Covid cash, cut
THE UK government is winding down financial support for people affected by covid-19. While reported cases continued to rise in September, it is clear that the government's current intention is that we - all who are not claiming benefits - are on our own. NUJ members see here for details of the Union's charity NUJ Extra.
Applications for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) closed on 30 September. The Job Retention Scheme that offered employers suppport to pay workers on "furlough" also closed at the end of that month.
Mystery misery money
On 30 September the UK government announced "£500m support for vulnerable households over winter". The money will be available to local councils some time in October 2021. There are no details of how to apply: headlines such as this in the i paper promising otherwise are premature. The Freelance sends thoughts and prayers to Hull City Council, which immediately put up a web page announcing "We are aware that the government have just announced a new scheme, known as the Household Support Fund. We will provide more information about this scheme when it becomes available to us."
Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, told Kent Online that announcing the fund just as other benefits and avenues of support are taken away from struggling families shows the country's benefits support system is inadequate: "The announcement of this support fund is an admission that the social security safety net does not meet basic living needs." Helen Barnard, Deputy Director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: "The Household Support Fund is an eleventh-hour attempt to save face as the Government presses ahead with an unprecedented overnight cut to Universal Credit."
The following is our best effort at a running summary of what support is still available to freelances whose income is affected by covid-19.
If you spot something missing, please email email@example.com now. First, follow these links:
- Household support fund
- Local support for businesses
- If you are asked to self-isolate
- Loans, mortgages and rent
- Universal Credit and other benefits
1. Household support fund
There were no details of the "Household Support Fund" in the Budget on 27 October. Doncaster Council says it expects applications to open in "early November". The Budget did include a small increase in Universal Credit payments to working people.
9 November 2021
We checked a random sample of local authority websites that showed up in a Web search on 9 November. For example:
The London Borough of Westminster announced that it was using its allocated funding "to provide free school meal vouchers for all eligible children in the borough over October half-term..." A decision on further spending is not due until 25 November - over to journalists covering the Borough to find out more.
Doncaster has now set out criteria - basically food vouchers for families eligible for free school meals and £100 winter fuel payments for people who receive Council Tax Reduction, Housing Benefit or Universal Credit that includes housing costs. It has now announced that applications open on 15 November [which they did].
The London Borough of Bromley has opened applications for food, utilities and essential items including boiler repairs, broadband and warm clothing - for those living in the Borough, or who have been sent to temporary accommodation elsewhere by the Borough, who are receiving support from certain agencies. It's a very long Web form.
The London Borough of Haringey has a Haringey Support Fund. Applications are open to those already on "qualifying benefits" or who declare income of less than £350 per week after tax for an individual.
All we find from Tower Hamlets is this expression of frustration in a paper to a committee: "the Council was not made aware of the provisions of the grant and allocation until 7 October. The DWP has already issued public comms stating this grant is available and that residents should contact their Local Authority to find out how to access it. We therefore need to make funding available as soon as possible. Additionally, any unspent funds by March must be returned to DWP."
The other London boroughs that we have checked - including Camden, Croydon, Ealing, Hackney, Islington, Lewisham, Newham and Wandsworth - have said nothing that we have so far found. Lambeth will make a decision on food vouchers and bill help for families with children after 23 November; and Southwark will decide on what may be a wider scheme in December.
2. Local support for businesses
Some local authorities may still be offering "local support for businesses" and as a freelance you are of course "a business".
If you are in England see the guidance on Additional Restrictions Grants. These grants are completely discretionary. Local councils have the freedom to determine the eligibility criteria. The government expects them to help businesses which - while not legally forced to close - are nonetheless severely impacted by coronavirus restrictions.
For Scotland, start by investigating Additional funding for business affected by temporary restrictions; for Wales Financial Support and Grants; and for Northern Ireland the Localised Restrictions Support Scheme (from nibusinessinfo.co.uk).
3. If you are asked to self-isolate
People in England who are on low incomes and who are told to self-isolate because of covid-19 can claim £500. You claim from your local authority. This now applies to those told to self-isolate by the "NHS" Test and Trace App (after registering with Test and Trace) as well as to those told by human tracers working for Serco.
