Opinion Piece: Peter Smallwood – July 2017
It is exciting that we might finally be able to have a sensible debate about self-employment in the UK and its crucial relationship with the Construction Industry. Between a snap General Election and the Matthew Taylor Review on modern employment practices, we seem to have reached a crossroads: between more of the same, where everything related to self-employment is “thrown into one box” and a future where we talk about the issues facing the self-employed, one by one.
After months of research, the Matthew Taylor review has now been published. The review was based on one overriding ambition: work in the UK should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment. The review makes an extensive list of recommendations. From the outset it is important to note that this is only the first step of the process and it remains to be seen whether any, and if so how many, of the recommendations will be implemented by government, given the current political context.
The take-home headlines from the review are of some interest to those engaging the self-employed.
The “new offer to the self-employed” delivers a plethora of recommendations. One of these, which has made many headlines, concerns the self-employed planning for the future (pensions etc). The recommendations include ways of getting the self-employed to organise and share ideas, seek advice and plan for saving for pensions/ill health; and further digital solutions to help the self-employed conduct business.
The review also talks about an increased importance for “control” when determining status for employment law purposes, to bring employment status in line with tax status. The review recommends a new category: “dependent contractor”, to effectively replace the existing ‘worker’ status. This is intended to try and unpick some of the confusion between workers and the self-employed. Encouragingly, the review is clear about the need for sector-specific approaches to modern work practices, rather than encourage a superficially simpler one-size-fits-all approach. This is welcome as it will allow issues to be tackled on merit, to truly support the provision for quality work. The government’s response in the coming months will surely be monitored closely.
Seeing beyond the haze
If self-employment is to flourish and bad practices flushed out, then attitudes need to change regarding what constitutes self-employment, how it differs from the gig economy and how all self-employment is not equal.
It can be frustrating when commentators and politicians speak of self-employment in singular terms as though the self-employed plumber with 20 years’ experience is the same as the exploited ‘self-employed’ cleaner with none. Indeed, to group them together does a disservice to both. Therefore, the government needs to be clear on what embodies good self-employment: how it is measured, how best practice can be incentivised and how legal compliance can be enforced.
The Guild and others in construction have been tackling many of these questions for years. We need to emphasise that there is no single, simple solution.
Beyond the haze, the construction industry has flourished in part because of the self-employed. The work they do – building railways, homes and schools – is vital to the wellbeing of the country. They are highly skilled and experienced and the work they do is well paid.
There is an old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and that applies to so much of self-employment in construction.