The time for immigration routes to be tailored to EU freelance creatives is now

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While the self-employed may be understandably totting up the impact of the pre-mini-Budget announcement that the National Insurance Contributions increase will be reversed, it is the creative industries and its dependency on freelancers which is our focus, writes Ben Kulka, policy and research manager for the Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) at innovation body Nesta.

In fact, freelancers are more common in the creative industries than in the general economy. Our research has shown that just under one third (32%) of the creative workforce is freelance, while in the rest of the economy, this is only the case for around 16%.

Autonomy, vulnerability, instability

Freelance jobs can offer flexibility and personal autonomy, but this also means more vulnerability to economic instability. These vulnerabilities were recently exposed during the coronavirus pandemic, when a lack of tailored support for creative industries freelancers and microbusinesses was partly to blame for a loss of nearly 70,000 jobs across music, performing and visual arts, and the number of freelancers in all creative occupations declining by almost 40,000 in 2020.

As a result, we are proposing three ways to help growth in the creative industries -- in a new briefing. And in the briefing, we also call on the government to tailor immigration pathways to highly skilled creative industries freelancers.

A new opportunity...

FreelanceUK readers with good memories will recall that we have issued this call before. But the new government led by new prime minister Liz Truss has stated that economic growth will be at the centre of its agenda. So there is now the opportunity to use new, recently introduced visas to tackle the substantial skills shortage in many creative industries occupations, so as not to hamper the UK economy.

Our research has shown that, unlike the rest of the economy, the most severe skills shortages within the creative industries are in high-skilled occupations such as programmers, software developers, architects, and designers. These roles are also very likely to be dominated by freelancers.

Are you 'exceptionally talented'?

Prior to Brexit, we estimated 10% of employers in the creative industries had hired a freelance worker from the EU in the past 12 months.

Despite strong evidence showing the importance of EU freelancers to UK creative businesses, the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system currently has limited entry pathways for skilled freelancers, unless they are deemed ‘exceptionally talented’ (under the Global Talent Visa), or have a significant amount to invest in a new business.

With the government now looking to introduce a number of routes for skilled and entrepreneurial freelancers, we believe there may be an opportunity to limit damage to the creative industries from the visa system’s proclivity for full-time employment status.

Two visa tweaks, please

So we recommend that the quite narrow list of education establishments attached to the new High Potential Visa is changed, to include a specialist set of institutions specialising in design – a sector where in the UK, 50% of its workers are freelancers.

Similarly, with the government’s Global Talent Visa (which is open to self-employed and full-time employed people alike), policymakers should consider opening a consultation period with the sector to ensure that relevant awards relating to areas like product design, advertising and games are also included. Our thinking here is that, with the future of ‘Tech Nation’ in doubt, it is time to acknowledge that not everyone coming to the UK to work in freelance-heavy industries like tech, design, film or art needs to be ‘exceptional.’ Like the rest of the economy, we should welcome talented people with all sorts of skillsets.

Kwasi Kwarteng: a closer look at his suitability to boost creatives

We are aware that chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng has just made a raft of announcements, but we are hopeful he will look upon our recommendations to tailor immigration pathways to suit highly skilled creative industries freelancers, favourably. And perhaps there is a good basis for this hopefulness. In his previous position as secretary of state heading the business department, he will have developed a good understanding of businesses needs and this includes microbusinesses and the self-employed (even though the creative industries were not covered by his ministerial brief at the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy).

As chancellor, while facing substantial challenges, due to inflation and a slowdown of the economy, he is also in the position to ease the situation for freelancers to not allow the cost of living crises to escalate to a crisis of freelance work. Measures from Mr Kwarteng at Friday’s Mini-Budget, notably the Energy Price Guarantee (under which the unit rate of electricity and gas is capped) will have eased some freelancers’ concerns about their monthly household bills.

That Brexit adjustment? It's far from over

And finally, let’s end on collaboration. As creative types tend to know more than most, collaboration across borders is at the heart of creativity, because cultural exchange enriches societies. Here in the UK, our creative industries are adjusting to the country’s post-Brexit place in the world, and we face some significant challenges. But if our new government with the help of industry can support them, the opportunity is huge.

At the PEC, our research shows that a large portion of creative industries businesses currently not selling abroad -- or who don’t have current customers abroad, are either planning to export in the next 12 months (19%), or would like to export in the future (22.3%). And freelancers based in the UK should be able to collaborate internationally and contribute to the creative industries’ nearly £50billion-worth in exports (around £39bn of which is services, representing 12% of the total UK exports).

However since the UK left the European Union, agreements on international exchange of services are based on mutual agreements between the UK and its international counterparts.

Finally, our government must stop this underservice that risks the stage standing empty

If it is committed to unlocking growth in this challenging environment that the global economy is facing in the foreseeable future, the new Liz Truss-led government should urgently look into bilateral agreements for easing trade with the main markets in Europe and North America, as well as emerging markets in the Indo Pacific. This recommendation from us feeds into one of the three ways to boost creative industries growth outlined in our briefing, notably under the title, ‘Help creative businesses on the international stage.’ Yet it is the ‘stage’ here at home that we are also concerned about, and specifically that at theatres, venues, performance centres, exhibitions and exhibits, the stage risks going unfilled. In short, new UK migration policies are needed and until we have a route for self-employed people from the EU to come here to work in our creative industries, we will have a skewed system that underserves our most vibrant, innovative and dynamic sectors.

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