Tag Archive | "HMG"

We can glean some interesting insights from this débacle


There’s been a wonderful example this week of exactly the kind of problem we contractors are faced with when trying to get our point across. A government agency, SLC– which is basically a private firm owned by HMG – was having some operational issues, so they brought in an expert, a Mr Lester, to sort them out. He was proving to be quite good at it, so they offered him a two year deal. Which he accepted. So far, so good.

The original work was done as a bog-standard interim management role: the guy was not employed, he did the job and charged a fee. When the two year deal turned up, he said fine, can you continue to pay me gross to my existing Limited Company and I’ll sort out the rest.

And then it all starts to go a bit wrong.

Someone – doubtless someone with just enough knowledge to be dangerous – asks exactly why Mr Lester has been allowed to avoid paying his taxes. Shock horror! Let’s do a TV programme on it!! This is outrageous!!! Lets’ have a witch hunt and track everyone else doing the same thing!!!!

Yes well, hang on a minute. Firstly we have zero evidence what taxes Mr Lester is paying, since he’s not obliged to disclose that information. There’s no evidence he isn’t paying quite a lot in tax; certainly, like many well paid contractors, a lot more than the average worker. He may even (say it quietly) have declared his earnings under IR35. Who knows?

His is a perfectly straightforward and entirely legal way to operate his company, to share his income with his other half and generally behave like the other 1.5 million freelance workers in the country. Like that chap who earns a million or so a year from public speaking. You know the one, David Milliband, sometime brother and elected, serving MP. Or indeed, the unloved Mr Brown who does the same with his outside earnings, although in his case they all go to charity.

It’s also interesting to note that various senior people had to sign off the arrangement whereby Mr Lester was paid gross. One might think that they had a handle on such things, but I could be wrong. And it’s all a bit moot now anyway, since Mr Lester has done the honourable – if arguably unnecessary – thing and gone on the payroll like the rest of the wage slaves.

But we can glean some interesting insights from this débacle.

Firstly, there are clearly a lot of senior people, including some who are actually in charge of such things, who don’t have a Scooby about how contractors work and how they are paid. Basically they do not trust a usually intelligent and highly skilled worker to arrange his affairs so that all taxes due are paid in full and on time.

Secondly we have once again seen the conflation of avoidance and evasion. Yes you can be against avoidance, but it’s not illegal; quite the opposite, in fact, it has long been sanctioned as an acceptable practice. You want evasion? Fine, so make whatever it is illegal and you’ve got it, but being tax efficient is avoidance, not evasion, and perfectly fine.

And finally, someone can’t actually count. Mr Lester will finish his contract and leave. No pension, no golden handshakes, no extended period on full pay while he finds a new job. That’s quite a chunk of public money saved over a full time employee. In fact, if you do the sums based on the figures that have been published, this tax saving exercise of moving Mr Lester on to the payroll will actually cost several tens of thousands more that if they’d simply left things alone.

But hey, nobody ever accused either HMG or the fourth estate of being financially competent, did they.

And what grates is the underlying point that people who should know better simply fail to recognise that there are freelance contractors among us. People who keep the wheels turning, who make few demands on the state, who represent an efficient and cost-effective workforce. People who are a long way removed from those who create companies for no other reason than to avoid paying taxes on earnings that they wouldn’t have got at all were they not already on the public payroll. You know who you are.

So bring on the witch hunt. But please, break the habits of a lifetime and point it at the right target…

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2012 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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It’s time we started pushing our own agenda rather than everybody else’s


Sometimes you really do have to ask yourself if you really understand what’s going on in some people’s minds. And just how much the people in charge of some fairly major institutions really understand the impact of their decisions.

Firstly DVLA, that government outpost at the far end of the M4 whose desirability as a posting is apparently only exceeded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They have just awarded a £100m contract for a new Vehicle Excise Duty system to Capita. That is not an issue in itself, of course, but Capita re one of those who use a lot on non-EU resources to deliver their projects to keep their costs down. All well and good, but this is our money they’re spending, and even my shaky grasp of macro-economics says that it must be better to spend it within the UK if we are to grow the UK economy.

This also flies in the face of a recent survey by SOCITM, looking at the long term costs of outsourced projects, that shows that “when comparing the costs for any service, most elements will be more expensive if outsourced.” Which is something some of us uninformed IT professionals have been saying for years; framing a deal that delivers a genuine saving over a long term is very difficult indeed. Quality invariably suffers, and the savings are rarely delivered.

But hey, it looks good on the balance sheet, and who cares about what happens in ten years, it’s this year’s budget we have to worry about.

