Tag Archive | "ir35 rules"

Are HMRC’s offshore tax evasion targets within range?


Both contractors, and also now culpable accountants, face a ‘tsunami’ of new legislation in the wake of the government’s head-down-into-the-wind pursuit of tax evasion.

Yes, the focus of HMRC‘s reawakened vigour will be on offshore trusts. But other hints that the Chancellor dropped regarding the Revenue’s new powers are worth putting on record, here.

Tax Evasion: the background

In 2013’s Autumn Statement, Chancellor Osborne pledged that the fight against tax evasion would raise £9bn for the Exchequer over five years.

In the most recent Autumn Statement, that changed. The Chancellor pencilled in ‘over £5bn’ as the figure the tax man hoped to realise with tougher tax regulation. That target now has a more definitive £7.2bn attributed it.

In the recent summer (emergency) budget, he pledged £750M to HMRC to help make this happen. The thought process here is that these extra funds will ‘name and shame’ three times the amount of businesses/individuals using offshore trusts, thus help realise that goal.

So, yes, the government means business in tackling evasion. We get that. But what we’re not convinced about is how it will ring the changes or even if it realises the scope and scale of the problem.

The disparity of the figures that the Chancellor has banded about over a short two-year period is a real concern. That and the inability of The Revenue to cope with even the smallest of IR35 cases in an efficient and honest manner makes us doubt if the government knows:

  • either how much extra tax, if any, their redoubled (or -trebled) efforts will generate;
  • or what the cost of reaching those targets (assuming that at least one of them is right) will be to the Exchequer, thus the taxpayer.

What do know we know for certain?

Despite the ambiguity surrounding results versus costs, there are several pointers we can take into account for sure. These can help keep our clients outside IR35 or SDC, should that eventually succeed the 15-year old Intermediaries’ Legislation, as many now begin to believe.

First, without absolute (and some may irrefutable) ‘reasonable excuse’, contractors can no longer claim ignorance of tax laws or accidental evasion. Furthermore, any third party found ‘aiding and abetting’ tax evasion will also be for the high jump.

Forget global disclosures, which we’ll touch upon in a second. Contractors, freelancers and independent professionals from all walks of life need to be 100% honest with their accountants. The lines are getting so blurred, I heard even the OTS have created an account with Specsavers. 😉

Is offshore definitely off limits, now?

We also know that the disclosure of information from tax havens is getting ever closer. Those who manage contractor payment structures via offshore trusts are seeing loopholes close wherever they look:

  • from 2016, HMRC will have access to tax information on Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man;
  • a year later, the global collaboration for tax data will begin, almost 100 countries making up that collaborative body;
  • and the get out of jail free card, the Liechtenstein Disclosure Facility, is valid only until the end of the year.

If you’re working through an umbrella company, be certain of the way they pay you. Ignorance is no longer a defence, nor has never been a good one.

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Online accountants – who else needs an online accountant?


There’s no doubt about it, the wholesale contractor accountancy marketplace is big business and everyone wants a piece of the action.

In recent months, a new wave of online accountants have been hitting the forums and contractor portals hard in the hope of gaining a foothold in what is already a fragmented market. Their message is clear – why pay £130 a month for the ‘old school’ contractor accountants when you can get the same, if not better service for a third of the price?

It’s a pretty compelling argument and their proposition is almost too good to be true.

Lets dig a little deeper.

Was is an online accountant?

An online accountant offers contractors an ‘end-to-end’ accounting service. This usually combines a bespoke web-based accountancy package that is backed up by a team of accountants and personal account managers. The idea here is that the contractor or freelancer is able to create invoices, manage their expenses and calculate a real-time view of their business. This then enables them to work out how much they can pay themselves (in PAYE salary, expenses and dividends) without having to produce in-year accounts or time-consuming reconciliations.

Obviously there is an element of work required by the end-user but certainly no more than you are asked to do when working through a traditional contractor accountant, and in some cases much less. The technology is also impressive. Real-time feeds into HMRC, Companies House and the government Gateway make online accountants the perfect choice for any time-precious contractor.

Of course, the more challenging aspects of accounting are managed by the online accountants who will submit VAT, corporation tax and personal self assessment returns on behalf of their clients. They will also handle the Companies House annual return and accounts as well as advising on complex issues such as IR35, family business tax, ESC 16 and the agency workers directive.

How much does an online accountant cost?

Most online accountants pitch their monthly fees around the £50-£60 mark. This includes all of the above services as well as unlimited telephone support and free company setup.

Why are online accountants so cheap?

One word – volume. Most high street accountants are happy with 100-200 clients and are therefore keen to maximise their return on investment for what is a relatively small client base. By making their business scalable, online accountants on the other hand are able to service more and more contractors without taking an enormous hit to their margins. This is why their fees are way cheaper than some of the more well-known contractor accountants.

Where can I find out more?

