Universal credit system not working for artists, says Julie Hesmondhalgh
More financial support should be available to artists in the periods where they are not working, the former Coronation Street actor Julie Hesmondhalgh has said, as research revealed universal credit is pushing the creative workforce into destitution.
The study by the performing arts union Equity and the University of Warwick found that of those subject to the universal credit rule known as the “minimum income floor” (MIF) – which reduces the amount of support that self-employed creatives are eligible for – 41% had gone without essential items such as food or utilities.
Nearly half of the 674 Equity members surveyed had been unable to pay bills at some point, and 5% had been forced to leave their home.
The average earnings in the cultural and creative industries were £15,270 – dramatically below the median pay for UK full-time employees of £33,280 (94% of respondents made less than that figure).
Hesmondhalgh, an award-winning actor best known for her role as Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street between 1998 and 2014, called the system “Kafkaesque”.
“I think a lot of people try and avoid universal credit completely because of the bureaucracy and the Kafkaesque nature of applying for it, waiting for it, getting it, being forced to job seek in areas that aren’t your skill set in any way,” she said.
The actor, who described herself as “state privileged, state sponsored”, said she wouldn’t have got her start in the industry were it not for a social security system that “was incredibly supportive of people like me from working-class families in the regions”.
She recalled setting up a fringe theatre company with friends in a basement, where they would put on plays by novices including Rufus Norris, who directed his first play there. “That would not have been possible if we were living under the benefits system that exists today, that absolutely refuses to accept artists as having a ‘proper job’.
“We were able to sign on and get the dole and housing benefit and work ridiculously long and committed hours in that theatre doing every aspect of it.”
This was particularly important in an industry defined by low pay and freelance work, she said. Earlier this year, separate research revealed artists working in the public sector were being paid a median rate of £2.60 an hour.
But four out of five respondents to the Equity study said UC had not helped them to work in the creative industries.
One participant told the researchers: “I no longer have my own accommodation as this is not something I can afford. I live out of my car. And the offer of others to sleep on their couch or spare bed for a couple of nights … I rely on free car parks (which there are not many), and public bathrooms.”
Another described the situation as “devastating”, adding that they “had to turn to a food bank for eight months as I had no income and no support from universal credit”.
Equity’s general secretary, Paul W Fleming, called for an urgent scrapping of the universal credit MIF and a review of how the social security system treats atypical workers. “The experiences that Equity members shared with us for this groundbreaking research were appalling,” he said.
Dr Heidi Ashton, from the University of Warwick, said UC was exacerbating the inequalities in the creative and cultural sector.
“In the past, people from working-class backgrounds relied on social security in the early stages of their careers or in moments of hardship due to the precarious nature of freelance work. Without this safety net people without other financial means are either leaving the sector entirely or face losing their homes,” she said.
Hesmondhalgh added: “You look at young people now in London and they have to do three or four jobs in order to just meet the rent and survive.
“There was a big push to get artists recognised as self-employed, which was the right thing but what’s happened is that in accessing any sort of benefits it’s almost impossible … It’s not just about class, it’s even worse, of course, for artists with disabilities, for example. It’s about all the other blocks to access as well.”