The other undesirable monolithic institution making worrying noises is the Scottish Parliament. Their beloved leader Me Salmond, (aka “Wee ‘Eck”, although my own epithet would be rather more punchy) recently came up with the slightly deranged idea that he wants to allow unlimited immigration into Scotland to overcome the lack of skilled workers.

Luckily the immediate response from the real Government down in London was fairly unequivocal. They didn’t quite say “Don’t be such a blathering fool” but they got about as close as you can get in politician-speak. Although one possible outcome should Salmond succeed in his plan would be border posts between Scotland and England. Now there’s an idea.

But I digress. The key point is that neither of the above examples takes any notice at all of the long-term health of the country. DVLA presumably tendered for a solution to the problem of marrying tax discs and insurance policies – on the face of it a trivial IT exercise, but I don’t know the detail and it may well be vastly more complicated to do. But that doesn’t mean that whoever came up with the solution is the best supplier to implement it. HMG keeps saying that it wants 25% of procurement to go to UK SMEs, and the DVLA seems not to be interested in that approach.

As for Salmond, we can allow for the fact that he’s a politician and hence only interested in next week, but if his country hasn’t got enough skilled workers, how about training the ones you have rather than shutting them off from any opportunities for all time by importing a new workforce over their heads? I suspect he could find a lot of people willing to work for £24,000 a year hiding in the highlands if he looked.

It really is time we started pushing our own agenda rather than everybody else’s.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited

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Recruiters – the only people who seem not to understand the value of uniqueness


How would you feel about a business where you didn’t really understand what the product is and were selling to someone who also doesn’t understand what it is but whose understanding was different to yours? But nevertheless the overall business has an annual turnover close to £30 billion.

Because that’s the Recruitment industry these days.

I was in a meeting recently where an account manager from one of the local agencies gave a talk on how the agency interacts with the contractor and all the various add on services they provide. Made for several PowerPoint slides of things ranging from de-risking payments to providing help and guidance And very interesting it was too, until another speaker, this time a contractor, stood up and gave their view of the same relationship..

Guess what? They didn’t really match.

To be fair to the agency, they do find the business and they do factor the money and they will, if pressed, negotiate rates and the like with the end client, all of which is pretty valuable if you want a quiet life. Where it goes wrong is how they represent us to the client.

Every agency tries to tell the client that they have this pool of highly expert staff ready to fulfil any role the client wants filling. And what is more their sophisticated search facilities and in-house databases match candidates to roles with unfailing accuracy. So explain why, if that’s what they do, why is my Inbox getting three or four emails a day from agencies offering me a whole series of roles, almost without exception ones that bear little or no relationship to my actual skills or location. Could it be that what they do and what they tell people they do aren’t exactly fully aligned?

And, of course, this same doublethink has permeated the client HR departments. Because they get contractors from the “recruitment” agencies and those contractors are presented as individuals, rather than as service providers, they see us as a slightly weird form of employee. OK, we may have different email addresses to the permie staff and we might miss out on things like car parking rights and canteen access, but ultimately we are still seen as just another worker.

So why is this important? As long as we get paid, does it really matter?

Well yes it does, actually. In fact it’s getting increasingly important. The career contactor has to demonstrate more and more to HMG that we are free-standing businesses; small ones, admittedly, and ones who probably won’t ever grow too much, but still businesses with all that implies. Sadly, that argument gets cut off at the knees by the way the market treats us as a lightly modified employee with an inflated salary.

Of course, deflecting this juggernaut from its path is not going to be easy; in fact, it may not even be possible. After all, £30 billion a year is something with a lot of momentum. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The freelancing model we have in the UK is certainly unique in Europe, and pretty much unique in the rest of the world, with only Australia and the USA coming close to the level of operational freedom we enjoy.

So it’s a real shame that the very people we have to deal with to get our skills to work are the only people who seem not to understand the value of that uniqueness. I think it’s time they found out.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited

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The SERIOUS barriers to success when bidding for government contracts


Finally, HMG is starting to come good in its promise to put 25% of government procurement in front of SMEs and other small suppliers. A new search website has been launched, where you can find and bid for a whole range of smaller contracts ranging from managing a construction project to window cleaning council buildings. Let’s just hope they remove some of the barriers that used to be there.

To be fair this kind of work has been on offer for some time. The Supply2Gov initiative has been dropping tender opportunities into my Inbox for the last two years. Sadly none have really been in my particular field of expertise, but at least they are there to be won if they were.

