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Coronavirus: What help are self-employed getting from government?

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By Kevin Peachey
Personal finance reporter

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  • Coronavirus pandemic

Woman with mask working in carpentry workshop

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The chancellor has announced an increase in government support for the self-employed.

The Coronavirus Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) is designed to protect people in a similar way to employed workers, although some groups will miss out.

What new measures are in place?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s winter economy plan included a third and fourth support grant for the self-employed, following two support payments over the spring and summer.

The third grant has increased in value compared to the original plan as more restrictions have been brought in.

The taxable grant at the start of November was due to cover 40% of average monthly trading profits, with a limit of £3,750 in total – paid out in a single instalment covering three months’ worth of profits.

But following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement of another national lockdown, the self-employed will now be able to claim state aid of up to 80% of profits for November.

Along with the 40% level of trading profits for December and January, the third grant will cover 55% of trading profits, to a maximum of £5,160. Applications will be open from 30 November.

The subsequent grant will cover a three-month period from the start of February 2021 until the end of April, with terms to be confirmed later.

Businesses will continue to be able to apply to banks for government-backed support loans until 31 January, compared with a previous 30 November deadline for some of the programmes.

What help has already been provided?

The chancellor’s original package of measures were unveiled in March.

If they suffered a loss in income, people who were self-employed or in partnerships were paid a taxable grant worth 80% of their profits, up to a cap of £2,500 per month.

The payment was available to those who had been trading in the financial year 2018-2019, and were planning to continue doing so, but whose business had been hit by coronavirus.

Help was initially given as one lump-sum payment which was supposed to cover three months.

Over the summer a “second and final” payment was announced covering 70% of profits, up to a cap of £2,190 per month for another three months – £6,570 in total. It proved not to be the final payment, but the second of four.

Who is eligible?

More than half of a claimant’s income needs to come from self-employment.

The schemes have been open to those with a trading profit of less than £50,000 in 2018-19, or an average trading profit of less than £50,000 from 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.

The relatively newly self-employed do not receive any help under this scheme, as more recent tax details are not being considered.

The government’s help comes on top of extended delays for tax payments through the self-assessment system. Payment plans can be set up giving people more time to pay their full tax bill up to January 2022.

Those with the lowest incomes are in line to receive more generous benefits payments compared with before the crisis.

How do I claim the help?

Although many people are covered, there has been a significant campaign, and concerns raised by MPs, over a large number of people who miss out on the support. This is how it has worked:

  • HMRC will use existing information to identify those eligible and invited applications
  • The application requires them to confirm that they meet the eligibility requirements
  • It will be paid straight into a bank account, which eligible taxpayers will need to confirm on their application form
  • HMRC should have directly contacted those eligible

Self-employed people who pay themselves a salary and dividends through their own company are not covered by the scheme. However, they will have some of their salary covered by job retention schemes if they operate through PAYE.

  • ‘I swing between anger, hope, despair’

As a result, a large number of self-employed people are ineligible. An estimated 18% of those for whom self-employment makes up most of their income are ineligible, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

How many people are affected?

There are more than five million self-employed people in the UK, earning an average of £781 a month. The number has risen fast since the 2008 financial crash.

Roughly a fifth of the self-employed are in the construction sector, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), with hundreds of thousands of others working in the motor trade, professional services, and education.

The chancellor has suggested that in future, tax breaks for the self-employed – such as lower national insurance – may end. These were in place because the self-employed do not get sick pay or holiday pay, and to encourage entrepreneurship.

This signals a massive change in UK tax policy, potentially equalising the tax treatment of the self-employed with employees.

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