We have a selection of online accountants in our top 10 directory although companies such as Crunch and Boox are definitely worth a closer look. A quick search in Google will throw up at least another 20 providers at the time of writing so take the time to do your research. My guess is that this is just the start of a new and exciting time for the contractor accountancy marketplace……I shall watch with interest.

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It’s been a difficult year for many but not a disastrous one, overall.


So this is Christmas, and what have we done? Well, speaking personally, quite a lot in one way and another. But it has been a funny old year in some ways.

Last December I was being optimistic about the Coalition making significant changes in various things. I was cautious about IR35, thinking they wouldn’t be a position to repeal it out of hand, but I didn’t expect young Osborne to come out in the Budget with the statement that he needs to keep IR35 to prevent abuses of the system. Which is kind of where we came in.

He did set up the Office of Tax Simplification though, and from there has sprung the IR35 Forum. The former has turned into something of a toothless wonder, getting ever more bogged down in detail. The more cynical among us might be tempted to suggest that this is because a lot of the parties around that table have something of a commercial interest in keeping IR35 exactly where it is, but that would be an unworthy thought. Wouldn’t it….

The IR35 Forum is still to produce anything but it looks like it can at least claim it has a direction and an intent that its parent body is sadly lacking. However we won’t really know much more until the next Budget.

In reality the best we can hope for is that IR35 remains as is, but Hector is rather more competent at judging who to stick under its microscope.

The Agency Workers Regulations arrived and caught all the agencies by surprise – hey, they only had a year’s warning, so what do you expect – leading to a flurry of letters demanding that you declare yourself outside its scope. Tricky, when anyone is potentially inside its scope and we have no case law to work with. Plus can change as they say.

The Cabinet Office was presented with a major paper on Security Clearance following a detailed, wide-ranging research project led by PCG, who highlighted what’s wrong with the system and, perhaps more importantly, what damage is being done. And even some options for how to fix it. This has been very well received and personally I am delighted, having been pressing for this kind of thing to happen for around eight years now.

Several IR35 appeals were completed, all but one of which were found to be outside, so reinforcing the status quo if not setting any new precedents. The other was the one I wrote about just last week, where the guy was found to be outside and then outside, all in the same contract. I think we’ll park that one in the folder marked “Say What?” and just forget about it.

The Market: now that’s interesting. The financial sector suffered an almost universal 10% rate cut during the year, with a few going even further. The rest of the world, however, seems to be plodding along at the same level. Lots of contractor layoffs and enforced holidays as well – again, only in finance. There are nowhere near as many jobs as they were, and rather more people chasing them, but you have to say that, taken as a whole, things aren’t as bad as some were predicting. The job losses seem to have been in the permanent market, so you have to conclude that UK PLC is sticking with easily-disposable temporary resources until they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. A light which is most likely to be a train coming the other way, if the pundits are to be believed.

And best news of all – our favourite MP and failed tax evader, the fragrant Ms Primarolo, is standing down at the next election.

So it’s been a difficult year for many but not a disastrous one, overall. Speaking for myself I’ve been gainfully employed most of the year, and am hopeful of that continuing a while longer. I’m looking forward to a week off eating and drinking far too much – and not having to face a sheet of blank A4 on Thursday night – before having to face the 7:15 from Bristol in the bleak midwinter again.

Have a good one.

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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At a VERY long stretch, this IR35 judgement may be supportable


You will probably have heard me sounding off at fairly regular intervals about how inconsistent and impossible to judge the average IR35 case is. I’ve looked at many appeal judgements over the years and each one has been supportable, given the vague nature of that which is being judged. You can usually kind of see where the judge was coming from.

Now, however, we have a case that fails even a generous stab at understanding the logic.

How else do you describe a judgement that puts the contractor outside IR35 and then inside IR35, within the same contract…?

The case was JLJ Services Ltd vs. HMRC, heard by Howard Nowlan. On the face of it this was one of those cases where a contractor, a Mr Spencer, working through his own limited company and an agency for an end client had been challenged under IR35 and found wanting. He appealed the case and it went to the First Tier tribunal.

So far, so good. Well, not good for Mr Spencer, but you know what I mean.

Then life starts to get a little strange. JLJ had started off as a Unix-based technical expert for the client, Allianz in Bristol, working on a succession of projects. After a few years of presumably valuable and acceptable work, Allianz’s requirements changed and Mr Spencer moved to a more part-time role, on a series of rolling contracts, picking up whatever needed doing.

Now this is the key point, as far as the judge was concerned; the first part, being deliverables based, did not exhibit a degree of control, the second, however, did. Accordingly Mr Nowlan rules that the first part was outside and the second part inside. This despite everything working to the same overarching contract – only the schedule of deliverables had changed – and I’m guessing it never crossed Mr Spencer’s mind that the game had changed underneath him. He simply kept on doing what he was clearly very good at for a client with whom he had a good and mutually beneficial relationship.

That said, by screwing up your eyes and squinting, you could just about see where Nowlan was coming from; the increased level of Control moved the IR35 goalposts in the wrong direction.

