Seven big city Mayors from across England have come together to restate support for people across the country facing desperate financial straits because they’ve fallen through gaps in the government’s financial safety nets and to pressure the Chancellor Rishi Sunak to provide help.
London’s Sadiq Khan joined fellow Mayors Steve Rotheram (Liverpool City Region), Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester), Andy Street (West Midlands), Marvin Rees (Bristol), Dan Jarvis (Sheffield City Region) and Jamie Driscoll (North of Tyne) in a virtual meeting last night to hear sometimes harrowing testimonies from small business and self-employed people supported by the campaign groups Excluded UK and Forgotten Ltd.
Mayor Khan told the gathering he had visited London retailers earlier in the day who were welcoming the respite provided by the capital’s move back to the Tier 2 Covid alert level, but had also been speaking to Londoners “who are sole traders, who are relatively recently self-employed, who are freelancers or who receive remuneration through dividends, who feel really let down” having been “working their their socks off” without previously expecting anything in return from the state.
He stressed a wish to “reassure the excluded and the forgotten that, on a cross-party basis, we’re going to work together to make sure this issue stays in the public’s mind but also on the radar of the government.”
It is estimated that around three million people across the country have found themselves unable to benefit from government support schemes set up in March, often because they have only recently become self employed and also because past self-employed trading profits have exceeded the threshold for receiving help now, or because they take some or all of their income from their small businesses in the form of dividends.
City Hall estimates as many as 200,000 Londoners could be affected, with half of them in the newly self-employed group, a further 79,000 rendered ineligible because annual profits were higher than £50,000 in in the 2017/18 tax year and roughly 21,000 who’ve taken income as company dividends.
Excluded UK’s Sonali Joshi, whose business is spread between Newcastle and London, said that flaws in the furlough and self-employed schemes announced by the Chancellor in March had swiftly become apparent yet gone uncorrected, and Forgotten Ltd’s Gina Broadhurst, based in Kingston-upon-Thames, emphasised that many company directors are, despite their official title, “actually gardeners, plumbers, hairdressers or independent bookshop and cafe owners.”
Participants sharing their stories with the Mayors included a embroiderer and conservator from Bristol who has secured work from the Victoria and Albert Museum and theatre companies in the past, but “lost two years’ of planned work in 24 hours” when the pandemic hit, with grave family emotional as well as financial consequences. A woman from a Leicestershire-based family business that shows exotic animals at parties and other events feared that some of the 200 animals and insects they keep might have to euthanised if they can no longer meet the cost of feeding them.
Burnham, a former Treasury minister, said the meeting showed that the campaign had “built out” beyond Manchester and Liverpool to include London and other cities too. He expressed hope, echoed by Driscoll, that the decision by Tesco to hand back over £500 million it had accrued from the government’s business rates holiday “might offer the glimmer of a solution” to finding the money excluded small firms and self-employed people need.
Street, the sole Conservative Mayor present, said he could not understand why the problem at hand “was not responded to much, much earlier”. Like Rotheram and others he acknowledged that the government’s initial measures were always likely to have imperfections due to the great speed with which they had to be introduced, but was now struggling to “get behind the mindset of the Treasury officials who are objecting to this. On the evidence of tonight, it’s incredibly difficult to understand.”
Asked by On London if the Mayors might campaign collectively on further issues where they have common interests or concerns, Rotheram said the Excluded/Forgotten campaign, shown by the involvement of Street, that Mayors can “put aside party political differences and certainly party political point scoring”. He added that the M9 Group of “metro-mayors” (which does not include London or Bristol), comprising five Labour Mayors and four Conservative ones, “normally comes to a consensus”.
Jarvis said that although some parts of the country and national economy had clearly been hit particularly hard, “this isn’t just about a north-south type of divide, it’s much more kind of complex than that.” He added: “The government do talk a lot about levelling up, and it seems to me that the spending review that took place last week failed to put in place the necessary investment in order to level up the country.”
Rees said: “We have to recognise that there has been geographical difference in prosperity in the UK, but also recognise that that runs across groups of people who live in all different parts of the country too. We need to talk about all those things at the same time.” He also argued that a highly centralised national government system has proved poorly equipped to deal with current challenges facing the country.
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