of the most generous in the world.’
On 5 July, the UK government stated that ‘Britain’s globally renowned arts, culture and heritage industries will receive a world-leading £1.57 billion rescue package to help weather the impact of coronavirus.’ At the time, Mr Sunak said these businesses, ‘are not only critical to keeping our economy thriving, employing more than 700,000 people, they’re the lifeblood of British culture.’
Three months on, little of the money has reached the industry. Arts Council England, which is in charge of the scheme has apologised, saying things have been held up by the ‘volume and complexity of the applications.’ In the meantime, many businesses have had to make redundancies to survive. 135 ‘grass roots’ organisations have shared about £3.5 million, the government claimed this week, but many others, especially the ‘gigs performed in basement venues,’ the Prime Minister lauded in the July launch, doubt that there will be much of that fund left for them.
It is expected that none of it will reach the freelance artists, musicians and technicians that the industry relies upon. According to the Musicians’ Union (MU), at least a third of their members alone were ineligible for the government’s Self-Employment Income Security Scheme and those who had savings set aside for annual income tax or had been saving to buy property have not even received Universal Credit.
It looks equally bleak for salaried venue staff. The new jobs protection package that Mr Sunak has just announced says that companies will only get 20% of wages subsidised if their employees are working at least one third of the hours they had prior to the lockdown. As most theatres and venues cannot operate under the government’s own restrictions, the MU says most of their members are getting at most 25% of their previous work. So, their employers will get no help to pass on to staff, contractors or freelancers.
When the government launched its cultural support package, Scottish violinist, international star and music educator Nicola Benedetti was quoted in the government release saying, ‘This significant investment demonstrated a dedication to humanity that gives us all hope during times of unimaginable uncertainty.’
On 6 October she was one of 400 musicians who gathered on Parliament Square to protest against the Government’s failure to follow through with that promise. She called Mr Sunak’s new announcement ‘utterly embarrassing.’
Mr Sunak may not have specifically stated that freelance musicians must retrain to find other jobs, but tens of thousands of them may well have to leave the industry altogether unless the government recognises their plight.