Ah but, I hear you cry, having been paying attention over the years, Control is not the only test. What about Substitution, Mutuality and that most recent phenomenon, “being in business”? Which is where I rather part company with the judiciary.

Substitution? The contract had a right of substitution and, as near as I can tell from the judgement, Allianz could reject a substitute with reasonable grounds but were not actually averse to considering taking one on if Mr Spencer was unable to work. Nowlan, however, after a bit of verbal gymnastics – including allowing an Allianz representative rather too much latitude in the accuracy of his evidence giving – said that he “ took it to exhibit a realistic businessman’s contempt for a clause that he probably found irrelevant”, a position he agreed with.

So, Mr Nowlan, how many employees do you know who are allowed to submit a substitute worker?

Mutuality? A mere bagatelle. Mr Nowlan’s words: “There is considerable case law in relation to this test, progressively indicating that the test is of diminished importance or that it is indeed nearly meaningless”. Really? Can’t say I’d noticed any diminution in its importance. Cases have recently hinged on someone being sent home without pay when the systems failed and they could no longer work, while the permies sat and waited for normal service to be resumed. On full pay. Heigh ho.

So there went the RMC judgement on what constitutes employment then.

In business? It’s clear from various comments that Nowlan considered JLJ Services to be irrelevant and queried why it had been set up. So a judge trying a contactor case involving an agency who hasn’t heard of S44-47 ITEPA 2003 then. But hey, it was Nowlan’s first IR35 case.

So in conclusion, at a very long stretch, the judgement may be supportable. But we should not lightly dismiss the ability of a judge to take a fairly cavalier attitude to the key IR35 tests on some fairly flimsy grounds.

In fact the only good thing to come out of the whole case is that we should be grateful that First Tier cases do not set precedents. Luckily for us…

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.

Image: 1996 UK Royal Mail Cartoon Stamp Card by andertoons

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IR35 – a fudge of the highest order


It is interesting to note that before an MP takes his or her seat in the House they are required, by a law dating back to 1562, to swear or affirm an oath of allegiance to the Crown. Perhaps surprisingly they do not make any promises to behave but rely on a long tradition of honest and open behaviour instead. Which is perhaps a good thing; MPS are, after all, honourable people…

Our friends in the PCG have been asking questions of HMG again, digging even further into the financial history of IR35. And they now have a breakdown of the cases and income arising for the whole life of the law to date. And it makes for fascinating reading (OK, fascinating if you’re a detail freak like me, I admit).

Nevertheless, the total number of cases to date is 4208. The total income from IR35 is precisely £12,126,572.00. And that means that the average tax gained per case is £2,881.79p. Be still my beating heart, Gordon must be so proud.

This, you may recall, from a tax measure that was intended to bring in around £900m. A year. Every year. So not exactly a resounding success then. And we don’t yet know the cost of collecting that twelve million, but with the average case costing the defending side about ten thousand, we could make a worst case stab at around five thousand for HMRC’s side. This means, even if vaguely accurate, they spent twenty one million to gain that twelve million. Hmm… Not looking good, is it?

The distribution of the cases over the years is also interesting. Sixteen cases the first year, a couple of hundred the next. It peaks in 2004 and then drops away remarkably quickly so that in the last two years there have been just thirty five. That distribution coincides rather neatly with the time that PCG got its act together and started to get the message out that IR35 is largely a voluntary tax, if you know what you’re doing.

Ah yes, “voluntary”. What we don’t know is how many people are paying up under IR35 or working through umbrellas to avoid it, which amounts to the same thing. There must be quite a few, there are lots of people using umbrellas. So we have an unknown amount of taxes being paid for no reason at all other than fear, or at least uncertainty, over how a law of the land actually works.

So what was my first paragraph all about, I hear you ask.

We’ve been asking for the numbers for a long time. Since around 2003, in fact, when we first started to think things weren’t going well for HMRC. And answer came there none. Well, not strictly true, that well known failed tax evader, Ms Primarolo, replied to a written question in 2004 (when there were exactly 771 cases and precisely £1,973,851 in IR35 taxes paid) that it was not possible with any accuracy to isolate data relating solely to this legislation. Furthermore, a year or so later, Kitty Ussher said in response to the same question, “Disclosure of HM Revenue and Customs’ compliance data relating to the legislation would result in a risk of non- compliance with the legislation. Accordingly I am not able to provide the data requested”. Don’t know about you but I see that as a fudge of the highest order.

But, as we have seen, the numbers have been there all along. Perhaps the honourable ladies were so embarrassed by the total disaster they were defending that they chose to evade the question. Dim Prawn is still in Government, and is reduced to only being able to threaten MPs as a Deputy Whip. Ms Ussher was forced to resign over being caught evading – sorry, didn’t mean that, I meant avoiding – paying quite a lot of taxes on the sale of her house.

As I said, honourable members both.

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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Modern Britain in a nutshell


I’ve been having a funny old week at work. For once I’ve got up to date on my deliverables and am waiting on assorted worthies to review and respond to the results. Meanwhile the technical team next door are working all hours God sent to keep up, while my in tray is almost empty. Well, it makes for a quiet, if rather boring life.

