A manifesto for the self-employed

Self-employment in the UK is at its highest level since records began almost 40 years ago. The number of self employed  continues to grow rapidly and is expected to exceed those in the public sector by 2016. However, the contribution made by this increasingly dynamic element of the British economy has yet to be fully recognised by government. Chris Bryce argues the need for more support and a better understanding of the contribution made by today’s self employed.

Photo credit: John Eland

Working for yourself has never been so popular in the UK and at 4.6million strong, Britain’s army of self-employed people shows no sign of retreating. Striking out alone is fast becoming the new and preferred way of working for many, and there is no shortage of statistics to back this theory up. Growth in self-employment outstripped growth in permanent employment by three to one in the last decade, a pattern widely tipped to continue.

There is nothing to suggest this self-employed revolution is temporary or cyclical either. There has been a fundamental shift in the way people now approach work in the UK, which has seen self-employment grow by more than 50% in little over twenty years.

While the size and indeed the influence of this self-employed army is unquestionably positive, less can be said about the amount of support the sector receives, especially from government.We have reached a point where politicians need to recognise the self-employed more when devising policy. It is crucial government make it easy to become self-employed, engage with the self-employed and to work as self-employed, as we’ve outlined in the IPSE manifesto, which is being thrust into the hands of policy makers with next year’s general election looming.

A very significant proportion of the UK’s total workforce is self-employed. At last count it was almost 16%, which begs the question: why haven’t the UK appointed a Minister for self-employment? This needs to be addressed. It is vital a minister for self-employment within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is introduced, with a specific focus on the needs of this group.

The UK has the potential to become the perfect breeding ground for the self-employed, but they can’t do it alone; they need help and support from the people in charge; and they need it now.

Protection needed

Policy makers must protect self-employed people from late payment, one of the biggest threats to people working for themselves. The next government, whoever that may be, need to strengthen the Prompt Payment Code and name and shame the worst offenders. Independent professionals and small businesses don’t have the cash reserves of large companies, and can be financially crippled if they aren’t paid on time.

The late payment system is dated and it’s time it changed. Small businesses need to be allowed to report clients who fail to pay within a reasonable timescale anonymously, so they are not jeopardizing important businesses relationships. The issue is regularly touched upon and talked about in Parliament, but without bold and brave policy, freelancers, contractors and independent professionals across the UK will continue to fall victim to it.

The same goes for the tax system. Reform is often discussed, but action is needed. For years now, experts have criticised the way the self-employed are dealt with in the tax system, in which employees are given preferential treatment over the self-employed. In our manifesto we suggest a full merger of National Insurance and Income Tax, simplifying the tax system for everyone.

Regardless of these obstacles, self-employment in the UK has grown into an incredibly diverse sector of the UK’s labour market.

Creating a supportive environment

People of all ages, backgrounds and professions are making the brave decision to take control of their own destiny, which is why it’s now more important than ever that we create an environment in which they can flourish in. It is growing fastest among people aged 18 and 30, but for one reason or another, and, rather worryingly, self-employment and entrepreneurship is consistently overlooked on the curriculum at secondary and sixth-form levels.

As a country, we must support the thousands of young people who want to be their own boss and politicians need to recognise the new economy of self-employment in education. It’s hugely important that young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills to decide whether to enter traditional employment or to work for themselves.

It is no secret that it’s becoming more popular for women, especially mothers, to start their own businesses. Four out of ten independent professionals are women, and the number of mothers working for themselves has shot up by an astonishing 55% in just five years. It has been a long time coming, but it is safe to say the glass ceiling has come crashing down.

With this in mind it is now time for the main political parties to re-examine how the self-employed are treated when it comes to maternity and paternity benefits. It has become an issue simply too big and too important to ignore.

Infrastructure

The infrastructure in place to support the UK’s self-employed population has also come under scrutiny recently, and rightly so. Neither rural broadband speeds nor affordable office space is widely available to cater for people just starting out. Self-employed people need a promise from Government to roll out high-speed broadband across the whole of the UK. If office space is expensive or hard to come by, staying connected while working from home is essential.

Self-employment has indeed reached record heights in the UK in recent times, but there is much to do, and no time to waste. These people are vital for the performance of the modern British economy, encouraging flexibility, agility, innovation and entrepreneurialism. To truly unleash the staggering potential of the UK’s self-employed, not just some, but all of these issues must be addressed sooner rather than later.

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