Apart, that is, for one small detail. The Pre-Qualification Questionnaire or PQQ

To be allowed to bid for any such work you have first to be approved as a potential supplier and the PQQ is the mechanism by which this is done. It is not a trivial document; it’s several pages long and, as you might expect, asks a lot of questions and seeks a lot of detail. It is trying to establish that you have the skills, expertise, resources and financial stability to do the job, which is fair enough. The problem is the parameters it sets to achieve it.

You have to prove that you have delivered the same piece of work, successfully, at least three times in the recent past. This is OK if you supply repeatable services such as the aforementioned window cleaning, or supplying desktop PCs or install Pelican crossings. It gets a bit harder – actually, a lot harder – if you are talking about softer skills such as project management, service improvements or even website design. This, no doubt, is a reflection of the lack of awareness at the buyers end of how some of these things work. For example, a school website may look very similar to one built for a retail outlet, but the underlying business model is very different. On the other hand, installing a Pelican Crossing or building a datacentre are, to a project manager, very similar operations indeed.

You have to demonstrate that you have at least three times the available finance than the project is worth. For the average project delivery role, the kind of thing I would be involved with, that means you need around £150,000 free capital in the bank. For a one man company to be sitting on that kind of reserves is just a little optimistic.

Finally to bid for the bigger pieces of work, you need to get together a team to deliver the work. Being contractors, that means either you bid for the work and sub-contract the work, or you form a consortium and bid as a single entity. Except that a single contractor is highly unlikely to have the financial backing demanded for what is now a substantial piece of work, and the individual members of a consortium aren’t allowed to aggregate skills and experience and finances, they are treated individually.

So all in all, it was a good idea but the delivery mechanism had some serious, and for some insurmountable, barriers to success. Let’s hope the new process is a little more user-friendly.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

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Intra Company Transfers – a BIG step in the right direction


It seems there has been a major step forward in the battle to bring a little sanity to the importing of non-EU workers under the Intra Company Transfer visa rules. This has long been a bone of contention, most notably in the IT contractor market, but also in some other areas such as engineering. Today’s change in the rules marks a step change that should benefit UK PLC

Firstly let’s be very clear that there is nothing wrong with the concept of ICTs. Given the multinational nature of many big companies these days, it would be foolish to put artificial barriers in the way of being able to move key staff around to where they are needed. And listening to the screams of protest from some corners – most notably, that of St Vince of Cable who, you might think, ought to know better – limiting ICTs will only spell doom and disaster for the UK economy.

Or will it?

Well, no, to be honest. If you look at the numbers carefully, it is clear that there is a baseline of ICTs that has remained pretty much constant for some time. This, we can assume, represents the number of key people that are moving in and out for good reason. However, the overall number of ICTs has been growing, and growing at an increasing rate, for some time. This coincides very closely with the increasing use of off-shoring work to save money. That is something that started in the mid 80s but which has been steadily accelerating ever since and is now something of an epidemic. But, and it’s a big but, in recent years the growth exceeds the amount of work to be done; especially in a time of recession and business slowdown. Which puts good people out of work.

OK, so businesses need to optimise their bottom line, and going to the cheapest supplier is a way to do it. Provided, of course, the quality is comparable which, to be blunt, it quite often isn’t.

But where it’s really gone wrong is in the use of ICTs. These are meant to be used to bring in specialists for short term purposes. With the greatest will in the world, a specialist is not someone you would expect to be taken into a training regime to learn how to do the job they are supposed to be a specialist in. And that is what has been happening. ICT visas have been used to bring in technical staff that, while technically qualified, can’t do the job. They are here to learn how to do it and then take their new skills back home. The only reason that can work, economically, is if the cost of transport, accommodation and salary is low enough to produce a viable profit. Which it is, but only if the wages in question are really low; on a par, for the sake of an example, with what a well qualified coder will get in, say, Mumbai.

So what has changed then?

Basically, HMG has responded to a long and hard fought campaign by the likes of the PCG that tried to demonstrate that ICTs were being abused in order to keep the economies of importing staff viable. As a result they’ve made a very simple change: if your ICT is for a year or less, you must be paid £24,000, if it’s any longer, you must be paid £40,000. Which are still a bit less than the going market rate for the skills in question, but a lot more than what has been the norm. And, of course, totally irrelevant if you are bringing in an established, skilled employee who will no doubt already be on a market rate salary.

It’s early days to see what impact this will have: there are several ways the new rules can be neutralised. Indeed, one of the issues in proving abuse of ICTs exists has been the total lack of any documentary proof about how much people were being paid in salary and expenses and there’s no reason to believe the suppliers will willingly give up a very lucrative market. But it is a big step in the right direction.