So I find myself taking a look around the world of contracting to fill in the time. And it seems there are some odd things going on out there in Reality.

My old mucker St Vince of Cable is at it again. So busy earning money he failed to notice he was over the VAT threshold. Luckily his accountants did notice – months late, but hey – and he sorted it out, paid the tax and the (very) small fine, job done. Silly mistake by someone with his vast experience of real business (two whole years as an Economics Advisor, wasn’t it?) and no real harm done. But on that subject, could I ignore a hard and fast taxation rule, forget to declare some taxable income for a few months, then discover my mistake and pay it back with a tiny penalty and a smack on the wrist? Don’t think so, somehow.

HMRC are apparently cheering about improving their take from IR35. Say what? It seems they are getting more money back from the pitifully few cases they manage to pursue to completion. What is more, this has been seized on by some who should know better as an example of the deterrent effect of IR35. Their argument is that people are paying taxes via umbrella companies rather than risk an IR35 investigation. So that’s OK then. After all, what could possibly be wrong about scaring people into paying taxes they don’t actually owe by threatening them with a piece of legislation so badly drafted it needs a three year investigation and court case to determine if it actually applies to this single set of circumstances?

AWR is continuing to cause hilarity among those who understand it. Not only are some agencies sending out letters asking contractors to declare themselves outside its scope – something you can’t actually do in any meaningful sense, of course – but they are persuading assorted Human Remains teams that using agencies protects them from the AWR. Say what (again)? Take someone on directly with no intermediate agency and the AWR is dead and buried. Using an agency increases the risk, not reduces it. Doublethink at its best, and a good illustration of why contractors don’t want anything to do with HR if they can possibly avoid them. Or agencies, come to that.

And finally, credit rating agencies. Not the big ones who are randomly downgrading assorted banks and even whole countries, although they’re bad enough, but the ones being used to credit check job applicants in line with FSA regulations and failing them, often on some pretty flimsy histories. Which means no job offer. Fair enough?

Well no, really. For one thing the FSA rule being quoted applies to people in a limited number of roles within financial services; directors and those who advise customers on fiscal matters, for example. It’s not actually meant to apply to the third DBA from the left in the support team. But hey, it’s an income stream for someone, so who cares that it’s both utterly irrelevant and genuinely damaging; I know someone who regularly has to turn down good people because of this nonsense.

Modern Britain in a nutshell. Never mind the outcomes, follow the rules no matter how idiotic and irrelevant those rules are. Truly we are a nation of jobsworths; after all, there’s no money in being a shopkeeper any more.

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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Hey, look at what we just did. We killed off IR35!


I thought it worth returning to the Agency Workers Regulations again, if only because I was ever so slightly amused by the reactions of certain agencies to them. With their industry’s usual instant and carefully controlled grasp of the subject, this week contractors started getting emails and letters from some agencies about how to manage the AWR. After the act had taken effect and therefore after the point at which you should react to it for an existing engagement. Genius, isn’t it?

Anyway, as is the way of such things, the letters are asking unanswerable questions.

The first one is “Do you work through a Limited Company or an Umbrella?”. Excuse me, but why do you have to ask? You have the contract in your filing system, along with the payment terms and the pointless fourteen pieces of ID. Don’t you know who you are dealing with? Please don’t tell me you weren’t even faintly interested in the company with whom you signed the contract. Silly old me thought you were dealing with MyCo when clearly you are only interested in dealing with me personally. OK, so that explains a lot, doesn’t it? Dropped the mask ever so slightly there, Mr Agent.

Secondly, “Do you consider yourself to be in business?”. Cue raucous laughter. I have signed a contract with you in my capacity as the Director of a UK Limited Company. A contract in which there are several clauses establishing that there is no employee-like relationship intended, which directs you to pay money into a business bank account and which charges you VAT. Does that not give you a slight hint that I’m trying very hard to be a business and not a temp from Office Angels?

Finally, “Do you consider you are operating inside or outside of IR35?”. Now you really are taking the Michael. We’re using your contract. You set up the deal with the end client, you know the requirement, you know what’s in your contract with them, and you understand how the client views the relationship between me and them. So why ask me? If I am inside IR35, it’s because you put me there, not the other way round.

Ok, so the poor dears are only trying to keep their masters happy and, as usual, de-risk everything as far as they can. Since you can’t actually opt out of the AWR anyway it’s all rather pointless, but if it makes them happy. Although there may be a different slant on this.

If the agencies, on behalf of their clients – who, we must remember, are actually those stout and highly aware souls in the Human Remains department – are concerned about the people they supply being in the scope of the AWR and so able to claim all these interesting extra benefits like holidays, there is a very simple way to prevent it. If you’re in business, you’re out of scope. It says so in the AWR itself.