You have to meet all four of these criteria to receive the payment:
- You are currently receiving Universal Credit, Working Tax Credit, income-based Employment and Support Allowance, income-based Jobseeker's Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit and/or Pension Credit;
- You are employed or self-employed;
- You are unable to work from home and will lose income as a result; and
- You have been told to self-isolate, or you are the parent or guardian of a young person in the same household who is self-isolating.
You will need to show evidence when you apply:
- Your National Insurance number;
- A notification from Test and Trace (or the app) asking you to self-isolate (including a Unique ID number);
- A bank statement;
- If you are self-employed, evidence of this: business account bank statements or copies of self-assessment returns, for example. (If you are employed you need proof of this, such as a payslip, with a contact for your employer so that it can confirm that you are unable to work from home.)
You need to apply within 14 days of the end of your isolation period.
The money should be paid into a bank account. Central Bedfordshire Council is one of those that gives necessary advice on how to get the money if your bank account is overdrawn when you apply. Some simply refer you to the Citizens' Advice Bureau.
If you do not meet all the above conditions, discretionary grants may be available from your local council.
Please contact the Freelance if your local authority application system does not work.
The following link also describes discretionary payments from local councils.
In Scotland, the Aberdeen Evening Express reported on 12 January that only one application in four under the equivalent scheme was approved in October and November. The Liverpool Echo on 11 January reported the same figure for the English city.
If you are in England and need practical help while self-isolating, for example with getting food in, see this government page. It refers you to the NHS Volunteer Responders programme, which invites you to call 0808 196 3646 (8am to 8pm, 7 days a week). Some sources say you need to be referred to this programme: your GP or NHS 111 can do this.
4. Loans, mortgages and rent
A Recovery Loans scheme was launched on 6 April 2021. It turns out to include four kinds of finance:
- Term loans between £25,001 and £10 million per business, repayable over up to six years;
- Overdrafts between £25,001 and £10 million per business, repayable over up to three years;
- Asset finance between £1000 and £10 million per business, repayable over up to six years; and
- Invoice finance between £1000 and £10 million per business, repayable over up to three years.
The conditions are that your business is trading in the UK and:
- is viable or would be viable were it not for the pandemic;
- has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic; and
- is not in "collective insolvency proceedings".
The government will guarantee 80 per cent of these loans, with the lending institution bearing the rest of the risk. No personal guarantees will be taken on loans up to £250,000.
See the British Business Bank for a list of 23 lenders.
At launch on 6 April 2021 NatWest was offering interest rates ranging from 7.33 per cent for one-year loans to 9.90 per cent for six-year loans and RBS was offering the same rates. On 6 September 2021 these rates had fallen to 6.16 per cent for one-year loans and 7.06 per cent for six-year loans.
At launch, and still on 5 September 2021, meanwhile, HSBC was offering 4.49 per cent for loans up to and including 3 years and 4.99 per cent for all loans over 3 years. Most others do not publicise rates up front on their websites.
So do shop around, do check current offers and do take qualified financial advice before taking out a loan.
Government small business "bounce back loans" could be used to support your income. Applications for these closed at the end of March 2021, as did those for a Business Interruption Loan Scheme.
For the record, bounce-back loans were for amounts between £2000 and £50,000. They were interest- and payment-free in the first year, and at a very low 2.5 per cent fixed annual interest after that - and are repayable over ten years. Also, you could take payment holidays on these loans, or periods when you pay only the interest, of up to six months.
Loan payment deferral
Lenders must offer ominously-named "tailored help" - see, again, excellent MoneySavingExpert.com advice. The statutory payment holiday provisons expired at the end of March 2021.
Those who rent can ask their landlord to discuss deferral.
Housing charity Shelter said in June 2020 that the government must change the law to prevent a "tidal wave of homelessness". This remains true, the Freelance believes.
On 15 July the Welsh government opened a Tenancy Hardship Grant for private rented sector tenants. Those who do not receive Housing Benefit or Universal Credit housing payments and have built up 8 weeks or more of rent arrears between 1 March 2020 and 30 June 2021, due to covid, can apply to their local authority. The Freelance commends this step to the other nations, though we do note that it coincided with the end of a ban on evictions. The Scottish government offers interest-free Tenant Hardship Loans.