PCG – and one or two very dedicated individuals – are to be congratulated for achieving a major success. Not least by the several thousand UK-based contractors whose jobs are now an awful lot safer.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

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Psst! Want to buy a consultant?


Following on from last week’s musings on middle management and their approach to hiring people, I’ve been following a conversation in another place about how to go about outsourcing and/or building shared service centres. This was being led by a group of senior managers, mostly freelance ones as it happens, and mostly working in the public sector. And what really worried me was the lack of awareness of the issues they are facing.

Firstly there seemed to be a blind assumption that outsourcing saves money. Unless it’s done very carefully indeed, it doesn’t. What you make up in bottom line savings you lose out in increased supervisory time and generally reduced levels of service. There will still be a saving, but it won’t be anywhere near what you think if you cost in all the factors.

For example, I remember a public body close to a previous client of mine who outsourced a whole department. They claimed they would make a significant cut in routine expenditure by doing so. Except they not only outsourced the service, they handed over all the staff they used to employ as well. Under TUPE rules, which prevent any loss of terms and conditions, and an existing agreement about future pay rises, I couldn’t quite see where the savings came from. Plus they had to employ a few extra senior guys of their own to oversee the outsourced service.

Bonkers, isn’t it.

Anyway, getting back to the point, this discussion evolved to the point where the members though they should lobby HMG to be allowed to provide an expert outsourcing consultancy. That, on the face of it, is an excellent idea. It is, after all, pretty much what I was saying last week, that you need real expertise to get these things to work as advertised.

But hang on a minute: if these guys have held senior positions in the public sector as they claim, they can’t have failed to notice the presence of the OGC procurement guidelines (for which read “hard and fast rules”) about how high value contracts should be let. These are so esoteric, they’re almost worth a whole book to themselves. For example, there has to be an open tendering process. Fair enough but the way that works is that you are not allowed to discuss the requirement with potential suppliers because that gives them an unfair advantage when bidding for the work…

Say what? You are required to formulate an ITT for a potentially multi-million pound piece of work without doing any market research to find out what questions you need to ask? Surely not, but that’s what the rules say. Of course there are ways around this – employ an external consultant to ask for you perhaps – but it does add a whole new layer of complexity to an already difficult task. And complexity, as we all know, equates to costs. So even smaller savings than were hoped for.

So for them to get this work they have to go into open competition with a few other minor players, small companies like Accenture and IBM.

Or, of course, they go for the consultancy role and take over the management of the outsourcing procurement and execution programme. But tarry, you, the law hath one more hold over you.

To get an HMG contract you have to go complete a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire or PQQ for short. This is meant to show you are able to take on the work. The only problem is that the PQQ has certain parameters and rules of its own. You have to demonstrate previous deliveries of the same piece of work or something damned close to it (although, interestingly, it doesn’t stipulate that these should be successful deliveries…). You have to have cash reserves equal to three times the total value of the contract. You can’t join up with a like-minded group in a formal or informal collaboration and aggregate your assets to meet this one either. There are many more similar constraints.

All in all, you can see why the otherwise excellent idea of these guys is going to bump into some pretty insurmountable obstacles. And what really worries me is that they haven’t realised it yet…

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

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That was the year that was


And, I have to say, quite a successful one, perhaps unexpectedly given where we started from. Speaking strictly as a freelance contractor of course, I thought it appropriate to round off 2010 with my slightly biased view of how the year has gone. So here goes with a very personal summary of the key events.

The main one, of course, has to be the replacement of Gordon the Glum with a real person. You may not like CallMeDave but you have to agree he’s an improvement on his predecessor: OK, not if you’re Ed Balls or Piers Morgan of course, but who listens to them anyway…?

We’ve gone from a Government that was totally and utterly convinced they knew best how to spend your money to one who was perfectly happy to let you spend it how you wanted. Of course, there wasn’t all that much to spend and they were going to have to hang on to even more of it than before. But let’s not be picky; at least we know why they’re being so mean.

So let’s look at the good things…

ICTs and the abuse thereof. Something I may have mentioned once or twice before? Leaving aside the wider question of uncontrolled immigration, there is a clear intent by HMG to cut down the number of workers coming in to the country to undercut the local workforce. Of course we are never going to stop companies using the cheapest labour they can find, that’s all part of capitalism and globalisation, but at least someone is trying to make it a bit harder to get us to train them how to do take our jobs away and kill off the industry at its source. Which, ultimately, has to be a good thing?