So, Mr Agent, let’s make sure I am genuinely in business, as best we can, so the AWR can be ignored. This means that firstly you stop the pretence that you have this vast pool of experts at your disposal and you just send a couple of the most relevant over for the client to look at. Secondly that the client will exercise no direction and control over how the work is to be performed, beyond that minimum necessary that all workers will need to follow. And finally we drop all this pseudo-employee-with-multiple-exclusions contractual nonsense and start using simple business-to-business contracts. You know, something along the lines of “YourCo will supply these skills for this period to deliver this thing for which we will pay you this amount of money, conveniently broken down into weekly payments. The End”. It really could be that simple.

Hey, look at what we just did. We killed off IR35 as well. Gosh…

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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AWR – everyone ready for the end of the world?


It’s happening on Saturday and no, I don’t mean Scotland beating England by eight points. Although that would be fun for us Welsh…

No, Saturday is the day the eagerly anticipated Agency Workers Regulations come into force. And for such a significant event – and not just significant in our little world of contracting but in its potential impact on the UK economy and businesses – it all seems remarkably low key. And I find that both surprising and just a shade encouraging.

Of course it could be because everyone understands the new world and have prepared accordingly. Well not us Limited Company contractors of course, since we are out of scope so don’t have to do anything. This didn’t stop one poor soul asking questions about how he could persuade his agency that he was actually in scope. God knows why he thought that might be a good idea. Of course, he may simply be winding us all up – very occasionally that seems to happen on the internet, you know – and for his sake I hope that’s the case.

And, needless to say, there have been questions about does it really, really apply because of the ominous “genuinely in business” caveat the BIS or DBERR or whoever they are decided to add in for the fun of it. To which the answer is who knows, until it goes to court. Which I suspect it won’t, but you never know.

That reminds me of one of the better ideas I heard over the weekend. A group of us were pondering the work of the OTS (remember them? They’re still going you know) and how they could better focus their efforts. OK, so perhaps some of us should get out more, or perhaps drink less, but we found it worthy of discussion. The suggestion was made that the OTS could very usefully start with the various tax laws that have required a court case or two in order to figure out just what the hell the real rules are. Still, I digress…

So clearly the umbrellas and the agencies are well prepared, to the extent that I’ve heard of one agency that was trying to get its contractors to move to the right vehicle – PAYE through an agency, umbrella or limited Company – depending on their rates. Which is slightly deranged in one way but you can see the logic of it. So well done all.

But it does beg an interesting question. Why?

I mean, why is everyone so well prepared? Previous changes of similar magnitude – stopping MSCs, killing off some of the more imaginative offshore schemes, the Arctic Systems case, even IR35 itself – sort of burst upon a world that wasn’t really ready for them. That doesn’t seem to happen any more.

And that’s down to the wonderful Law of Unintended Consequences. In 1999, when the well-known failed tax-evader Ms Primarola introduced IR35, the aim was to punish us uppity freelancers by smacking us in the pocket. After all, given the recently released Freedom of Information answer that showed how pitifully ineffective IR35 has been financially, it clearly wasn’t done for the money. Or very well, come to that. But what it did do was galvanise a bunch of us uppity freelancers to fight back. And now, ten years on, HMG is not only listening to what we say, they are asking us what we think before they do it. Doesn’t mean they have the brains to listen, mind – else why do we have the AWR in its current foggy form – but at least we get the chance to publicise and explain things well ahead of their implementation. Which has to be a good thing.

So hopefully the AWR will do what it’s meant to do and protect the vulnerable and leave those who don’t need that level of care well alone. And we won’t get any more nasty surprises.

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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Figures on IR35 DO exist. So who’s kidding who?


As well as being technically proficient, independently minded and a bit intolerant of rigid work patterns, we’re also a tolerant bunch, us contractors. You kind of get used to having to dig out the truth from the often intentional obfuscation you get from the agencies, the client, the civil service and a host of other places. And you get to recognise some universal truths.

“Cyclists can ride safely on footpaths”. Yeah right…

“All contractors are very well paid”. Well we aren’t exactly running on empty, but we are usually pretty good at what we do, and command a decent rate accordingly. But the average rate for IT contractors as a whole is around £40 a hour these days,which is near as damn it the same net take home as a permanent employee on £40,000 a year; good but not exceptional.

“We require you to opt out of the Agency Regulations”. No you don’t. For one thing it’s nothing to do with you, Mr Agent. It’s not my problem if you’ve agreed a contract with the client that is incompatible with the requirements of an Opted-In contract for me. Since 95% of all Opt Outs aren’t legally correct, from what I’ve seen, why not work on the assumption that everyone is opted in? Ah, of course, then you wouldn’t be able to claim that the workers you supply are your own dedicated resources, would you?

“Opting In is highly beneficial”. Well, is it? The two key gains are guaranteed payment and a time limit on handcuff clauses. The former may have a superficial appeal, but if the agency’s not got any money they aren’t going to pay you anyway. The latter looks nice, but there will be the upper contract between agency and client that almost certainly stops them taking you on for at least as long as the period in your own contract. So where’s the handcuff limitation protection then?

