**EDIT Up to date news on this here**
This has been a week where TV freelancers have been treated with utter contempt by government, the Treasury and HMRC.
A week which started with Rishi Sunak clearly and unequivocally throwing out a desperately needed financial lifeline to workers in our industry, before reversing course yesterday and pulling that lifeline away.
The situation relates to PAYE freelancers who are or were working on short term contracts when coronavirus hit and who were facing the end of their contracts with no prospect of any work. Last Friday Rishi Sunak answered the question which a huge number of freelancers were asking; would the new furlough scheme apply to people whose contracts were coming to a “natural end” and could companies simply rehire these workers or extend their contracts and then furlough them?
It was something that Moneysavingexpert, Martin Lewis, had campaigned for, and was a question that pretty much all TV companies and an army of freelancers badly needed an answer to.
On Friday Rishi Sunak gave the answer in his live Twitter Q&A and it was absolutely perfect. Yes absolutely, he said:
“if you were on payroll on the 28th February and then left – for whatever reason – the company can indeed take you back and then furlough you”.
Here he is saying it:
And in case there were any doubt that he might have misspoken, he reiterated that point 45 minutes later, in answer to another question:
“if you were on payroll before the 28th and have left for any reason it’s perfectly possible for you to ask your company to take you back and furlough you, that would be a conversation for them but it is definitely possible, it’s important that people know that“.
This confirmation came as a huge relief to many people in the industry, especially when it was followed by the new official government guidance that came out the next day which gave, without any equivocation, no required reasons why a contract might have ended:
“Employees on fixed term contracts can be furloughed. Their contracts can be renewed or extended during the furlough period without breaking the terms of the scheme”.
As a result of this, on Tuesday PACT then republished its advice to members based on these new guidelines, including answers to these four questions:
Q. Are fixed term PAYE employees covered in this scheme?
A. All employees on the payroll on or before 28th February 2020 would be eligible and this will include those on a fixed term PAYE contract.
Q. What if the Fixed Term employee’s contract has ended?
A. Employees on fixed term contracts can be renewed or extended during the furlough period without breaking the terms of the scheme.This means that employees who were on fixed term contracts that were due to end anyway can have them extended – even though the extension is artificial – so that they can benefit from the furlough scheme.In addition, even if the contract has now expired it is possible under the scheme to re-engage that individual and furlough them.Where a fixed term employee’s contract ends because it is not extended or renewed you will no longer be able claim the grant for them.
Q. What if I laid off employees over the past few weeks, before this Scheme was announced. Can I re-employ these individuals for the sake of furloughing them?
A. Yes. Employers can agree to re-employ employees made redundant from 28th February 2020 and place those employees on furlough instead.
Q. What happens if I have given/gave notice to an employee/worker but now want to move that employee and/or worker onto furlough leave?
A. This is feasible (see above). Employers can agree to re-employ employees made redundant from 28th February 2020 and place those employees on furlough instead.
With this much needed clarity, a large number of companies then proceeded to contact their freelance workers and agreed to furlough them, including rehiring those whose contracts were ending and furloughing them too.
Even with this guidance however, some companies held back, naturally cautious about confirming the details until they were absolutely certain. So, while they waited, freelancers across the country sought their own clarity and besieged HMRC with questions to seek to get further official confirmation that what they understood was correct. And they got it, clearly and unequivocally:
It is worth noting at this point that the people on the end of the HMRC hotline don’t just make this up as they go along. They have the official guidelines in front of them to refer to, have been briefed on the content and work from a list of answers to the most commonly asked questions. It does happen that one operator can make an error or is unclear but this was not the case here, where there was a clear pattern of each different HMRC staff member repeating exactly the same answer to the same question with clarity and absolute certainty throughout:
Yes (Thursday morning):
On Thursday morning (9th April) PACT then had a meeting with HMRC to get their own formal verification of the details of the scheme. And by lunchtime they had it, and then proceeded to use the information they were given to rewrite and republish their formal advice to member companies.
Again it was definitive, including this question and answer which was slightly rewritten to include a new date, but again was very clear and precise:
Q. What if the Fixed Term employee’s contract has ended?
A. Yes. Employees on fixed term contracts can have those contracts renewed or extended during the furlough period without breaking the terms of the scheme.
This means that employees who were on fixed term contracts that were due to end on or after 1st March 2020 can have them extended – even though the extension is artificial – so that they can benefit from the furlough scheme.
As a result of this, the remaining PACT companies and others started to get in contact with their freelancers with the good news that eligibility for the scheme had now been officially confirmed and that they could now be re-contracted and furloughed, news which naturally came as a massive relief to a lot of freelancers, many of whom would have been facing serious financial issues without this support.
Then at 3pm something changed.
Word came in that PACT had been contacted by HMRC who were now reversing everything that they had been saying in the previous six days since Rishi Sunak’s Twitter conversation and that, as a result, PACT were now changing their advice to members to add a new line:
“Contract(s) must have been suspended due to the impact of Covid-19 with some remaining work still to be done under the contract, and the prospect of returning to complete that work at some point in the future”.
This in effect meant that companies could not now re-contract and furlough their workers if their contracts had come to a natural end, the opposite of what had previously been confirmed.
Which is where we are now, on Good Friday morning. Apparently there is new government guidance to come, but now when you ask HMRC Customer support the same questions as above, the answer is different:
No (Thursday afternoon):
So what has happened here?
Well let’s be clear what has NOT happened. It is not the case that the government put out a new scheme and then sought to provide extra clarity in the days that followed. The fact that what was being said by HMRC throughout the course of the week – and out of the mouth of the Chancellor of the Exchequer last Friday – is now entirely different to what is being said today is because someone has changed the policy.
What was given out one week ago – that vital financial lifeline to a huge number of freelancers in TV – has now been dragged back and the door has been firmly closed.
And that is deeply unfair and deeply cruel.
Follow up article: Over to you PACT