With almost five million people in Britain now working for themselves – and 286,000 in Scotland – the sheer size of the UK’s self-employed sector is usually enough to convince any doubters that a self-employed revolution is well underway. The meteoric rise in self-employment – which has grown by more than 50% in just over 20 years – is set to continue.
In terms of pure numbers, self-employment is tipped to overtake the public sector before long – quite an achievement for a group which has grown accustomed to being in the minority and all but ignored by politicians in years gone by. But importantly, change is afoot. Self-employment is climbing up the agenda in the UK parliament, and climbing fast.
We hope that the Scottish parliament is paying proper heed to this too. Increasingly, our politicians understand that these are the people vital to the economy, the men and women holding the key to future growth. So it came as no surprise that the UK government recently made two very encouraging announcements.
In November David Morris MP was appointed as the UK’s first self-employed ambassador, indicating that the Conservatives are ready to take action on the various issues facing the millions of people working for themselves across Britain. In the IPSE manifesto we call for a Minister for Self-Employment, and the appointment of David Morris is the first step to appointing a minister to champion our cause at the heart of government.
On the same day, plans were unveiled to review the current maternity pay system – something else we’ve called for in our manifesto. Granted, action most definitely speaks louder than words, but these developments symbolise a turning of the tide, reflecting that self-employment is quickly becoming a hot topic.
While there’s never been a better time to work for yourself, as we all know, the self-employed landscape is far from perfect. To truly unleash the staggering potential of this self-employed army, the UK must become a place where it’s easy to become self-employed, engage with the self-employed and work as self-employed. In the IPSE manifesto we outline the specific measures that we believe must be taken to ensure this happens.
We’re calling for policy makers to make changes to the late payment system, which is more of a hindrance to the self-employed than a help. Legislation needs to protect self-employed people from the scourge of being paid late, not leave them frantically chasing up invoices months later.
The next UK Government, of whatever colour, must look into strengthening the Prompt Payment Code and name and shame the businesses guilty of late payment. On top of this, it’s crucial that self-employed people are able to report clients who fail to pay within a reasonable timescale anonymously, and without the fear of jeopardising relationships.
We’re also pushing for tax simplification. The current system is complicated and alienates the self-employed. For years, experts have criticised the way the people who work for themselves are treated when it comes to taxation. It’s become the elephant in the room, and needs reviewing. To make things simpler for everyone, we suggest a full merger of National Insurance and Income Tax.
Just a few decades ago self-employment was the sole preserve of men boasting a wealth of experience and a contacts book to match. This simply isn’t the case anymore and our sector is as colourful and as diverse as it has ever been. Four out of ten independent professionals are women, while those aged between 18 and 30 make up one of the fastest growing groups in self-employment.
It’s time the UK supported the thousands – if not millions – of young people brave enough to become their own boss. The IPSE manifesto states self-employment and entrepreneurship should be on the curriculum in schools and universities. Arming students with the skills needed to become a business owner is vital. We believe young people need to be equipped with the knowledge to decide whether to enter traditional employment or to work for themselves.The five million or so self-employed people in the UK rely on good quality, affordable, not to mention reliable, connectivity – both virtual and physical.
We’re asking for high speed broadband to be rolled out all across the UK to help the growing number of rural business owners and remote workers stay connected with the business world and reach their potential. The sky is the limit for self-employment in Britain. The fact that growth in the sector has outstripped growth in permanent employment by three to one in recent times, demonstrates that it is the new way of working and arguably represents the future way of working.
However, for this vibrant sector to hit the heights it promises, the Government must be fully committed to creating a freer, fairer self-employed habitat. Time is of the essence, and with next year’s general election looming, there’s never been a better time to do it.
Chris Bryce is chief executive officer of IPSE – The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed. With over 21,000 members, IPSE is the largest association of independent professionals in the EU, representing freelancers, contractors and consultants from every sector of the economy. It’s a not-for-profit organisation owned and run by its members.
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Chris Bryce – @CJBryce