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
Small Businesses, guest speaker at London Freelance Branch's April
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
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