Un-defined un-employee?

What does a trade union branch have in common with a man whose office used to be in the Tory HQ building? In the wacky world of freelancing, quite a lot. . .

"THE UK HAS the easiest regime in the world when it comes to setting up business on your own, but that's illusory because on a day-to-day basis it's probably the most difficult country for a self-employed person to operate in," claimed Stephen Alambritis, head of press and public affairs for the Federation of Small Businesses, guest speaker at London Freelance Branch's April meeting.

He argued that the (since deceased) 18-year Conservative government has promoted self-employment rhetorically -- and through unemployment. It had then failed to offer the huge numbers who took to self-employment the legal and administrative support they needed.

"The Thatcher years were about cutting down on employment in industry and she saw redundancy money as the basis for setting up new businesses," he said. "However, the machinery wasn't put in place to legally recognise self-employment: it is simply not defined in British law." This legal uncertainty was what allowed the Inland Revenue (IR) to attack many large groups of self-employed workers -- including freelance sub-editors and other journalists employed on a shift basis -- by unilaterally re-categorising them as employed and, therefore, taxable at source.

The IR, he said, "don't like the self-employed -- they'd rather we didn't exist." As the Tory era doubled the number of self-employed from two million in 1979 to four million now, the institutional vibe hardly mellowed. The IR was given no extra staff to cope with the huge shift away from mechanically-collected Pay-As-You-Earn.

He criticised IR head Sir Anthony Battishill -- "he's about to retire, thank God" -- for lacking the courage to demand more government resources. Instead, Battishill had pushed taxation at source and the new system of self-assessment which had just come into effect. (At various stages of the NUJ's still-continuing eight-year campaign against tax at source, Battishill personally rejected the validity of our claims -- despite the consistent run of court cases contradicting his position.)

However, speaking pre-election, Alambritis was not confident of a solution from either Party. The Tories, he suggested, had only the same old "mish-mash" on offer with nothing of specific help to the self-employed. Labour had pledged to introduce a statutory right to charge interest on late payments. But, beyond that, they evinced the usual mind-set of the Old Left(-ish) in regard to self-employment and small business -- complete indifference.

Meanwhile, Europe is unlikely to bring miraculous clarification. Regulation is under discussion which may lead to defining a freelance-style worker as a "single-member company". This may, at least, establish a standard legal and tax basis.

In the shorter term, Alambritis said that the Federation of Small Businesses -- with 96,000 members, all but 10,000 of whom are sole operators -- would pursue with the new government its campaign for cut-the-crap legislation. This would establish that any worker is self-employed if they say they are, and if the IR doesn't successfully challenge them within three years of setting up.

An NUJ member himself, Alambritis agreed that the Federation and the NUJ should keep in touch ad co-operate on mutual campaigning interests.

BY Phil Sutcliffe

Jul/Aug 1997

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