'Lifeline' for 600 BBC PAYE freelances as broadcaster offers new Covid-19 financial support

About 600 freelances who regularly work for the BBC on PAYE contracts are to “finally” be offered financial support to cover some of the worst months of the Covid-19 crisis.

The BBC will pay average earnings capped at £2,500 for March, April and May for about 600 people who have been ineligible for any of the Government’s support schemes and who regularly worked for it over the previous 12 months.

The corporation said it believed this was the “right thing to do” after four months of appeals from hundreds of those affected and the National Union of Journalists, but some said its inaction so far had built up “ill will”.

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Freelances who earn more than 50% of their income through PAYE were unable to use the Government’s Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) and the BBC has said it was told by the Government it could not furlough them because it is a public service organisation.

‘Right thing to do’

A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC has been hugely sympathetic to the situation of PAYE freelancers who make a significant and valuable contribution to the BBC’s output.

“We have retrospectively reviewed the impact on Covid-19 on a small group of regularly engaged PAYE freelancers in the public service who have not been eligible for financial support either through the Government’s Self Employed Freelancer Scheme or via the BBC support packages created in response to the pandemic.

“Although, as we have previously said, the BBC was not eligible for Government furlough funding, we will mirror the furlough scheme for this group from BBC funds by paying their average earnings (calculated over the 12 months prior to Covid) for March to May (capped at £2,500).

“We believe this is the right thing to do.”

‘Why has it taken so long?’

Broadcast journalist Ian Williams, who is one of the coordinators of the BBC PAYE Freelancers Group, told Press Gazette: “It’s fantastic the BBC is finally stepping up to the plate and recognising the vital role is PAYE freelances play, not only in supporting the corporation but helping it run at all.

“However why has it taken so long? By not acting as a caring employer right from the start it’s built up a great deal of resentment and ill will.

“All previous responses up to this point have been a ‘sorry we can’t help’ and that’s been for nearly four months so imagine the stress that that’s caused people. What’s changed? The cynic inside me can’t help but wonder if it’s a coincidence we got this announced the same week the NUJ threatened legal action against the Government.”

The NUJ wrote to the Treasury claiming that the SEISS was “discriminatory and irrational” in its exclusion of PAYE freelances, leaving many facing “enormous hardship”.

Paul Siegert, NUJ national broadcasting organiser, said: “It is great news that the BBC has finally listened and will be providing some financial support for the freelance community.

“We welcome this decision because it will provide a lifeline for hundreds of PAYE freelancers who are a vital part of the BBC family and have seen their income dry up during Covid-19. But it is yet another drain on BBC finances when it should be the UK government that should be providing this financial package.”

Journalists on tenterhooks

The support will be offered to around 600 of up to 3,000 people in a similar position, according to an estimate of the BBC’s PAYE staff previously shared by Seigert.

Williams told Press Gazette the fine details of the BBC’s proposals are now needed, with people “basically on tenterhooks waiting to see if they’ve been chosen”. They will be told within ten days from last week’s announcement.

“The majority of responses on our Facebook group are all ‘will I qualify?’ and I think we’ll get a lot of people who work in lots of different ways having been on different contracts who will slip through the gaps,” he said.

Williams also said people were pointing out that June, which was “really the first month when it was a ghost town in terms of shifts”, is not covered by the new measures.

“There was nothing really. Many people just didn’t work at all because in April and May some people were lucky enough to still be fulfilling bookings that were previously made but June is not covered here so the main month that suddenly there was no work people won’t get anything. People were saying why can’t they include June?

“It’s great to see the BBC willing to take on responsibility finally rather than playing a blame game with the Government… so hopefully it might place more pressure on the Chancellor to do more as well rather than continue to exclude these vast numbers of people across sectors.”

Shifts at the BBC have started to pick up again in July but are “nowhere back to normal and I think it will be the same for months to come”, Williams added.

Shaun Hassett, a freelance for BBC World News who helped to put together several arguments for support during the crisis, agreed that ideally June could have been included.

But he told Press Gazette: “We said to the BBC could they at least meet us halfway and it seems they have done that.”

He added that the “devil is in the detail” as freelances will qualify if they worked every month in September to February, meaning they could be left out if they took an extended holiday.

“I hope they will be a little bit flexible on a case by case basis,” Hassett said.

Hassett and Williams both signed an open letter to BBC management last month from 60 PAYE freelances that compiled a range of evidence showing why they believed the corporation should have been able to furlough its public sector freelances, including examples of how the job retention scheme has been used by some schools and local authorities in certain circumstances.

The letter said: “If the BBC truly has no flexibility when it comes to using the [coronavirus job retention scheme] for PAYE freelancers then it is axiomatic that the BBC should be following the government’s advice by continuing to pay its PAYE freelancers. This is the BBC’s responsibility. The time has come for the BBC to offer direct support to its regular casual workforce in line with the principles set out by the Government.

“The Director General has remarked publicly that the BBC is doing ‘all it can’ to help its PAYE freelancers. We believe the BBC can and should be doing a lot more. While some opportunities have been missed, it is not too late to do the right thing.”

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