“Retain 85% of your gross with our compliant solution”. Yeah, right. You do until the scheme gets legislated out of existence, the scheme owners do a runner or you discover the scheme doesn’t actually work in the first place. Then again Hector has recently given up trying to shut down some of these schemes because they can’t safely separate out those who should genuinely use them, like pension funds, and those who are taking advantage. Although that won’t stop them trying.

“We need to retain IR35”. Ah, now, hang on a minute. That was Osborne’s position in the last budget, when for a while we thought we had proven that IR35 was not only damaging and spiteful, it wasn’t actually earning any money for HMRC. The case was slightly hampered by the repeated assertion that there are no figures specifically covering IR35 within the ledgers of the Treasury. So we kind of accepted Osborne’s assertion that he needed it to dissuade Friday-to-Monday converts. (This despite one of the more obvious cases being Mr Hartnett, ex permanent Head of HMRC, now freelance Acting Head of HMRC. Didn’t even have to empty his waste bin). And the implicit assertion that since he wasn’t keeping any measure that wasn’t cost-effective, then IR35 was paying its way.

Then, all of a sudden, PCG gets a very interesting answer to an FIO request. It seems those figures do exist. What’s more, they are pretty damning: total case prosecuted over the last five years? Three hundred and twenty two. That’s slightly over one a week. Total revenue gained as a result? Five million, four hundred and forty two thousand, two hundred and ninety nine pounds. A shade over a million a year. Or just under seventeen thousand per case, assuming all were successful, which they almost certainly weren’t. Doesn’t exactly go very far against the one trillion government shortfall, does it…

Ok, so this is interesting. We have been told more than once that no figures on IR35 were being kept. You can even find that in Hansard. Now, suddenly, they have been. Most odd. So who’s kidding who, Mr Osborne?

And who in the previous administration was responsible for the earlier statements. I think we need to be told.

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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AWR – instead of clarity we get muddle and greyness


Regular readers – both of them – will have learned by now that if someone ever sets up an Appreciation Society for the benefit of Saint Vince of Cable I am unlikely to be in the queue for tickets. His tenure as Business Secretary has been littered with decisions that seem almost deliberately intended to make the contractor’s life even more difficult than it already is. I doubt he does it on purpose, so we have to conclude that he simply doesn’t think things through properly. Or perhaps he doesn’t pay attention to the outcomes. Well, hey, he is a politician, I suppose.

Consider the Agency Workers Regulations, which are looming ever larger on the horizon. The intent of the original EU-derived ruling was to ensure that low level temporary workers – people who aren’t really in the best place to fight their own corner – are protected from being denied basic rights that are taken for granted by permanent employees; little things like holidays and sick leave and access to the canteen. It has to be said, that is an entirely reasonable and even laudable aim.

As is the way of such legislation, the EU sets the objective and leaves it to the member countries to enact as best they can. So guess what happens when St Vince’s department get hold of it?

Firstly there is a consultation period. They produce a straw man proposal and invite interested parties to comment on it, note ambiguities and errors and suggest any obvious improvements. They consider the responses, redraft the straw man into a final document and that become the legislation.

Except for one minor point. They kind of missed the ever-so-slightly critical point about the scope of the legislation.

Like I said, it’s meant to protect vulnerable workers. Now I am many things but I don’t for one minute consider myself to be vulnerable to being downtrodden. Apart from She Who Must Be Obeyed of course, but I volunteered for that one. So why the hell am I potentially in the scope of the AWR?

It seems that DBERR have been gold-plating the requirement. Specifically, rather than draft something aimed at “agency workers” they allowed it to cover any independent worker, including freelance contractors who, as a breed, are probably the least vulnerable workforce in the country.

And what makes me angry (and No 10, who tried to see if it could be redrafted at the eleventh hour) was that very point was made, clearly and explicitly, in the original consultation. They were told the scope is wrong, it’s not meant to apply to this group but only to that one. But when the final draft hits the presses the only exemption is the somewhat mealy-mouthed exclusion of “those genuinely in business” which, as we know all too well, is not a clearly defined anything. They may as well have said “Those who are either taller, or shorter, than six feet. Without shoes”.

So apart from now facing the risk that our contracts are going to get even more tangled as HR and the agencies try to get around the legislation, we lost the chance for a clear chance to define exactly what is meant as a freelance contractor, as opposed to an agency worker. Given the average itinerant fruit picker is unlikely to own his own company, there is at least one simple and very clear separator. This would have greatly aided various other arguments such as who is caught by IR35. But it is not to be; instead of clarity we get muddle and greyness. A bit like St Vince, in fact. Which is something of a pity.

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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IR35 Forum – now there’s a challenge…


It’s time to get out the crystal ball, I believe. The inaugural meting of the shiny new IR35 Forum is on Friday 6th May. This is the body that Mr Osborne has charged with “improving the administration of IR35”. Which, given the present state of he administration of IR35, is a pretty open-ended kind of brief.