5. Universal Credit and other benefits
It may be worth trying to claim Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) at £96.35 a week, a generous increase of £0.50p a week, effective from 06/04/21. For what it's worth, it is now payable from the first day that you need to self-isolate, for up to 28 weeks. If you qualify as a "worker" your client may be able to claim back some SSP paid to you.
Everyone left out by the measures reported above - and who does not already claim another benefit - can apply for Universal Credit (UC). There are massive backlogs in the UC system - one that the Freelance believes was designed in the first place to deter and delay claims.
The UK government ended the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, introduced early in the pandemic, at the end of September 2021. Claimants' payments will reduce between 13 October and 12 November. On 16 September it was reported that Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty, had written to the UK government pointing out that the Universal Credit cut is incompatible with Britain's obligation to protect its citizens' rights to an adequate standard of living. But no...
The Budget on 27 October included an announcement that people who claim UC while working will get a bit more. According to the BBC, for every extra £1 you earn your UC will be cut by 55p (as against 63p now). It is of course a tad more complicated than that.
Warning: The BBC reports people who were receiving Working Tax Credit having it cancelled when they started an application for Universal Credit. They did not even complete that application, because they were concerned that their savings would make them ineligible. So if you receive Working Tax Credit or any other "legacy" benefit - take great care. The government later updated this advice page to reflect this: "even if [your Universal Credit] claim is not approved it will affect your tax credits if you claim them, and may affect other benefits".
Especially if you expect your income to be seriously reduced for some months, we strongly recommend that before you apply for a new benefit you use the moneysavingexpert.com benefits calculator to check what the effect will be.
The "monthly standard allowance" for Universal Credit (UC) has now fallen to £324.84 for a single person over 25 - and more if you have children, have a disability or "need help paying your rent".
In response to coronavirus and pressure from trades unions, the government waived the "minimum income floor" (MIF) - the level of monthly earnings that UC simply assumed.
The Mirror reported on 4 March 2021 that "work coaches will get 'discretion' not to apply [the minimum income floor] if they feel someone is still hit by Covid." Indeed, regulations coming into effect on 31 July 2021 provide that, until 31 July 2022:
(3) The Secretary of State may continue to apply the MIF easement... but only if it appears that the trade, profession or vocation carried on by the claimant remains adversely affected by the outbreak of coronavirus disease, and not for more than two consecutive assessment periods on a single occasion and not for more than six assessment periods in total.
(4) The Secretary of State may, if satisfied that economic conditions have sufficiently improved, determine that the MIF easement is no longer to apply to any claimant.
An "assessment period" is currently defined as one month. These regulations appear to give the Minister complete discretion to change the rules whenever she wishes. She of course delegates her power to "apply the MIF easement" to UC officials.
Only those who have illnesses or disabilities that affect their ability to work can get ("old style") Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). This is £74.35 a week for the over-25s.
You may be able to claim New Style Employment and Support Allowance with, or instead of, Universal Credit, depending on your National Insurance record. This is available for those who are ill or have a health condition or disability that limits their ability to work. You can also apply for New Style ESA if you cannot work while you are self-isolating because of coronavirus (covid-19) and you are not currently getting Statutory Sick Pay.
The NUJ and sister unions pressed for the rules on savings affecting eligibility for Universal Credit to be relaxed for the duration. Instead, we got an accounting clarification. To quote moneysavingexpert.com again: "We've checked with Department for Work & Pensions, who confirmed that while they'd expect business savings to be in a business account, nevertheless 'if someone has money in their personal account to be used for business purposes, it won't be counted towards their capital'."
If your household has more than £6000 of savings that are NOT provably earmarked for such purposes, your UC entitlement starts to reduce. While you have £16,000, you get nothing. It would seem that, if you need to claim Universal Credit, you should simply declare the savings which are "truly personal".
We continue obsessively to refresh the list of published Regulations looking for details. As we do so, we fancy we hear the scritch of quill pens as the clerks frantically try to put their masters' pronouncements into something resembling legal language.