Quiet Autumn Statement gives cause for optimism

The Summer Budget earlier this year saw significant and worrying proposals regarding IR35 and tightening the rules regarding claiming travel & subsistence expenses. Since then, the contracting world has been waiting with some trepidation for the Autumn Statement, where more concrete plans would be laid out. In the meantime IPSE has been in close contact with Government, sharing robust evidence gathered from our members, to let them know how damaging the proposals would be to some of the smallest and most vital businesses in the UK. After all, it is these businesses that supply specialist skills to larger firms and public sector bodies, delivering critical projects and driving the economy.

Encouragingly, the Autumn Statement suggests the Government has listened to our concerns. IR35 reform has been delayed while the Government rightly takes more time to consider its options. The travel and subsistence plans have been radically simplified from the original proposal. Welcome news indeed, but we are not out of the woods yet. The Government is still looking at IR35 and any future changes will impact tax relief on travel and subsistence.

The Autumn Statement had been widely anticipated to be a massive political and fiscal challenge for the Chancellor. It was expected he would frontload budget savings in order to balance the books by the end of the Parliament, and questions were raised around his commitment to running a £10bn surplus during the run up to the announcement. Incidentally, last month public sector net borrowing was at its highest since 2009. Mr Osborne also had a new £4.4 billion gap to fill after tax credit cuts were rejected by the Lords. Given half of public spending – including pensions, health, defence and overseas aid – is currently ringfenced, the Chancellor was left with little room for manoeuvre. Against this backdrop, IPSE feared the worst for contractors who might be seen as an easy target for a Chancellor desperate for revenue.

However, the Chancellor was given a lifeline by Office for Budget Responsibility. The independent body forecast a windfall of £27 billion from increased tax receipts and lower interest rates, allowing the Government to avoid a number of politically tricky budget cuts and tax rises.

So what does this mean for IPSE members?

IR35 changes delayed

With a review to “increase the effectiveness” of IR35 announced in the last Budget, IPSE, along with other organisations, was deeply troubled by rumours that after one month, so called ‘Personal Service Companies’ would be forced onto the client’s payroll. It was also mooted that independent professionals would have to complete an online test after a set period of working with a client. Further suggested changes included shifting IR35 liability from contractors onto clients, which, under current supervision, direction and control guidelines, IPSE made clear could result in UK companies being unable to access to specialist skills on a flexible basis.

With no specific announcement in the Autumn Statement, however, the Government has listened to concerns and decided to reflect on the 160 responses to the IR35 discussion document. This issue has not gone away but it has been delayed, for now at least.

OTS report to frame IR35 reform

Significantly, the ‘Blue Book’ which is the Autumn Statement version of the Budget’s ‘Red Book’, does clearly state the Government is taking forward the majority of recommendations from the ‘Employment Status Report’ by the Office of Tax Simplification.

Those recommendations include the development of an online test, similar to the current Employment Status Indicator, and making the result binding. We expect to hear more on this proposal and we will continue to put forward our members’ views and work with Government, including through the IR35 Forum and Digital Services Working Group, to ensure a fair tax system for freelance businesses.

Travel and subsistence plans dropped, but worrying link to IR35

Also of huge significance to those working through their own limited company were proposals to remove tax relief on travel and subsistence expenses The proposed changes would have made the client responsible for identifying whether supervision, direction, or control exists to determine whether the tax relief should apply.

IPSE made our strong objections to these proposals clear during the consultation period, including how damaging they could be to the wider economy in limiting the ability of independent professionals to undertake work that requires travel away from home. Particularly, these changes would put the UK's smallest businesses at a huge competitive disadvantage to very large firms, as big consultancies will still be able to claim the tax relief while consultants working through their own company will not. This in turn would mean companies and industries, such as North Sea Oil and Gas, that are based a long way from the major urban hubs, will not attract the specialist skills they need to succeed.

Happily, the Autumn Statement confirmed the restriction will not apply to companies which are IR35 compliant. Contractors will continue to be able to claim tax relief for travel costs as long as they stay on the right side of IR35 (and subject to existing rules that any engagement at a particular site should not expect to exceed 2 years).

Contractors must be wary of possible double whammy

So this is good news but it is very much dependent on the outcome of the Government’s IR35 review. If the IR35 rules become even more punitive than they are now, contractors will be hit by the double whammy of a much bigger tax bill and the removal of tax relief. IPSE will continue to robustly defend the ability of our members to work through their own company.

Other measures: housing tops the bill

The Autumn Statement saw a number of other measures of interest to freelancers. The Chancellor doubled funding for housing to £2 billion, signifying the Government’s aim to build 400,000 affordable new homes by 2020. The Government will be relying on the 800,000 self-employed workers who power the construction industry in order to get the job done. Furthermore, the Apprenticeship Levy will now be set at 0.5% of an employers’ pay bill to raise £2bn a year. However, it is essential SMEs are given access to the funds – even if they don’t contribute directly – because they’re best placed to train apprentices.

In addition, the Chancellor spared Entrepreneurs’ Relief, meaning small business owners can still sell their business at a lower rate of capital gains tax. It is also welcome that infrastructure, including access to superfast broadband and road improvements, is still a priority for the Government. The Chancellor’s continued focus on the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, combined with further devolution and granting councils powers to cut business rates, we hope will increase competition and boost business across the country.

Next Steps – continuing to make the case for independent professionals

With no concrete announcements made around the review of IR35, IPSE will continue to liaise with Government, making members’ views known and arguing for a flexible and supportive environment for small and microbusinesses. This includes our conversations with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as part of their review on self-employment, which looks at the challenges self-employed people face setting up and developing their business, including around juggling self-employment with having a family, buying a home or saving for retirement.

We will also make the case for the creation of the Freelancer Limited Company (FLC), an alternative optional company structure set out in our manifesto, developed in partnership with EY. Importantly, IR35 would not apply to the FLC, as businesses within the structure would have already demonstrated they are not disguising employment. IPSE believes the FLC would provide a benign environment for freelancing to flourish, offering significant simplification while also protecting the exchequer from tax avoidance.

In the short term at least, it might be the case that no news is good news. However, with the Chancellor’s giveaways and softened cuts we advise members to take this good news with some caution.

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