Clearly we aren’t going to see very much as a result of this first meeting. No doubt HMRC, who are in the chair, will present their Terms of Reference for the Forum’s agreement. Which will most likely be given, unless they contain something along the lines of “HMRC are right so there’s no point arguing” of course. They will agree the key issues such as which biscuits to buy and when next to meet, but that will be about it

But let’s assume they are honest about it – or that the other forum members keep them honest about it – and the objective is to deliver exactly what Osborne asked for, better administration of IR35. Let’s leap forward a year and see what may have happened. There are I believe three possible outcomes.

Firstly IR35 has been shown to be totally unworkable and will no longer be applied. Well that’s the dream result for some – like me, for example – but rather too far beyond the bounds of possibility. IR35 will still be festering away in the distance for a while yet. Heigh ho…

Secondly IR35 cases are only being brought against those who are genuinely within its scope. Well we can dream, but without changing the wording of IR35 so it becomes clear what that scope actually is, that is also a forlorn hope. For one thing HMRC are probably convinced that every case they’ve brought to date has been justified. For all their talk of “high risk” cases, if the rules aren’t changed the target stays the same; and that’s anyone that HMRC thinks they can bully into submission.

Finally IR35 cases are settled quickly and amicably. Yeah right. If there is no reduction in the number of cases being brought – and there aren’t that many in the overall scheme of things anyway – the only way to speed things up is for HMRC to start replying to the other side a lot quicker than they do. It’s not unusual for several months to elapse between each new step in the inquiry. Cases may well last for an average three years, but a lot of that time – probably 2 years 11 months of it – absolutely damn all is happening.

It’s also worth looking at the makeup of the Forum. There are HMRC people, tax experts of various shades, both independents and from the main industry bodies like ICAEW and CIOT, someone from the recruitment industry and a solitary representative of the freelance contractors in the shape of the PCG who, you might think, are the ones with the greatest interest in this whole debate. And who, it must also be said, are probably the only ones there who don’t have some kind of interest in maintaining the status quo. So clearly there is no question of the forum being biased in any particular direction then. Which is nice.

So I am not all that optimistic that anything significant will have changed. Although, along with 1.4 million other contractors, I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

Now there’s a challenge…

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 important question framed by HMRC that is, of course, totally ambiguous


When is a question not a question? Now there’s a question. And the answer is, apparently, if it’s a notice under TMA 1970 Section 8 which, as ony fule kno, is not a notice under FA2008 Schedule 35 paragraph 1. Until the situation is changed at which point we will be informed of the change. So that’s perfectly clear then.

Who said tax had to be taxing…

Let me explain. There are two questions on the Self Assessment return we have to complete every year that ask “Are you a Service Company?” and “Have you applied the Intermediaries Legislation?” Needless to say, you have to answer either Yes or No to both.

But since this question has been framed by HMRC, it is, of course, totally ambiguous.

Firstly, exactly what is a “Service Company”? Such a beast is not actually defined anywhere: trawl through the labyrinth that is the HMRC website and you will find many references to the now outlawed Managed Service Companies, but nothing on simply “A Service Company”. Which is useful.

Of course we know they mean a Personal Service Company – something else that doesn’t exist in law – and that by common usage is understood to be a company through which one or two individuals sell their services to a range of clients. Otherwise known as a totally ordinary business. Or, if you really have to particularise things, a nano-business.

So that’s easy then: is my company a non-existent undefined entity or not. So we can safely say Yes since it is. Or it isn’t. Sue me if I’m wrong.

Then we get to the second question, “Have you applied the Intermediaries legislation?” Well yes, I have and I have concluded it doesn’t apply. So do I answer Yes because I have applied it or No because it doesn’t apply? Which one will lead Hector to believe I am liable for IR35? Well, we know the answer to that one; any combination of answers since I am caught until proven otherwise. But I digress.

Apparently the real answer, according to people who have more time for this nonsense than I do, is to answer Yes to the first and No to the second since that is a defensible combination no matter what HMRC try to stick you with.

And, just to add to the confusion, there is an argument that says you don’t have to answer the damned question at all. That gets a bit convoluted (well it was a barrister that raised it) but basically in 2009 HMRC sought to prevent people not answering the question by making it no longer ultra vires, meaning you could be penalised for not answering it. Which is where we came in. Honestly…

The barrister in question argued that a question on a tax return is not a notice, i.e. something you are obliged to answer. And eventually he got the answer back from HMRC as per my opening paragraph: it’s a question not a notice. So you needn’t answer it.

Except of course the barrister in question is, as I understand an already confusing situation, not a nano-business so the question doesn’t actually apply to him anyway: he was merely seeking clarification that he didn’t need to explain not answering the question. I don’t think people like me can be quite so sanguine about it.

So do I answer Yes then No? Now there’s a question…

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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Accept this one thing and the AWD ceases to have any meaning


I started a new contract this week, having had rather too long a break from real work. And not a moment too soon, to be honest. Apart from having an income stream again, it’s a lot more fun talking to intelligent people about real problems instead of chatting to the dog about where we should go walkies today. Not that he ever answers me, beyond a slightly lopsided grin and a frantic tail wagging session.

