Universal credit system doesn’t work for artists, says Julie Hesmondhalgh | universal credit

More financial support should be available to artists when they are not working, says former Coronation Street actress Julie Hesmondhalgh, as research has found that universal credit is driving the creative workforce into destitution.

The study by performing arts union Equity and the University of Warwick found that those subject to the universal credit rule known as the “minimum income floor” (MIF) – which reduces the amount of support self-employed creatives are eligible for – 41 % ran out of essentials like food or utilities.

Nearly half of the 674 Equity members surveyed have been unable to pay bills at some point and 5% have been forced to leave their homes.

Average earnings in the cultural and creative industries were £15,270 – dramatically below the average salary for full-time UK employees of £33,280 (94% of respondents earned less than this figure).

Hesmondhalgh, an award-winning actress 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 to avoid universal credit altogether because of the bureaucracy and the Kafkaesque nature of applying, waiting, getting, being forced to look for jobs in areas that are not your skills at all. ,” she said.

The actress, who described herself as “privileged and state-sponsored,” said she wouldn’t have started in the industry if it weren’t for a welfare system that was “incredibly supportive of people like me from working-class families across the regions.”

She remembers setting up a fringe theater company with friends in a basement, where they performed plays by newcomers, including Rufus Norris, who directed his first play there. “This would not be possible if we were living under the benefits system that exists today, which flatly refuses to accept artists as having ‘decent work’.

“We were able to sign and get sick pay and housing benefits and work ridiculously long committed hours in that theater doing every aspect of it.”

That was particularly important in an industry defined by low pay and freelancing, she said. Earlier this year, a separate survey revealed that artists working in the public sector were paid an average rate of £2.60 an hour.

But four out of five respondents to the Equity study said UC didn’t help them work in the creative industries.

One participant told 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 other people to sleep on your sofa or extra bed for a few nights … I count on free parking (which there are not many) and public toilets.

Another described the situation as “devastating”, adding that “they had to resort to a food bank for eight months because they had no income or universal credit support”.

Equity Secretary General Paul W Fleming has called for an urgent cancellation of the universal credit MIF and a review of how the social security system treats atypical workers. “The experiences Equity members shared with us for this groundbreaking research were terrifying,” he said.

Dr. Heidi Ashton of the University of Warwick said UC was exacerbating inequalities in the creative and cultural sector.

“In the past, people from the working class relied on social security at the beginning of their careers or in times of difficulty due to the precariousness of self-employment. Without that safety net, people without other financial means are leaving the sector altogether or risk losing their homes,” she said.

Hesmondhalgh added: “You look at young people now in London and they have to do three or four jobs to pay rent and survive.

“There was a great effort for artists to be recognized as autonomous, which was right, but what has happened is that having access to any kind of benefit is almost impossible … It is not just a class issue, it is even worse, of course , for artists with disabilities, for example. It’s about all the other access blocks too.”

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