We still labour (geddit, geddit…?) under the Damoclean threat of IR35 of course. I never shared the conviction of some that a Tory government – oops, sorry, a Coalition led by the Tories – would instantly delete IR35 from the statute book. That was never going to happen; there is a political justification for IR35 that, while utterly barking, is not going to be reversed in any meaningful way.

Obviously the establishment of the OTS, and its very clear directive to look at IR35 as a priority was highly welcome. Even more welcome was the PCG gaining an influential seat on the Consultative Committee of the OTS looking at small business taxation. An organisation with 20,000 members and a 10 year lifespan gaining such access and respect at that level is something that simply cannot be underestimated. The OTS is working to some impossible deadlines, but fingers crossed, progress is being made.

The job market certainly seems to be picking up. I’m seeing hugely more jobs in my scope that I saw this time last year. Of course, 95% of them I won’t bother going for because the hirers are demanding impossibly tight lists of skills, industry knowledge and qualifications. The agencies are still incapable of challenging them and offering alternatives. For example I’ve been tracking a discussion on LinkedIn about how to use shared services and/or outsourcing to save money in Local Government. Good idea and one that may well work. Sadly, the consensus is that it won’t happen because the hirers put Local Government knowledge well ahead of any business experience that means you might actually understand how to do it properly. You see the same thing in Finance, which is a real shame since that’s where the work is. And don’t get me started on Security Clearance.

Oh, and I nearly forgot. St Vince of Cable has shown himself to be every bit as incisive, astute and intellectually superior as I always thought he was…

Personally it’s not been a bad year. I’ve worked most of it and actually banked a profit, which is nice. There is certainly reason to be optimistic about next year. The PCG continue to make great strides forward which is a source of pride, even from my marginal input to that progress. And I’ve had some nice comments about this blog, which proves that at least people are reading it, even if they don’t agree with me.

So roll on 2011. I think it could be an interesting year. I’ll see you there…

Alan Watts can found at LinkedIn.
© 2010 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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We’re all in it together


Amid all the usual and totally predictable debate over the Spending Review, it is perhaps interesting to consider things from the perspective of the freelance contractor. In the long term, any benefits that arise from the review, if it meets its aims, are much the same for everyone. In the short term, the contractor is in a different position to everyone else.

For a start, will he still be in work? That probably doesn’t depend on where he works as much as you might think. While anyone in the Public Sector is rightly feeling nervous, some of the big banks are also shedding jobs at a fair rate, so nothing is guaranteed. The freeze on big contracts by HMG will obviously limit the opportunities within HMG, but also with the prime suppliers and the smaller companies that feed them.

However, it must not be forgotten that work still needs to be done, and if you have to lose a permanent post, you may still be able to fund a short term temporary resource for the duration. So contractors will still be in demand to a greater extent than people looking for permanence.

Equally, perhaps we will see an increase in the number of smaller contracts that avoid the cap altogether. That would almost certainly push up the demand for good contractors. It would also be a good target for the government’s stated aim of giving 25% of work to SMEs, something which so far really has failed to materialize.

Of course, contractors would be a lot more attractive if the clients would only understand that they are not actually more expensive than a permie doing the same job. I’ve had the same argument at my last three clients, where I’ve demonstrated that a contractor getting 350 quid day is actually a lot better value than a permie – or a fixed term contractor – on 35 grand. And since you can send him away at no cost the minute the job is done, he’s probably quite a lot cheaper overall. That also assumes that his work doesn’t actually result in a saving that’s considerably bigger than his fees for doing the work: the old cost vs. value argument is more valid than ever before.

If we could also take out the daisy chain of intermediaries between contractor and end client, there is a lot more to be saved. In my case, the total markup between my day rate and what the ultimate end client is paying for me is around 500%. Agreed a big business will want some confidence that their supplier is capable of delivering what’s needed and covering the risks that arise, but does that assurance really have to carry that level of margin? Is it time that clients started to be made more aware of who actually does a lot of the work on the ground these days, and how much they could save by trimming the middlemen?

At the personal level the tax and allowance changes being made probably won’t affect the average contractor all that much. We have much greater flexibility over how much salary we take, if only to ensure we have funds available to keep on taking an income when the work is drying up. As a result, assuming you’re working at a reasonable level, the tax and benefits changes won’t really do much damage.

So lots of changes, lots of belt tightening for everyone. We may all be in it together, it’s just that some of us aren’t in it quite so deeply.

Alan Watts can found at LinkedIn.
© 2010 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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