Which is rather how I feel about certain agencies over the last week or so.

Perhaps the stress of having to get up in the morning and go somewhere is getting to me, but I am getting increasingly irritated by the flood of emails from assorted agencies offering me work that is nothing to do with my CV. They obviously have my CV, or some version of it, since they get the name and email address right almost every time (apparently I am a Mr Wells according to one recent email). But hey, does that CV imply that I really can’t wait to go be a permanent change manager in Geneva for twelve months? Or sit on a help desk in Warrington on £20 an hour? (Gosh. Be still my beating heart…). Still, just like the dog, you have to pretend they understand what you’re telling them or run screaming in despair.

And that is why I am seriously worried about the upcoming Agency Workers Regulations.

PCG and others seem fairly confident that the regulations, which are aimed at ensuring temporary workers get the same protections as permanent staff after a short while, won’t apply to genuine contractors working through their own Limited Companies. While that may well be the case, I have a horrible feeling that the agencies won’t quite grasp the point. An industry that routinely confuses a senior Service Delivery Manager and sometime Head of IT with a Helpdesk worker in Warrington is really going to struggle with the concept that not everyone they place in a job wants to be protected.

Which means that rather than move the Agency/Contractor contract more towards a genuine business-to-business one, which would establish the true nature of the relationship with the end client, they will be telling everyone that you need to have even more draconian clauses in the contracts to reinforce that point that the contractor is not an employee of theirs, or the agencies, or anyone else. Honest. Cross my heart…

Which really is the wrong way to go.

After all, the more you try and nail the myth that someone is not an employee, the more HMRC is going to think you have something to hide. All those interlocking clauses about no rights to be implied and mutuality is not assured must be hiding something or why have them?

And anyway, I am employed by someone, in all meaningful senses; there’s this company that I work through that supplies all I need in the way of income and sick pay and holidays and pensions funding and the rest in return for me hauling myself over to Cardiff or wherever and doing my thing. OK, so I own it, but it is a separate legal “person” and operates totally in accordance with a whole pile of relevant statutes. Accept that it exists, and has a real purpose, and all this Agency Worker nonsense, not to mention IR35 itself, suddenly ceases to have any meaning.

If only someone could tell the agencies that…

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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Agency Workers Directive – what ever happened to “simplification”?


The final form of the guidance for the upcoming Agency Workers Directive has been published. This has not been the subject of any great debate so far, but it does have the capacity to really shake up some corners of the contractor market. And it appears to contain a sting in the tail.

The AWD has a noble aim; it intends to ensure that agency workers – which it defines as those providing temporary services to clients via an agency – are not disadvantaged in terms of the protections and rights enjoyed by full time employees. However, being an EU-derived concept, our beloved Civil Service has failed to recognise the very different nature of the “agency” model in the UK compared to the rest of Europe. While protecting the rights of the lower paid employee of the agencies supplying temporary staff to a whole raft of industries from farming to pharmaceuticals, it also wraps up the traditional freelance contractor in its scope. And that’s not a good thing.

In the earlier consultations, the PCG picked up on the potential for this scope mismatch and were assured that Limited Company contractors would be out of its scope. The early proposed form of the Directive did in fact specifically exclude those working through their own Limited Companies. That was not considered to be much of a problem, naturally enough.

Now, however, that phrase has been watered down. It contains a further qualification, “those operating as genuine businesses”. So here we go again, we are once more being presented with the finely crafted clarity of the mud-encrusted IR35 legislation.

You may recall that Osborne kept IR35 on the statute books at the last election as a deterrent to people who may incorporate to avoid the taxes they can no longer save by using offshore EBTs. My suspicion is that they have the same qualification about “genuine business” in the AWD for exactly the same reason. This is fine as long as there is a clear definition of a “genuine business”. Which there isn’t.

One of PCG’s objectives with the HMRC’s IR35 Forum (when it gets of the ground) will be to try and define how you recognise a genuine business. Simple enough if you’re Tesco or the corner shop, rather more tricky if you are a one or two man company selling your skills and knowledge to the highest bidder. The level of debate that has been engendered within PCG about how to make that definition has to be seen to be believed, so I have no expectation we will see a quick answer. .And until we do, we remain exposed to HMRC’s biased concepts. But hey, we’re getting used to that.

The other victims are the umbrella companies who will have to keep their “clients” – who are de facto employees of the umbrella – fed and watered while they are out of contract. Wonder if anyone has told those clients who will be paying for it…?

And finally, of course, those hugely risk averse recruitment agencies will see the AWD as yet another set of hurdles to overcome to prevent any possibility of their being made responsible for the contractors who they sell to the end clients as their own staff. Expect a whole new layer of miasma to creep into the contractor-agency contracts to ensure the contractor is obeying the demands of a law that doesn’t actually apply to them at all.

Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose. What ever happened to “simplification”?

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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