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MPs demand that Rishi Sunak's budget plugs gaps in Covid support

Jessica Elgot Deputy political editor
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA</span>
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Rishi Sunak must plug the holes that have allowed millions to fall through the Covid support safety net, an open letter from 79 MPs and other senior politicians such as Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan has demanded before the budget.

The open letter with more than 3,600 signatures is signed by a number of Conservative MPs, including the former cabinet ministers David Davis and Esther McVey, as well as the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, the Greens’ Caroline Lucas and the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford.

The last-ditch push, backed by public figures including Money Saving Expert’s Martin Lewis and the anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, comes as the chancellor prepares to extend support schemes such as furlough and sectoral VAT relief until June, when the government hopes to permanently lift Covid restrictions.

Related: Fix gaps in furlough for self-employed workers, government urged

Excluded UK, the group co-ordinating the letter, has said families cut out of furlough or self-employed income support are facing “ever-increasing hardship and uncertain futures” – estimating that up to 3 million people have been affected by restrictions on support.

The SNP’s Alison Thewliss – who co-chairs the MPs’ campaign group on those excluded from support – said Wednesday’s budget was the last chance to support those who had been left without support. “Failing to take this step will be a hammer blow to the UK’s economic recovery,” she said.

The furlough scheme has supported almost 10m jobs since its launch in March last year, and about 2.7m claims have also been made to SEISS, the provision for self-employed people.

However, campaigners say that up to 3 million people fail to meet eligibility criteria, including about 700,000 limited company directors and 200,000 people who had become self-employed and lacked enough documentation for self-employed support. The Federation of Small Business (FSB) has said that one in five small businesses have told them they received no financial support at all from the government.

The letter said that the estimated figure of 3 million excluded from support was based on BEIS business population estimates.

Related: Forest of Dean: small businesses counting on further help from UK budget

“This is a substantial section of the workforce and they need support to get through this crisis,” the letter said, naming those excluded as “people who were furthering their careers by starting a new job, those in between jobs … freelancers, those combining PAYE and self-employment, those whose maternity or parental leave fell at a certain time, people excluded due to pensions, bereavement payments, carer’s allowance, redundancy, shielding and more”.

The group said it had presented proposals to the Treasury for the schemes to be extended and that they would guard against fraud.

Ministers are understood to have considered extending some Covid financial support to people who became self-employed after April 2019 – a cut-off date that until now meant they were excluded from government help.

The Treasury has previously said that the absence of a complete tax return meant they were unable to verify earnings. However, the self-assessment deadline for filing a return for the 2019-20 tax year is this week, so that reason is now obsolete.